This is the last week I go Steam new release diving, I promise.
I mean I’m sure there’s a ton of gold in there somewhere but the process for discovering new titles that are worth playing couldn’t be worse. Valve has made something of an attempt with their discovery queues but they rarely recommend anything new and I’ve yet to hear of a viable alternative (and no, I’m not going to try and put something like that into Completionist, that idea died when Valve killed the data I relied on). So it’s up to us, dear gamers, to churn through the hundreds of games released every week to try and hone in on something that might take our fancy. This week it’s The Free Ones and whilst I’m not about to throw it under the same bus as Elementium or NUMERIC it’s certainly not going to make any must play list anytime soon.
The Free Ones puts you in control of Theo, a captive who’s been working as a slave in the mines for most of his adult life. One day however a mysterious glove finds its way to him, accompanied by a note telling him that they can make him free. Soon after he comes across a group of escaped slaves, living on a nearby island away from the watchful eye of their captors. There he learns of their plan for escape and agrees to help them. What follows is a tale of his journey to regain his freedom and grant it to those who’ve known nothing but slavery their entire lives.
Graphically The Free Ones isn’t anything to write home about, being about a generation and a half behind the trend. The environments are definitely not made to be explored in detail and that’s by design, you’re meant to swing on through as fast as possible in order to get to the next section. This wouldn’t be an issue if there was a little more love given to the parts that you can’t blow past, like the cut scenes or some of the slower sections. It’s at this point that it becomes painfully clear just how basic most of the assets and other elements are which in this day and age is a big detractor from the overall experience. Couple that with extensive asset reuse and you’ve got a relatively bland, repetitive visual experience. Considering that it was only in development for 1 year and 8 months I can see why better visuals took a back burner to other things.
The one sentence overview of The Free One’s core mechanics is that it’s a momentum based 3D platformer akin to similar games like A Story About My Uncle or Valley. The main part is the grapple hook, allowing you to latch onto wooden objects in the environment and pull yourself towards them. This allows you to build up some momentum and fling yourself across the map. The challenge starts to build up as the things you’re able to grapple to start moving, forcing you to figure out how best to latch onto them in order to gain the greatest momentum. There’s also numerous challenges based on threading the needle through various tight spaces which aren’t particularly forgiving if you don’t hit the mark. There’s also a bunch of collectibles to get, ones that are only collected if you land back on solid ground, something which will provide an extra layer of challenge to those seeking it. Achievement hunters will also love the no death and time limited runs but I personally didn’t find them compelling. At a mechanical level I think The Free Ones is implemented well but it’s not the kind of challenge I’d typically seek out for myself.
For me the game excels in the large, open environments where you’re able to fly past large areas in a single go. It’s a pretty great feeling when you get on a roll and manage to clear a section or two without stopping, even if there is a couple desperate moments where you’re searching for the next thing to latch onto. The tighter, closed in environments are much less satisfying mostly because there’s usually a lot more that can go wrong, requiring a lot more attempts to clear a section which can be a little frustrating. This is made worse by the fact that the hit detection in the game isn’t as polished as I’d like, leading to a lot of furious clicking as I plummeted down to my death.
Indeed this lack of polish is present through all of the game and it becomes painfully apparent in the late stages of the game. There were numerous times when I fell through the world or got out of bounds, sometimes triggering a respawn and sometimes others requiring a checkpoint restart. There’s also a lot of sections where you can end up in places that the developers didn’t intend you to be, like on some of the levels with trains and the islands that surround them. If you manage to get on one of them accidentally you can walk around it but it’s pretty clear that the developers didn’t intend anyone to be on them. Similarly latching onto train tracks is a real hit and miss affair as there were times when it made the “clang” noise indicating I’d latched on while I fell back down to my death. Of course this is the product of only 2 full time devs so this lack of polish is somewhat expected and it’s not something a couple more months in dev would’ve fixed.
Unfortunately the story can’t make up for the game’s faults as it’s rudimentary, predictable and oddly paced. It’s pretty standard in terms of your motivation (I need to get out of here to get back to my real life) and follows the well trodden story path along that. The pacing is odd in that the characters go through wild swings of emotional development over what appears to be a couple days. If they’d broken the sections up a bit more and given it time to develop it’d be a bit more believable but as it stands today it just doesn’t have enough investment for the emotional outcomes it presents.
As a standalone game The Free Ones isn’t anything to write home about, as it doesn’t really excel in any particular category. The so-so visuals wouldn’t be out of place a generation or two ago, even for games that came from similarly sized development teams. The core game play works well enough although the lack of polish is quite noticeable, especially towards the later sections of the game. Finally the story does nothing to tie this all together nor make up for the more egregious missteps that the game makes, instead serving as another reminder that the game is decidedly mediocre. Compared to what I’ve been playing recently it was definitely a step above but that’s not saying much. I’m sure fans of these kinds of games will find something to like here but in all honesty if you haven’t heard of The Free Ones you really don’t need to worry about missing out on it.
The Free Ones is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 3.2 hours with 44% of the achievements unlocked.
Mirror’s Edge came at a pivotal time in gaming history. The industry was leaping forward in ever greater strides with game budgets soaring and consumers ever more willing to shell out for the latest and greatest titles. However it was the time when the yearly game cycles began to take hold, the same titles regurgitated year after year and original IPs were few and far between. The Indie Renaissance was still some years away and so gamers were hungry for titles that were a break away from the norm. It wasn’t a breakout success however, generating good but not great reviews. Still the success it had led many to believe a sequel was inevitable but DICE was tight lipped on the franchise for a long time.
It wasn’t until 5 years later that we’d find out that Mirror’s Edge would be returning and it would still be another 3 after that before we’d be able to play it. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was initially envisioned as a prequel title however it’s current incarnation sees it as a reboot of the franchise. It’s a much broader scope game, expanding on the free running concept by dramatically increasing the area you’re able to move about in and adding in some additional mechanics to keep it interesting along the way. Whilst rebooting the franchise at this point makes some sense, not many will go back to play an 8 year old game, it does lay waste to the narrative that many fell in love with.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst retains that same stark white base and vivid colour scheme that was popularised by the original title. This is then amplified by the significant improvements in lighting and environmental effects that the current generation of consoles allows, highlighting the contrast even further. The environments are quite lacking in detail however with flat textures covering nearly every surface. It’s an aesthetic that does its best to get out of the way however it can be visually confusing at times (more on that a little later). Still there are many great screenshot worthy moments, some of which I’ve included here.
Catalyst retains the base characteristics that drew many of us to its predecessor: the free running through large, open environments with numerous obstacles in your way. Layered on top of this is the usual open-world smattering of side quests, collectables and hidden areas that can be unlocked for various bonuses and whatnot. There’s also a levelling system now, meaning some abilities are locked behind level gates and talent trees requiring you to do some additional work to unlock them. Gone for good though is the ability to use weapons something that was awkwardly implemented previously (some would say for good reason). At a structural level Mirror’s Edge Catalyst feels like a bolder, more ambitious version of what the original was but it’s difficult to say that a lot of these things are outright improvements.
The core mechanics are still solid so getting from point A to B, especially if you do it flawlessly, gives you that same exhilaration that its predecessor did. There were numerous times when I found myself gliding elegantly past all obstacles, enjoying the continuous momentum and slight wind noise in my ears. The additional mechanics open up the world a bit more, however since they’re gated to specific campaign missions it can be a bit of a let down to find out that you need them to get to a certain area. The much more open world does make it a bit more interesting, especially when you’re trying to run and hide, however the actual area you can explore is far smaller than the game would have you think. You can test this by simply trying to run in one direction and you’ll often find yourself hitting a wall in under a minute or two.
I don’t remember combat being particularly enjoyable in the original and Catalyst doesn’t do much to improve on the system. The addition of the focus meter, filled when you run and depleted as you get shot, encourage you to move around more than straight up fighting. However when it comes time to fight you’ll often find yourself with basically no where to go. So then you have to engage in the unfortunately awkward and repetitive combat, using specific moves to take down each of the different types of enemies. Until you unlock some of the higher finishing moves and extra damage bonuses this can take quite some time. In the original this tedium could be broken up a bit by snagging a weapon or two but without that option you’re unfortunately locked into the monotony of grapples, kicks and punches.
I’m sure open world fanatics will find a lot to love in the ample side missions and collectables that are strewn around Glass (the city in Catalyst) but for me they became an exercise in frustration. The time trails and courier missions can almost never be done in the first half dozen tries as any mistake costs you the valuable seconds you need to make it to the end. This means a 1 minute running mission will probably take you at least 10, especially if you don’t have all the upgrades that unlock the game’s various short cut routes. I’ll admit that some of this stems from my dislike of being shown things that I can’t get and having to go back to them later on, but I do feel like there’d be a better way to craft these kinds of missions to make them more attractive.
The stark colour scheme of the original Mirror’s Edge enabled the developers to use red as an indicator of where you should go. That’s still used in Catalyst, however the objects aren’t permanently red, they’re highlighted so by your “Runner’s Vision”. This works fine about 80% of the time however sometimes if you take a wrong turn, change your mind halfway climbing up something or even just randomly you’ll lose that highlighting completely. When you’re in the middle of escaping from something this usually means your death or it can mean many seconds of frustration as you rapidly click R3 to try and get it to come back. This is definitely one case where its predecessor did a far better job with visual cues and is my biggest gripe with Catalyst.
The story is very middle of the road, not terribly bad but so forgettable that 6 weeks on from playing it I’m struggling to come up with any memorable moments. Sure it provides the backdrop for some awesome things to happen (like the below screenshot) but it doesn’t do much more than that. I’m not pining for the previous story to make a return, there wasn’t much to write about home there either, however a stronger narrative could have made some of the more glaring issues fade into the background.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a moderately successful reboot of the classic title, broadening the scope of the game significantly whilst keeping much of the core in tact. The same stark colour scheme which has since been used in numerous other titles returns successfully, draped in current generation flair. The open world vision might not be entirely to my liking but the extra space to free roam is a welcome addition. The parkour mechanics remain solid, however the progression and combat systems are questionable additions. The story does little to tie everything together but at least does nothing to break it apart. Overall Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a good-but-not-great title, one that can be enjoyed and then lent out to other curious friends.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $89.99, $99.99 and $99.99 respectively. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with 12 hours of total game time and 46% of the achievements unlocked.