Even now, after seven years, Mirror's Edge is a unique and exhilarating parkour thriller. It's littered with flaws -- a paper-thin story, some frustrating level design and unnecessary gunplay -- but the clean, dystopian world and fluid motion still impress. The game didn't sell particularly well, so it was a surprise when EA first announced that it was giving developer DICE another roll at the franchise. Mirror's Edge Catalyst is a complete reboot for Faith, but it could also be the team's last chance to prove the series has a future. If the game can't find a larger audience this time around, it's unlikely that EA will green-light another.
"We have big plans on what we want to do after this and moving ahead," Sara Jansson, senior producer for Mirror's Edge Catalyst says. "But I really do think that if this doesn't fly -- if people don't like this game -- there's really no reason to keep building on it."
All or nothing
Catalyst is a gamble for EA. When the team at DICE started to think about a follow-up, they quickly realised that it couldn't be half-assed. To make a worthwhile successor, they needed the publisher's full support, which meant a "AAA" budget and a lot of development time. They didn't want Catalyst to be a small downloadable title, or even Mirror's Edge 2. To do Faith justice and broaden the game's appeal, DICE was committed to a grander vision that retold the character's origin story. What's been shown so far feels like a complete do-over -- the game that the original Mirror's Edge aspired to be.
"We wanted to make sure that we had a game that could appeal to our core fans and also appeal to a broader audience of action-adventure fans," Jansson says. Part of that vision involves a richer narrative and giving Faith some proper character development. She has an iconic look and a pretty badass attitude, but in the original game little was revealed about her past or how she was recruited into the rebellious world of freerunning. In Catalyst, there's a larger and more meaningful storyline that weaves through the missions, as well as CG cutscenes and expanded dialogue while you're jumping around as Faith.
"Even if it's a very personal story, and it's personal elements that trigger her, we wanted to put her in the middle of a national conflict," Jansson says. "So what she does has an effect on the people around her, and that's something that's very important in Catalyst."
A new playground
Even the world and overarching structure of Catalyst is more ambitious than its predecessor. Whereas the original Mirror's Edge took you through linear, tightly choreographed levels, Catalyst offers a seamless open world. DICE says there are no load screens and as you take on more missions, new rooftop districts in the city of Glass will open up. For a game like Mirror's Edge, which relies so heavily on traversal and the feeling of momentum, this poses a number of challenges. Every object has to link into a possible route for the player and also compliment the sparse, geometric aesthetic the game is known for. To do this, DICE has formed pairs of level designers and artists who work in tandem on every building in the game. Each pair physically sits beside one another, and an area can't be finalized until both team members have given their blessing.
DICE has formed pairs of level designers and artists who work in tandem on every building in the game
Designing an open world is tricky, but Jansson says it should help players to learn the mechanics and improve their freerunning skills. "Traversing is actually most fun around the fifth time," she says. "Because you're starting to know the space and that's when you can find all of the ultimate paths. When you have this open structure and you're navigating across the city between different buildings and missions, you're learning the city -- it's starting to become yours. Then you know it and that's when it becomes the most fun."
EA has faith
Catalyst is unashamedly different. Even firearms, which were difficult to control and largely out of place in the original, have been ripped out to focus on Faith's hand-to-hand takedowns. The extraction will be welcome news to fans, but for DICE it's another risky move that positions the game further from established first-person shooter franchises.
"To be completely honest, when we pitched this we were not at all sure that EA was going to want to do it and take that risk," Jansson says. "Because it is a risk. It's more high risk than doing a Battlefront or a FIFA." But the team's pitch paid off. And while the game is a financial risk, it does seem to support EA's changing public image. Two years ago it was named "the worst company in America," and since then the publisher has tried to show that it's putting gamers first. For instance, it's funding Unravel, a whimsical 2D platformer that won the hearts of gamers at E3 this year. Both Unravel and Catalyst had huge booths at Gamecom too, rivalling EA's tentpole franchises such as Need for Speed and FIFA 16.
"That's how you should use the fact that you have some really established franchises," Jansson argues. "You have Battlefield and that's great -- people love it, they want it and they want it often. But having that strong portfolio -- I think you should use that. There's almost an obligation to use that to create something else that might be more risky." Ultimately, it's those creative risks that could give both EA and DICE another Battlefield-level success. The critical acclaim that followed the first Mirror's Edge suggests that the team has stumbled onto something rather special. The hope now is that a well-funded sequel can unlock the concept's true potential and produce a game that is both artistically and commercially successful. For Jansson and her team, it's just another leap of faith.
Image Credits: Xbox Wire
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