Game Preview – Mirror’s Edge Catalyst BETA

The original Mirror’s Edge from 2008 still stands strongly as one of my favorite games, and believe it or not served as the first true introduction for me into the first person perspective can achieve. Coming from consoles where shooters were just picking up steam, were essentially the only genre using the perspective, and they could only provide controllers for input (massively harming the experience)… Mirror’s Edge blew my mind. While it still benefits tremendously from the speed and responsiveness of a mouse, fast sloppy movements of a high sensitivity analog stick remain enjoyable; larger turns made manageable with it’s 90/180° quickturn system.

As a result of a somewhat future-proof port and now iconic aesthetic, the original still looks and plays beautifully (on PC) to this day. It doesn’t really look or feel like a living, breathing city; lacking in certain kinds of detail, which is then exacerbated by the game’s lacking narrative. That said, there’s a certain ambiance to it that makes it a world I enjoy my time in… just not when there are enemies present. Everyone that played it knows that the combat systems and essentially forced combat sections were abysmal and by far the worst aspect of the entire game. Competent melee/ranged combat that worked while retaining momentum, along with with the utmost importance placed on always being able to avoid it (very much like say Dishonored or Hitman Absolution) could have made it entirely reasonable, but sadly they failed miserably in both respects.

Mirror's Edge - Header

When they finally announced a sequel, titled Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, running in EA’s stunning and still somewhat new Frostbite 3 Engine, I was simultaneously overjoyed and filled with worry. Battlefront and Battlefield 4 are highly detailed with beautiful rendering techniques, while also featuring both outstanding performance and excellent PC-oriented options/feature-sets (minus dedicated servers and browser in Battlefront). However EA are prone to implementing needless online-only DRM to prevent piracy and protect microtransactions, or a variety of other unappealing decisions. While the game does utilize Denuvo, it doesn’t appear to have an online requirement and the devs have said that it will be playable offline… Just take that with a grain of salt considering how Hitman turned out after SquareEnix said almost the exact same thing.

For press and those who signed up a few months back, they recently held a closed Beta with freedom to capture and stream, on both consoles and PC. So as a long time but not necessarily hardcore fan (no real competitive speedrunning, but still a pretty competent player), how did it fair after ~12 hours of playtime? The decisions surrounding the core gameplay seem extremely mixed, and there’s tons of uncertainty surrounding all aspects, including serious concerns about performance and polish. [Note: It has been said that the distributed build was forked from an older version, and may be even less indicative of the final product than your average beta.] Though they wouldn’t come out and say it explicitly, they’re likely feeling the same considering they just delayed the launch by another two weeks; now slated for June 7th, 2016.



PC Port Quality

The basic graphics options are largely there, with an option to disable motion blur, but it is lacking in some areas. Anti-aliasing isn’t listed at all, and seems to be bundled in with a generic post-processing setting, with shadow resolution in a generic lighting setting. Also bundled are things like DOF, bloom, lens flares, and this weird dynamic saturation adjustment that seems tied to a certain meter in the game that fills and releases based on how you maintain momentum… all of that stuff would better serve the player if separated into individual toggles. FOV adjustment is available (on console too), but presents no number and can cause arm clipping even below the maximum setting (mainly while zip-lining), though I’m just glad it’s there at all and will take it as is… Like the other Frostbite 3 titles, there’s no framerate cap and it has at least 21:9 support w/ fit UI (very likely 3x wide support as well; not confirmed), with the pre-render cutscenes being surrounded by a white bars instead of black. You can select the active display, and the resolution options include essentially all of the resolutions your display is capable of, with a variant for all of the refreshrates as well; fantastic, no windowing shenanigans to get it to switch displays or having to manually set your display refresh in Windows. The UI stays 1:1 with no scaling option, so it’s massive at 720P, and extremely small at 4K.

Unfortunately I didn’t discover this until after the Beta ended, but there is a plain text config file next to the game’s saves, which includes all sorts of interesting options… Vertical and horizontal HUD bounding options (could be used to bound the UI to just your center display on a 3x display setup, if the game doesn’t do that already as Battlefield has. The console has an interface size option, but I don’t recall it within the menu on PC), stereoscopy (3D) toggle and separation, real and post-processing AA values, controller deadzone, “Enlighten” (a real-time Global Illumination system), transparent texture shadows, voice-over language, and much more.

The beta featured no key rebinding or even a control list (controller had a few preset configs). I’m sure they’ll have this, but it seems odd that it was missing here considering how absolutely essential it is to a game so reliant on extremely fast input combinations (for higher level play anyway). I was able to rebind both my keyboard and mouse in hardware, mainly re-positioning the coil (more on this later) and quickturn keys, but that’s not something the average player will be able to or should even have to do. You did have mouse and controller sensitivity, Y axis inversion, vibration at least.

The audio options have range and channel options, subtitles, and volume sliders for master, music, and dialogue boost (which I found helpful to make the mid-mission radio comms more manageable without cluttering/distracting the screen with the subtitles).

Mirrors Edge Catalyst - Video Settings

Performance was pretty terrible. Granted I am running older GPUs and SLI isn’t yet enabled so that’s partly it, but many others are having problems as well even with obscene setups; it’s just not even close to where it needs to be yet. HOWEVER, I do have confidence in both the technical side of the team and Nvidia/AMDo to have this right at the very least within the game’s launch window. To give this some context, during the Battlefront Beta, I tested the game both before and after updating to the new Nvidia drivers put out along side it. It went from an unplayable mess that had no SLI support, to playing like an absolute dream even with it’s near bleeding edge visuals… A true night and day change just from a driver update. The Call of Duty Black Ops 3 Beta while not necessarily related, went through and even larger jump. Pre-driver it was so bad it had at least a full second of input latency and horrendous stuttering. The result after wasn’t as astounding as Battlefront, but was still a night and day improvement; from completely unplayable to very playable. If the game launched in this state even after getting a driver, I’d be furious, but it’s simply too early to make definitive statements considering the ludicrous impact dedicated drivers can have, along with the recent track record of DICE/EA’s releases from a performance/port standpoint.

Fragile Delivery Quest Bug
State of the game after the “Fragile Delivery” quest bug.

Finally I’ll say that the game was really quite buggy in it’s current form. I’ll cover some gameplay related bugs in the next section, but outside of that many experienced pretty serious texture streaming issues regardless of settings that make the game look far worse than it should. There’s also a certain sidequest NPC (even if you simply walk by them and trigger their VO) that seems to send the game into a state where it only loads models and textures that would be suitable for viewing hundreds of meters away, while also deactivating all intractable elements, and even getting to the point where the menus stop functioning. The only way to get out of it even past reloading the game is to delete your save and start over, or attempt to teleport to a time-trial event until it lets you (it sometimes just sends you to an endless load screen while wrapped up in the glitch; this is possibly the result of a memory leak, I didn’t get a chance to verify).


Gameplay

They’ve made Far Cry, but a speedrunning platformer… It’s actually a tad hard to see this when playing the limited content of the Beta, but it’s very clear once you put together the pieces. There are towers that you fight enemies around to unlock fast travel in nearby safe-houses; the game only presents one safe area, but text alludes to there being many, along with the mechanic of being chased by the police once you activate said towers, the area being far too big to have to run back to that one initial hub. There are a billion little collectibles that you walk up to and click on, and other floating orbs (“Gridleaks”, rendered with the rest of the HUD by your future contact lens) that are either hidden or are in the middle of jumps and running paths.

There are generic, context-less missions of various types scattered everywhere. I might have missed a few plus those that weren’t shown:

  • Point-to-point time-restricted runs (get there in time or failure) – Some are very challenging for some reason, possible because of the lack of specific upgrades
  • Runs with no timer (or a very lenient one) where you have to maintain you “focus”/momentum meter from start to finish – The focus meter is built with all manner of parkour/movement and light attacks, and makes you passively dodge bullets and allows you to do heavy attacks in motion while still maintaining your momentum; it drops when you slow down or stop by really any means, and for each moving heavy attack you do. These have enemies littered along the path to make use of that, and these are the only uses of enemies I saw out of the few that surround the security towers, and ones in story missions and miscellaneous quests.
  • Named time-trials with online leaderboards – You must earn 1 star to complete it, with tighter requirements for 2 and 3; it doesn’t seem like there’s a reward other than bragging rights and maybe more exp, but I’m sure there is an achievement or some sort of unlock for besting all of these. To be honest, they are insanely competitive for two reasons. Getting the 3rd star on some of them (in what seems like the first area, though they might have altered it purposely for variety in the Beta) seem FAR harder than I’d have expected. I beat all of them, some requiring learning the best route and abusing a bug or two, with one in particular being extremely tight even with all the stars aligned. This might just be a balance issue, but some of it seems to come down to lacking upgrades, as I saw grappling hook points in some, with no access to it in the beta. And then on the online side, people are already extremely good (and you can’t learn their route, there are no ghosts in this mode!), but this one is a positive aspect as had fun when I found myself talking to and watching (on Twitch) the best player in the world on a certain stage, as I played myself to try and beat him (I managed a very close 2nd place by ~0.44 seconds before even better players swooped in with a new route).
  • [Online Required] Player-created time-trials – Initiating the creation of these is easy, you just hit create in the pause menu from anywhere, and then walk around placing checkpoints (mid-air even) and hitting a button to finish, and then being challenged to set a time on the course. The main problem is that there is no option to warp back to your last checkpoint and the saving system sucks, thus making challenges where you start in precarious positions that you had to climb up to far too annoying to setup. I believe you can save an endless amount, though you can only have 10 public at a time (freely swappable at any time via toggles when edited in the menu). They of course have leaderboards, and ghosts are saved, potentially only the top player as theirs is what plays when run.
My time trial and overall ranking before the last reset. Also shows the cycling UI that slides out from the right for more info about a selected option.
My time trial and overall ranking before a reset; I did em’ all again the next day. Also shows the cycling UI that slides out from the right for more info about a selected option.

Before we get to the core gameplay mechanics, the last kinds of missions are main story and other miscellaneous NPC quests. The primary story missions have frequent radio dialogue and interspersed in-game and pre-rendered cutscenes. These were by far the least numerous within the Beta, and they seemed to pump up the variety far more, often venturing into interiors and other otherwise inaccessible areas, with some time spent in the open world but often with a specific ambiance or challenge at hand. There are a few interior paths/shortcuts within the open world and an interior quest-hub/safehouse, but the majority of the open world in the first area is exterior paths. I found that you could travel back through part of the area of the open mission, though I couldn’t find the more interesting interior sequence of a later mission (the one with the main villain encounter and exiting fight sequence shown in early gameplay trailers). I don’t think its possible to get back through there, though this could be alleviated somewhat by being able to replay missions; an option that will be there but was excluded from the beta (claimed explicitly where there would be a button). There are collectibles within these missions, as well as being in the open world (the yellow runner bags from the original which now make chirping noises and have the original logo painted nearby, audio-logs, and readable documents), and your completion times are displayed in the menu (though I don’t believe they had a leaderboard; might be unlocked after game completion like the original game).

Mechanically the games biggest flaw right out of the gate that I feel must be fixed, is that coil-jumping during every free moment you have is the fastest way of moving around any flat plane. You’ll notice this the first time you watch a ghost of any player-created trial. It raises the skill-gap tremendously as missing even one or two of these coil jumps is enough to lose against an equal player, even though it has nothing to do with the traversal challenges that the game intends. Depending on the run, it is feasible that this mechanic turns a path that needs 20 inputs to complete perfectly, into one that asks 100+. In order to really compete, you must jump then coil and then release before you touch anything (Ctrl by default, I put it on shift and it might even be better as right click if this isn’t fixed) constantly unless you are climbing/rolling/stumbling/jumping. Coil too long and touch a surface? Fail, start over. Press coil (and thus slide) before or at the same time as jump? Fail, start over. It’s hand-crampingly bad in long sessions, it massively exacerbates frustration, and while technically faster, it tarnishes the fluidity/flow and feeling of speed and momentum that was so integral to the original. Yes, the original had all sorts of small weird glitches like this that top-end players used, but even then the feeling of speed was higher, and we’re talking about a game that’s newer by 7 years here, and one with an extreme emphasis on online competition throughout, while the original barely mentioned it.

The problem isn’t really the added skill ceiling, but rather that it seems it is by far the fastest way to move outside of one technique called “stumble boosting” (using falling from certain heights onto certain kinds of objects and grates that boost you forward instead of damaging you). If there’s a springboard, a wall to run on (there are countless that you cannot run on anyway), a swinging pipe, etc, you should still be doing nothing but coil jumping… and that’s just lame. Pinging off the walls and utilizing the obstacles in the environment is great fun, so it sucks when the mechanics tell you to stick to flat ground as much as possible. While the player-character animations are more dynamic and overall are notably improved, there are some very odd exclusions and some bad mechanical changes as showcased in the video below.

One that I really like and enjoy the feel of, is a dash that can be used in any direction. The original game had a glitch of sorts that allowed you to gain near full momentum by jumping and rotating 90 degrees. The dash an easier to execute replacement, that also allows you to do it forwards and backwards, having combat implications as well as it strafes around enemies in a circle along the lines of Dark Souls, Witcher 3, or a fast FPS/Melee like the Shadow Warrior reboot. On the bad side… you sprint into the wall endlessly like a badly programmed NPC, can get caught latching onto ledges completely unintentionally and can’t always dictate that you don’t wish to by coiling like the last game, you can latch onto tiny ledges that would send your body through the ground, along with many other weird inconsistencies that I couldn’t get to the bottom of. One notable example is various angled slopes that are meant to force you into sliding down the instant you touch them… If you can manage to stand on them for even an instant, spamming or properly pulsing the dash button can allow you to run straight up these surfaces. If you do it improperly or are just unlucky, you might slide down, you might fling yourself straight up into the air, or you might ping off into the distance for no reason. If you’re trying to speedrun, surprisingly a lot of things are capable of such physics-defying (and run-destroying) outcomes. The video below is a run of the shortest trial (after glitches) similar in speed to my best go at it (0.59 seconds slower). It showcases a stumble boost after the first fall, the slope dashing glitch at the end, and coil jumping throughout. Trust me, it’s far more challenging than it appears; primarily climbing/ascending the slope at the end without it flinging you off in some random direction.

The level design is hard to speak on as we only have the first area of seemingly many. Overall I found there were far too many uninteresting flat surfaces, and almost no instances that make good use of the previously incredibly useful single and double vertical wall-run, PROBABLY because the double wall-run is now an unlock. The links between clusters of buildings I feel are far too few in number, and are boring with only a flat bridge and a one-way zipline to speak of, outside of a the rare grappling point which couldn’t be used without the unlock… Speaking of mechanical unlocks, they’re complete nonsense. I could see the combat upgrades (mainly the flat damage bonus/reductions), I might even see the grappling hook as that has a physical object tied to it and I’d assume story implications for how you obtain it. I’d be fine with that, but why are ALL of the core abilities? You don’t get the coil jump, the roll, the vault, the double wallrun… and that’s just the beta, who knows if the skills unlocked by default for this test also have to be unlocked in the full game. I understand the idea of character progression, the cool-factor of being able to tear through sections you had trouble with before, BUT not only does the game’s complexity already all for that inherently with player skill and understanding, but the massive focus on multiplayer competition in the time trials (they even have a whole network for getting updates/notifications when your friends or people you follow set new times, along with tracking all the set times and challenges created by any specific player) means you’re completely out of the running competitively until you obtain all of the movement-related abilities. What if you start a new game just for fun but still want to compete? As far as I’m concerned, any game with a focus on competition that puts players at a direct, inherent disadvantage because they didn’t grind or pay their way through some progression system, is simply broken.

Another big problem I have with the game is how the loading and saving structure is implemented. The game seems to randomly make checkpoints for you, and that might be 10 minutes ago across the map, or right before you jumped off a building a few seconds earlier… An even bigger problem than encroaches even in what should be extremely controlled scenarios like the primary competitive speedruns, is that there’s load times where there should be none at all, and they’re often far longer than anyone would expect they’d be for the distance traveled (even longer on consoles). In attempting to speedrun, I couldn’t count the number of times that I got a loading screen to warp to a position that I could have walked (not sprinted) the character to faster. The video above showcases this clearly near the end, and how the old game simply warped you back to the start with no fuss. To add to the frustration, dying will send you back to the start or the last arbitrary checkpoint without resetting your time at all, unless you can manage to hold R for a pretty long time to trigger a reset first. Again, countless times I miss a jump and it loads while teleporting me back with my current time, only for me to have to stand there holding R to get it to properly reset, to get another load time to move a grand total of 0 microns. Words cannot describe the extent of the ignorance in the implementation.

In a similar vein, the completely random position saving becomes an a huge pain when trying to enjoy casual/experimental traversal through the environment. There’s an incredibly simple solution that EA themselves popularized for exactly this purpose; the save-point button from the Skate series. You hold the button to save your position, and click it again to warp back. If you’re close by it’s instant, while longer distances do quick load; totally reasonable. The game absolutely needs this feature. It would directly incentivize taking chances and player creativity, thus allowing players to have far more fun. If trying a questionable jump while in free roam could mean warping back 5 steps (with a load time regardless because fuck you), or 2 miles away prior to a few minutes of traversal that you just did, all up to random chance, the player isn’t going to try that jump… The solution is common sense game design, and failing it ends up being one of the games largest problems before the rest of the game is revealed and it’s quality/variety can be assessed.

Finally, while the menu UI is functional, the actual in-game UI is far too cluttered than it ever needed to be (justified by their future contact lens rather than simply red coloring being implied as knowledge/understanding in the brain of Faith). Instead of doors being red or colored to match the environment to signify you can open them, they’re all white until you get close and an ugly button prompt turns up, and this isn’t disable-able even with runnervision completely off. The red colored objects only become red when the game thinks that exact path is the right one specifically with a quest active or a waypoint on the map, simultaneously making you think that is the only path. From a distance you can’t see which doors are operable when viewing multiple, either none at all have any indication, or one is red based on the waypoint. There are tons of floating quest markers in the world, all also colored red with no clear enough to be discernible from a distance. There are player challenges, completely pointless player spots that simply count people who click it, real missions and sidequest of multiple varieties, all completely indistinguishable from a distance. Color them differently, make them simply white symbols with thin red outlines, remove them entirely, etc etc. There are countless solutions here, and yet the implementation they chose is ugly, breaks immersion, and is simultaneously almost completely useless. Additionally with the runner vision, they’ve now included arrows on the walls and ground, and UI-level highlighting on the doors, all of which are far too red vs the texture-level highlighting of the original game. Oh and with all that UI clutter, you still have to login to an external web/smartphone app to to select preset customization options for your in-game player tag, or to even name your custom time trials, with no justification of any kind…


Presentation

Ignoring the texture streaming issues (which again can make everything hideously blurry when it crops up), the textures are good overall aside from one odd gravel surface. The most notable “improvement” here over the past game is the use of high-end material shaders and screen-space reflections. Where the original game used entirely baked in global illumination (which is why it still looks so good), the new game implements a day/night cycle which really doesn’t play well with baked lighting. I found two lengthy official slideshows showcasing the lighting and rendering techniques utilized in both the original Mirror’s Edge, and the brand new Catalyst.

Mirrors Edge - Enlighten
Beautiful shot (made using external camera tools) by NeoGAF user “Edgar”

While both very impressive for their time, there is a night and day difference here (pun intended) in terms of sheer complexity and technical achievement. They could have achieved many of these gorgeous scenes with far less performance cost, but to achieve multiple times of day you have to do everything over for each variant; instantly becoming out of the question once you target a fluid and complete day/night cycle. Games like The Witcher 3 have executed dynamic day/night cycles excellently (as seen in the video below; real-time footage, cycle speed modded to be far faster than normal), but even they weren’t working with multiple kinds of reflections layered together, a city filled with real lights, and real-time global illumination.

The only real downsides I see to their lighting system are:

  1. The performance cost. Again, the Beta may be completely misleading to the state of the final released game, but even then we’re still working with a game that is destined to be very hard to run for the time being. The game itself is almost purely benefited by raw speed and timing accuracy, so for the short-term scaling down for lower-end systems and for very high framerates on powerful systems is pretty important. And the problem with such complex lighting systems, is that you can’t reasonably just disable/reduce it and have the game still look good; I got it to a state where it looked drastically worse than the original game (clarity and cohesiveness of the image), and still ran terribly… (I really wish I could have tested disabling the Enlighten toggle in the configs; who knows, it might have shut the entire GI system off) Good for the future I guess, as seeing a game continually impress you as time goes on and you upgrade your hardware is always pretty neat.
  2. It seems to have some serious problems with the characters. As seen from the slideshow presentation I linked above, the game is using a tremendously layered approach to rendering it’s image, and lighting the characters properly in one scene took tons of lights. I found that the non-hostile NPCs (as well as Faith if you detach the camera) tend to look horrible when not in either direct sunlight, or very specific lighting conditions. In any sun shadow they seem far darker than they should be as if they were green-screened in from an entirely different environment… (Here’s an even worse example than what my game produced.) I hope this is a result of a set of values that they can or even already have adjusted, and not a restriction of the lighting engine.

Cutscenes are pre-rendered in what looks like the same engine, so while they look notably better than the game (unless you’re downsampling from 4K+ at likely more then max settings), all of the toning and style seems very consistent, outside of the characters which are immaculately lit and use higher fidelity models. The biggest problem with them is that they appear very choppy, a result of being either 30FPS files, or 60 with a display problem of some sort (the game is still pushing a higher framerate and also seems to keep the GPU at 95%+ load even though it’s just playing (an incredibly choppy) video. Something is definitely seems wrong, as I’ve heard myself and other content creators comment on the lack of fluidity; 30FPS content shouldn’t be THAT bad.

Mirrors Edge - Pre-rendered Cutscene Sample
Pre-rendered Cutscene Sample (Visible compression within the video file)

I won’t delve into the technical aspects of the audio as it was hard to judge without more environments to play with… All I’ll say for now is that the VO was good to great, though Faith seemed intent on forcing an angsty teenager vibe to the point of being genuinely annoying, and one section of in-game dialogue made her seem incredibly bored with all of it, almost as if it was genuinely placeholder audio. The rest of the characters seemed quite good, so I’d have to imagine all I saw was the very beginning of her growth as a character; she was just released from Juvie after all…


For full disclosure, I have no contact with or interest in the developer, publisher, or any of the franchises mentioned. A little disappointing in it’s current unfinished state, and while I’m largely confident that the technical issues will be worked out, there are numerous small problems and unknowns concerning the final gameplay/level design and online components. I have a feeling I’m going to love it in the end; I already do to some extent, which is why I made such an effort here in hopes of making that even more likely.


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