Mirror’s Edge Catalyst And Quality VS Quantity In AAA Games

Mirror's Edge™ Catalyst_20160619112400

I finally finished Mirror’s Edge Catalyst — I figured I needed to go ahead and clear the space from my SSD. It’s been out for like half a year but I think the game’s strengths and weaknesses are still pretty relevant in discussions about more recent and soon-to-come games. Specifically, it’s another example of what can help or hurt the design of an open-world game, or really any game positioned to be a blockbuster.

Catalyst is a pretty flawed game with critical reception all over the place, similar to the original Mirror’s Edge actually. Developer DICE nailed the basic controls and the parkour system central to the whole game, adding some welcome improvements over the first game and providing a great foundation for everything else. That foundation however is dragged down by too much of the kind of junk content that has made people tired of AAA open-world games.

Last August just after starting the game I went over this, saying making Mirror’s Edge an open-world game was ultimately for the better, but now while I agree with the idea I’m not so sure about the execution. The main missions and most of the side missions in Catalyst are pretty well designed (though maybe not as complex as the original game’s levels). Almost everything else in the game though feels like the kind of busywork that people think got stale in games like Dragon Age: Inquisition or Assassin’s Creed UnityCatalyst suffers from the effect of opening up a map and seeing 200 icons to clear up.

I actually liked doing the random courier runs at first. They make use of the open-world and make sense given the game’s basic premise. At first they’re just more opportunities to engage in the well-built parkour system. Ultimately though I think there were too many of them for the level of variety Catalyst has. The same goes for the distraction missions. I didn’t even get started on the time trial runs. Worst of all are the random chips and glowing orbs just laying around everywhere. It’s probably about time video games let go of that kind of random-placement collect-a-thon. I think it originated with the orbs in Crackdown but it’s gotten stale by this point. Collecting 120 stars in Super Mario 64 (the original 3D collect-a-thon game) was fun because each one was an entire mission in itself.

Catalyst feels like it contained the ingredients of an exceptional game, but those ingredients weren’t really allowed to shine. Ultimately I still like it for being as unique as it is — you have to commend EA for publishing a big title that’s essentially a platformer and a puzzle game. DICE should have cut out the fat though and focused more on the game’s biggest strengths — the real missions, and maybe picked out the best courier runs. That might have resulted in a smaller game, but also probably a more polished one.

Resident Evil 6 had the same problem. I though the basic combat system in that game had a lot of potential. It felt like Capcom actually tried to evolve the gameplay Resident Evil 4 established by adding a lot of neat mechanics. Unfortunately the scenarios in RE6 are a mess, and I think it’s because Capcom packed in so much — four complete story campaigns. Instead of a mediocre 40-hour game RE6 could have been at least a very good 15 or 20 hours. I could say the same about the last few Assassin’s Creed games. Assassin’s Creed III and Black Flag each to me feel like they could have had 40-to-50 percent of their content cut to give more time to polish the other half.

Witcher 3 is able to get away with its open world and massive amount of content because just about every side activity in that game feels meaningful. Every quest or hidden treasure feels like its designers and writers actually cared when putting it there. This is the lesson the EAs and Ubisofts of the game industry need to learn in regards to upcoming games like Mass Effect: Andromeda or Ghost Recon: Wildlands.

With Resident Evil 7 (I don’t know when I’m going to get around to that one) Capcom went in the opposite direction, making a smaller-scale game that from what I hear figures out what it wants to do and doesn’t overplay it. Investors were reportedly disappointed RE7 only sold around 2 million copies, but that’s apparently the target Capcom budgeted for.

I think this is a common strain between my favorite games of 2016. None of them were massive AAA open-world games. Dishonored 2Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and Titanfall 2 were instead of a smaller scale that allowed their developers to put more care into what those games really needed.

If there ever is another Mirror’s Edge, I think EA needs to be willing to let DICE pull an RE7. It’s just a question of whether EA can let go of this need for every retail release to be a major package that checks all the AAA boxes.

BULLETS:

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