Review by UnaidedCoder
"A pouty thumbs down."
I cannot picture in my head a military force that can be taken seriously if they use a thumbs up as their salute. Never will the thumbs up gesture carry a formal connotation. It is always an informal gesture of either light positive approval in some regions, or as a harsh insult in others. It is not a formal agreement, nor does it have any association with duty. In Metroid Other M, the fictional and uninterestingly named Galactic Federation carries this gesture as it's official salute, and it's this gesture that plays a repeating integral role of symbolism in the story.
It serves greatly to illustrate the problems with Metroid Other M. It is a complete abuse of something that has long since existed in a well established context, just as it does with the Metroid property at large. Metroid Other M tries to introduce a substantial amount of story and characterization previously unknown to the series, both in capacity and contradiction. It's hard to play Metroid Other M without getting the impression that this inclusion is the main focus of this installment.
Let me tackle this directly. You play long standing heroine of the Metroid series Samus Aran, bounty hunter and professional monologuer. You may remember Samus as the silent, stoic figure of endurance she portrays in every title of the series, the character for whom her gender was introduced as a surprise turn of events first and a character trait second. The character for whom you can easily forget her gender under that power suit as she butchers a giant space dragon.
You may remember that because she's not in this game. We get a new Samus Aran that breaks established character in degrees previously unknown to game writing. The once silent protagonist (save the occasional quip and log entries) now takes to narrating every second of her career to herself for our misplaced benefit. This monologue is present in most of the game's storytelling moments, and it is all delivered by the abysmally dull Jessica Martin. I'm not exactly sure if Martin phoned in her lines or not, as her delivery does provide one or two moments in the game where she almost raises her voice, but we primarily get a drowsy delivery that implies she is recovering from a recent sedation. From this dialogue, we get to witness the systematic destruction of everything Samus was established to be. She is portrayed as highly vulnerable and feminine, and emotionally distraught in times where she should bear a stiff upper lip. With one swoop, the silent authoritative figure built upon over the last 24 years is gone, replaced with a beacon of self doubt and gender profiling.
The game's emphasis on this characterization suffers further when we find out that, while Samus is characterized in ways unwelcome and unwarranted, several other characters are introduced who need the characterization and DON'T get it. Alongside Samus operates the Galactic Federation 07th Platoon. It's members consist of Adam Malkovich and Anthony Higgs, as well as four other members who serve no function in the story and barely exist from the viewer's standpoint. Nothing is discovered on any of them besides their names (Lyle, Maurice, James, and K.G.), and they all wear matching armor. These four are actually important in a plot thread that evolves throughout the story, but the fact that we know nothing of or care about any of them leads us to forget about this thread until it is mentioned again. No real resolution comes of this thread outside of put the evidence together yourself, rendering it, and them a completely useless gesture in the story that goes nowhere at all.
Even from the two characters we get screen time with, we still learn little of them, and both are effectively stereotypes. Anthony is the black member of the squad of soldiers, so naturally he has a cocky, light hearted attitude and carries an impossibly larger gun than the rest of the team. Adam is the leader, and as such he is a gruff, reserved military officer of perfect stature and strategy. A pre existing relationship between Adam and Samus (unseen in the rest of the series) serves as the backbone of much of the plot. This is a problem when the entirety of this relationship is seen from the brooding Samus's standpoint (who we don't want to talk to begin with) while Adam spends his time from first to last scene intentionally mysterious.
The only other character present in the plot is Madeline Bergman. Madeline (and, more specifically, finding her) serves as most of the investigation that set the table for Samus and 07th Platoon's presence on board the ship. Even she gets little characterization, coming off as a cold yet naive scientist. She spends most of her time fleeing on screen, and what time is left not doing so is spent explaining things to Samus so she can monologue about them. This comes to a point when over half of the plot is dumped in our laps in the end cutscene. Materials and revelations that for all intents and purposes should have been revealed to us at a pace so we can experience them ourselves is merely given to us in one long rambling exposition sequence. It's a problem throughout the entire game, in fact, that the story and gameplay is kept heavily segregated to the point where the transitions between gameplay segments and a cutscene are as smooth as a brick through a window. Why couldn't the story be revealed smoothly to us as we played? Why could Samus not find evidence on her own and come to the big revelation herself? The story carries a heavy mystery whodunit element that ultimately goes unused as we both don't care who did it and do not find out on our own regardless.
The entirety of this investigation takes place on what we're told is called a Bottle Ship. The Bottle Ship houses what appears to be an extensive internal holodeck (to borrow a term) system that can recreate the appearance of any given geography and ecosystem. This is spread through five sectors, three of which house most of the game (the last 2 being your token space ship interior decal; everything being made of futury metal) The three main sectors, aptly named sectors one, two, and three, house a tropical, frozen, and geothermal environment respectively. Of these three, only the tropical environments lets you play with the holodecks itself, letting you hit the off switch to reveal a previously open path through the tropics to be the warehouse sized room it really is. Sector 2 is just a regular sector that apparently suffers an environmental malfunction, freezing the entire area to the point where a confusing amount of snow has formed everywhere. The best it offers is a fairly poor (compared to what we have seen from other Nintendo properties, notably Mario Galaxy 1 and 2) gravity fluctuation area that generally boils down to either playing with the screen upside down or with your jumping impaired. Sector 3 is filled with lava; at first I thought this to be holographic, but it is later made very apparent that it is real. I have no idea why a sea of lava is sitting in a massive open chamber on a space ship, but the presence of a massive indoor volcano might be to blame.
If any of this sounds interesting, don't be fooled. The gaming industry has plenty of interpretations of platforming over pools of lava or shattering walls of ice. You won't find anything new here. More importantly, however, is that the entire gameplay area feels small. Despite the external size of the Bottle Ship, and the internal volcano and massive grassy field, you will realize halfway through the game that it doesn't take you long to take the longest path to get between the two furthest apart points. Most of the map is in fairly cramped hallways, and what's in an open space has plenty of invisible barriers (both from gameplay and because it's the actual wall of the room in a holographic chamber). This feeling of confinement comes with the token backtracking the series requires, of course, but that doesn't help the game feel any less small.
The ship is also very dark in a lot of places. Often you find yourself poking around an otherwise far too dark corner of a room, thinking they're is an obscure morph ball hole you can squeeze into that ultimately does not exist. This is mainly an isue in the mechanical looking hallways, which are amost entirely shades of grey. That's not to say the rest of the graphics are any more thrilling: Samus and the Platoon in particular are oddly shiny. Their suits look far too computer generated, even compared to the environment, as they lack any sort of grime or wear. Samus's suit actually seems to be missing a good chuck of the detailing it had in the Prime series in favor of the glossy car body-ish finish it has now. That said, the game does have fairly good particle effects; energy blasts, trails, and glowing effects look good. Sadly, they work poorly to illuminate the dark corners you'll be using them in.
Having gotten this far, I should probably deal with the gameplay. It's hard to explain how the gameplay is, believe it or not, the most forgettable part of the entire experience, so I will cover it chronologically. You start the game with an instruction to hold the controller sideways like an old SNES controller. This is by and large my least favorite option with the Wii, and it is forced on us here. Why no nunchuck? It's a far more ergonomic position (to the point where the split controller concept in general is something I would love to try on other consoles) and offers us an analog stick instead of a D-pad. You would think it is due to the existence of the first person mode; to access it, you point the Wii remote at the screen. It functions similarly to Metroid Prime, but lacking the ability to move or anything else outside of aiming and shooting. However, couldn't we just enter this mode by holding the Z button? Having to hold a trigger to enter fine aim is a tried and true method that goes back well into gaming history now. Instead, we have to teeter this candy bar like device on our fingers and navigate a three dimensional space with a 4 way D-pad. The whole thing comes across as a large step backwards in controller innovation and makes me think that the game's presence on the Wii as a whole is arbitrary; it's here as a Nintendo title, but barely as a Wii title. But then, very few things do nowadays, as the motion controls are often gimmicky.
That said, it does feel like they did as much as they could with the controls. The D-pad, despite it's obvious physical issues with 3 space navigation, rarely interfered with where I wanted to go. Samus moves more or less instinctively the way I expected her to in my head, and I had little trouble precision platforming. That being said, I felt like the game had to help me along to achieve this. There's a large presence of auto assistance here, mainly in that the camera is lined up with the environment to make the navigation a primarily up/down/left/right affair anyway. Circular rooms usually lined up the camera and the center of the room with Samus between them, and most more rooms were navigated with the camera fixed to one wall's point of view. That is until you go into the occasional over the shoulder areas; nothing happens in these, there are no enemies to kill, and nothing worth seeing. Samus steers like a scooter and is ungodly slow. I have NO idea what reason these have to be in the game.
The issues with the D-pad are also prominent in combat, although to be fair the analog stick alone wouldn't have fixed this. As we only have one outlet for navigation, we cannot do simple things like strafe or even move backwards, both of which could have been achieved with a lock-on feature. This is another reason for a nunchuck configuration; an on screen cursor could be used to select what we wish to lock onto, no? In order to even connect our shots, we are graced with a huge autoaim field, upwards to the full 90 degree quadrant in front of Samus. We do essentially none of the aiming outside of the first person mode. IN the first person mode, we need to lock onto a target to do whatever it is we had to enter first person mode to do (usually to fire a missile) and while we do so we cannot move. It is very irritating to have to plant your feet in order to use a missile on a quick boss or two that you have to get a significant distance on in order to charge the attack.
On top of the heavy auto aim and other passive assistance measures, we have a dodge system. If you tap the D-pad in any direction before you are stuck by an attack, Samus will dodge it with a green swoop. It does not matter if this attack actually connects or not; during the dodge she is invincible. It does not take you long to figure out that you can do this constantly, rendering Samus virtually invincible during some 70% of combat. What's worse is that it seems as if the game almost expects you to do this; many enemies, and bosses in particular, have flurry attacks that seem to match up with the kind of furious tapping you do, attacks in which only one or two dodges (or a jump) will end up with you completely butchered. It is an utter game breaker in that combat is rendered down to just furiously tapping, which not only lacks grace or precision, but actively punishes attempts at either.
You can find plenty of upgrades (as per standard of the Metroid series) but many are virtually useless. The missile tanks in particular are wholly unnecessary, as missiles can be regenerated on the spot if you have a couple of seconds. Health upgrades are only useful against a few kind of enemies thanks to the dodging mechanic. There are also the actual suit upgrades. Now, The Metroid Series has always been fairly ridiculous in it's excuses as to why Samus must gradually upgrade again in every installment. Other M takes this to a whole new level. Due to the aforementioned pointless relationship between Samus and Adam, Samus has yielded her authorization to use her own equipment to him. This is explained as being due to fear of collateral damage, but the result is completely disastrous to your suspension of disbelief. Only Samus's weaponry is capable of such damage (as we are told, obviously nothing you do in game dents the environment), yet for some reason Samus includes utilities and environmental protection into this. The Varia Suit, for example, protects Samus from high temperatures. Adam only chimes in with the idea to activate this after Samus has waded though the majority of the boiling hot Sector 3. She only uses her grappling hook, a utility that would have proven highly useful early on, after Adam orders it well into an emergency situation where it is necessary. The gameplay necessity is obvious, but give us a real reason for the limitation in game. The idea that we're walking around with the cannon set on stun (or whatever lightweight shot is necessary to make it so weak as to take 3 shots to kill a beetle) when Adam brought somebody with a gun the size of a car chassis and has him wantonly firing the thing in the ship's power facility comes across as unspeakably lazy writing. She does find one or two of the major powerups instead of simply activating them, but this far from excuses the entire concept of being asinine.
The enemies themselves are overly forgettable. Other M falls into the trap of palette swapping; many of the grunt enemies have 3 or 4 alternative versions. Generally this means that there is either a variant for each sector's theme (like normal, icy and fiery beetles) or progressively more difficult versions of a previous enemy in a different color and maybe firing a differently colored projectile. Some of the more interesting enemies includes a sentry turret that alternates between battering ram and a twirling bubblegum flavored laser blast, a 6 legged tree like dinosaur that flips itself over during the fight, and a creepy featureless lava creature you can freeze the maw of. Yes, the game has it's selection of returning members of the enemy roster, particularly the Space Pirates, but their appearance feels arbitrary. Just like the development mentioned above with the rest of 07th Platoon, you can easily snip out the Sapce pirate's involvement in the story and it wouldn't suffer for it. Also like the 07th Platoon thread, the Pirate's thread sort of fades out with no sort of proper resolution, and with no involvement or conflict with Samus in what little resolution it gets. They ultimately feel worked in for the sake of fan service, but that doesn't succeed well when that fact is so prominent and the game's overall faith to the property is so poor.
The bosses are equally forgettable, save two: One is a cross between the Power Loader from Aliens and a Zamboni, and the other is entirely optional anyway. Even so, most boss fights carry two common traits that they suffer for. First is the fact that the aforementioned reliance on tapping the D-pad becomes more and more necessary for bosses as the game goes on, and the second is that bosses often require you to plant your feet and fire a missile at a time when it feels largely innapropriate to stand still. The last boss in particular you don't even know is the last boss, as the game's ending (and complimentary rambling exposition as described earlier) comes out of left field due to both the status of the story up to that point and the game's length.
That is the real killing blow to Metroid Other M: it is insultingly short. Even if you like the game, you won't get much out of it because it lasts only a few hours. There's a post credits section, wherein you can unlock the rest of the optional items (some you need to get during this section) and fulfill one last objective. Doing this unlocks you hard mode (and a screen telling you you got 100% of the items, complete with SAMUS TALKING), which is actually normal mode but without any items. It is essentially the 0% run that many gamers did with older Metroid titles optionally, but it, of course, runs even shorter and endears itself even less then the regular mode. You can also watch a 2 hour movie composed of the cutscenes and recorded gameplay, in case you want to endure the game's shallow, unfulfilled plot and complete lack of characterization again without having to actually play the game. In it's place I recommend a written apology.
At the end of all this, it's clear that Other M deals the Metroid series a damaging blow. In my mind, the property should be shelved before it is degraded further. The problem is, Other M wouldn't hold up even if it wasn't a Metroid title. If this game came out with no pre existing license attached to it for the shelf price it commands now, it would fade into obscurity far faster than it will with the license attached. It would have been a bargain bin title from day one if it was about space bounty hunter Jo Nobody beating up on alien wildlife and alien cyborg crustaceans in a spaceship instead of Samus Aran. Nothing holds the game up; it does little for the Metroid title and even less for gaming at large.
I can't recommend Other M. If you are a die hard Metroid fan, you're going to get it anyway. I can't dissuade you. But deep down, behind your preconceived notions and sheer demand to enjoy Other M, you are not going to be satisfied with the experience, or knowing what it could have been.
What it should have been.
Reviewer's Score: 3/10 | Originally Posted: 09/07/10
Game Release: Metroid: Other M (US, 08/31/10)
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