Wot I Think: Mirror’s Edge Catalyst

The original Mirror’s Edge landed in 2008 like a breath of fresh air. Gears of War had released two years prior and all the games in the world seemed suddenly to be brown third-person shooters about crouching. By comparison Mirror’s Edge, about a secret postwoman in an anti-utopia, had blue skies, interior decorating that favored orange and lime green, and a focus on leaping over walls rather than hiding behind or firing bullets around them. It had many flaws, but for me its aesthetic and the satisfaction of its free-running movement made it worth championing.

Eight years later and now we have not a sequel but a reboot in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. You are still secret postwoman Faith Connors bounding across rooftops in a dystopic city called Glass; your parents were still killed in protests when you were young; you still had a sister and still have an older, male mentor who trains you in running. Your moveset is mostly an unchanged combination of leaps, slides, wallruns, walljumps and swings. Sadly, many of the same old problems remain too, which we’ll get to.

What’s most clearly changed is that Catalyst is open world where its predecessor was linear. Missions are now found and take place within explorable districts of the city of Glass, which unlocks in a hub structure as you progress through the story. I love this change, for two reasons. One is that it injects some actual delivery work into a world about delivery people via side missions, where the original had none. There’s plenty to do in Catalyst and though more of it is time trials than I’d like (and that I’m no good at), I appreciate extra reasons to be in that world.

The second reason I love the change is that it allows you to be in that world for no reason at all, to run for the pure pleasure of running. Catalyst’s greatest strength is still the feeling of movement. The pit-pat, pit-pat of my feet against concrete builds until I start to hear the whoosh of wind past my ears as I reach top speed, and then I’m gone, lost in the flow of the game. Slide under that vent, leap over the next, use a box as a springboard to reach a high platform, rebound off a wall to grab a ledge behind me, grab a zipline and repeat. It’s exhilarating.

These moves are now unlocked via a progression system, in which you put unlock points towards combat, movement or gear upgrades. It’ll take you an hour to regain Faith’s moveset from the first game. After that, in terms of movement, you’ll unlock a grappling hook and new abilities for it. The grapple is fun to use, especially when you’re swinging or drawing yourself up large distances between buildings at speed, though it only attaches to fixed points within the environment and there’s not too many of them. That’s probably for the best given its potential to undermine the rest of your methods of navigation. Its worst attribute is a late-stage addition that allows you to use it to pull down obstacles, which feels somewhat pointless – an unnecessary extra open door button.

The feeling of flow is helped by Runner Vision, the game’s dynamic method for highlighting routes in red and guiding you via a wispy red line snaking across scenery. Runner Vision won’t always highlight the fastest route but it means you never need to think, instead free to just run.

Unfortunately I think Runner Vision hurts other parts of the game. Free-running into a zen state was only one of Mirror’s Edge’s movement-related pleasures. The other was its vast atriums, in which you were dropped at the bottom of some skyscraper or another and challenged to find your way upwards. These were a kind of puzzle and required your active study of the environment. Catalyst still contains these moments in missions, where it will disable Runner Vision and leave you to find your own path.

They’re few and far between, however, and in the rest of the game, especially when navigating between city districts, Runner Vision is practically essential. To the point where it becomes overbearing. After a couple of hours of play, I realised that I had been flowing seamlessly across the world without ever stopping to admire the Corbusier-inspired architecture underfoot, the gleaming white of the futuristic skyline in the distance, or anything in between. Free-running is meant to be about engaging with your environment in a new and empowering way, but I was engaging with that wispy red line more than anything else.

You can turn it off thankfully, but be prepared if you do to get hopelessly lost. I played much of the game this way and it did indeed make me pay more attention to the level design – which is frequently wonderful, and well worth your attention – but it also revealed that there’s very little visual signposting baked into the world. Without Runner Vision, it’s hard to tell which doors can be barged and which can’t, for example. You’ll also suddenly realise that the open world isn’t so open and that there are only single routes connecting each district (presumably to disguise the loading of a new area in the background), and that trying to navigate based solely on the distant objective marker rising into the sky will simply see you finding dead-end after dead-end. In the latter case, for example, a mission underground will simply lead you to the point on the surface above the mission start. Finding your way down below will mean finding an entrance which might be a mile away, with no sign of how to get there unless you turn on the aids in the menu.

There’s a halfway house in the form of ‘classic’ Runner Vision, which only highlights objects for use along your route without that wispy line, but that’s not what I want. Instead I want objective markers along my route that give me something closer to aim for while still maintaining the challenge of how to get there.

I settled for the uneasy compromise of turning the mode on and off manually at frequent points throughout the game. It’s just one of the ways in which Catalyst seems like a game of uneasy compromises.

For another: combat is back. The most maligned part of the first game was its harassing enemies and weak gunplay. This time things have been retooled so you can no longer pick up weapons, and instead have a set of melee attacks which work best when you maintain momentum. I never wanted a Mirror’s Edge game without any combat at all and there are moments when the new system works well, when you leap off a building a knock out an enemy in a single pounce, or best of all sprint through a crowd of shooting enforcers unharmed because maintaining momentum gifts you invincibility.

The rest of the time combat is as big a pain as it ever was. You can combine strong and light attacks, exploit moments in which your opponent is stunned, bump them into one another, bounce off the environment for stronger hits, and knock people over ledges, but none of these things feels fun to do. Animations are slow and the game occasionally struggles to sync up different character movements, robbing you of strikes. The rest of the time, it cheats. Kick an enemy towards a railing and he’ll move slowly towards it then dramatically throw himself into it, like a stunt actor trying to sell a strike more than it was worth. Enemies cheat similarly in their attacks against you, with bullets sometimes coming out of their backs and high kicks auto-targeting towards you even as you strafe out of their way.

There’s also, as now seems traditional, an enemy type that’ll have you slamming your mouse against the desk in frustration. Here they’re called Enforcers and a single melee strike for them is enough to send Faith rolling backwards, often giving them enough time to ready another strike just as you get up again. Thankfully they have the turning circle of a large family car, and I seemed to bamboozle them in one instance by simply pressing ‘D’ slowly crab-walking around them till they gave up chasing.

Combat is just one of the ways in which the game is as bad as the first. The story and characters still seem to be inspired mainly by crappy television shows on The CW, from its blandly attractive cast to its thumpingly predictable plot twists. I’d struggle to describe Faith’s character to you beyond her climbing shoes. Everyone’s dialogue seems to be constantly set to gripe, meaning emotional beats fall flat because you’ve been given no chance to bond with characters or to believe that they’ve bonded with one another.

It even commits a few cardinal sins, including every variation on bad checkpointing: it places them before short cutscenes in a few instances, too far apart in another complicated combat-and-climbing section, and then at other times loads you right back to the edge you fell off even though that might leave you in the direct firing line of multiple turrets with no momentum to escape. Throw in the disappointing habit of moving to third-person not just for cutscenes but for enemy introductions and heavy-handed tutorialising and even the aesthetic purity of the original seems diluted. All of which, the second time around, makes me less want to champion Catalyst for the next eight years.

Yet I do still hope it gets another sequel.

Catalyst occasionally infuriated me, and at other times simply passed me by in a blur, but on the whole I enjoyed my time with it. The movement is still wonderful. The world is still beautiful. There’s still nothing else quite like it. It’s better than the first game in most ways and there are still umpteen ideas in here crying out for a better implementation. So I’ll end in the spirit of the game, with a refined version of what I said last time: Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is good and you should probably play it, but damn, it could have been superb.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is out now for Windows from Origin. This review is running when it is because EA did not give us review code.

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64 Comments

  1. Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

    This is a peculiarly uninformative review, given the standard of journalism on this site, especially yours Graham, whom I always love to read.

    How are the time trials (arguably the best feature of the original) implemented? What kind of variety is in the missions? I’ve seen mention of the grid nodes, what are they like? Is there any multiplayer implantation? What’s it like?

    • Graham Smith says:

      I think maybe we differ in the reasons why we like Mirror’s Edge! The time trials are my least favourite part.

      The time trials are delivered here in part via the delivery missions. Random NPCs or dead drops around the world that give you a package with a set time limit (normally less than two minutes) to deliver it. I tried to convey this in the review, but that they give you an extra excuse to be in the open world is good, but I didn’t enjoy them that much. But then, I don’t care for time trials.

      The only multiplayer implementation is that users are able to create their own time trials by doing a run and setting nodes along the way to create a path. Players can then find them in the open world and compete to beat your time. Again, I don’t much care for time trials and didn’t find this as interesting as, say, Hitman’s equivalent of user-created missions.

      Beyond that, one character (called Birdman) gives you routes to run within time limits while another (called Plastic) gives you a set time to collect a certain number of dataNodes or whatever garbage name the game comes up for them. GridNodes are just screens you press ‘use’ on to hack them in order to unlock a safe house for fast travel.

      Hope that helps!

      • Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

        It does! Thanks Graham :)

      • jonfitt says:

        I’m glad that time trials are just side missions. I can’t stand time trials.

        • lhl says:

          My biggest disappointment is that basically, every single side mission is timed, most of them pretty brutally. You pretty much need perfect runs (w all skill upgrades) to be able to complete them. The grid nodes are a rare exception (being more puzzle focused) – I wish there were more like that and some more variations (maybe maximizing for style/types of move, or maintaining flow, or needing to hit certain waypoints).

        • qrter says:

          Those side missions even have their own individual little leaderboards, just to make them even less appealing!

      • XxBrentos9xX says:

        I must say, one of the reasons I love this site is because the authors are willing to interact with their readerbase. That’s something I don’t see very often, especially when both sides are communicating on a very rational, informative way.

        That being said, this is a bit disappointing, since I found the first game to be a bit bland. The environments was the sole reason I kept playing the game, because of how beautiful and organic it looked and felt. I never thought parkour would be interesting. But with the lack of abilities, or alternate paths, or any sort of interest in the story, I was hoping the second one would be better.

      • Giaddon says:

        Graham is letting his dislike of time trials get in the way of really highlighting one bit — users can create their own time trials. Including you! This transforms the open world from something you vacuum for collectibles and then finish with, to a source of continually evolving races and challenges. It’s really exciting and fun.

  2. lagiacrux says:

    the game improved 100% for me, after i turned off runner vision completly. im enjoying the time trials and delivery missions, just because you have to navigate through the city, and after some time, you “learn” the layout of it.

    i havent played too much of the game (just unlocked those “destory the tower” missions), but what i played of it i enjoyed.

    the game is pretty flawed though. i think the combat goes into the right direction, where you should keep up the flow, but almost all fights take place in an empty arena where you cant do anything but just stand there and use your combat moves. no way to combo your running with attacks or anything.

    the world feels awesome though, and after unlocking the moves you missed from the first game (why were they locked in the first place?) just running around the city is a joy, i didnt feel since i played the first assassins creed for the first time.

    • NYmasajista says:

      The combat is much more fun if you don’t just ‘stand there and use your combat moves.’ Run around whatever little area you are in and come at them with momentum to start combos. Slide kicks are useful and vault/jump/wallrun kicks are crushing.

      Take someone out and then circle around the room and pick off the next guy with a vault kick, couple of backfists to the face, side kick to the heart combo. Slide kicks and jump kicks are great for mixing up the low/hi attacks and keep them guessing and knocked out.

  3. ROMhack2 says:

    I’ve read three reviews now and none of them have mentioned the story in any depth. What’s the deal, is it really that rubbish?

    I was one of those people who liked the original’s. Very flawed and demanded I put it together to make sense of it. Twas like a puzzle in itself.

    • Graham Smith says:

      The story is just as awful as the first game’s, but it’s also paper-thin so easily ignored. I hated every part of it.

      • ROMhack2 says:

        That sucks. I thought they’d at least try to couple the setting with a passable story this time around.

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      Aitrus says:

      My two unsolicited cents – I didn’t mind the the first game’s story either. This one is fun, and had a twist I did not see coming (although I’m certain most people did/will, because in retrospect it seems incredibly obvious). The way things are left off between Faith and another character really has me wanting for a sequel to see how the story would continue with them.

      • Booker says:

        Well it’s EA so they are sure to come up with some DLC… Unless the game completely fails to sell or something.

        • April March says:

          An AAA publisher refusing to sell DLC? Unthinkable.
          If the game does well, people want more! Sell DLC!
          And if the game does poorly, we’ll need to recoup these costs. Tell players the DLC fixes everything!

    • Dave L. says:

      The story is pretty standard post-apocalyptic YA guff. It’s as serviceable as the first game’s, and does a better job setting up future installments, if EA doesn’t decide to give up on Mirror’s Edge altogether after this one.

  4. lglethal says:

    Are those really screenshots from the game? Apart from the first 2 (which look like cutscenes), the others look super bland! The old game looked 100x better!

    I hope its just bad screengrabs, I was really looking forward to spending time in another gorgeous aesthetically beautiful city, but that just looks well “blocky” (especially the last one). :(

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      Aitrus says:

      That second picture isn’t a cutscene, but if I recall correctly it’s pretty much the one area in the game (the intro) that doesn’t take place within the open world. I assume this is why they were able to put actual detail into the area.

    • Rizlar says:

      Yeah they really seem to have bollocksed up the art style of the original. This just looks so generically video games. Urf.

  5. Kala says:

    ” Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is good and you should probably play it, but damn, it could have been superb.”

    Aw…

  6. kud13 says:

    Cheers for the review, Graham. It feels like the game’s not really all that open then, if most routes are dead ends?

    I suppose at some point this year I’ll grab it, but for now it’ll join other Origin games to watch for. (Origin really needs a wishlist feature).

  7. Lord_Mordja says:

    How does the parkour compare to Dying Light’s, which I think is the current high watermark for first-person mantling?

    • Hobbes says:

      I’ve this nasty feeling Dying Light beats out Mirror’s Edge 2 on this front, and worse, Dying Light actually has passable gunplay and -good- combat, even if it is zombies (the most trite of trite).

      If you could take Dying Light, and replace the zombies with something more interesting, less frequent and more dangerous individually, you’d have a terrific game on your hands.

      Mirror’s edge 2 misses on nearly all of those counts, and it also misses on being Mirror’s edge, save for being Kuchera-bait.

      • qrter says:

        I adore the freerunning in Dying Light, and yep, it does squarely knock Mirror’s Edge 2 on the head.

        I find the running in ME2 to be quite stressful, having to remember which buttons to press, looking for the way forward. Dying Light is just plain easier in that respect, and it’s easier to get into a good flow.

        Plus, as Hobbes says, Dying Light has actually functioning combat.

  8. Neutrino says:

    Free-running

    otherwise known as…

    running.

    • ROMhack2 says:

      The irony of free-running is that it’s set in a quasi-totalitarian state where people may believe they’re free but really they’re not.

      Or maybe that’s the point. I haven’t decided.

  9. RaoulDuke says:

    I think this game should be more heavily criticised for the static NPC actors standing about on roofs waiting to hand out missions [all of which are essentially time trials I believe].

    Its so effing terrible and Dying Light didnt get a pass at the beginning of 2015, it was slammed for it.

    I watched the Giant Bomb QL, every time they were talking to someone I was like – “WHY ARE YOU ON THE ROOF OF A SKY SCRAPER” lol is the answer, well the guys restaurant was on the roof/its the future… so everyone lives… up high?

    TL;DR – The whole game just seems to be a linear, scripted square-peg game being smashed with a hammer until its fits into an open-world hexagonal hole.

    • DigitalSignalX says:

      Several NPC’s actually comment on the annoyance of having to stand on a roof to receive or send a parcel. They wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t repeat the same. exact. phrase. every time you run past them if you’re more interested in a story mission then their side quest.

    • qrter says:

      Even weirder is NPCs who just.. stand there, staring at you, saying nothing.

      Oh look, there’s a lady in full nighttime attire, standing up here in full daylight on top of a skyscraper.

  10. RaunakS says:

    Hmm, I like what I read, but you seemed to have skipped over the most important component of the Mirror’s Edge experience: the music! Is there anything as iconic as Still Alive in the game? How is the ambient music? How is the composition? Is Solar Fields still the God amongst humans that they were?

    link to youtube.com

    Also, I just want to say, how perfect is the name “Mirror’s Edge”? There’s a poetry in the words which is sadly missing from the vast majority of games (even great games).

    • Ex Lion Tamer says:

      Ha, this is exactly what I wanted to know. The Solar Fields score for the first was incredible, and I’m excited he’s back.

      But for those who’ve started playing (I didn’t seriously expect Graham to cover this in a WIT): HOW IS THE SCORE THIS TIME ?

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      Aitrus says:

      Great music, but no Still Alive moments.

      • RaunakS says:

        Aww that’s too bad. Mirror’s Edge honestly had one of the best OSTs in the history of gaming. I wish the prequel had come closer.

        • Dave L. says:

          They actually got CHVRCHES to do a (pretty great) song for it, but bafflingly chose not to put it over the end credits. The only place in the game you hear it is on the jukebox in the Runner lair, which makes it more of an easter egg than a theme.

          • RaunakS says:

            Huh, I have never heard of this band. Its a good song, albeit generic and too pop-y for my tastes. Still Alive was better, in my opinion.

    • Monggerel says:

      Whoa wait, all these years I thought Still Alive was like a joke meme about how terribly gauche video games are?

      Oh my.

      • Ex Lion Tamer says:

        Hmm, I could imagine seeing the vocal version of Still Alive as a kind of electronic Celine Dion (although that’s not how I feel). That’s one tiny piece of music at the beginning and end of the game, though – the actual score by Solar Fields is pretty remarkable, I think.

        Especially if you like electronic music, the way he would lay down a really cool ambient bed that escalated to driving techno as the gameplay in a given level picked up…of course, plenty of credit has to go to the sound designer team/programmers for building the triggers/transition that synched so well with the intensifying feel within each level. I mean, I think the score holds up extremely well on its own in OST form, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a listening experience that good in a game – or one that did more to enhance my enjoyment of a game and what I was doing in it.

      • Hyena Grin says:

        It should be pointed out that Still Alive was the themesong for the first Mirror’s Edge game, and should not be mistaken for Still Alive, the cute little credits song from Portal.

    • lhl says:

      Until the OST comes out, here’s a full game rip of the music: link to youtube.com

      (Score is great, has some just fantastic floaty bits that are super Mirror’s Edgey; while I’m a fan of the CHVRCHES, I still like Still Alive track a lot better…)

  11. Laurentius says:

    This sounds really like first Mirror’s Edge which I am now replaying. It’s getting better with each extra playthrough because you learn yourself how to cope with infuriating moments better and you are prepered for them so it is easier to ignore them and minimize their impact on oeverall experience. Also combat is not needed in ME in my opinion. I really think that racing games proves that chaising someone or even a time (ME Time Trialas !!) is good enough incentive for player to keep on runing, instead of gimmicky “being swarmed by SWATS -run !” etc.

    PS. Also Graham, did you read RPS WIT of ME, Alec blasted that game to bits, from that time I rememeber only PoP (2008) receiving harsher treatment. So comparing on site reviews this one do sound like massive step up. Just sayin’.

    • ROMhack2 says:

      This sounds really like first Mirror’s Edge which I am now replaying. It’s getting better with each extra playthrough because you learn yourself how to cope with infuriating moments better and you are prepered for them so it is easier to ignore them and minimize their impact on oeverall experience.

      That’s true, the first time I played it left me thinking it was a god-awful trial and error fest. I then realised it’d left an indelible impression on me and subsequent playthroughs felt far better because I knew what to do.

      For lack of a better word, there’s a certain fluidity. At its peak it’s like a piece of fantastic film editing, only you have control, which makes it better.

      Hotline Miami left a similar impression.

    • Urthman says:

      Going back to the original Mirror’s Edge, I think the ideal way to play it is to do all the time trials, get a medal in each of them, and then fly through the campaign like a goddess.

  12. Jason Moyer says:

    It’s a good game, but it doesn’t reach the level of the first one. Too much forced combat (and I mean literally forced – there are objectives you can’t complete and routes you can’t access until everyone is dead/unconscious), severe gaminess (remember all of the floating icons in Mirror’s Edge? Me neither), and the story is significantly worse. I’m not talking quality of writing; I’m referring to the lack of any forward momentum. In the first game it was clear what you were doing and why whereas I’m probably 2/3-ish through the new one and still don’t really know what Faith’s motivations are.

    Running through the open world is fun and most of the mission areas are great, particularly the “climb through a tower avoiding laser beams” stuff. The timed activities that are scattered around are also quite good and the part of the game that most closely resembles the original, imo.

  13. anHorse says:

    Anyone seen mention of how long it is?

    I know length isn’t the most important thing but it matters to me with open world games

  14. Eclipse says:

    FUCK. I actually liked being able to pick up weapons in the first game, it was an option… people complained so loud about that than now you don’t even have to choose, well done

    • Jason Moyer says:

      If Thief had come out 5 or 10 years later, people would have complained about how clumsy the combat was.

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    alison says:

    Damn. I was really hoping for a glowing review, or at least one positive enough to coax me out of my walled garden. I’m sure I’ll pick this up at some point because I really love the idea of first-person parkour – only Lemma has come close to recreating the joy of the original game for me, and that had its own flaws – but I was so hoping for this to hit it out of the park. It’s a shame it seems the developers have not really progressed the genre. I guess there’s little incentive when other developers still haven’t even reached the bar set by the first game. (Dear Eidos Montréal, please teach Adam Jensen how to climb over a chest-high crate, kthx.)

  16. kud13 says:

    I’m almost certain that DXMD has Thief-level mantling. You can see it in the recent gameplay vid

  17. haldolium says:

    “You can turn it off thankfully, but be prepared if you do to get hopelessly lost.”

    Every fucking “modern” game in a nutshell. No surprise for this one. AAA game makers are outsourcing every vital information into horrible “3D” interfaces for half a decade now. Every now and then they provide an “option” to turn it off, while not providing a proper ingame compensation.

    That is the sole reason, and sadly one of the most subtle on that no fucking 12yearold “gamer” ever gets, why those games become the fucking worst. And writing, of course.

    Fuck that shit. Fuck EA, Fuck Ubi, #nosale, /endrant

    (and by the fucking way: even The Witcher 3 is designed that way sadly)

  18. DanMan says:

    This should have been a 3rd person view game. The 1st person perspective does nothing for me. It’s just a cop out so they don’t have to animate the protagonist.

    Oh, and keep the torches to yourself. Thank you.

    • Don Reba says:

      You are making the leap from “1st-person perspective does not work for me” to “therefore there is no valid reason to use it.” It works for many others, you know.

      • DanMan says:

        Hence the “for me” part, you know? I don’t claim to hold the absolute truth.

        • Don Reba says:

          But you do disregard the game’s target audience when you say “it’s just a cop out.” Having an opinion is fine, but to analyze the company’s decisions you need to look beyond it.

    • UncleLou says:

      It might not work for you, but it certainly isn’t a “cop out”.

      I find it absolutely essential. It would be a completely different game in 3rd person, and completely lost its zen-gaming qualities.

  19. Furiant says:

    I don’t pretend to know what makes a game objectively good or bad, but I do know that the reason I didn’t finish the original ME was due to the fact that it had combat at all. I hated it. I just wanted to run and be rewarded for running. I was really hoping against all odds that they’d have a no-combat mode, or allow for no-combat solutions. Hearing that it’s just as forced as the original is a huge let down for me. I won’t be buying this.

    • Jason Moyer says:

      In the original there was only one time you had to fight someone (the hand to hand fight with the masked character). It was sometimes difficult to avoid combat but it was entirely doable and the only way to get good stage times. In the new one there are objectives that are actually impossible to complete without engaging in combat, which is crazy.

  20. Hyena Grin says:

    I really wanted Catalyst to be good enough (or at least long enough) to warrant the full price. Unfortunately, 10-11 hours of story and too many mediocre parts means I’ll probably get it, but definitely on sale. =(

  21. bill says:

    Grr. I knew this was gonna happen.

    Mirror’s Edge was 65% awesome and then had 35% pants jammed in, which almost managed to make it not amazing.

    The hope for a sequel was always that they’d take out the 35% that was pants.
    The combat they could just strip out entirely, but it was clear from the first ME2 trailer that they weren’t going to do that.
    The story they should have fixed. Despite having no decent writing or character development, faith is still a cool character, and the setting is still awesome… so why is it so hard to make a decent story and writing?

    Time trials and open world sound good… though when I asked for open world, what I really meant was having several hub levels that could be traversed in different routes and had metroidvania ways to open up new faster routes…. because a true open world creates navigation problems in a game like this.

    Sigh.

    • bill says:

      But maybe the most annoying thing is that they seem to have spent 9 years and lots of thought and effort to basically recreate the well-known flaws of the first game.