Few games can divide opinion quite like the first Mirror's Edge, a commercially unsuccessful curio that dared to make first-person platforming -- typically a plight of the genre -- its star attraction.
Dissertations could be written about how it succeeded; the courage it exhibited in building a game around the eyes of a free-runner, the raw exhilaration of dashing and vaulting and clambering across its dazzling skyline in one relentless motion, the quiet empowerment that came with play-acting a parkour grandmaster at peak physical condition. Essays can be submitted for its failures, too; the anonymity of its story, the life-sapping vacuity of its world, and worst of all, the tragic moment at the halfway point where Mirror's Edge surrenders to convention and hands you a lame automatic pistol.
That final tragedy, at the very least, will not be repeated in Mirror's Edge Catalyst, a long-awaited reboot set for release in May on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. At a recent press event held at Stockholm studio DICE, Catalyst's development team claimed that first-person gunplay had been expunged entirely. Some enemies carry rifles and pistols, and later can summon armed helicopters, but returning star Faith will not be enacting her Second Amendment right.
I ask DICE senior producer Jeremy Miller if the decision to strip out firearms is a massive commercial gamble. Guns sell games, after all.
"What do you mean?" he jokes. "The first-person melee genre is huge."
Like its predecessor at its finest hour, Catalyst will hinge combat on momentum-based melees. Press the attack button in the middle of a dash, or at the crest of a jump, and Faith will launch herself toward a nearby foe. Speed is key; attacking whilst running at full-pelt will result in a haymaker roundhouse kick, and doing the same mid-jump will trigger a pounce manoeuvre where Faith uses an unwitting enemy as her landing cushion.
"The combat is an extension of movement, so that melee attacks can be made from every single traversal move," Miller says.
When sliding across the rooftops, for example, the attack command will direct Faith toward an enemy's kneecaps. Conversely, a lack of tempo is punished. DICE has made standing fights deliberately graceless and tedious in a bid to discourage them. Certainly I didn't find them enjoyable. Lest enemies get their jabs in, you must play at speed. Catalyst is unrelenting in its demands that you approach it as fast as possible (I genuinely cannot remember if Faith is able to walk at a measured pace). Build up enough speed and momentum, in fact, and eventually you'll enter a state where you're invulnerable to bullets. The onscreen hints of where to go next, meanwhile, come via dashes of red paint that speed off into the distance. It's almost as if the game is telling you to keep up.
Spare a second to stand and stare, however, and just like with the first game you'll come to an epiphany: Catalyst is distractingly beautiful. The city of Glass is a glossy superstructure of skyscrapers, preposterously perfect with sandblasted concrete and shimmering billboards and a maddening lack of anomalies. It is the pristine facade of a dystopian police state; the shining jewel of hyper-capitalism, striking and humongous and soulless, suspended under a cloudless, bright blue sky.
You've been here so many times before though, in Airstrip One and City 17 and Columbia and Dunwall, and frankly I'm not sure how many more fascist metropolises of totalitarian superpowers I can stomach. At its worst, Catalyst is sometimes too shallow and predictable in its message about surveillance and information-overload. And its cast of characters, the free-thinking vandals who are just dying to choose the red pill, tend to be as irritating as their IKEA-grade clothing. No wonder Faith works alone.
But there are signs of progress and evolution elsewhere, particularly with how Catalyst has adopted an open-world mission structure. Much like in Grand Theft Auto, you encounter contacts across the city to discover what missions they have for you. Some are main characters who present key objectives that drive the narrative, others are people scattered across the rooftops (y'know, just hanging out) who offer various side-quests. For a game built around the solitary exploration of a single city, going open-world is a wonderful decision.
The main missions, at least at the outset, stick to the basics. One moment you'll be creeping into a building and hacking its computer terminals, the next you'll be fleeing from armed helicopters in pursuit. The side-quests tend to ask you to deliver a package of some kind, or reach a certain point in the map within a certain time frame. The tight time constraints demand near-perfection and creative ways to chop milliseconds. I found them exhilarating.
Easily the most impressive technical feat is the runner's vision; imagine a free-runner sat-nav system in Google Glass and you're close. Place a marker on any point on the map and a route will dynamically be generated, highlighting your path by colouring key objects in red. It's far smarter than modern sat-navs; this isn't a line telling you to take the third exit at the next roundabout, this is dashes of red placed on pipes and ramps and scaffolding to give you just enough information about where to go next. There's a brilliant nuance to it; you'll be able to follow your path at speed as long as you concentrate, but you're not blindly following an obtrusive red line either. It's not as though a giant red paint-roller has been let loose across the city.
There's also a curious new RPG system built into Faith's repertoire. Players earn XP as they progress and spend that on various manoeuvre unlocks such as quick-turns and skill-rolls (don't worry, I'm told there's no microtransactions used to expedite upgrades). Miller explains that one benefit in locking away skills and tools for later in the game is they tend to be given more consideration once opened. "The interesting thing about the quick-turn is when we gave it to players from the beginning, they didn't use it so much," he said. "But when we allowed them to unlock the skill, there was a big upturn in how much it's used."
Mastering those advanced skills will be crucial in Catalyst's new social feature, which allows you to create your own parkour race courses. You place markers and checkpoints across the city and upload that route online, along with your fastest time. On paper it seems like a bullet-point addition, a way for DICE to shoehorn an online feature. But in practice it's utterly absorbing, stripping the game down to the fundamental joy of fighting against the clock by running as efficiently and fluidly as possible.
I suppose that shouldn't come as a surprise. Like with its predecessor, freerunning in Catalyst is entrancing and, when in flawless free-flow, quite irresistible. From the three hours of the beta build that I played, much of the game strikes me as a second attempt at the original. Its world and objectives and gameplay loops are so familiar that one might mistake this for a next-gen remaster. And while I agree that sequels should usually try to be distinct, in this case some familiarity is welcomed. Developer DICE knows what you want; everything you loved about the original, minus the frustrations. Just how far the studio has gone in achieving that goal will become clear in a matter of weeks. Mirror's Edge Catalyst is due to ship on May 24 on PS4, Xbox One and PC. A closed beta for the game will be deployed on April 22.