Bravery in game design is when someone makes a tennis video game and doesn’t let you control where the tennis players run. Bravery in game design is when you turn a series about a Bear that jumps into an ambitious game of LEGOs.
Bravery is when, in 2002, Nintendo expects gamers who loved the side-scrolling 2D science fiction adventures of the Metroid games to love the series’ transformation into a first-person shooter. (Many did.) And bravery is when, three Metroid first-person games later, a group of Nintendo and non-Nintendo developers decide that the next logical step is the most unusual new installment in a major franchise since Prime – a game that is as daring as most sequels are safe – the Wii’s Metroid: Other M.
Samus Aran is back in a game that is, at various minutes and seconds, third-person, first-person, side-scrolling, not side-scrolling, combat-centric, exploration-based, crowded with story, as quiet as the older Metroids, beautifully minimalist in controls, awkward to handle and somehow better-looking than many games released on more powerful consoles. This game is a sequel to the Super Nintendo’s Super Metroid and in many ways a stock Metroid adventure that focuses on the player using Samus to explore room after room of a space station, discovering new abilities and backtracking to use those new abilities to reach new areas and fight new bad guys. In significant ways, though, this game is an experiment and, well, let’s see how it worked out…
Samus Aran, Cooler Than Ever*: How can anyone dislike Samus Aran, who enters Metroid: Other M with the advantages of having a cool, iconic set of armour, a great rogues gallery of monsters aliens who sneak their way into most of her games and, of course, the can’t-miss great ability to roll around as a bomb-dropping ball. Samus is an even better hero to control in Other M as she has been armed with an impressive array of close-quarters combat moves she can use against her enemies – and she stars in some stunning action-packed cut-scenes. She also has, of course, an arsenal of cool moves, most of them returning from classic Metroid games, that she will gain over time (following the worst excuse in Metroid history for not having all of her arsenal from the get-go: She verbally agreed not to use anything other than lasers and bombs until another character in the game says she can, one approval at a time!)
Mystifyingly Good-Looking: Why does a game running on my Wii look better than some of the games that run on my PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360? Other M tops the Mario Galaxies as the best-looking game on Nintendo’s practically retro-tech home console. The abundant cinema-quality pre-rendered cutscenes in the game are one thing, but even the in-game action is to gawk at, richly detailed, beautifully lit and a credit to the game’s designers at Nintendo and project partner Team Ninja. Some of Samus’ fellow human characters look simplistic, but aliens monsters – beasts that have no uncanny valley to span – look terrific, as does the architecture of the Bottle Ship through which she spends the whole game exploring.
Samus’ Non-Annoying Friends: Metroid: Other M begins with Samus responding to a distress call from a space station called the Bottle Ship. When she flies to the station, she encounters a group of government troops led by her former military commander, Adam Malkovich. The game’s first hour, which gives a poor and misleading impression of the game in various ways, implies that the game is going to be a chatty, team-based affair. Worse, it seems like it will be an over-narrated team-based affair that replaces the series’ winning scheme of lonely exploration and combat with a lot of jawing with and reminiscing about a cast of stock military cliches in armour. Thankfully, that’s not really how this goes down. The supporting cast fades and winds up reappearing only too infrequently. The rare moments when Samus gets to fight with another soldier at her side are tantalising hints of what a team-based Metroid game could be like. I finished the game wanting, I’m surprised to say, more of that.
Way Ahead Of Its Time: Let’s check back in in five years, but I got the sense while playing Other M that I was playing a game from a future. Specifically, this is a future when game designers don’t stick with one or two styles of presentation (“This is a third-person fixed camera game” “This is a first-person game”). Metroid: Other M has been constructed as if it was a movie made by a filmmakers bold enough to use all of the different types of cinematic shots needed to best express his or her story and themes. In action, Prime is mostly viewed as a third-person game, with the camera placed in a fixed overhead or sideline position, the better to let you run Samus around a room and shoot enemies. But at any time the player can activate a first-person mode that locks Samus in place but permits more precise targeting and looking (if you’re trying to find a hidden passageway, for example). But, sometimes, the game tightens into a behind-the-back Resident Evil 4-style camera, mostly for moments that are more talky and story-driven. At other times it forces the player into a first-person perspective and won’t let them out until a condition is met. And at other times, the game is a non-interactive cutscene. The various camera styles blend together marvellously, improving on experiments seen in the spring’s God of War III, which also borrowed perspectives from other genres. This is Other M’s best accomplishment.
Surprising Combat System: One thing was always a bit strange about Samus Aran. She explores lonely planets, looking for missile upgrades, ice beams and grappling hooks, reads the runes on ancient architecture, and then… blasts aliens with as much care about nature as a bulldozer in an Amazon rain forest. That element of her character is tweaked in this new game due to the primary element of combat: It favours defensive dodging and counter-attacking. You play the game with just a Wii Remote, holding it horizontally, D-pad for movement, and the 1 and 2 buttons for jumping, shooting and rolling. The dodge move proves to be most important, as it allows you to do immediate high-powered counters. The simple button scheme also enables lots of cool close-quarters combat moves, though the system for jumping on enemy heads and shooting them fatally is odd and feels imprecise. Pointing the Wii Remote at the screen enables first-person mode, which is the only mode from which Samus can shoot missiles. This introduces an interesting tension between fast aim-assisted third-person combat and feet-locked first-person power-shooting. The switching to first-person can be disorienting to control at first, but it proves to work well, with one caveat explained lower in this review.
Sub-Prime Exploration: As beautiful as the rooms in the Bottle Ship are to look at – and they are gorgeous, spanning jungle, fire, ice and other environments – the architecture within them that is integrated into puzzles is less interesting than in the Metroid Prime games. Those Prime games, made by Nintendo’s Retro Studios, had room after room of clever morph ball puzzles and interesting gymnastic challenges for Samus. Other M has some of that, but less of that. What it does have is good enough to love, because it reminds the gamer of classic Metroid play, but it is less abundant than in recent franchise adventures.
Welcome Assists: Other M checkpoints the player when they die, not always sending them back to a save point, and it frees you from having to collect energy and missile drops, by letting you recharge on the spot, if you hold your Wii Remote vertically and hold a button. The trade-off on the recharge is that it takes time, can be interrupted by enemy attacks and only refills energy if you are near death. The systems are smart and welcome.
Stubborn Remote-Only Controls: The designers of Other M have said publicly that they were determined to make a Metroid game that could be played only with a Wii Remote. Why? Because they feared more complex controllers turn people off? This is already a game for people willing to take a plunge; it’s hard to imagine that the addition of a Nunchuk would have scared them off. Because the game is Remote-only, players will learn how unwise it is to control a Resident Evil 4-style perspective with a d-pad and how annoying it is to, in the heat of battle, point the Remote out toward the TV to go into first-person mode, only to have the Wii fail to realise you did this because you are pointing a little off the TV screen. Remote-only would have been fine as a default, but the game would have controlled better, and elicited less frustration, if it supported a second control scheme for those of us who prefer to do things like control movement in three dimensions with an analogue stick.
Sappy And Conspiratorial: I had mistaken Nintendo’s long-standing disinterest in making story-heavy, cutscene-heavy games with a tacit dismissal of the kinds of stories those types of games tell. I was wrong. Under the direction of long-time Metroid designer Yoshio Sakamoto, Nintendo unfortunately felt the need to tell a story that explores those tired themes of protagonist immaturity, weapons of mass destruction, and possible government conspiracy that have been strip-mined by the makers of Metal Gear and Resident Evil. Thankfully, the cut-scenes involving these themes are mostly placed near the beginning and end of the game.
I was sceptical of Other M. I thought it would not just be inferior to the wonderful Metroid Prime games but to earlier Metroid side-scrollers. I still can’t say that it is better than most of them, but it is nonetheless a very good game. It is exciting to play and terrific to look at. It is a master-class in mixing gameplay genres, even though it is hobbled by a bad decision regarding its controls. Anyone with an appetite for classic Metroid combat and exploration will be satisfied with Other M. Those who wish to think of Samus as a grown-up without daddy issues may not be. Still, this is a fabulous Wii game that shows how thrilling it can be when sequel creators choose not to design it safe. This is a brave game, one that players would benefit from experiencing.
Metroid Other M was developed by Nintendo and Team Ninja and published by Nintendo for the Wii on August 31. Retails for $US49.99. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the campaign in about 10 hours, found 58% of items and warn all players of the following: Do not turn the game off when the credits are rolling. You will miss something significant..
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