Open World Analysis – Mirror’s Edge Catalyst

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst’s open world city of Glass is abounding in creativity, its environments oftentimes singular in their beauty, perpetually engaging and arresting. The game’s greatest displays of creativity stem largely from the bold, liberal usage of color – tranquil blues and violets have a prominent presence, as do striking yellows; everywhere is vibrancy; everywhere is beauty. Each distinct environment embraces one color over another, the end result being environments which possess their own distinct identities, personalities – repetition is totally eschewed, that eschewing resulting in continued freshness in exploration; Glass seems a real city, albeit one which is somewhat glamorized owing to the stylized, futuristic aesthetic the game constantly pursues, succeeds in pursuing. This stylization, this embracing of color, even serves a gameplay function – red is immensely important, that color employed to guide the player in the appropriate direction, while the sharp contrast of blue / red helps that latter color’s visibility, consequently lessening the chances of confusion or misdirection during exploration. It is a subtle but very effective design decision, honing immersion in that intrusiveness is spurned. The differentiation from environment to environment is, again, striking. It is rather compelling to explore, say, an office complex of violet for a fair span of time, only to leave that environment, traverse Glass and arrive at a destination of dazzling yellow – the impactfulness is immense, and some giddy excitement characterizes the earlier sequences of the game, as the player is left wondering, musing, about which environment will be made accessible next. The game rarely disappoints on this front, as each environment is remarkable in its own way. While Glass can sometimes seem a Frankenstein, environments lazily and crudely stitched together, ultimately cohesion is achieved.

But whether leaping about on yellow scaffolding or navigating towering, futuristic buildings of blue and violet, the game excels from a technical perspective. The draw distance is often impossibly large, that largeness resulting in a certain smallness within the player character, Faith, who is seemingly one amongst millions – efforts at worldbuilding here are wonderfully seized upon, capitalized upon. Gazing off into the distance, taking in one full view the entire city’s skyline – it is a remarkable, almost empowering sensation, given the fact that much of that vastness is explorable, while even that which is unexplorable stills serves that sharp worldbuilding function. Texture work, meanwhile, is of a consistently high quality, even as the textures for very distant objects are, expectantly, not as detailed; sacrifices were necessarily made. Beautiful lighting accentuates the game’s colorful vibrancy, beaming sunlight filtering down from above one moment, while in the next moment the environments are characterized by a moody, atmospheric darkness, heightening the game’s cinematic aspects. Far, far below, cars can be observed navigating the streets with great rapidity, their presence communicating the city’s living, pulsing aspects; Faith and her companions are not the sole inhabitants, are indeed a very miniscule component of those inhabitants. These people, separated from Faith by a considerable remove, are but a mere specks, barely observable, seemingly insignificant blotches, though blotches which, again, serve their purpose, grounding Glass, resulting in a certain believability. But these inhabitants, when they are viewed close up (as often occurs when Faith discourses with a Glassite dwelling upon the rooftops) boast excellent facial modelling, and while those models are prone to repetition, again technical excellency is displayed. Returning to the game’s day / night cycle, a certain imbalance is in place, in that navigation is more enjoyable after the sun as set, in that Glass’s beauty is only heightened. This vacillation of illumination grounds Glass; the world still turns as Faith fights her fight, grapples with her identity as runner.  

Some spatial metaphors are in place when considering Glass largely, boasting a certain stratification system, particularly when regarding elevation. At the very top, of course, are Faith and her compatriots, her fellow runners, fairly protected from the apparent chaos below. Given their ascendant nature, it follows that they are rather detached from the civilians peopling the streets, those engaged in mundane acts, living an unsatisfied existence, unlike the runners whose entire existence is one of tension, exhilaration, exhaustion. Despite this exhaustion, there is the exhilaration attached to a profession as runner, and that lifestyle generally is consistently glamorized and idealized; oblivious to the petty concerns of the masses, the runners, whose domain is the rooftops, are literally and figuratively elevated – spatialism again matters. Owing to the dystopic nature of Glass, it follows that its average citizens would suffer from a certain oppression, their humbler lives in direct contrast to the runners; that former class of individual, again, is low in terms of power – they are vulnerable and helpless. The latter class of individual is empowered and secure. But in somewhat of a failing in design, the precise nature of the citizens’ vulnerability and powerlessness are never explicitly conveyed; the oppressions the Glassites suffer is only inferable, their existence left deliberately vague. This vagueness, tragically, makes it rather difficult to identity or sympathize with their plight – all throughout is ambiguity, intrigue, potential failings only exacerbated by the namelessness of these individuals, oftentimes non-entities. Some strengths are present, though, in that the player is prompted towards contemplation and introspection, while the symbiotic nature of runner and citizen is readily apparent, in that the citizens can only survive and thrive by the endeavors of the runners, acting not solely for their own personal gain, but acting on the behalf of those selfsame citizens.   

Some clever environmental storytelling is also in place when navigating Glass. While serving little gameplay purpose, judiciously scattered about the city are various “runner tags,” a striking shade of red, which serve as reminders of Faith’s fellow runners – they, too, exist, they too explore the city, making their own unique contributions to the cause of Black November, the resistance group at the heart of the narrative. Further displays of the runners’ existence are also observable in the city’s many ziplines, greatly aiding in locomotion; someone – a runner no doubt – constructed these objects deliberately, pointing towards a symbiotic relationship amongst the runners, each acting in concert with one another, acting for the good and betterment of the common whole; it is a subtle yet very effective method of communicating life as a runner in the vast, beautiful city of Glass. Furthering this even more, various cushioned pads are dispersed throughout the environment, which completely negate all fall damage if landed upon, no matter the extent of that fall – again runners are engaging with their environment, are morphing and distorting it to further their ultimate objectives. Kruger Sec’s presence is also communicated with fair frequency, their emergence dynamic – whilst exploring, a group of these foes may spawn at any one time, often spawning to harass the innocent Glassites, vulnerable and unprotected even with their acquired spatial elevation – they remain oppressed, and it was consistently rewarding to see these conflicts, to quell them by crushing the opposition. Initially, their presence is slight – hours can transpire with but a handful of engagements. Towards the late game, once their forces have been seriously challenged, their appearances are far more frequent, this increased frequency showing the player’s actions as mattering, as directly impacting the larger game world; the runners’ efforts absolutely matter. Simultaneously, the fact that this organization cannot be crushed outright communicates the enduring strength of the group – both runners and Kruger Sec are brimming with power, and their clashing is understandably a fierce one, while the city of Glass is their battleground, the location of their struggle, a struggle which impacts all of Glass’s inhabitants in some way; those oppressed of the rooftop are saved in tangible ways – their existence is prolonged – though all citizens of Glass can be bettered by the runners’ efforts. In a manner, then, the runners seem motivated by altruism, increasing their endearing attributes.   

Being an open world, it follows that many conventions of the genre are included here, for better or for worse. Secondary content is, expectantly, abundant, though the vast majority of this content fast grows repetitive – diversity is lacking, while what is present is often devoid of any real depth. Collectibles exist in the hundreds, the vast majority easily obtainable through natural gameplay, locomotion. The collecting of these items is occasionally rewarding, particularly when in pursuit of the more elusive objects, which often require very careful platforming, but essentially the objective at the title’s opening is the same objective as that seen towards the conclusion; gather together these objects, which oftentimes serve little purpose, their inclusion perhaps centering around expectation, the belief that games must have fluff if they are to be successful – no longer is it sufficient to design a linear gameworld, the perception now existing that a larger game world is a better game world – Mirror’s Edge Catalyst absolutely fits this mold. True, these collectibles, dubbed “grid leaks,” incentivize exploration, a positive when considering the game’s immense strengths of exploration, but an overall reduction in the number of these objects would only make more valuable their eventual acquisition. Furthering this bloat are other collectibles, like computer chips, similarly (and needlessly) abundant. The game would particularly benefit from the exclusion of these objects, in that their collecting completely destroys momentum, the player forced to quit their movement and watch a brief animation, which disrupts all pacing. The rewards for collecting these are also paltry, typically being experience points which are already abundant. In a manner, the game is excessive with its collectibles, and a bit of surgical removal, a bit of increased focus, would elevate the experience. Still, when regarding this secondary content, all is not bleak, in that some of that content is fairly robust, most notable being certain computer server towers, which are climbable and oftentimes require very precise platforming to progress – laser wires and other obstacles are abundant, and it was richly satisfying to beat the odds here, to make a dramatic ascension and then promptly destroy the servers, helping the resistance in the process, while their takeover prompts fast travel, very appreciated owing to the sprawling nature of the city. But this compelling side content is mostly anomalous, the vast majority of secondary content being painfully mundane, unengaging.   

For all its aesthetic strengths, its embracing of creativity and whimsicality, Glass is occasionally let down by its hollowness. True, some organic encounters do transpire, Kruger Sec emerging periodically to harass Glass’s citizens, to thwart the efforts of the runners, but seeing that one type of encounter over and over again leads to repetition, fatigue – after experiencing this a fair few times, tedium rapidly emerges. This hollowness is made all the more apparent when traversing the city, the lack of fellow runners being especially notable. True, many runners hide out in the game’s manifold safehouses, periodically leaving their marks on the city, but they are completely absent from Glass proper, never encounterable during exploration. Running across them organically, watching their deft motions, would further contribute to a certain liveliness, which is otherwise lacking. The NPC’s which are present, who serve as mission givers, are oftentimes stuck in place, waiting to be discoursed with, acting as statutes rather than actual living, breathing humans – they are lifeless, nameless. The greatest conveyor of change, interestingly enough, is the sun, beautiful and high in the sky one moment, distant and invisible the next – this day / night cycle is a resounding success, helping to create atmosphere and ambiance, showing Glass as being multifaceted and beautiful, that beauty again communicated through the embracing of color – vibrancy and crispness abound, and even if the world is occasionally punctuated by hollowness, its navigation is consistently enjoyable, with beautiful urban vistas visible always – the city is sprawling, diverse, the employing of different colors from region to region conveying that diversity, the city being comprised of such seemingly disparate environments as shipyards and office complexes. From a design perspective, meanwhile, Glass is a rather curious case study. Most notable is the clever fusion of open-ended game design and strict linearity. The player is given great freedom, but oftentimes only a handful of routes are present to move from location to location, the player funneled in a specific direction, rather frustrating, as the same paths are crossed and recrossed. A grappling hook of sorts marks a return to locomotive freedoms, heightening the strengths of the world design, though too many restrictions are in place. The inclusion of fast travel is very divisive – while it greatly bolsters convenience, it cuts down on time spent in exploration, odd when considering exploration, the observing of the city, mark some of the game’s greatest strengths. A few alterations here, namely the removal of fluff and an increase in NPC depth and diversity, would bolster the city’s achievements. As matters stand, a beautiful world has been crafted, but it is largely a lifeless world.

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