How many times can you remake the wheel before it begins to deflate, losing its once perfectly rounded shape? It’s a rather fascinating question when you try and put video game franchises into this perspective. Many franchises experience heavy amounts of stagnation with how their wheel rolls, which can either result in a company retooling the formula and creating a faster rolling wheel (Burnout Paradise taking the racing concept to an open world setting) or ultimately giving that wheel several corners, making it run much more roughly than fans would have expected (the Tony Hawk franchise adding a peripheral and all but destroying the franchise). It’s an extremely rare occurrence when a franchise can tweak the wheel more than once and still have it roll by, driving the franchise forward to never before seen successes (the Street Fighter series fits this mold).
What would happen if Nintendo had one of their most celebrated franchises restructured, reorganized and retooled? For the Metroid franchise, we went from a 2D action/adventure series with a wealth of hidden items, clever level layouts and epic boss battles, to the Metroid Prime series — a first person action/adventure shooter with a drop dead gorgeous game world, imaginative areas to explore, and some larger scale boss battles. The transition, for the most part, was met with critical acclaim, though the subsequent installments of the Prime series did degrade ever so slightly in terms of the overall quality of production.
Once again we are witnessing a rebirth of sorts to such a cherished franchise, with Metroid: Other M (M:OM). Developed by Team Ninja, the same team that worked on the recent Ninja Gaiden titles on the Xbox, Xbox 360 and PS3, M:OM takes both a familiar turn, as well as a drastic deviation from what we’ve known and loved about this well established series of games. Some changes for the better, a few for the worse, but in the end, will it be yet another solid installment to a franchise that has not seen any significant weak links?
Previous Metroid titles have had a storyline that, while engaging enough, didn’t have as vast of a production value, emphasis on storytelling and in general, lacked more of a focal point for plot development as a whole. The way the story was structured throughout most of the early titles, there was no real need for developers to add in story elements to break up the gaming portions. Hell, back in the days, only a couple of genres had elaborate stories that would have several segments spanning throughout the adventure. For most gamers in the 8 and 16 bit days, we let our imaginations run wild, enhancing the gameplay with implausible fantasies of a story deviance midway through the game. Being your own storyteller had its perks years ago, however we’re at a point in gaming where most everything is story driven, and with gameplay complexities thrown in, a stronger core storyline is needed to help keep a cohesive bond between every element in each game.
M:OM has a heavier focus to its story than any installment before it. You see this right away when you fire up your copy. Some visually pleasant CG work drives the narrative forward, recapping the events that took place at the end of Super Metroid. You’ll also hear our lovely protagonist Samus Aran, deliver a monologue on those events. The problem is her tone of voice is so disinterested. While her monologue in the beginning, coinciding with the heartbreaking events, could lead you to believe that she’s still suffering from some emotional effects of watching the last Metroid (or “baby” as she so relentlessly refers to it as) fall to Mother Brain, the performance continues onward. Samus will rarely even break an octave throughout all of her spoken lines, which does hamper the immersion somewhat.
There’s some questionable decisions with the storytelling as a whole as well. One major culprit, according to many who have reviewed this game already, is the copious amounts of cut scenes, none of which can be skipped, nor can they be paused in the middle of them. Early on you’ll come across long stretches of CG plot development, which helps drive the story forward and explain exactly why certain things are they way they are, where to go next and so on. Understandably so, many feel that the frequency, as well as the length of each cut scene detracts from the overall package, especially when it comes to immersion. Here’s the thing though — the storyline is genuinely intriguing in M:OM, so watching things develop and unfold through these scenes helps add a layer of depth that the franchise never had, though one would say that it never needed in the first place.
Every so often, you’ll come across a two minute block of story development you can’t skip, but it all meshes together to help add to the overall experience. The inability to skip cut scenes on subsequent plays of M:OM is grounds for frustration, and rightfully so, however with the modestly generous auto-saving that goes on (you’ll still have your designated save stations located throughout the game) eliminates most, if not every replays of the lengthy cut scenes that so many have cried about. If you can sit through hours of cut scenes in Metal Gear Solid 4, M:OM is a walk in the park.
From 2D to 3D exploration, we have once again experienced an alteration in how we viewthe world around Samus. The perspective is an odd mixture of 2.5D and isometric views, with no camera manipulation outside of first person aiming. Each room changes up the way you traverse through them, as well as how you control Samus in each room. Some rooms will have a left to right structure, with the ability to move up and down as well. Another room might be presented in an isometric fashion through a narrow corridor. The change in perspective meshes together well with the new control and combat schematics, though the speed of which Samus can run is not only implausible, but in general, it’s a bit too fast. It does make M:OM feel more skewed towards fast paced action, and does still fit the overall direction of the game, but having no options as to how fast you’d like to move can give you an overwhelming feeling that Samus is just going too fast.
The main reason why you have no control over your run speed is due to the fact that M:OM is focused upon a Wiimote only control setup. You hold the Wiimote as if it were an NES controller, for the majority of the gameplay you’ll encounter. The directional pad moves you around with one set movement speed, the 1 button shoots your current weapon and holding the 1 button down will charge up your shot, 2 acts as your jump button, A will morph you into Samus’ famous ball form, with 1 dropping bombs and the 2 button retaining the same effect. Since you’re not restricted to a two dimensional plane, enemies will come at you from various angles. The inclusion of an auto-aim feature remedies the situation, locking onto the closest adversary for you to attack. This quickens the pace of combat, furthering along the action packed feeling that Team Ninja wanted to infused into the franchise.
Being that this is a Nintendo Wii title, certain motion gimmicks were thrown in. You won’t find missile refills laying around in M:OM; a quarter circle turn upward of your Wiimote followed by holding down the A button will replenish your stock, as well as refill your health if you are out of energy tanks and in the red. One would think that this mechanic would ultimately unbalance the game to your favor, however you’re restricted to using missiles within your first person aiming mode, which initiates when you aim the Wiimote directly towards your television screen. Holding down the B trigger while motioning around will pan the camera around you, while aiming at specific placements and holding B will trigger a target lock. If it’s an enemy on lock, you can fire a missile at them, while places of interest, such as locked doors, will be pointed out.
These new mechanics lead to a couple of headaches. If the nunchuk peripheral were enabled and made a focal point to moving Samus around, satisfaction and accuracy all around would have increased tenfold. Enabling movement via nunchuk on first person targeting could have thwarted a couple of nagging issues, though after the dust settles, there’s not much Team Ninja could have done to the somewhat flaccid perspective. It wasn’t until the final hours before deadline that the discovery of first person dodging was discovered, thanks to Sean Fausz, aka @HopeWithinChaos on Twitter (flick your crosshairs to the side of the screen, which in its self feels liked a tacked on mechanic). In rare instances, when you’re overwhelmed by minions, auto-aim doesn’t react fast enough, leaving you to scramble around, dodging darting foes, trying to get the lock on set. On the minor side of the spectrum, it does become tiresome, having to aim at the screen and then quickly switch back to NES controller positioning. Same can be said about the missile refill methods, although if you’re aware of your ammunition situation, you shouldn’t fall prey to refilling in the middle of a battlefield.
While Metroid Prime 3: Corruption was not a visual marvel for the Nintendo Wii like Super Mario Galaxy 2 was, it presented a world that was still a treat to watch. For M:OM, it’s a mixed bag of repetition and creativity. Some of the enemy models have a unique look to them, some with whip-like tails at their disposal, while others have the obvious weak points in a near super nova-esque glow. Along with the pro wrestling meets Jason Vorhees finishing moves you can perform on some of the beefier enemies, they add both to the visual and gameplay portions of M:OM quite well. General animation looks rock solid, with a flowing grace to certain moves, especially when dodging an enemy and counterattacking with a fully charged shot. There’s a vast amount of fluidity that gels together in such a way, that watching someone play the events unfolding, while not experiencing any auto-aim hiccups, can be rather hypnotic.
It’s a shame that the world around you lacks diversity, definition in some areas, and imagination as a whole. Granted you’re inside a large floating facility, Team Ninja doesn’t do enough to hide that fact. You’ll come across some screens with vegetation, though even that doesn’t deliver enough wonder and delight as you’d think. Vines, thorns and other decorative additions look a bit flat, failing to come across as a growth on the ceiling. Trees and bushes fit the bill, but ceiling and ground growth look painted on than living. Coming across the stereotypical fire and ice layouts doesn’t present much more to be excited over either. They do their jobs representing these staples of gaming, but there’s nothing magnificent or delicately built about them. Detail in these cold, metal interiors range from sparse to Gamecube-esque, offering little in the way of utilizing the underpowered Wii graphical capabilities. Anytime you do stumble across a room that deviates from the depressing norm, it’s nothing to write home about.
The dull, effortless performance by Samus Aran’s voice actress sets the tone for a rather uneven audio structure. While you’d be hard pressed to find any of the music and effects sounding off-key, the musical pieces are sparse as best leaving you with nothing much outside explosions and cannon blasts, which all retain a powerful punch to them. When the musical compositions do appear, the volume is so low and it’s all predominantly underwhelming. The Metal Gear Solid-like approach to how you die, mixed with the Mass Effect audio clip played upon death, could have been left on the cutting room floor, as they can produce some major groans of dissatisfaction. Later in the game, you’ll come across a remixed version of one of the more memorable Super Metroid titles, during a battle that won’t be spoiled here. That segment is more or less the audio highlight of M:OM. More or less, anything that matters within the musical spectrum is tucked away in the third act. The rest of the voice acting, while far from drama television quality, have a bit more emotion and effort than Samus.
There are even more nagging issues that pop up every so often. When you’re traveling through various areas in M:OM, you’ll come across a section that requires a 5+ second load, just for you to enter. It slows the pace down and feels overly sloppy for such a high caliber franchise such as this. The streamlined manner of health replenishment when you’re near death, while commendable, is more of a hindrance than a helpful new gimmick. You only fill your health to 99, while leaving your energy tanks empty, rendering them pretty much useless unless you’re near a save area. You’ll come across some power ups that will allow you to replenish an energy tank worth of health, but you still have to be near death and in the clear before you can actually fill it all back up. While M:OM isn’t set to a hair pulling difficulty, you’ll still run across plenty of instances where your reserves will hit empty, and Samus is running on 99 health. When dealing with a swarm of enemies and a low health bar, trying to refill it without getting hit is near impossible. If said enemies dropped small health refills during said battle, the issue would be null and void, however you’re forced to either dodge, tumble, jump and avoid everything until the end of the battle without getting hit. It can be thrilling at times, but as a whole, it’s more of a detraction.
Early “boss” battles offer no sense of scale or trepidation, with later battles gaining scale but still fails to be anything worthwhile. Fighting waves of enemies to reveal pods that need to be shot down by missiles, repeated several times in order for you to take down an obstruction spawning enemies, just to reveal the meager boss that can be shot down by less than a dozen missiles, is anything but pulse pounding. Even some of the more elaborate fights, such as the gigantic fire monster later in the game, are not even close to being as chaotic and all around memorable, like your previous bouts with Ridley throughout the franchise. There’s one particular battle, which will not be spoiled, that retains a semblance of Metroid boss battle excitement, which sadly turns out to be one of, if not the easiest boss battle in the game.
Another oddity is that Samus starts off with just about every weapon and suit power up that matters. The unnecessary deviance known as a plot device renders most of these helpful powers and weaponry locked. Throughout the game, you’ll be forced to team up with a group of fighters which you formerly fought alongside with. You are asked for your complete cooperation throughout, which means you can only use certain weapons once they have been “allowed”. It’s a flimsy plot device, to say the least, and even though hunting down new weapons throughout the game once again would seem tedious, it’s a lot more of a welcome situation than having them all readily available, but being forced to obey the commander and not use certain weapons until they are “unlocked”. Even with a majority of the weapons and powers opened up to Samus, it adds very little to the overall product.
It’s painfully obvious that Team Ninja didn’t put in a solid effort in developing M:OM, and the numerous flaws do show this. It’s troubling, however there’s still a semblance of excitement you’ll receive. Battling enemies of various statures can prove to be a visceral thrill. Dodging an energy blast and then unleashing a charged spread shot that annihilates a half dozen enemies does feel like a proper and natural evolution to the Metroid franchise. Adding in an actual story with lengthy cut scenes also adds to the experience, and no, having them being unskippable isn’t a negative on the first time through, mostly due to the fact that you’ll almost never have to repeat them, thanks to a generous auto save feature. Even with the lengthy cut scenes towards the end, the developments that unfold throughout each one are captivating enough to dismiss the lack of skipping through. Mashing buttons to try and skip and story piece the first time through a game probably means a detachment from the story in general, which was never a problem with M:OM; the sleep inducing tone of Samus Aran, generic game world, uncharacteristic way of unlocking your weapons and powers and other things sprinkled throughout are the real culprit.
Uneven visuals, uneven audio, uneven mechanics, uneven priorities. Metroid: Other M had potential to once again reboot the franchise into something that it lacked — blazing fast paced action and a flowing story that develops throughout your adventure. While the action is intense, and the story unfolds in an appreciative, and non drawn out manner, the yawn inducing world around you with PS2 texture work, the inability to run at a more feasible pace, lame bosses and mid-bosses and various control deficiencies add up and ultimately bring down Metroid: Other M to a mediocre stature. While the pace and intrigue picks up considerably towards the end of the second act, it’s still not the marvel that most people expected this game to be. As always, you’ll have a lot to explore, with a myriad of hidden power ups spread out throughout the game, but for the first time in a Metroid game, there’s no sense of urgency to come back so soon after conquering the story. You can see everything Other M has to offer in under 10 hours, whether you want to collect hidden items or not. It’s not a total wash of a game, but definitely the weakest Metroid title ever, by far.
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