Review by darkknight109

Reviewed: 11/22/10

One Step Sideways, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Samus is back in her latest adventure, this time with a new development team in tow. After Retro Studios finished off the Metroid Prime trilogy, Nintendo handed Metroid over to Team Ninja for the series' next instalment. It was hotly anticipated by Nintendo fans, but does it live up to the hype? The answer, sadly, is no. That said, I still have some respect for the game and its developers, because it really does try and take the series in a new direction while still remaining faithful to the series' roots. But for a few missteps, it would have succeeded too. Sadly, a slapdash presentation and lack of refinement prevents Other M from breaking out from the realm of mediocrity.

The game looks and sounds beautiful, and its always encouraging to see companies actually taking the time to use the Wii's graphical capabilities to their fullest, instead of slapping together a graphics engine that looks like it was recycled from an N64 game. There is very little music in the game, but what is present is both tasteful and atmospheric. However, even in the graphic/music departments, issues start to crop up very quickly. It's not that the game does anything wrong in these areas, it's that it fails to capitalize on what it does right. Team Ninja does an impressive job of creating some wonderfully immersive atmospheres at various points in the game, then does absolutely nothing with them. There were a few moments where I was wandering down a gloomy, dimly lit hallway with string instruments straining eerily in the background. My heart was pounding and I was fully expecting some xenomorphic horror to come leaping out at me from an air duct or something... only to reach the other side of the hallway without any enemies present at all. I almost felt cheated - the game had created a wonderful sense of tension, then completely ignored it and pushed on to something else. This became something of a recurring theme in the game and I eventually lost count of all the times Other M rapidly approached awesomeness, only to abruptly veer away at the last second.

The atmosphere Team Ninja seems to be going for is "abandoned." The pretence of the game is that Samus and a group of Galactic Federation Marines are responding to a distress call on a Federation ship (more on that later). They arrive and find the ship deserted and some alien creatures wandering around. TN does an excellent job of creating an environment that screams "experiment suddenly gone wrong." The ship isn't derelict or abandoned; to the contrary, nearly everything is still functional and active, but in a way that seems creepy and foreboding - like whoever was running everything was suddenly disappeared by a mysterious attacker. Unfortunately, while the atmosphere itself is quite... well, atmospheric, it doesn't carry over into gameplay all that well. Half the rooms don't even have enemies in them, which makes the game feel like an incomplete beta test. I recognize that this was probably deliberately done as a thematic decision, but it still doesn't help allay the feeling that the game was released half-finished, a sensation furthered by several other problems present in the final game.

In terms of gameplay, Other M is a mostly-third person shooter that strikes a rough balance between Super Metroid and the Metroid Prime series. I was initially sceptical about the decision to make Other M third person, as the third person viewpoint is a tremendously difficult one for a protagonist with a ranged weapon. That said, Team Ninja actually did a fairly good job at making the game flow. Samus has a reasonably responsive auto-aim that means the game does not suffer for its third person viewpoint, and Other M varies between true 3D and 2.5D sections similar to those used in Sonic Unleashed (think of a sidescroller where you can move in and out of the screen). However, the controls take a lot of getting used to. Samus has a dodge function where if you press a direction (any direction) while she is being attacked, she will leap out of the way of the attack and instantly charge her beam cannon. Initially, this move is somewhat counter-intuitive, but mastering it is critical to defeating anything beyond the basic enemies. The other part of the controls that I found tremendously clunky was the first person segments. While in her normal, third person camera mode, Samus can only use her beam weapons. If you want to use missiles, the grapple beam, or any other part of Samus's arsenal, you have to switch to first person mode. This is done by taking the Wiimote (which you usually hold sideways like an NES controller) and pointing it at the screen. Although it sounds simple, the motion is quite awkward and takes a lot of getting used to. Not helping the situation is that while in first person mode Samus cannot move. As such, you frequently find yourself in situations (boss fights or mini-boss fights are filled with these) where you have to dodge an attack in third person, quickly switch to first person to fire off a few missiles, then switch back to third person to dodge any follow-up counterattacks. You do eventually get used to the constant switching of controller positions, but I was probably two thirds through the game by the time I felt comfortable doing so.

Samus's excuse for starting out with almost no power-ups this time around is that she is taking orders from a Galactic Federation superior (Metroid Fusion fans may remember Adam Malkovich) who has refused to authorize most of her suit's functions until he sees a need for them. The non-sensical nature of this situation causes a few facepalms but, really, they had to give SOME excuse as to why Samus has lost all her powers (again...) and it was better than having her get hit by some enemy's perfectly aimed, suit-disabling attack like in games past. Unlike previous games in the Metroid series, enemies no longer drop ammo or energy. Samus can recharge her missiles on the spot, but regaining lost energy is restricted to visiting a save point (or being reduced to almost no health and performing a special death-save action). This makes the game a little more difficult than previous instalments and, instead of feeling like you're playing a fearless space bounty hunter who can blast her way through anything, the enemies suddenly become a little more humbling as you sprint from save point to save point.

So let's switch gears for a moment and talk about the story. This is easily one of the most contentious elements of the game, on a number of levels, and I find myself on the fence in most of the discussions. A first for the Metroid series, Other M is heavily story based. Samus has evolved from the mostly-silent protagonist of games past to a character with motivations, a backstory, and, *gasp* a voice actress. Instead of acting alone, Samus quickly meets up with a team of Galactic Federation Marines onboard the space ship she is investigating and, since they have legal authority over the investigation, she eventually joins the unit. Or "re-joins" it, as it were; turns out this particular squadron of marines is one that Samus was a part of when she worked for the Galactic Federation. Anyways, we get to see Samus's interactions with these marines throughout the game and she is fairly close to some of them, causing the formerly-cold-as-ice bounty hunter to actually have some emotional moments.

These changes to Samus and to the Metroid dynamic have met with no shortage of outrage amongst the fanbase and fans seem split over whether the move successfully evolves the game and gives it a more realistic tone or whether it shatters the image and atmosphere that the previous instalments had so carefully cultivated. As I mentioned earlier, I'm of mixed minds. Unlike some, I don't think Samus was characterized badly; her emotional scenes are somewhat jarring, but for most of the game her actions still fit in with the character image that the previous games in the series have created. However, I question the decision in making Metroid a story-based game at all. No other game in the series is truly story-based. Metroid Fusion comes close, but even then most of the "story" is largely just ADAM ordering Samus around the ship and explaining the dangers of where she is headed. The beauty of Metroid games - their real claim to fame, beyond their stellar gameplay - was in their ambience. Even as far back as Super Metroid, the games did an incredible job of creating oddly haunting alien landscapes which, in spite of being vibrant and full of life, seemed utterly foreboding and unsettling. Samus was a silent protagonist not necessarily because the creators deliberately made her that way, but because there was no one to talk to. She was completely and utterly alone on planets where nearly every other living creature was actively trying to kill her. It made for a game that felt almost lonely and helpless at points. Even Metroid Fusion retained that sensation, albeit in a lesser amount than its predecessors, as Samus's only companion was a computer program rather than an actual other living being. Now, to give Other M its due, the marines do a good job of sinking into the background for most of the game. That said, the game never really gives you that sense of isolation that other Metroids did.

My main complaint with the story is that it seems hopelessly scattered and completely disorganized. At various points, the game will create plot threads, build upon them and begin to climax... then suddenly completely drop them or skip ahead to a jarringly abrupt denouement, sometimes not even bothering to properly conclude the plot thread in question. For example, the game has numerous thematic allusions to motherhood (Metroid: Other M has the acronym MOM, Other M can be re-ordered to spell Mother, the space ship you're investigating is called a Bottle Ship and you're called there by a "Baby's Cry", a type of distress signal... so on and so forth) and much is made of Samus's maternal relationship to the Metroid Hatchling from Super Metroid in the game's early stanzas. However, the game never does a whole lot with all these thematic cues and they're just sort of left hanging there with no apparent reason behind them. If you look closely, you can kind of sort of see where they might have originally been intended to play a bigger role, but in the final product there really isn't an explanation for them.

And it doesn't stop there. The game's pacing could best be described as "tumultuous." The game will occasionally drop hints at a future encounter or battle, creating a bit of suspense and anticipation in the player, only to quietly sweep aside the offending party before Samus ever has a chance to reach them. On the flip side, the game will sometimes thrust you into story climaxes with absolutely no build-up whatsoever and expect you to treat it as a big deal. The resulting roller-coaster ride leaves the game utterly bereft of any sense of pacing. You can go long stretches of the game without even the slightest hint of a story scene... then suddenly the game feels the need to catch up and dumps about three different major plot points on your lap without properly developing any of them. For those of you familiar with the phrase "Missed Moment of Awesome" from TVTropes, this game has them in spades. The plot proceeds in spasmodic stop-starts all the way to game's end, which is perhaps the ultimate example of the game's poor pacing. Without spoiling anything, the last boss you face has no build-up and really doesn't feel like a final boss, due in no small part to the fact that the story doesn't seem to be reaching a climax. Afterwards, you play through a quick action sequence... then the game abruptly ends right in the middle of it. There's a couple of random story twists to end things off, most of the outstanding plot points are neatly clipped away with healthy doses of Deus ex Machina and the credits begin to roll. That's it. No final boss, no timed escape from the base (a staple element of Metroid games), nothing. It's like Team Ninja was merrily working away on the game when suddenly someone told them that everything had to be finished in 72 hours in order to meet the production deadline, so they had to stop what they were doing, plunk the ending where they'd finished working, then hastily tie up all the loose ends they'd left outstanding. The whole story feels rushed and unrefined, as though it was tossed in as an afterthought. Considering that Team Ninja made the deliberate effort to make Other M a story based game, the least they could have done is hired a few editors to make sure it flowed properly.

The game has little in the way of replay value. Like previous Metroid games, there are power-ups you can find that increase your missile and energy capacity (as well as a new power-up that increases the speed you can charge your beam) but you can backtrack to any area, so collecting them once you finish the game is not a big issue. The "scans" from Metroid Prime are gone and there isn't much in the way of bonus content, so once you've played through the game once you've pretty much seen everything it has to offer.

Ultimately, Metroid: Other M is a diamond in the rough. With a little more polish and attention to detail, it could have been a smash hit in the vein of previous Metroid games. Instead, it sits comfortably on the plateau of mediocrity and its attempts to break into awesomeness come across as half-hearted at best. This is really only a must-buy for hardcore fans of the series; for those of you looking for an interesting afternoon, the game's certainly not a bad play, but I'd definitely recommend renting first before you put down any significant cash on a purchase.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

Product Release: Metroid: Other M (US, 08/31/10)

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