Monday, September 20, 2010

Review: Metroid Prime (Gamecube)

Metroid Prime was released back in 2002 for the Nintendo GameCube and marks the first try in moving the Metroid series from 2D beginnings into a more modern 3D game. Instead of going with a third person perspective, the first person perspective was choosen. The gameplay however doesn't follow modern first person shooter controls as established by Halo, but uses its own unique control scheme and gameplay style.

Movement in Metroid Prime follows classical Doom-like controls, where the left/right controls, turn you to the left or the right instead of letting you strafe into those directions. Strafing is accompilshed by holding down the L button. The second analog stick is also not used for looking up and down, but is used here to switch between different weapons. Looking around is only possible by holding down the R button, thus making it impossible to aim and move at the same time. To cope with these restrictions the game provides an lock on system that is triggred by pressing the L button. This will keep your view centered on the nearest enemy and allow you to circle strafe around it as long as the button is held pressed.

The game structure also diverts from the more story driven nature seen in other FPS games, instead Metroid Prime follows classical Metroid roots. You are thrown into a freely explorable world that requires the collection of special abilities to continue. Missiles or special beams can be used to unlock doors, bombs can be used to trigger switches or clear rubble out of the way and the classic Morphball is used to get through small passages. The Morphball is special in that it switches the game to a third person perspective and when going through small passages it switches to an almost 2D side view. Missile and energie contain are hidden around the world as well and allow you to increase the capacity of live energie and missiles that you can carrie. The next goal to which you have to go will be marked with a question mark on your map screen, these question marks however don't pop up instantly once a goal is fullfilled, but only after a time of free exploration.

Saving in Metroid Prime works similarly to previous 2D Metroids, special save rooms are provided that allow you to save your current progress. In Metroid Prime those room also refill your health completly, they however do not refill your missile or power bomb amount. Those items have to be either collected from destroyed enemies or refilled in special locations, such as one of the rare missile refill stations or your space ship, which will repelish everything.

Graphically the game still olds up rather well. The game features a smooth framerate that almost never drops. One unique feature of Metroid Prime is that it shows the outline of the helmet of your character. So the game tries to not only portrait a view into the world, but the actual view through the eyes of your character. Energiebar and missile count are thus also presented as HUD elements on the helmets display, not just on your screen. The game also includes numerous effects in which the visor of your helmet might be obscured, this can be things like rain falling on it, steam condensating on it or water running of from it. A bright lightsource in the environment, such as an exploting missile or charge beam, might also cause a reflection of your characters face to become visible in your visor. The game also features a set of idle animation, that either let your character perform some minor maintanance on her weapons or look around suptly in the environment. All those little detail do a good job at increasing the immersion.

The environments in Metroid Prime are lush and well executed, weather and fog effects give the world a life like appearance. In industrial areas plenty of smoke and steam effects will make the world seems like a working environment and underwater small flocks of fish will keep things interesting. The game also features nice light effects that will cause the environment to light up whenever a charged beam is shooting through it or one of the rare light emitting creatures flies through it. The temperature and x-ray visors that you get later in the game and that you need to see specific enemies or secrets are also well implemented and look good.

Some of the textures in the game tend to be a bit blury and some environments could need a few more polygons to look a little less blocky, but other then that the graphics hold up quite well, even by todays standards.

The music is for most part very good, giving each area a distinct theme, underlining the often spooky athmosphere.

The level design on the other side feels often flat and unrealistic. While each room by itself looks quite nice, the world as a whole feels artifical and gamey, not like a living breathing world. This is in large part caused by the world not being one seamless place, but by being split into small rooms that are connected by doors. While this might make some sense for an underground mine, it really doesn't make any sense at all for the more organic environments on the planet surface. Furthermore this restriction into rooms robs the game of any view into the distance. The next view blocking wall is always just a few meters away, thus you never get any foreshadowing of where you will be going and you never really get a sense of space. You basically will never feel like you are entering a building or a cave as you are always trapped in the never changing structure of the rooms, never outside of them.

Just like most of the later 2D Metroids, Metroid Prime also features a map system. The map system is available either by looking at the top right corner of the screen, where there is an always present minimap or by pressing the Z button, which will zoom that minimap into a full screen view. On the map screen the game allows you to rotate, pan and zoom the map completly freely, while the minimap always is in an unchangable default view. This in turn makes the minimap pretty much useless, as it is so small that it is hard to make anything out of it and you are forced to watch it in the default isometric view, instead of a simplified top down view. These issues even cause trouble on the full screen map, as while you can zoom and rotate that freely, you will often run into issues where a closer part of the map is covering up something further way, with no way to properly hide parts of the map, you are forced to rotate the map around frequently to make out what the geometry of a room looks like and while you can rotate the view into a top down view, this top down view provides only limited usefulness as well. Doors are hard to see in that top down view and some sections of the map actually consists of multiple layers of rooms on top of each other, making the top down view completly useless in those cases.

Doors on the map are marked with special colors that indicate which weapons you need to open them up, however the game won't do the same for other blocking objects that might inhebit further progress into that directions, such as rubble that might requier a powerbomb to clear. This will in turn lead to quite a few unneeded trips around the world, as what looks like unexplored terrain, is really just blocked by an object that didn't show up on the map. The map system also has the disadvantage of hidding doors that are not in the currently selected room, thus the search for an unopened door can turn into a chore, as you have to pretty much select each room individually. The map also fails to clearly indicate where an elevator will go, while each room has a name and thus provides some hint as to where the elevator will end up, a way to quickly navigate to the target of that elevator isn't available and you have to fall back to manual search. While the map does display savepoints and missile refill stations, it doesn't keep track of special items or other places of special interest, neither does it keep a count of the already collected items in an area. These are all features that have been present in Metroid Fusion and greatly eased the frustration when exploring an area, but in Metroid Prime they are completly missisng. Only a single item count is provided for the whole world, but without being limited to an area, that is mostly useless.

One feature that would have benefited the game a lot would have been a way to mark points on the map. GTA DS for example allows you to mark a target location which then in turn will cause a navigation system to plot a course for you, you then simply have to follow that course. Metroid Prime provides nothing of that sort, not even a basic compass on the HUD, thus it makes it very easy to take the wrong door out of a room and get lost on larger trips, requiring frustrating back tracking.

An important new game mechanic in Metroid Prime is the ability to scan objects. This will provide you with detail information on enemies and objects, weak points on boss fights or bits of background story. The way scanning is implemented can however be a bit annoying, as scanning will always take a second or so to actually complete the scan and present the new knowledge, this second by itself wouldn't be that bad, but if you have half a dozen objects in a room to scan, it quickly adds up and turns into an annoyancy. A further issue is that the informational text is presented in a very tiny window on your HUD, this window often doesn't even have enough room for a single sentence and doesn't allow smooth scrolling, thus making reading longer text on it a chore. The scanned information can also be looked up in a database and there the text are is a bit larger and thus easier to read, but it still suffers from lack of smooth scrolling and from still having to small a width to properly fit for the given text.

The story in Metroid Prime happens to be almost exclusivly told through the scanning of special objects. Cutscenes that further the story are pretty much completly missing, you might see a boss explode after a fight, but you won't really see anything that would deepen the story itself. The scanned objects sadly don't really do much to deepen the story futher either. They provide a few bits of unimportant back story on the Chozos and the Space Pirates, but hardly anything that could be classified as story.

One big issue with Metroid Prime is simply that it lacks characters, not just some, but any at all. The scans could be losely compared to say the audio logs you collect in Bioshock, but while those in Bioshock give you insight into important characters of the world, the scans in Metroid Prime just give you general unpersonal talk about the races involved. You will here a bit about "the Chozo" and "the Space Pirates", but there is never a single identifiable character in either group, it is just general talk about the group as a whole. It really is a rather awkward way to tell a story. Now given the previous 2D Metroids weren't rich on story either, but in a 2D game that is simply much more acceptable then it is in a 3D game, as in a 2D game this is kind of the norm, while in a 3D game it just stands out. Also the 2D Metroids at least had the whole Baby Metroid plot going from Metroid 2, over to Super Metroid and then Metroid Fusion, Metroid Prime is missing anything that would leave a lasting impression.

Another thing with the story of Metroid Prime is that it simply doesn't even make much sense even given the mechanics of the game. The story basically goes like this: A meteroid crashes down on the planet, poising its inhabitant, the Chozo, and the wild life on it with the Phazon in it. The Chozo die out slowly, failing to do anything about the Phazon polution, so they create artifacts that lock a teleporter to the impact crater. The Space Pirates then come much later and use the Phazon to create basically super soldiers. The game time itself is spend first collecting weapnos and items that give you access to other areas and then finally collecting the artifacts that unlock the teleporter to the impact crater. Once at the crater there is a Metroid Prime that you defeat and the game then ends after that. What the Metroid Prime has to do with anything, I don't know, it just happens to be the last boss. I don't think it was ever mentioned in any of the scans I read. Neither do I think anything of what you do in the game did much to defeat the Space Pirates or restore the planets health. I couldn't even say what was accomplished by fininshing the game. The more I think about the story, the less sense it makes. So it goes well beyond just being a boring story, as it basically is a non-story.

The story also has the problem of just being really badly paced. For example you will learn about the Chozo artifacts very early in the game, but you won't be able to actually collect them until much later. Many are specifically placed in locations so that you can't reach them unless you have all the weapons. So they force you to backtrack, even so you might have discovered their location much earlier on. The game also does an early sequence in which it hints at Ridley, but it doesn't show him again for another 12 hours or so, by which time you probablly already have long forgotten that sequnce.

Fighting against enemies in Metroid Prime differs greatly from more traditional first person shooters. Due to the lock on mechanic you lose precision in aiming, this means that enemies don't have different hit zones, so you won't see any headshots here, instead it is just lock on and shoot. Dodging happens for most part via the ciricle strafing that the lock on allows you to do, which however happens to not work all that well. Many enemies that run at you will hit you even when you try to dodge them, it seems kind of random when you are able to dodge and when not. Further some enemies require that you hit them from behind, but as the enemies will automatically turn into your direction, getting behind them can turn out rather problematic. So basically you spend a lot of time circle strafing and jumping around to get a proper aim at an enemy, which is basically just annoying and not fun at all. What makes this especially frustrating is that you don't really see much when circle strafing, you don't see what it left and right from you, instead you always look straight forward. In some boss fights this might result in you falling into lava or poison water.

Another issue with the fighting in Metroid Prime is that basically every enemy is a bullet sponge. You can defeat a few of the smaller enemies with a single shot, but all the larger ones take lots and lots of shooting. The scheme to defeat a Space Pirate is basically: charge up your beam, stun enemy with it, charge up again to kill it. You spend a lot of time in cover to do the charging, then just hop out, make a single shoot, then back to recharge some more. It never feels like any of your weapons have much of an effect and when you try to defeat a Space Pirates with a normal shot, it takes you easily 30 or even 50, it simply takes forever. Even your missiles don't really feel very impact full.

And as if the fighting in the game would already be annoying enough as it is, the game also features respawning enenmies. Whenever you move two rooms away, everything in the old rooms respawns. All the old enenmies are back and even objects that you might have destroyed earlier return. The only exceptions are boss enemies and special objects that are used to lock an area. This respawing makes it basically impossible to do strategic combat, as you can't clear a room, backtrack to refill your health and then continue fighting, as by then everything will be reset to zero.

After specific points in the story the rooms might also fill with new enemies, most importantly probally the Chozo ghost which will pop up in many places in the Chozo ruins, but also a few new Space Pirates might pop up in old places. What makes this annoying is that it doesn't really make the game harder or more interesting, it just slows you down on your backtracking.

The savepoint placment in Metroid Prime is also of questionable quality. Quite a few times you will have a puzzle right before a boss fight, but no save point after the puzzle. So you either have to backtrack or to run into the potential danger of having to resolve the puzzle after failing the boss fight. The game lacks any kind of reset points other then the save points and after you die all your progress and collected items and such get reset to exactly what you had back when you did save. The boss rooms are also not clearly marked from the outside, so you might trip into a room not knowing that a fight will follow that locks the doors.

The game features one situation where this savepoint placement is basically elevated to game breaking qualities. When entering the Phazon Mines for the first times, you have a savepoint right at the start of them, but then when you go deeper down that route you will have to fight your way through multiple waves of space pirates, a room with jumping platforms that require activation, a laser canon that needs to be positioned, a room with a large cylinder that needs to be rotated multiple times to create a Spider Ball path, a Elite Space Pirate mini boss, a room that floods with poison gass, an an invisible control droid mini-boss and a Morph Ball labyrinth, all of that without a single savepoint inbetween. So basically you can lose well over half an hour of gameplay when you die on your first try. What makes the situation even worse is that you don't even find anything to repelish your health inbetween, so you basically slowly drain your health and then might make it to the save point with a few points left. It is not even that anything in that list is especially hard, but it simply takes a lot of time and resolving a puzzle again just happens to be no fun at all. I ended up being stuck in that situation on both my first and second play through.

As a special unlockable the game contains the Fusion suit from Metroid Fusion, but given that you don't see your character a lot in the game, that isn't all to useful. A more useful extra is the original NES Metroid game in emulated form. It features a automatic password save function, so you don't have to write the passwords down.

Metroid Prime is around 16 hours long, however the core game is probablly just around 12 hours, as you will spend a lot of time backtracking through old locations collecting the Chozo artifacts.

Overall I would describe Metroid Prime as "less then the sum of its parts". There is a ton of cool things in the game, the way your visor interacts with the environment looks great, the jumping works very well for a FPS, the enivornment look often great and graphic and music are perfectly fine. Every now and then when the game lets you explore freely it can be quite a lot of fun at those moments. Where the game fails is in the combat and story. The combat is pretty much always annoying. It is already annoying enough when you have to fight Space Pirates for the first time, it is absolutely no fun to fight respawned pirates for the fifth time, same goes for the Chozo ghost, it just takes forever without adding anything meaningful to the game. Same goes for the boss fights, there is always a ton of headache inducing strafe jumping going on and they also take forever. Shooting the same boss for five or ten minutes just seizes to be interesting very quickly. The story also goes way beyond just being a let down. It is not just basic, but pretty much activly stupid. It makes not much sense on its own and even less so when seen in the context of the game.

It is sad that Metroid Prime in the end just doesn't come together, it can be fun at times, but when that time is regularly intermixed with controller tossing awefulness it just spoils the whole package. I'd say they successfully translated the exploration aspects from the 2D Metroids into 3D, but they completly failed at doing the same with the combat. In the 2D Metroids combat always has been a fun thing to do, in the 3D incarnation it just fails on so many levels, which it wouldn't need to, as many other first person shooter manage to handle combat just fine.

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