The original Mirror's Edge, released in 2008, was the very epitome of a Marmite game. Despite having an inordinate amount of glaring flaws, and not selling particularly well, it still managed to generate a passionate cult following.
It was easy enough to see why: Mirror's Edge dared to be different, basing its gameplay on free-running yet taking a first-person perspective, paired with a gorgeous Scandinavian-influenced art style plus a thoroughly alluring protagonist, Faith.
Can the follow-up, Mirror's Edge Catalyst, eradicate its predecessor's weak points and establish Mirror's Edge as a top franchise?
Mirror's Edge Catalyst review: Stockholm syndrome
Catalyst certainly has a good stab. Perhaps the most egregious drawback in the original, its single-path linearity, has been replaced by an open-world you can traverse at your leisure.
And that potentially has the knock-on effect of eliminating another gripe: that the original was far too short. Catalyst is rammed with side-missions and challenges, has an online component which adds plenty of replay value. Although to finish the game you'll only need about 9-hours total.
What really sets Catalyst apart from other games is how it looks. It's set in the amazing-looking Glass City, which appears far too pristine to actually have any inhabitants, and leaves no doubt that the game's developer, DICE, is based in Stockholm, Sweden. There's the Scandi art-style again, which we rather like. It's perhaps the first must-buy game if you're a Wallpaper subscriber. We jest.
Catalyst also trumps its predecessor by giving you more of a feeling that you're involved in what is going on in Glass City, which is a pretty dystopian place – even though you spend the vast majority of the game on its rooftops.
Mirror's Edge Catalyst review: Up to no good
The story begins with Faith being let out of a juvenile detention facility. The initial cut-scenes will strike a chord with millennials: she is told that she has 14 days to find a job, or she will be locked up again.
Thankfully, her old runner colleagues are there to remove the implant that briefly allows her to see what the "employees" see – a mess of ads and propaganda beamed direct to their visual cortices.
But she soon resumes her old life as a free-runner and general thief-for-hire, hooking back up with mentor Noah, plus various rival runners and associated hackers, as well as crime boss Dogen, to whom she owes money.
Story-wise there are some interesting aspects, but too many of them are touched on and then abandoned. Too much plot establishment takes place at the start of the game, interspersed with a number of pretty trivial, tutorial-like missions, so Mirror's Edge: Catalyst takes an absolute age to get going. And in a relatively short game that throws the balance.
Mirror's Edge Catalyst review: Perseverence rewarded
It is worth persevering, though, as there is plenty of satisfaction to be found. Faith has some fantastic moves (which are added to as you level-up), and when you get her flowing along a route pointed out by her red "runner's vision" it can be a great feeling.
However, you will encounter moments when what looks like it ought to be a straightforward move turns out not to be (usually, at least, at non-critical moments), which can result in her repeatedly plummeting to her death. Catalyst is heavily checkpointed, so you aren't really penalised for dying. If you're the sort of gamer who thinks you should be penalised when the character you control dies, you'll hate Mirror's Edge: Catalyst.
This time around, there are plenty of story-missions and side-missions of various types – delivering fragile goods, for example, or time-trials which you can design yourself and post to the game along with other challenges. Plus there are control and security chips to collect (which help you gain XP).
But by far the best missions are the Grid Nodes: towers guarded by lasers that you must work out how to climb. They prove that first-person platforming works beautifully, and outshine most of the story missions.
Mirror's Edge Catalyst review: Clunky combat
Later in the game, things hot up as Kruger Security starts to target Faith, and her brawling engine comes into play more. But her melee abilities are a mixed bag. If you can get her launching into a chain of attacks by jumping, sliding and mantling into enemies, the action feels quick and responsive. But when she is face-to-face with enemies, proceedings feel oddly ponderous.
Essentially, you must constantly side-step then kick – which is a tad unforgivable for a game in which the protagonist literally runs everywhere, even through closed doors, thanks to a rather excellent forearm-slam move. And even when you die at the hands of K-Sec, you aren't penalised in any meaning way, beyond having to endure a loading screen.
Faith's upgrade path is also unconvincing. You can add abilities and useful items such as a grapple via four categories – movement, combat, gear and skill. But most of the latter two remain locked during the first half of the game, and you're often given new moves in story missions, rather than having to earn them. RPG enthusiasts will feel that she has a rather basic upgrade path.
Mirror's Edge Catalyst has various gripes, then, but they don't entirely detract from Catalyst's enjoyment. Without doubt it is much more fun and, crucially, substantial than the first game.
However, hardcore gamers will note those flaws, and react with revulsion, in much the same way as they did to Mirror's Edge. Its best gameplay is also hidden in side-missions, and its key mechanics, such as the brawling system, are just off.
Which is a bit frustrating, because Catalyst comes close to greatness. It has a truly iconic protagonist, who is a joy to control, some unusual gameplay, and an innate stylishness which puts pretty much all other games to shame.