Sunday, September 26, 2010

Game: Metroid Other M

I've held off on reviewing Metroid, which I finished a couple weeks ago, mostly because I'm afraid it will sound too negative. Not being a huge fan of the franchise or, more importantly, someone who has actually played the previous games, I might be "missing something" that makes the game better than I felt it was. Objectively, though, as a fan of good action games, I can judge it just fine. My only hope is that I can offer something that isn't repeated ad nauseum in pretty much every other review on the Internet.

What you won't find here is a comparison to Metroid Prime Trilogy, which I haven't played, or Super Metroid, which many hold up as the best Metroid game and which takes place in the canon immediately prior to Other M. I know a bit about the main character, Samus, and what's to be expected of her, but it won't color too much of the review because frankly, I haven't seen it.

As stated, Other M takes place right after the end of Super Metroid. Samus is traveling through space (as bounty hunters are wont to do) when she picks up a distress signal from a research vessel called the Bottle Ship. Upon arrival, she is greeted by a team sent in by the Galactic Federation...and little else. The ship is a ghost town, with Samus and her military cohorts left to figure out what happened, and why. There is really very little else that can be explained without giving plot points away, except to say that over the course of the game, the player (as Samus) fights all manner of bizarre creatures through varied environments, which are products - maybe? - of holographic projections.

The thing every player of Other M will notice right away, and that which has raised the biggest stink, is the control scheme. To date, it's a fair statement that no real explanation has been given for why Team Ninja decided to go this way; lots of conjecture exists, but nothing really makes sense, because it's just kind of dumb. Instead of taking advantage of the Wii's formerly unique setup of an analog stick and the Wiimote, the developers instead decided that the first brand new current generation Metroid game should be played as close as possible to the 8-bit version. The Wiimote is held sideways, using the D-pad for movement control, the 1 button to jump and the 2 button to fire. As third-person action games go, the controls here are about as completely useless as they appear to be. Because of this decision, to fire at something - which brings with it a handy auto-lock on - Samus must be facing that direction. Want to shoot behind you? Turn around and fire that way. The end result, in actual game play, is constantly shifting direction and spamming the fire button until everything is dead. Luckily, Samus has a nifty dodge move that activates if she moves, in any direction, just prior to being hit and/or shot. Unluckily, this auto dodge sometimes just puts her in the path of the next hit.

To fire missles, the Wiimote must be pointed at the screen. The view then changes to first-person. Holding down B gives the player freedom to look around in this view, while A fires missles after a suitable charge up period. Various enemies and obstacles must be defeated in this manner, and the results are...mixed. I found myself over time adjusting my grip on the remote to more quickly swing it toward the screen when necessary. However, the remote's sensitivity being what it is, it works best when the player has time to form a plan of attack. In a few spots, precision is almost a requirement, and the Wii remote isn't always a capable ally. The short version of the controls is this - you get used to it, but you never really like it.

First-person mode is also used a few times during the game in, for lack of a better word, detective moments. The player is given a fixed view and must use the remote to identify some minute detail hidden in the scene. The rub is that even if the player finds the right spot, the cursor must stay over the spot for a couple seconds to have it activate, lest one pass right over it. In an early scene like this, I was literally swinging over every pixel on screen trying to figure out what I should be identifying, before stumbling upon it on accident. I don't know what this concept brought to the game other than frustration and a complete standstill as far as pacing.

Speaking of pacing, in still other areas, Samus inexplicably lowers her weapon, and the view switches to a much closer over the shoulder angle - and Samus walks. Yes, for entirely inappropriate periods of time, the player has to simply walk from one area to the next, without having the ability to do anything else. This usually leads to a cut scene, which begs the question - why not just skip it altogether, or put it in the video? Walking around at super slow speed is not fun.

Being a Metroid game, one of course expects a certain level of "Metroidvania" throughout - that is, the ability to go back to older areas that were previously inaccessible once one has found the appropriate weapon with which to gain access. There are two problems with this concept here - one is the bizarre and nonsensical implementation of why it works out this way, and the other is that it just doesn't accomplish anything. The story is that the commanding officer of the GF force has forbidden Samus to use basically anything other than her normal beam until he gives her the OK. Now, his rationale mostly applies to her power bomb, which could kill everyone (which, of course, it doesn't when the player can finally use it), but it invariably applies to everything - including her ability to prevent heat damage, which is activated after crossing through a giant lake of lava. There has simply got to be a better story idea for why Samus can't use her goodies at the beginning of the game.

So, fine, one can eventually use it all - grapple beam, power bomb, super missle. Guess what? There's not much point. The only thing the player unlocks by finding 100% of the items is Hard Mode. There is no way I want to play through that mess again on a higher difficulty level, and that's my only reward for finding everything? Wow. Did Team Ninja play test this themselves, or take the QA group's word for it?

Lest we forget, Other M's big addition to the franchise is a massive back-story involving Samus' early military career, childish predilections for giving a thumbs down to her commanding officer, and vague emotional connections to the rest of the GF group she meets. I give credit to the team for trying to establish some emotional connection here, but they fail. When one of the team members was thrown off a platform to a fiery doom, I really didn't care. I just wanted to get on with the game. The cut scenes try to imbue Samus with a personality, but the mistake appears to be in that nobody wants her to have one. It's more fun inventing one while playing, and now Team Ninja has robbed players of that.

The strange thing is that the game is better than a sum of its parts, which admittedly sound pretty lousy. I played through to completion, dying countless times, only to find the as-stated total lack of an interesting reward for finding everything hidden. I really wanted to like it, and perhaps that's why I kept playing. By the end of the game, Samus is pretty much a bad ass, and it eases the pain a bit. But I had no desire to play through again. As an action game, it's disappointing. As a Metroid game, I can only imagine it's the same, but to a larger degree.

But hey! You can watch Theater Mode, which is the cut scenes strung together with pre-packaged game play video bridging the gaps. And you don't need 100% for that.