03 May 2017

Mirror's Edge: Catalyst | When combat is not the focus, how do you design it?

It is June 10th, 2013. As the ink-pen edges over her skin viewers are wondering what kind of trailer they are watching. Does the upcoming tattoo signify anything? Are we looking at a sequel or something new? Before viewers can even begin to speculate fans of the cult-classic Mirror’s Edge start screaming at the top of their lungs as they witness protagonist Faith wall-running through a hallway ablaze with gunfire. It’s beautiful, it’s fast, it’s vibrant in its colors… it’s Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. And we never thought it would see the light of day.

Now you might be wondering why this game is getting a article on Stinger; a site solely dedicated to combat. While not every game focuses on fighting it finds itself present in nearly each and every game; being easily used to give a feeling of conflict. What remains in our minds after the credits are not the scenes oozing with drama but those dripping with blood. So how well does a game’s combat-engine hold up when it is not the focus?
Before we get into the combat let’s take a quick look at what the game is meant to be: a parkour game. Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst has a first person perspective and a colorful yet distinctly Apple-like setting; a joy to behold with its strong mixtures of white and primary colors. The usage of the color black is somewhat lackluster, only appearing on the main character to help her stand out in promotional material. It would have been excellent to have it see more use.

Gameplay is all about movement, the longer you run without stopping the faster you’ll be; momentum is key. Controls are divided into five options: High, Low, Attack, Dash and Turn. Pressing High while running results in a jump but when close to a wall it becomes a wall-run. Pressing Low lets Faith crouch but if pressed while running will make her slide across the pavement. It’s when these options are combined that the movement goes full-circle. For example turning while sliding lets you turn 180 degrees while maintaining your momentum. It’s a fun set of mechanics to toy around with that can give you a plethora of movement options just to get around one simple fence. Surrounding this is the open-world structure, replacing the classic level based lay-out of the original. At first you’ll be at a constant loss but eventually one will recognize routes and find shortcuts until the city is mastered. But you’ll often stumble upon dead ends which is at odds with the games soul, as movement options like the grappling hook are unlocked throughout the story. Exploration is not recommended. This is a shame because if there is one word the designers have tattooed in their soul, it is motion.



This transfers heavily into the combat which provides a mixture of running and fighting. Each confrontation will present you with primal choice: fight or flight. As stated by designer Jeremy Miller: It needed to be intuitive, skill based and an extension of our movement while also allowing combat avoidance or “running away” to be just as engaging and valid an option.1 Faith is weak, succumbing after only three hits. Yet by running she builds up Focus. The official website explaining it as: (...while) Faith runs, she focuses and let things drift away behind her. If Faith gets hit in this Focus mode, she loses Focus and not Stamina. She becomes almost invisible, as enemies are not use to seeing, or dealing with, that kind of speed. 2
Focus is a key mechanic, a resource meter that one has to manage. Stay on the move and it regenerates; stand still, fall or get hit and it is reduced. A keen balance between the mechanics of combat and the emphasis of the game on full display. The fighting itself builds around two different types of moves: on the move fighting which deals minor damage and focused combat with hard hitting blows-- the latter being more traditional and the former more in keeping with the game’s concept. Pressing light-attack while running pushes a foe away, while sliding tackles them and jumping pushes them down while you keep your momentum to make a quick escape. Press the hard-attack button and you’ll come to a standstill, using your momentum to dish out the pain. The sliding tackle becomes a fierce kick to the happy-sack while jumping gives you a dive-kick of Devil May Cry-like origins. You can also direct your standing kicks: kick to the left to push a foe over the edge or into one of his compatriots for added damage while dodging side to side using your Dash ability.

Before long you will be stringing it together, just picture it! Three foes in the room, two using melee weapons and one with a gun; their armor a strong primary color blue contrasting against your own deep black with a white background. You dash forward to gain momentum, push the first aside; you need more speed. The second you slide under; more speed! You run past the third one and onto the wall. You run up, turn, jump off of it and kick the guard into his friend. The last one you tackle with a slide, he falls but they are not down yet. After the slide you run on with your strong momentum, slide and turn while seeing Faith pivot from the first-person as her hands are used to push her forward from the floor. Bullets fly. Momentum is high, you feel alive, energized. You run straight at them and disable one with a kick to the nuts-- no grandchildren for him. The second fires off a round but your Focus absorbs the hit: you kick him into a nearby desk, two down. The last one is a one on one brawl. You slow down, edge towards him, he attacks, you dodge. You kick him from behind and watch as he stumbles. As he tries to recover you run up the wall and land on him with your full weight. He’s young, he’ll walk again; but not today. All this happens in a matter of seconds at a blistering speed.

No these aren't unlockable costumes for one enemy-type, but all the enemies you'll be facing.
Situations like those described above fill the game, but are paced between long segments of platforming and exploration. This makes the combat, which has few options but with a feeling of vibrant discovery as you mix options together, always feel fresh. It isn’t until you do more fights after each other that the blemishes start to show. Enemy variation is low for example, rarely going past the ‘guard with a melee-weapon’ type.

Yet with all this taken in the combat engine really holds up; it is rarely forced, allows for variation, experimentation and embraces the game’s core: motion. While not as deep as games that focus on it, it doesn’t need to be. Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst stands as an example of how combat should be handled in a game where it is not the main-selling point.



opinion style
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In this short section I switch my own style to that of an opinion and give you a little peak on what my take is on this article.

Mirror’s Edge is a game close to my heart, having once borrowed the original before buying my own copy as I just couldn’t put it down. Its motion based gameplay makes it a horrible game to play on your first go through however. You constantly fall to your doom, reducing the feeling of flow immensely, but once mastered it becomes a unique adrenaline. When I started the sequel some years later I was immediately shocked by its combat which was a vast departure from the original which just allowed you some basic punches and kicks. It was an area I didn’t expect to see improvements in as it was mostly ignored by players in the original.
Despite this I had not originally planned on writing an article on this game. I did want to write a combat-piece on a non-combat game, originally putting my eye on Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (maybe later!). But Mirror’s Edge kept drawing me back with pen in hand. Now sitting on the grass in the sun, hoping I don’t burn like a lobster I am quite pleased how it turned out. Combat is integral to many games, but rarely gets the attention it so sorely needs to not become boring. Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst does this better than any I’ve seen.


postscript notes
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  • Should DC Comics ever decide to make an action-game about its hero The Flash, pray they look towards this game.
  • Due to the game being a cult-classic, the sequel didn’t sell well after its initial release. Reaching a $10,- sale only 6 months after release; something four year old games haven’t even had yet.
  • Strangely enough Catalyst is a reboot, deciding to ditch existing plot material introduced in the original game and its comics. One change made to the lore is that all guns are locked to the DNA of the user, making it impossible for Faith to bear arms.



sources
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Release-date: June 7, 2016 |  Producer: Sara Jansson| Designer: Erik Odeldahl | Platform: PC, PS4 , XB1

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