Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Metroid: Other M (video games)

Platform: Wii
Developers: Team Ninja, Nintendo
Genre: Action, Adventure
ESRB Rating: Teen
Release Date: August 31st, 2010

I've been a fan of the Metroid games for a long time. I was a bit late to the party - my first experience was Fusion and I never got to play Super until just a couple years ago - but once I got into the franchise I've been there for most installments. Up comes the latest adventure for Samus, Other M. The question of whether I was going to play it would be met with a resounding "duh".

Before I go much further, I may as well address the elephant in the room and get it out of the way. There's been some outrage over this game and its portrayal of Samus. This was to be expected, really - even when she had the few story sequences in Fusion some people bitched - but it's louder now. There are calls of sexism and even claims on Big Time Gaming Sites that try and say the game has ruined the character of Samus Aran.

It's bullshit, folks, but probably not for the reason you think. The truth of the matter - and what some either cannot or or simply will not see - is that Samus never had a character. Prior to Fusion she was nothing more than a cypher; a character in the very loosest sense possible. A player stand-in. Link with breasts, basically; and that space suit is so androgynous ninety percent of the time you can't even tell. But somewhere along the line, some folks seemed to decide she was some sort of feminist icon or a shining example of a female character. This is a very stupid notion - I mean, Christ, the main reward for completing the first three games quickly was seeing her in a swimsuit, which doesn't exactly scream "feminism" - but it's there and over the years it seems to have taken root deeper than I previously realized.

What happened here is that the absence of a defined character led people to draw their own strict conclusions of what she was like. A lot of them seem to be that any emotion on her part is out of character. Wipe out an alien race without a shred of remorse? Stare down your parents killer without even a twinge of emotion? Blew up several planets without even a second thought? That's what they seem to think happened. They seem to think it makes her "strong". There's a word for that, and it tends to be "sociopathic", not strong; and while the games never went out of their way to give Samus depth as a character, she never struck me as a sociopath or much of anything really aside from someone who kicks ass on her own.

But I digress; my point is that you can't ruin a character with no personality whatsoever and what people really seem to be mourning is the loss of the notion that the character might be the way they envision her.

With that cleared up, lets move on. Now, while I've established that there isn't really a character to Samus, there are things I'm still not sure about. The game has a standard set-up. Samus receives a distress call from the "Bottle Ship" and she bolts to check it out. She finds her old unit in the military there and tags along with them. Things go south pretty quick as you find more than a few nasty beasties inside wanting to crack open your armor like a can opener might and chow down.

The games story has an obvious goal of giving more depth to Samus than has ever been attempted before. They don't really hold back much, showing her time in the Galactic Federation army and other flashbacks. Quite a few of these things feel right. It made sense to me that she would mourn the baby Metroid, as you don't tend to brush off the death of something that gave its life protecting you, unless you're a few knives short of a full block. Having her as ex-military also goes a long way towards explaining why she is as skilled as she is, much less how she got the sort of combat experience she might need to quickly make a name for herself as a bounty hunter.

Others don't feel right, however. They try to do something new with how you progress, instead of having Samus lose everything at the start, she turns them off until Adam - the CO of the Federation Squad you're chillin' with - gives authorization. It's stupid, frankly; she already has her entire arsenal, but her former boss distrusts her so she turns them off and lets him decide when she can use what? She's got access to the stuff; at the very least you'd expect she wouldn't be skulking around in lava pits for too long before deciding "screw this" and turning on the Varia feature, authorization or not. Even if you buy it, there's no reason for something as harmless as a grapple beam or low grade ordinance like morph ball bombs needing the okay from a guy you don't even work for.

Probably the iffiest moment in the games story comes about due to the series stalwart villain, Ridley. When he shows up, Samus outright freezes in fear. While it makes sense to me that at some point she was afraid of Ridley - after all, this is the creature who murdered her parents right in front of her when she was a little girl * - this late in the series it's almost laughable. By this point, depending on whether you include the Primes, she's fought some variation of Ridley two to five times now. Shock at the fact that he wasn't dead anymore, I could see; freezing in fear to the point Ridley gets in some serious damage before she snaps out of it, not so much. It might have worked for a 3D remake of the original Metroid or something, but here it just does not work and is the one scene people complained about that does make Samus look somewhat weak.

Other than the iffy points, the story isn't all that bad. I've certainly experienced better - and some lines, like Samus calling the traitor "The Deleter", are straight up comical - but I've dealt with enough Japanese product that I've also experienced far worse. If anything, that's the stories problem. It feels way too Japanese in that stock manga or anime way. The Japanese are creatures of habit when it comes to storytelling; they tend to stick within a certain set of tropes and don't really deviate far from it. This is probably why Nintendo's managed to keep relevant to those sick of Japanese storytelling over here; for the most part they've kept story as a secondary concern for most of their existence. Unfortunately it does plague Other M a bit, so I hope the next time they take a shot at a story with the series it's a bit more minimalistic. I loved Metroid Fusion - story included - so I'm thinking more along those lines.

Oh, one more thing about the story and really the game in general. It's actually nice to have a Metroid game that recognizes that the Metroid species can morph beyond the larval stage we so often see. Aside from the fight against an Omega Metroid in Fusion, this game is quite possibly the first time since Return of Samus - which is the game that introduced the evolution chart of the Metroids - that we've actually seen a form past larval. I'd very much like to see more of this, because one of the things that has annoyed me with the series is that either we've just seen the primary stage everyone is familiar with or it goes off into some completely different evolution because of Phazon or whatever.

Anyways, what really lets down the story here - and is part of why some scenes fall flat - is the voice acting. Talk about a "for the paycheck" performance. The voice actress for Samus in particular emotes about as well as the boulder out to the side of my driveway, which really hampers any emotional weight a lot of scenes might have. I don't know why they didn't just tap Jennifer Hale again. If they'd put her as Samus here and let her do more than grunt like in Prime, I imagine the game wouldn't have had this problem.

So the story doesn't quite live up, but it's not as bad as everyone's said. Should be smooth sailing from here on, right? I mean, the Metroids are renowned largely because of the great gameplay. Well unfortunately that's where the game really cements itself as a letdown. In the past, a Metroid game has been either in the third or second dimension. This time around, they try to mash the two up. It's an idea with merit; other companies have taken a similar approach in the recent past and it's worked out well. Here, they've found an approach with merit, but there's a long way to go to mold it into something truly great.

The problem is partly one of controls. The nunchuck is passed over entirely, instead asking you to turn the Wiimote to the side like an NES controller to play. When you want to switch to first person mode, you point at the screen. Cute idea in theory, but in execution it doesn't work out.

See what this means is that you now move using the directional pad. You're in a 3D space, but you can only move in eight directions. Which means you can only fire in eight directions while in third person mode. Now, I probably don't need to tell you that enemies aren't kind enough to stay in one of those eight directions. You see the problem. I'd gladly trade the novelty of holding my Wiimote like an NES remote for use of the thumbstick, thanks.

Then there's the first person mode, activated by pointing the remote at the screen. Someone had the bright idea of making it so you can only use missiles while in this mode. In case I didn't mention, you also cannot move while in first person mode. So have fun taking damage while you try to line up the lock-on for the missiles! This pretty much makes this staple of the franchise more or less useless for any enemies not designed to be beat with missiles. Worse still, there are times when you are automatically put in first person because the game wants you to notice something. Unfortunately, unlike the Prime series, things of interest are not highlighted in any way. So when you're forced to spend about five minutes in a dark place trying to find the goddamn thing the game wants you to notice, you're probably going to get annoyed.

As far as design of the game, well, this is part of what's painful about the whole thing. The mash up of 2D play and 3D has a lot of potential for future games. In fact, I really hope it's used in the future, because there are a lot of possibilities. But here it's not utilized in any interesting way, which is a goddamn shame. This manner of gameplay could easily bring forth new challenges, puzzles and ways to hide items, but it doesn't. Most of the areas are fairly straightforward, with you easily able to suss out any items in the room. They're really not all that well hidden, for the most part, and there's little reason to backtrack. You're probably going to be able to hit about seventy percent of the items in your first playthrough with minimal deviations.

Not that there's much room for deviation. This game is pretty linear for a Metroid game. Some people heckled Fusion for this, but Other M is much, much worse. There aren't a lot of clever alternate paths to be found and you won't have much difficulty finding anything. In a series known for dense maps and lots of things to discover, this is something of a shock. Couple that with very few occasions where backtracking through areas you've been to already is necessary and you've got a game that feels pretty damn short if you set aside any story sequences.

On the arsenal, there's good and bad on display here. On the negative side, some classic tricks from past Metroid games have been nerfed. You can just forget about the morph ball bomb trick, for example; you can do it if you're patient, but the game has a set height from the ground it allows the bombs to take you, making it essentially worthless. But on the other side of the token, almost all of the classic arsenal has finally made the jump to 3D. The Prime games were great stuff, but no matter how talented Retro Studios may be, there are some things they never figured out how to do in 3D. But this game finally brings out many of the mainstays that had been left in the 2D era. Things like the speed booster and the screw attack, for example, have finally made it into 3D and in the new gameplay design they work like a charm. It's something worth noting, because it's one thing this game definitely does right.

When you narrow it down, the question becomes, is there fun to be had with this game? Yeah, there is. To tell the truth, I really love the Prime games. But sometimes, it doesn't feel as much like Metroid as it should. It became something of a first person adventure, using most of Metroid lore and staples to great effect. But it also ditched a lot of what made the series popular to start with. In fact, a lot of the time I'd chill in morph ball mode in those games, since it was in the third person, which felt better than the first person perspective mode. This game, however, has more of a Metroid feel. The way this game is structured feels far more natural to the series than the jump to first person ever did and it feels like a natural evolution of the franchise instead of showing the round peg through the square hole. Sure, Retro managed to jam that round peg through, but that doesn't mean it felt like as much of a fit.

For all the games problems, I hope they don't scrap the gameplay wholesale; I'd much rather they improved upon this than going back to the first person, which I'd mostly had enough of after three games.

The Score: 6.5 out of 10

When you break it down, the game is a disappointment. But then, it had a hell of a pedigree to live up to. There's fun to be had here, but the gameplay hampers it. It might be worth a rent, but I hesitate to recommend it for purchase. Hopefully, Nintendo learns from its mistakes. There really is a solid foundation with the switch to third person, they just blew it when it comes to this game.

* With a backstory like hers, Samus should probably have a bat emblazoned on the front of her armor. She could be the intergalactic representation of Batman Inc.

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