I just spontaneously wrote a huge opinion piece of the state of the Mirror's Edge franchise. I'm not a journalist and I've never written anything like this before so I don't really know what to do with it. So If anyone here cares about Mirror's Edge and would like to read it I'd really appreciate it. It would be cool to know if it is interesting at all or any good in general. English is not my native language but I generally feel pretty comfortable writing in it. To me it looks similar to a bit more in-depth articles I read on Kotaku or any other popular gaming sites but it's hard to judge your own work sometimes. So feel free to give me any feedback on the contents, writing or the game in general. Disclaimer: I'm writing this in one go at 5am so there's bound to be one or two mistakes. Anyway, without further adoooo:
Mirror's Edge - State of the franchise.
It’s been over a year since Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was finally released in June 2016. After launch the hype quickly settled and now and then I find myself wondering what happened to the franchise. Again. It feels just like the last time. Hype, release and then.. silence. Will EA ever dare to give it yet another shot? I had a sudden urge to dive deep into the world of Mirror’s Edge and try to find out what happened and what could happen in the future.
I’ve been playing games on console and PC since the mid 80’s and the first Mirror’s Edge quickly became a top-3-ever-game for me. Parkour has always intrigued me. The minimalistic design really stood out to me in an age of brown shooters. The focus on running instead of shooting was a breath of fresh air. The soundtrack was just like nothing I’d ever heard and fit the theme and feel of the levels so perfectly. The story was simple but told in a universe I immediately felt invested even with the basic cutscenes it was presented. On top of that I love racing games and the time trials were amazing fun. Plus the game was short and good fun to run through from start to finish and it was just incredibly satisfying to polish the paths I found and the moves to shave off those last pesky milliseconds. It was just the perfect game for me.
I know it had some issues, and even big fans like me were annoyed by a few of them. Like the weird pipe I’d always miss in the chase level and some jumps over low obstacles that unfairly stopped my flow. But they didn’t detract too much overall for me. When I felt like I had squeezed everything I could from the game, I just wanted more. More story, more music, more levels. To many of us biggest fans a complete rebuild wasn’t necessary at all. But it didn’t sell extremely well (but still not bad) so EA/Dice felt they had to rethink things before they could take another leap into the franchise.
I was constantly reminded of EAs promise to revitalize it during the 8 years between the installments. In subtle ways things everywhere seemed to poke me and say things like “Those colors kind of look like the Mirror’s Edge color scheme”. The unbelievably good soundtrack was forever in my Spotify rotation. I wondered how EA/Dice would modernize the game so many years later and being a hobby game designer myself I liked to think about what I would’ve done in their position. I wondered if they would even keep their word and do anything at all. I could see small efforts being made to understand what they could change this time that gave me some glimmer of hope. I had seen the polls where people could vote for which major features they’d like. They were things like a course editor and an open world design, which to many other players seemed like the perfect choice. To me the alarms already started going off in my mind. Was this really the way forward for this game?
E3 2015. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was finally announced by name and looked and sounded amazing. I watched the first trailer way too many times and got goose bumps every single run. Could they really have pulled it off? The design was there. The music was great. By the second trailer the doubts started creeping in somewhere in the back of my mind. They were talking about open world, no weapons, an origin story. Crazy tech that had to be implemented from the ground up to make a GPS work through an entire free flowing city. The voice over was OK but it wasn’t stunning. The music wasn’t as mesmerizing as it was in the first game. I hoped it was just this glimpse and that it would be better when I finally got my hands on the final game. They still had time to work out the kinks! I’m experienced enough to know that things like this won’t be fixed this late in development but when it comes to your favourite franchises it is hard not to hope the developers have outdone themselves and will surprise me.
Since I couldn’t wait a second more than I needed to, I played the beta. It may spoil the first hour I thought, but if it’s anything like the first game I wouldn’t mind to run through it again. I dreamt of how amazing it would be to start the game one of the nights before. In my dreams it was a darker, Blade Runner-esque esthetic which was intriguing but I wouldn’t mind at all if it looked exactly like the trailers. Quite a few things had started worrying me, but the graphics weren’t one of them. It looked incredible in frostbite!
The start of the game was pretty good. A mysterious escape from the prison. A fun linear parkour race, just like the first game. There were a few spots where I didn’t really see where to go and made some bad choices, jumping-wise and killed myself which felt unfair. Oh well, this happened in the first game too and I didn’t have the red GPS markers on. I can live with that. Then I got to the city and the game started opening up. And now the problems started to pile up, even if I didn’t want to admit it to myself at the time - still hoping the game would live up to everything I wanted. After a while I couldn’t ignore the flaws anymore. The side missions were incredibly boring simple fetch quests given to you by emotionless people just standing randomly on the roofs, like taken straight from a bad MMORPG. One NPC annoyed me every single time I left home standing in the exact same spot making the same threat until way later in the game even when actual missions were going on. Again the music was good but not perfect and the voice acting was OK but not incredible. The story was slightly interesting but because of all the other issues not very captivating. It started to annoy me that I couldn’t fight back with weapons, even when perfect opportunities arose. The places I had to run just weren’t as interesting because the city was mostly just big flat rooftops in this new open world. Basic skills I had to learn in the first game were now locked behind artificial skill trees. The cutscenes were choppy and the devs promised it would be fixed - it took loads of patches weeks, if not months after release before they would properly run on my PC rig which while getting older still was pretty powerful and should have no reason whatsoever to run badly, especially in pre-rendered cutscenes. And even more baffling - people with state-of-the-art beast computers complained about the same thing.
This was not looking good so close to release. But performance problems are usually things that can be sorted out at the end of a project pretty well. Devs have amazing tools at their disposal nowadays. Being the huge fan I am, I still had the game preordered and couldn’t wait to play the polished final version. They delayed the launch a couple of weeks, which frankly felt way too little. But launch day came and it was time to finally dive in for real.
Performance-wise it WAS slightly improved and ran pretty well during the missions. The cutscenes though, were still very choppy and actually totally killed the mood doing story missions. I tried doing runs and side missions but they weren’t getting better. Gone were the fun highly detailed designed “funnels” of levels from the first game and long tedious races replaced them taking all the fun out of maximizing every single move through the city to reach the destination. Even early-game races could take several minutes to complete and one mistake and you had to do it all from the start! The small courses from the first game were so much more fun. Less choices and shorter runs made it possible to relatively quickly grasp the entire run but still let you practise with fast iterations to perfect every single detail of the race to reach 3 stars without dragging on too much. So runs and side missions and story missions were more or less ruined for a while. I still wanted to play the story through so I pushed on.
It wasn’t all bad. There were some great moments popping up along the way. An awesome bit from the soundtrack started playing in an interesting building filled with fun movement puzzles. A cutscene managed to make me feel something. A linear story mission path provided great parkour. The architecture looked amazing in places. It was fun to figure out how to grab some of the collectibles. Some of the puzzle rooms were fun and challenging, although got a bit repetitive in the end. But these moments kept me going to finally finish the game.
Summarizing the experience it just felt like every good thing was burdened by ten more issues and the great moments were too few and it was too far between them. I started looking at reviews and most felt the same thing.
Since I can’t stop myself from analyzing the whole thing I had to think back where it all went wrong. And my conclusion is that as with so many things EA, a lot of bad decisions were made because EA needs to make huge blockbusters or they aren’t worth their time. Buzzwords and cool features on the box for the mass audience is more important than making a perfect game for a core audience. Things like “a huge open-world city” and “make your own tracks anywhere” sounds awesome to anyone not making games but the fact is when you add huge things like this to a game it pulls resources from somewhere else, and if you don’t give a project the time, talent and love it needs to pull off the scope of your vision you won’t make the game you think you are. Especially if you’re making new tech to run it. If the scope is too large you need to change it. Not release it half-done.
I’m certain the game would’ve been a lot better with level design more similar to the adventure of the first game where you never run in the same place twice and it’s easier to build cool one-time set pieces without having to worry about how to build every square meter of an entire city so it is fun to run everywhere in every direction. It’s almost impossible to design well and the city didn’t even end up that big in the end. Filled with pointless missions and badly designed time trials that were unnecessary and would have worked better in another format. The DLC for the first game was better even if it was just floating squares because it was directly designed exactly for that purpose with nothing else to worry about. It was less doing more while costing less to make. Now we have countless runs made by the community presented in a way that is worse and therefore less fun.
With the game on frostbite designed as an open-world game it was too big of an undertaking to make great and if they still think this was the right the decision they should’ve went a lot smaller with it. It is very apparent with every game released on a new engine or lot of new tech that is almost never a big hit. There naturally always are a lot of issues to sort out in this situation and you have to keep the game simple and work towards a sequel where the real power of the new tech can really shine in a situation where most of the basics are already figured out and you can focus on the new. It’s such a shame that the developers aimed so big with this game when it was almost impossible to deliver in this situation.
And there’s more. The whole weapon and combat discussion. I didn’t have any issue with Faith being able to use weapons in the first game. Sure it felt a bit strange that she would pick up a sniper rifle or blasting away with an assault rifle but it felt like an option she sometimes would’ve taken in a life or death situation, and it gave the player a choice how to play the game. I thought the weapons felt amazing to use at the time compared even to many shooters released the same year. The decision to incorporate in her origin story that she swore off guns completely was another mistake. It would definitely have been more interesting to build on the first game here and let her use light guns while running on walls and swinging from bars and using the grappling hook - still in limited supply and by player choice. It would’ve definitely made for some awesome moments of emergent gameplay and good streaming material.
The combat had several more issues. The whole game was marketed as being about Faith and Flow and the way combat worked was many times working completely against that. The most annoying moments were when for no real reason Faith was trapped in a spot together with several enemies and had to defeat ALL OF THEM to continue the story. Kicking down a couple of the most basic enemies was fun but having to run around back and forth in a small area like an idiot to evade overly powerful enemies with more gear, guns and too much health completely killed the flow of the game. Instead, these encounters should’ve been designed around keeping up the pace and running away from them quickly solving the flow puzzle and luring them away. A combat system completely focused on hit’n’run would’ve fit so much better. Boss fights should’ve been epic movement puzzles and escape sequences more in the spirit of Uncharted and Tomb Raider games than these weird realistically impossible melee fights with half the police force.
Thematically the game also had trouble from the start. The big brother story was interesting in 2008 when the original game came out. But eight years later a lot has happened. Tons of popular movies and games have delved deep into the subject and done it well. Also, by the time the game was released there were so many origin stories. From all Marvel and DC movies to many games being remastered and having prequels it just wasn’t the right time to go in this direction. People were bored the second they heard it was an origin story in a big brother setting. If they’d built the story around events after the first game and instead built the characters during flashbacks and focused on the future the game would’ve been in a much better place from the start. Maybe with a new mystery to solve for the runners.
Finally, the story ended in a disappointingly short amount of time after all of that wait and with a pretty bad final boss fight again with the combat problems previously mentioned (although some of the climbing around those parts were pretty cool). I was also robbed of the iconic train sequence after the mission where you escape on a train. And it was unnecessary to kill off a certain character just for shock value. Building on the relationship further would’ve been a more interesting choice. From what I gather the writer Christofer Emgård was also pretty inexperienced and given a pretty tall order by being the lead writer on Catalyst. Maybe Rhianna Pratchetts return would’ve given the story more of an edge?
All of this comes together in a pretty mediocre game and that in turn means that sales suffer and EA doesn’t want to risk any more resources on the franchise with little to no response to players concerns after a couple of patches post launch. I’m extremely positive a few great story and time trial DLCs like in the first game could have done a lot to steer the ship right but after a few patches the interest from the publisher just completely vanished. Just like with Mass Effect: Andromeda where more story DLC definitely would’ve saved the game after it is now patched to be a pretty darn great game overall.
This makes me incredibly sad because I know if these decisions would have just been made a little bit different there is an enormous potential here. Many people still loved the look of the city, parts of the running, the music and the world. I’m sure something great can be done here, EA/Dice STILL just hasn’t figured out the right formula for it. Maybe another studio should give it a go? I don’t care how they do it, I just want more Mirror’s Edge in a way that serves the franchise. I hope from this article they might find a few things where they went the wrong way and give it another shot because I truly believe Mirror’s Edge can be something special if handled the right way by the right people. Don’t give up!
Written by: Benny Samuelsson