There’s a certain elegance to Swedish electronic musician Magnus Birgersson (aka Solar Fields) having been drafted to compose the Mirror’s Edge Catalyst soundtrack. It’s a tidy continuation of Birgersson’s work for the original Mirror’s Edge (2008), some five hours of trance-lite ambience with occasional uptempo pieces to denote urgency. While synths and sci-fi are a classic emulsion, Birgersson’s lush and spacious soundtrack is not just a backdrop to an all-too-perfect future – it also reinforces the grace of the game’s agile protagonist, Faith Connors.
Although Catalyst occupies a peculiar chronological space (is it a sequel, prequel, or reboot?), this offers a neat parallel with the composer’s catalogue beyond Mirror’s Edge. Birgersson reworked his 2009 album Movements, taking the core elements of each track and refining them to create the vastly more compelling LP Altered – Second Movements. As with any videogame sequel/reboot, this “do-over” approach also underpinned the release of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, and while many aspects of the original game are improved, Catalyst gained some unnecessary and burdensome weight in the intervening years.
While Catalyst’s transition to an open-world setting (replete with optional side quests and skill challenges) allows the series to stretch its legs in an expansive city, the marquee feature is a paint-by-numbers campaign that pits a hip insurgent group against an authoritarian corporation. The game is torn between its ambitions of being a Roland Emmerich blockbuster and incisive social commentary. Bombast might be easier to market to a wide audience, but it occludes the pure essence of Mirror’s Edge: Step into the sneakers of a gifted athlete and just fucking run.
And by god, DICE absolutely nail that core mechanic. The elegance and fluidity of movement, the seamless transitions between running, jumping, sliding, rolling – it’s utterly magical, and produces some truly exhilarating moments. Never mind that loudly telegraphed plot twist, I just nailed a quick succession of wallruns to scale and hack an electronic billboard. The reward here is not removing an icon from the open world map, it’s having developed enough skill as a player to execute that nimble combination. That is the strength of Mirror’s Edge. That is where the compelling gameplay lies.
The game’s simulation of human physiology and motion is beautiful, as is the world itself. The pristine city is a showcase of modernist, minimalist architecture, the clinical oppressiveness of its angular, pristine white surfaces offset by liberal splashes of bright colour. It’s a vast contemporary art gallery, in effect – and one level does, in fact, take place inside an exhibition filled with holographic sculptures. Form without function useless in a game centred on mobility, however, so DICE have also designed the world as a parkour playground. While the play space is largely restricted to the city’s rooftops and balconies, this limitation serves to shape a complex labyrinth out of intersecting corridors, a three-dimensional maze that must be explored and learned before it can be properly exploited.
In other words, the world is built around optimal pathways that invite unbroken momentum, rather than a collection of objects that can be traversed if necessary. The game showcases these pathways through a series of Dash challenge missions, timed sprints that demand split-second perfection, environment memorisation, and lateral exploration to secure a decent ranking on the global leaderboards. The game’s social aspects feed into this explore/exploit dynamic, too, as players can mark out their own timed obstacle courses to challenge the online community. In these instances, Catalyst more closely resembles Trials or Trackmania than the Battlefield games it draws its AAA pedigree from.
Torn between these two poles, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst plays like an interactive personality crisis. It can produce serene, almost transcendental moments for the player, allowing them to flow through spaces with unfettered grace. Yet its blockbuster aspirations leave the game restless, unsatisfied, unsure of its place in the gaming world. In Buddhist terms, Catalyst ignores The First Noble Truth, incapable of finding fulfillment in the essence of its experience: virtual parkour in a tailor-made playground. Such self-denial, according to this philosophy, can only lead to endless rebirths (or rather remakes, if EA is willing to foot the bill).
Perhaps DICE ought to listen closely to Solar Fields if they revisit Mirror’s Edge for a third time. Meditate to those mellow ambient pads, for one, but also consider Birgersson’s approach to composing the soundtrack: “I guess my daily life with it’s ups ‘n downs inspires me,” Birgersson told a Reddit AMA. “I like to be completely blank in my head when i compose and just listen to what i create and when i start to feel what i am doing i get into what i call “the zone” and the outer world disappears and i am one with the music.” The ‘outer world’ of commercial interests are unavoidable for an EA trophy studio, no doubt. But if DICE can strike the right balance between overblown action and pure running experience, then Mirror’s Edge may finally achieve the serenity that has so far eluded it.