I come to Mirror's Edge to run along a track, not to look for a track that I can run along. I want to race, not explore.
Mirror's Edge: CatalystPublisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 2016-06-07
Mirror’s Edge is a racing game. Sure, you may be controlling a person, not a car, and you may be jumping across rooftops like a platformer, but neither the first-person shooter nor the platformer fully capture the ethos of Mirror's Edge. It's a first-person game unconcerned with shooting and a jumping game that's unconcerned with jumping. Yes, you'll jump a lot, but that's not the really the point of it all. The point of it... is speed. Getting up to speed. Maintaining speed. Improving yourself to increase your speed. Everything about the game eventually feeds back into that singular idea.
At least it should because Mirror's Edge is a racing game, but the long awaited sequel Mirror's Edge: Catalyst forgets or ignores this ethos even more than the original game did. That first game undercut its speed with awkward combat and gunplay, and while Catalyst improves its combat and gunplay, it then goes and adds in more systems to undercut its speed, learning a lesson only to immediately forget it.
The fun of a racing game is in the execution of the race. It is the physical act of speeding up and slowing down, knowing when and how to take a turn, and the demands of perfection in all areas in order to post the best time or first place. I’ve always argued that racing games shouldn’t be open world games because that openness takes our attention away from the track and distracts us from our perfect execution. When we race in an open world, part of our attention is always spent on navigation.
Catalyst is a racing game, and it’s an open world game. That should automatically be a point against it, proof that DICE doesn't understand the appeal of this cult hit or proof that they capitulated to the latest gaming trend against their better artistic intentions. It shouldn’t work, and it doesn’t. However, iit comes damn close. Miraculously close, even.
Catalyst resolves the "open world racing" issue with something called Runner Vision. This feature is enabled by default and simulates Faith's ability to plot a parkour course through complicated urban architecture. Runner Vision changes the color of objects in the world, turning important navigational points red, and then displays a floating red ball speeding along the path that you're meant to take. The red color stands out because much of the world is white, so these navigation aids are nearly impossible to miss.
Other racing games do similar things. Having gone open world with Most Wanted, Need for Speed features large floating UI bubbles marking where to turn, which also show up on your minimap in the corner of the screen. However, these markers are never as helpful as they need to be because they're always just outside the center of your attention. The bubbles in the world float above the road so as to not block your view of the race track, but that just means that you have to look away from the track to see them. This same criticism applies to the markers on the minimap.
The aids work in Catalyst for a number of reasons unique to the game. Running along rooftops means that we have a wider field of view of the world than we would on the street level, as we would in a car. This means that we can often see where we’re going far in advance. The two levels of Runner Vision then support each other: The floating ball is right in front of us at eye level, so we don’t have to scan the sides of the screen to know if we're going in the right direction. However, at the same time, the ball is small enough that it doesn't impede our view of the track. The colored objects provide a specificity of direction missing from the Need for Speed games. I know the general direction thanks to the ball, and the exact location thanks to the colored environment. The systems work together. Runner Vision is effective and smart.
This is all well and good, but after creating such a great navigational tool, Catalyst then utterly wastes its potential. See, Runner Vision doesn’t actually show us the race track.
When undertaking a challenge in Catalyst, you’re always timed and rated on your completion time, receiving zero to three stars. If you follow the path laid out by your Runner Vision, you’re likely to always finish with a one star time, possibly two stars, but never, ever three stars. To get those extra stars, that faster time, we have to explore the world around us to find shortcuts. Instead of jumping down a series of buildings, just take a zip line. Instead of climbing down and then up, just find a gap that you can jump across. Instead of running through a twisting hallway, leap across the flag poles outside. These “hidden” paths are always harder, more elaborate, flashier, and as such, more fun.
There are multiple reasons why this exploration kills the pace of the game. First, it renders Runner Vision moot, since we’re not supposed to actually follow that path. Second, exploration goes against the ethos of a racing game. I come to Mirror's Edge to run along a track, not to look for a track that I can run along. Just like I play Need for Speed to drive on a road, not to look for a road that I can drive on. Over the hours that I've played the game, I've spent more time looking around for the best path than I have actually racing. Mirror's Edge is a racing game that asks you to explore more than you race, it's more about finding a track than racing on a track, and every time that I stop to observe the world to looking for the best corners to cut, I realize that I'm standing still, which makes me antsy.
Mirror's Edge: Catalyst is a disappointment. It purports to put an emphasis on speed, what with all the pre-release talk of improved combat, and while that fix holds true, more mistakes were made that bog the game down. Maybe DICE still doesn’t understand the appeal of the original game, or maybe they were forced to expand the streamlined levels of the original in order to make a sequel with more mass appeal. Exploration is a good buzzword, after all. Gamers like exploration. Heck, I like exploration. But not in a racing game.