Monday, September 27, 2010

Review: Metroid Prime 2: Echoes (Gamecube)

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes was released in 2004 and is the sequel to the 2002 game Metroid Prime. The game follows directly into its predecessors footsteps, telling another tale in the Metroid Prime triology.

The game takes place on the planet Aether, just like in the first game, a Phazon poisoned asteroid has crashed on the planet, devastating it and this time splitting the planet into two phases, a dark world and the regular light world. Samus Aran arrives at the planet after a emmergency call from a Galactic Federation trooper squad. Once she enters the atmosphere, her ship is hit by lightning and she crashlands. While exploring she encounters Dark Samus, a mutated Phazon copy of herself and follows her into the dark world. In the dark world she is attacked by creatures and robbed of all her power-ups, she barely makes it back to the light world. She soon finds out that the troopers are all dead and that the planet is overrun by creatures called the Ign, violent creatures living in the dark world. A Luminoth, a member of the native inhabitants of the planet, that Samus then meets later on explains her the situation and gives her the task to collect the planets energy from three energy collectors in the dark world and bringing it back to the normal world.

The core gameplay follows the same structure of the first Metroid Prime, focusing on exploration and item collection. The world structure however is more organized then in the first one. The Luminoth that gives you the tasks is located in a central temple from which three elevators branch of which in turn bring you to the three main sections of the world, Torus Bog, Argon Wastes and the Sanctuary Fortress. The whole world exists in a light and dark phase and portals that are scattered around the map allow you to travel between them. In each section of the dark world you have to collect three keys which will open up access to the dark template, which holds the energy you have to collect and bring back to that sections energy collector in the light world. Once you have collected completed all the three main sections of the game, you are required to collect nine keys that will unlock the last level, the Sky Temple, and bring you to the final boss fight. These nine keys are scattered through the regions you already explored and their location hinted at by a few Luminoth logs you scanned as well as some info that the living Luminoth provides.

Your path is regularly blocked by obstacles that require a specific power-up to overcome, power-ups include the regular Metroid items such as morphball, bombs, spiderball and missiles, as well as a few new abilities such as a light beam, a dark beam and an annihilation beam. You also gain the ability to shoot multiple missiles at once per lock on. New visor modes are present as well, including a dark visor and an echo visor. The dark visor serves a similar purpose to the x-ray visor in the first game, showing you invisible objects and hidden triggers, while the echo beam shows you sound waves and is mainly used to unlock specific doors, somewhat similar to the thermal visor in the previous game. One new ability in this game, taken from the 2D Metroid games, is the screw attack, it is triggered automatically when you triple jump and shows you from a third person perspective. It allows you to jump over very large jump gaps as well as to perform a wall jump. It however is only obtained very late in the game, only useful in a few specific spots and allows you very little control. Compared to the previous game, Echoes features a much more interconnected world, where you often have many possible routes to reach a target, in the first Metroid Prime on the other side you would often be forced to backtrack through the exact same path.

The graphics of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes look overall very much the same as the first game. All visor effects are still present and the world is still separated into rather small rooms. The graphics here however are a bit more detailed and the textures look a little sharper. Where it diverts however is in the locations, while Metroid Prime featured lush natural environments, including ice, lava and jungle themes, Echoes mostly features just an rather monotone industrial gray wasteland. Only the Sanctuary Fortress section of the game diverts a bit form that, featuring a high tech, almost Tron like, look, but even here it is mostly just gray, with very little color. In a few places Echoes tries to break free from the closed room structure, presenting open rooms with a sky or a horizon in the distance, but those backgrounds are very low resolution and while providing a nice addition, fail to really make the world feel like a larger place.

The enemies in this game also follow directly into Metroid Primes footsteps. While all the enemies feature a new look, many of them are clearly derived from enemies in the previous games, just with a few tweaks in behavior and a look that fits the new setting. The only real exception are probably the Ing creatures, which come in multiple forms and can basically liquefy themselves and then crawling along the rooms walls. Space pirates, while still present in this game, have a rather minor role and basically are just a third party, most focus is given to the Ing.

The gameplay in the dark world differs quite a bit from the light world. Not only is the dark world filled with Ing, but your health constantly drains while you are there. To solve this issue the Luminoth places crystals in there that create bubbles of light. In those bubbles not only does the energy drain stop, they also replenish your health, but only slowly. Some of these bubbles are only temporary and have to be activated by shooting against the crystal, which can also be used against some enemies, as many of them will take damage when coming in contact with those bubbles of light. A few hours into the game a suit upgrade will lower the energy drain a good bit, so this game mechanic loses a bit of its impact, but it basically stays to be part of the game till the end.

The scanning of objects is present in Echoes as well, providing you with enemy tactics and backstory of the world. In Echoes scanable objects are highlighted as a whole, instead of just with a small icon, making them much easier to spot and much easier to keep track of. The user interface for reading the scanned logs however still has the same issues as before, namely featuring a far to small text area to make reading comfortable. The game also switched to a rather unusual menu design, where you rotate the menu items around a sphere, allowing you to click the one that is in the front. While it looks pretty, it serves very little purpose and makes navigation of the menus substantially harder, as menu items often overlap and are thus hard to read. Menu items also lose any sense of order this way, making it tricky to read the scanned logs in the right order. One nice feature of the game however is that you can now view all enemies in a fullscreen 3D viewer, in the previous game that ability was limited to Samus alone.

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes also uses a good bit more cutscenes to tell its story then Metroid Prime did. While the story is still mostly told via the scanning an the logs, a few short cutscenes, such as a flashback to the troopers getting attack or encounters with Dark Samus, somewhat reminiscence to the SA-X encounters in Metroid Fusion, provide a welcome addition. The task giving Luminoth also has a proper dialog with Samus this time around. Samus herself however stays silent and the Luminoths speech is only represented by text dialog, not voice acting.

Savepoints in Echoes feel more fairly placed then in the first game, I didn't encounter many situation where there wasn't a savepoint near by and most boss fights also had a close savepoint. Checkpoints are however still missing, so the savepoints are your only reset points. There where however two exceptions to the overall well placed savepoints, one was in Torus Bog, where your checkpoint is rendered unreachable, by unlocking the mechanism that opens the path to the boss, requiring a little round trip through the level each time you die at the boss for no good reason. Another case is when you fight the Spiderball Guardian, there you have to visit the temple and learn a new ability before you can fight the boss, with no savepoint between and the path back to an older savepoint blocked. While both of these cases are rather horrible level design, neither of which is an actual challenge to the player, they just waste a bit of your time.

Overall I enjoyed Metroid Prime 2: Echoes a good bit more then the first Metroid Prime game. While the locations are overall more boring due to their constant grayish look, the dark world with its light bubbles provides a great game mechanic, constantly having you to run or jump to the next bubble and providing you with a sense of urgency. The heavily interconnected world of Echoes also makes travel a good bit more pleasant, as you no longer have to always travel through the exact same pathways. While the story still isn't great or even good by any stretch of imagination, it at least provides basic video game plausibility, something the first game failed rather miserably at. Echoes is also much less focused on combat and more focused on puzzles then the first one. Backtracking through old location is only rarely interrupted by a pirated encounter and you can walk past most enemies without to much trouble, this is quite different then in the first game, where you where constantly interrupted by annoying Chozo ghost or pirate encounters, that served no other reason then to annoy you. The bigger pirates encounters that Echoes has, are scripted events, that don't repeat each time you reenter the room.

I also had to rely a lot less on the hints for the next item that the game provides you with, most of the time you can figure out where you have to go without to much trouble. The only part where this got a bit annoying was with the search for the Sky Temple keys, here you have to read through you logs and then find rooms that match the given description. This isn't hard, as it is just a matter of finding a room name that matches the given one, but due to the slow and uncomfortable menu navigation in the logbook, it becomes chore switching from the map to the logbook and back. I had to resort to pen&paper and just write all the hints down, to bypass the slow menu. Another issue with those hints is, that the game doesn't really introduce you to that mechanic, it is just this one point near the end where looking at the logbook becomes important for the core gameplay, for all the rest of the game, the logbook just provides backstory that isn't really needed for the game itself. The game also has a few weird spots where you are required to interrupt your key search and backtrack over half the map to obtain a new power-up, these could have been much better integrated without the backtracking, but at least the map hints made those things obvious.

So while Metroid Prime 2: Echoes won't win a price for originality, taking most of its mechanics and even enemies, with only small changes, form the first game, it does improve in many key areas, leading to an overall much more enjoyable and less frustrating experience. It is not a perfect game by any means, for that the story is just to uninteresting and the combat still to much an annoyance instead of being something that engages, but the puzzles and exploration can be quite fun at times.

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