Sunday, October 03, 2010

Review: Metroid Prime Hunters (Nintendo DS)

Metroid Prime Hunters was released in 2006 for the Nintendo DS and is a spin-off of the Metroid Prime series for the Gamecube and the Wii. The game takes place after the first Metroid Prime game, but as the story doesn't have any connection with the other games that hardly matters. The game features both a single player adventure mode as well as online multiplayer, I however haven't played the multiplayer, so I will focus on the single player.

The game starts with receiving a cryptic message about some 'ultimate power' with hints at its locations. Following that Samus Aran and six other bounty hunters start the search for that power to gain control over it. Reaching the 'ultimate power' requires the collection of eight Octolith, which in turn unlock the location of the 'ultimate power' and result in the final boss battle.

Unlike other entries in the series Metroid Prime Hunters follows a more linear approach, that is somewhat similar to Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Instead of one huge world to travel around in, the game is separated into four locations, the Celestial Archives, Alinos, Arcterra and the Vesper Defense Outpost. Each of these locations contains a boss at the end that will provide you with one of the required Octolith. Once each location has been visited and beaten, new areas in each location will become accessible and the player has to revisit them again to fight a second boss and gain another Octolith in each location. Travel between locations is possible at any time by using the space ship, travel on food between locations is not possible.

The space ship also acts as the only type savepoint in the game, regular savepoints are not provided. To reduce the amount of backtracking the game however does include teleporter, conveniently placed before each boss fight that will bring you back to your ship, to allowing saving the game and replenishing the ammunition. Those teleporter also allow you quick travel back to the boss area itself once activated. The game also features a checkpoint system, checkpoints are automatically activated and save your current health and ammo, when you die you can restart at the checkpoint with the old health and ammo count. As the game doesn't give any active indication when a checkpoint is activated this can lead to a few annoying situation where a checkpoint gets saved when one is low on health.

The overall structure of the levels is always the same, the player starts at his ship and then has to travel deeper down into the map. Three artifacts are needed to unlock the teleporter to the level boss, these artifacts themselves are protected by a force field and disabling the force field requires collecting a force field key by solving some more or less complicated puzzles. The puzzles in this game however lack any of the good design seen in the other Metroid Prime games, instead they feel like a throw back to gaming a decade or two ago. The problem with the puzzles is that they are hardly ever based in the location or environment around you, instead the puzzles often come in the form of a series of switches that have to be activated and these switches happen to be placed completely randomly all over the map, without any clear rhyme or reason, so you will frequently find yourself looking into each and every corner of the map in the search for a switch. Other times the force field key appear after defeating all the enemies in a room or after going through a morph ball passage on a time limit, again with little hint or reason behind it and it is never really clear which key unlocks which force field.

Unlike in other games in the series Metroid Prime Hunters is also very low on upgrades. Samus Aran starts out with the morph ball, bombs, missiles and a charge beam. The only upgrades available throughout the game are six new weapons that have to be obtained from the other bounty hunters. The bounty hunters happen to be randomly scattered throughout the maps and act as sort of a mini-boss. They however don't really follow a classic boss pattern that has to be learned, instead they just run around randomly really fast, making them hard to hit. The main bosses in this game come only in two forms that are each repeated four times throughout the game, with some minor variation in the attack pattern.

Just as in other Metroid games, the new weapon can be used to unlock doors that are marked with the color of the weapon. In addition to the normal doors the weapons can also be used to deactivate special force feels, with these force fields there is however the additional problem that, unlike the doors, they are not marked on the map screen, thus it can become hard to remember where a special force feel was. Another issue is that the color coding is to similar, especially on the small Nintendo DS screen. Weapons come in green, blue, purple, yellow, orange and red and telling the different between those can be tricky. This becomes especially a problem on the last boss fight where the color coding plays a crucial part of the strategy to defeat the boss.

The game comes with the same scanning ability as seen in other Metroid Prime games, but unlike in other games the logbook is not available via the pause menu, but only from inside your ship. The logbook interface is also really cumbersome, the text is limited to just three lines and a very small window and lengthy animations make it really slow to switch between entries. The entries themselves also happen to be rather uninteresting and, aside from the final boss, are hardly ever useful.

The demo version of the game, Metroid Prime Hunters: First Hunt, that shipped with early Nintendo DS units, used to feature a simply top-down map on the bottom of the screen, in the final game this map is gone and replaced by a basic and mostly useless radar screen. The level map itself has been moved to the pause menu and works much like the map in the bigger Metroid Prime games. Due to the small resolution and the level design which features many small, potentially overlapping, corridors however the map is much harder to read then on a big TV screen. And as mentioned the force fields aren't marked on the map, only the doors, so it can at times get really tricky to figure out where to go next. The simplified map in the demo version did look a good bit more helpful, especially since that one was always available without pausing the game.

The controls in Metroid Prime: Hunters differ noticeably from the other games in the series, the lock on function is completely gone, instead the game follows more traditional first person shooter controls. The dpad is used for running and strafing, while the touch screen is used to rotate the view around or look up and down. The main weapon is fired by pressing the L shoulder button, which will when held down, produces three normal shots before going into charge mode. These three shots allow rapid fire without a very high frequency of presses on the button. The morph ball, the scan visor, as well as the weapon switching are handled with areas on the touch screen that can be clicked. Jumping is accomplished by tapping the touch screen twice in short order. Zooming on the map screen and using the boost ball ability are done with the R button, which is rather awkward, as that button is rather hard to reach when holding a stylus.

The graphics in this game fail to impress, while they do try to get close to the other Metroid Prime games and even succeed in some areas, they only really look good on screenshots. In the game itself they are simply impractical, the high level of texture detail makes it very hard to properly distinguish enemies from the background, so that one frequently ends up shooting blindly when chasing a hunter or another enemy, instead of doing proper aim. The graphics also lack any kind of light effects, so they feel very static and artificial. On top of that the Nintendo DS hardware just isn't very good at 3D graphics, so all the textures look pixelated and the enemy meshes are very basic. I would have welcome an artistic direction that is build more around the limitations of the hardware, then one that tries to emulate what was accomplished on much better hardware.

Overall the game disappoints on many levels. The level design itself feels basic and random, none of the puzzles really make any sense in terms of the environment and are just typical switch/door situations of the cheapest kind. The separation into four planets furthermore gives the game a linear feel, lacking the exploration of the other Metroid Prime games. Instead of proper free exploration, you spend most of your time looking for the next randomly placed switch or dry to decipher the hard to read map. The other bounty hunters make very weak enemies, as you just end up spamming them with missiles while they run around super fast. The game is also full of doors that are locked till you kill all the enemies in the room and other cheap tricks to artificially lengthen the game. The recycling of the main bosses further makes this game fill really cheap and the fast paced first person shooter gameplay just feels out of place in a Metroid game. Atmosphere in this game is basically non-existent, neither the location nor music invoke any and even if they would, that would quickly be destroyed by the gamey nature of puzzles and enemies. Enemies also only come in a few different forms, so they repeat a lot.

The controls in this game are simply atrocious, while they do work perfectly fine from a technological point of view, they are a complete nightmare in terms of ergonomics. Navigating with the dpad while holding the Nintendo DS and scrubbing around on the touch screen with the stylus just doesn't work in any way, shape or form. What makes the situation even worse is that the game is every fast paced at times, so it will give you hand cramps frequently and it is overall just painful to play.

In the end there really isn't much positive I can say about this game. The checkpoints are certainly a welcome addition and reduce the frustration a good bit and it can be a bit of fun when you finally have figured out a boss tactic that worked. But none of that really saves the game in the end or makes the around ten hours that it will take you to beat it fun. Metroid Prime Hunters feels like a mix of Quake with a Metroid Prime look slapped on, but at the same time it completely fails to actually create a proper Metroid atmosphere. Even taken as an action game it just fails, for that there are to many annoying puzzles in the way and the game is just not straight forward enough to enjoy that way. This game is certainly the low point in the Metroid series and doesn't contribute anything noteworthy.

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