Metroid Prime: HuntersWhen it comes to the long term main Nintendo licenses, Metroid has always stood out a little from the others. While the likes of Mario and Link have mostly come across as pure fantasy, and often colourful and bright, Metroid was the gritty realistic one (well, as realistic as sci-fi could be). There's no faraway kingdom of mushroom people, no young kids setting out into the world to defeat evil organisations and magic is not the answer to basically everything. Although I entered the series fairly late (Gamecube/Gameboy Advance era) I quickly came to love the series and what it delivered. Therefore when Hunters was released onto the DS I was eager to play it. After all, if could come even close to the Gamecube Metroid Prime titles then it was sure to be a big hit. Alas, Hunters is nothing like its home console brethren.
In terms of how the game looks I'm somewhat mixed on the issue. Granted there's nothing wrong in technical terms but rather it's how those visuals have been used that hinders things.
The different planets you visit look beautiful, with some really nice textures and effective use of lighting and shading to create what is initially some genuinely interesting looking areas. Great, but then the game basically reuses passageways and rooms to extend the size of each area, so by the time you pass through that same room for the fifth time it's stopped being interesting. Even some areas that are differently can end up looking similar, sometimes to the point that you become very eager to move onto the next planet just so you have something different to look at.
Character design also comes with its positives and negatives. On the plus side you have the designs of the important characters. Essentially the hunters, which includes Lady Samus herself, are very well designed. Each one has a great concept to their appearance and they really look good and are animated very well. Unfortunately, this simply doesn't carry on over to the generic enemy cast, who I would rather term as 'blobs' due to completely generic shapes that make them. Fine, they're generic, there's no need to actually convey that with lifeless designs. What boggles the mind is that even the non-hunter bosses simply don't look at all interesting.
At least I have nothing to complain about when it comes to the sounds of the game. Music in this series has always been more for atmospheric effect rather than pumping tunes for your MP3 player, and Hunters also delivers a selection of tracks well suited to helping create a sense of isolation as Samus makes the difficult journey alone. The sound effects of your arm cannon bursting with firepower or the explosions of bombs and the like sound very good and help build upon the presentation.
The basic backstory itself isn't of much interest. Something about an ancient power and collecting artefacts to access said power blah blah blah. Whatever, that's not really interesting enough to go on about anyway.
Where the plot does shine is the story of the hunters. Samus is not the only one seeking out these artefacts, as hunters from various origins are also seeking them for various reasons, both good and evil. You have some kind of a space pirate, a strange rock creature and someone with a grudge against the federation. The reasons for the crossing of paths is great, although I wish this was developed a little more and have some notable outcome of the meetings other than simply fighting over the artefacts.
That's pretty much the premise behind the single player campaign. You, playing as the lovely Samus Aran, must explore a handful of planets and collect these artefacts to prevent the other hunters from gaining that awesome power that's locked away somewhere. Unfortunately, I cannot help but feel that little effort was actually put into the single player. What, did they forget until the last minute and quickly cram something in? That, as unfortunate as it sounds, is exactly the impression I get.
There has been a lot said about the way the game controls, and how it's supposed to be perfect once you get used to it, but after much trying I cannot fathom what people are talking about. Perfect control? Clunky is a lot more accurate.
Hunters offers two control methods: the default method that uses the touch screen and half the console buttons (interchangeable to accommodate left handed players) and a more familiar digital interface using all the standard console buttons with limited touch screen use. Unfortunately, both control methods fail to offer the right level of control a player needs to work a FPS game.
OK, so let's cover the default method first, as it's obviously the style that was intended for use. The D-Pad or face buttons are used to move Samus forward, backwards and to sidestep. Either shoulder button is used for firing the main cannon or laying bombs. These are certainly responsive and work as they should. The problem is when you start fiddling with the touch screen.
Aiming and turning is handled via said touch screen. The idea is to touch the screen and drag to move the aim of Samus' cannon. Sensitivity of turning and aiming can be altered in the options menu. Sounds fine in theory but the execution is pretty horrid. The main problem is the 'neutral' point (the point on the touch screen where no turning/aiming occurs) is simply wherever the stylus initially touches the screen. This means that whenever you lift off the screen and then press down again the neutral position changes to wherever the stylus presses down again. The thing here is that it is all too easy to lift off the screen for a moment, especially when you're trying to hold the DS in one hand. This tends to cause the neutral point to jump around, and it completely screws up attempts to aim and even to turn accurately. Nobody wants to be busy trying to reset their neutral points in the middle of firefights. What precisely is wrong with having neutral in the centre of the screen at all times? That would have actually worked.
Neutral positioning isn't the only issue though. Changing weapons and entering morph ball mode is all done via touching icons on the touch screen, but since you're busy using that screen to aim and turn then it becomes a bit too easy to accidentally switch weapons or curl up into a ball. Hardly what one would call convenient. Jumping is also something of a nightmare. Players need to double-tap the touchscreen to jump, which just feels incredibly unnatural and awkward, not to mention it lacks the responsiveness a standard button press offers.
The digital control method is slightly better at controlling the action but it also comes with flaws that hinder gameplay. The D-Pad is pretty much the same thing as before but the face buttons are now used for aiming. It manages to avoid the pitfalls of a moving neutral position but the issue now is that aiming simply isn't accurate enough. Digital input to aim in a 3D environment is always going to have that problem, and Hunters is no exception. Shooting and jumping is handled via the shoulder buttons, and while there's really no difference to shooting, jumping is a lot more manageable with this setup.
Strangely, the touch screen still manages to present a problem in this setup, although for a different reason. Even switching to the digital method, players still need to use the touch screen to switch weapons and enter morph ball mode, and it's slightly awkward to actually hit those icons in the midst of play.
Combat itself also tends to be severely underwhelming, and the controls are only partly to blame. Fact is that almost all enemies simply aren't particularly interesting to fight against.
The generic groups that sometimes come at you are not only boring in appearance but in their approach as well. Each blob is eerily similar to the next generic blob, and often it is simply a case of 'shoot until dead then move on'. These enemies just have no special traits to make the fights fun, and the game simply isn't interested in drawing the player into frantic firefights with these generics either.
Boss battles come in two types - generic bosses and hunter bosses. Generic bosses I have termed as such because they are just as uninteresting as the standard generic enemies. In fact, the only real difference is that these battles go on a lot longer, but nothing is really there to make the experience anymore fun. Metroid has tended to come up with some pretty interesting boss battle concepts, so this total lack of effort is disappointing.
Hunter boss battles, on the other hand, are representative of what the rest of the combat should have been like. OK, I'll admit it. The hunter battles are fun. Sometimes during exploring a level one of those other hunters will attack you, and these instances are the only time combat actually gets out of first gear. Even though the concept is simply to blast away until one of you dies these hunters make things interesting by letting rip with their weapons in excessive fashion and using some special tactics (for example, one hunter can split into two and have one half act as a turret while the other half continues to attack). These battles are fast and frantic, with a genuine chance of getting killed. If only the rest of the combat matched up to this.
There is a lot of weapons on offer, although most of them need to be collected during the game before Samus can fire them. The standard power beam is the default weapon. It's immediately usable and requires no ammo but is the weakest weapon. Missiles are powerful blasts but use up ammo. Each of the other weapons are stronger and tend to offer some kind of special traits (fire, ice, electric etc), but these also use up ammo. It's a good setup except for the clumsiness involved in actually changing weapons, but does nothing to make battles more involving.
When you're not battling boredom in combat things then you'll be exploring the levels to reach the next destination, but it seems they weren't too interested in getting this aspect right either. The problem is that the level design can be called uninspired at best. Stages are fairly linear in design, with much of the time spent going from A to B and shooting the odd blob along the way. Sure, there are a few puzzles for the player to solve and even sometimes there will be some offshoot areas or paths to go down, but these are simply too infrequent to impact the game enough. The Metroid series is known for large expansive worlds that encourages exploration, so why does Hunters get it so wrong?
Even the game's morph ball mode - a defining trait of the series - is drastically underused. Hitting the icon on the bottom-right of the touch screen causes Samus to curl up into a small ball (and thus the camera pulls back to third person perspective to better keep track of the action). The idea is to explore small areas that normal Samus can't reach, but there simply isn't a lot of them and the ball isn't really used in any interesting way. Would the small tunnels in the game really be much different if they were normal sized? Probably not. The levels are still linear and boring.
The campaign does have a pretty decent length to it but it's questionable as to how much fun can be derived from that. Hunter battles are admittedly fun but that's about the only thing that seems to come off as intended. Everything else in the single player just seems to miss the mark entirely. Replay value is almost non-existent though, because the game is bothersome to play through first time as it is.
Where Hunters fails as a single player experience it excels as a multiplayer game. Players can fight it out in a variety of ways, ranging from download play with a single game card, multicard local play and even online over a WiFi connection.
Multiplayer allows players to pick a hunter to play as from all the hunters they have defeated in the single player and Samus herself. Unlike the single player game, each hunter is restricted to a specific weapon type, and each hunter also has a unique alt form (such as Samus' morph ball). These traits makes each one play very differently and helps spread things out.
In most cases there are a lot of game modes on offer, although probably not anything FPS fans haven't seen already. Deathmatch, capture the flag, king of the hill etc. There are also team options where relevant and various game options can be set for these games. In cases where all game modes aren't playable (such as downplay play) then standard deathmatch it is.
Yes, the multiplayer is actually pretty good. The control issues still exist but since all players are suffering them then it's not quite so bad. The level design is somewhat decent and often well suited to combat, but it's the fact that the fighting is simply a lot more intense that makes this work. Attacks can come from everywhere and the alt forms can be used to good effect to help players fight well.
However, it's not enough. Yes, the multiplayer is good, but that doesn't make up for a terrible single player experience and it's not enough to recommend the title. I was hoping for another amazing entry in the Metroid series. What I got wasn't even close.