While some commenters describe parkour uncharitably as "the art of running away," it's still a stylish pastime and the perfect complement to video game platforming. Mirror's Edge Catalyst, a prequel to the 2008 sleeper hit, seems to encapsulate the same high-octane free-running as its predecessor, but with slicker gameplay, simpler navigation and a much smoother frame rate.
I got to go hands-on with Mirror's Edge Catalyst at an Electronic Arts press event. The game is slated for release next year on Feb. 23 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, and while EA has yet to announce a price, $60 seems like a solid bet. The development team gave me about 15 minutes with the game — just enough time to play through an introductory tutorial and three short missions to show off the game's story, setting and gameplay basics.
An EA representative told me that Catalyst acts as an origin story for Faith, the franchise's acrobatic protagonist. (It's worth pointing out that Faith is also one of the only Asian women to take the leading role in a big-budget Western game.) As the game begins, Faith has finished serving a prison sentence, and is eager to connect with her old resistance buddies, who act as a thorn in the side of a futuristic, totalitarian government.
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The first-person platforming from Mirror's Edge is back in full swing. A quick run from the cops taught me that one button lets Faith move up, while another lets her move down. This simplified platforming is a beautiful thing and also extremely easy to remember. Hitting the left bumper will help Faith vault over walls, leap to nearby platforms or climb up ladders as the situation dictates. The left trigger will help her drop to lower platforms, slide under obstacles or even roll upon landing to reduce fall damage.
Getting the timing right, as well as figuring out just how much momentum Faith needs to build up while running, is the tricky part. But it's also where a lot of the fun comes in. Even over the course of 15 minutes, I found it gratifying to go from slowly clambering up a low wall to leaping across rooftops and rolling past enemies.
I tried out three different missions after the tutorial: a footrace, a climbing challenge and a battle against an overzealous police force. The race took me up stairways, across rooftops, under pipes and through air ducts as I tried to figure out the speediest path. Likewise, the climbing challenge was simply to find the most expedient route to a high building's rooftop. Both made the most of Faith's impressive abilities and required a good deal of precision.
The combat was not quite as much fun as the platforming, partially because your enemies possess firearms whereas Faith fights only with her fists and feet. Combining acrobatics with punches and kicks was amusing, but not that deep, and it never seemed like a fair fight. (The enemies' bullets also seemed to do very little damage, which made me wonder why combat was such a necessity in the first place.)
My favorite innovation in Mirror's Edge Catalyst was actually a graphical one. Now that the frame rate is a full 60 fps, the animation is much more fluid and stable. This should reduce the number of players who experience motion sickness after platforming in first-person, including me. I couldn't play more than about an hour of the original without feeling like I was about to chuck my guts up.
Based on my short time with the game, Mirror's Edge Catalyst seems like a well-deserved upgrade to a game that was more than interesting enough to merit a follow-up. We'll see how the full product shakes out in about four months.