Monday, January 2, 2012

A Big Thumbs Down for Metroid: Other M

Changing the formula of a 25-year old series can be a much-needed breath of fresh air when all of its conventions begin to feel too tried. Sometimes change can be very beneficial, such as the case with Metroid Prime, which took a 2D side-scrolling series and made it into a fully 3D, first-person perspective with resounding success. Sometimes, however, the changes just don't work, and you end up with a game that doesn't capture the magic of its original formula, nor the refreshment of its new direction.

Such is the case with Metroid: Other M, a joint effort by Nintendo, Team Ninja, and D-Rockets to blend the gameplay styles of the first-person "Prime" trilogy with the side-scrolling platforming of the originals, with a newly prominent emphasis on narrative and backstory. Some of the new elements and twists work pretty well, but a slew of other problems drag the game's few prime achievements down into oblivion.

Plenty of criticism has already been leveled against Other M, but most of the professional reviewers only complain about Samus's characterization in the new story/backstory, and nitpick a few other problems (like the awkward control scheme). In the end, they still gave high praises to Other M, when the game doesn't deserve anything more than a mediocre "middle of the road" score.

Other M was a nice experiment, but the results are not worth praising. Besides the big issues mentioned above, there are a lot of smaller details and problems that ultimately make the game feel bland, generic, and soulless--almost a chore to play. It's nice to see Nintendo taking risks with such a staple franchise, but I hope they learn the lessons from this one and refine the experimentation process in their next release. More of my review / analysis after the jump.

Other M may be a halfway competent game in its own right, but as a member of the Metroid series it's quite a letdown and doesn't deliver the same quality that I've come to expect from the series. In order to understand all that's wrong (or not quite right) with Other M, it's essential to understand the aspects that made the bulk of the previous games so enjoyable.

The core experience of the Metroid series has fundamentally been about exploring. You'd have large maps with lots of branching and interconnected pathways. After the starting sequences in each game, you usually had several different directions to go in, and once you started unlocking power-ups, the amount of places you could go started to multiply exponentially. It was kind of like starting out at the center of a spider web and having all kinds of different pathways open up as you made it through the game.

The exploration was fun for a number of different reasons. For starters, it helped that each area had a unique feel to it, comprised of the visual aesthetics, the level design, the gameplay mechanics, and the music. These factors combined to make each new themed area (ice world, lava world, underwater world, etc) exciting to encounter for the first time, because it made the game feel dynamic and different. Just when you thought you'd seen it all, you'd stumble into a whole new area with interesting things to see, new challenges, and just a whole new "feel."

But the real high point with the exploration was the sense of freedom you had, that you could go anywhere you wanted, whenever you wanted. The level design was very "open" and allowed you lots of different opportunities to explore off of the main path, and doing so was usually very rewarding. It was always satisfying to find an interesting or suspicious area that was just out of reach, and come back to it a little later with a new upgrade. It made it feel like you were making progress through the game and developing as a player, and you were often rewarded with energy tanks, missile upgrades, or other such tangible rewards for your efforts, which made the rest of the game a little easier.

The exploration in Other M, however, is just not that fun. Instead of complex maps with branching pathways, a convenient hub system that would get you around the map quickly, or even interesting scenery, Other M gives us a bunch of mostly straight hallways and linear pathways. Ninety percent of the rooms in Other M only have one entrance and one exit, and a lot of them are quite literally just hallways with nothing to see or do, apart from battle a couple of insignificant, trifling enemies.

A sample map from GamesRadar.

There's a "Main Sector" which acts like a hub between the three other sectors, but it's not very easy to backtrack through previous areas/levels/rooms. If, for example, you finally unlock the super missile and want to go back for some upgrade caches that you passed earlier in the game, you're going to have to spend 30 minutes running through the long, linear pathways to even get anywhere, because nothing is really connected to anything else.

It also doesn't help that most of the level design is pretty bland and generic, making it hard to remember where specific places or setpieces are in the environment. There are a handful of really memorable rooms, but the fact that everything is connected by a series of long, dull, uneventful, linear hallways makes it impossible to keep track of anything. You end up just running around without a real sense of the environment, which detracts from the experience somewhat when you can't become familiar with the maps.

The map doesn't help navigation a lot, either, because unlike the fully 3D maps from Prime, which let you tell rooms apart from each other by their design, the maps in Other M are completely flat and two-dimensional, not even detailing the interior of the rooms. Every room is just a blue rectangle with a white outline around it.

The map works simply enough at getting you to your next objective (which isn't always necessary because there's usually only one linear path you can follow, with all side-paths blocked by inexplicably locked doors or power-ups that you seemingly never obtain), but it exposes a weird issue with the level design being really simple when you're just wandering around, while also somehow being incredibly convoluted when you're trying to get back to a specific power-up cache.

In terms of exploring the map and finding power-ups---the main factor that gives you a sense of freedom and reward in the previous Metroid games---Other M makes this aspect incredibly shallow and uninteresting. When you wander through the maps, upgrades will flash and blink on the mini-map, cluing you in that you should be looking for them. It doesn't tell you exactly where they are in the map (since the map is so non-descript), so you still go through a slight puzzle sequence to obtain it.

This can be somewhat fun at times, but more often than not it's just a matter of you running through the linear hallways, seeing a blip on the map, and going "Oh, there's a power-up somewhere in here. I guess I should get it." And then you spend the next five minutes battling the fixed third-person camera angles that don't let you see things in the environment, or switching to first-person mode where you can't move around to get any kind of depth perception or parallax on what you're seeing (or not seeing).

In general, though, there's just not enough opportunity to explore off of the main path of the game to hunt for power-ups because the game is so linear and the level design is so generic. It just doesn't feel rewarding to hunt them down because the game tells you exactly where to look, and if there's not a blip on the map then you can safely disregard all of the things in that room knowing they serve no functional purpose in the actual gameplay.

The upgrades themselves are even more useless when you consider that the game basically forces you to beat it before a lot of them are even obtainable. After the final confrontation with the game's villain, the credits roll and then you get to play a bonus encore/epilogue, the only real purpose of which is to go back for more powerups that will be useless in the rest of the epilogue. Most of what you can find are missile packs that increase your capacity, but the missiles are literally useless because your screw attack and power-bombs will one-hit everything, and the surprise boss at the end of the epilogue has you dodging stuff so much that you literally do not have time to switch to first-person perspective to fire the missiles.

I played through Other M with a friend, and we managed to get all 100% of the item upgrades, only ever looking up the solution to one really obscure one that had us thwarted by poor level design. (A lot of them were were unclear whether they were actually obtainable or if we had to trigger something else later in the game and come back to them, so this was a recurring problem with the exploration.) It wasn't very challenging, except for putting up with the game's awkward camera angles and poor level design, and therefore wasn't very satisfying to do. It was just more tedious than satisfying, especially since I didn't feel any stronger at 69% item completion than I did at 100%. And by the time you even CAN get 100%, you're through with the main game, anyway, so who cares?

It's also pretty lame that you don't actually find the equipment upgrades yourself (like the super missiles, the freeze ray, the grapple beam, etc), you don't do anything to deserve them. In the original games, it was rewarding to hunt down the upgrades because that was something you did on your own, and it felt like you were carving your way through the gameworld and up the ranks in power. In Other M, you have all of your power-ups from the very beginning, and they become usable automatically as part of the main story, with Samus not using any obviously useful tool until Adam (your commander) specifically authorizes it.

But the disappointing thing about this power-up authorization (besides how absurd it is from a story stand-point, which I'll get to later) is that it serves relatively little purpose, because most of the powerups have zero impact on the gameplay. For the most part, the new equipment will function exactly like whatever you were using before, or they just turn interesting abnormalities back to normal.

For example, you unlock several different upgrades for your gun, like the diffusion beam, the ice beam, and the wave beam. All of these technically do different things, but they automatically add onto and overwrite the previous upgrade. So by the time you have the wave beam, your shots are going through glass, splitting into multiple rays, and freezing targets. You don't toggle between them for some kind of strategic use, each new upgrade just has you doing the same thing you were already doing, but the game automatically applies whatever effect is necessary for the given moment. Gameplay is virtually no different from upgrade to upgrade.

You unlock the missiles and now you can lock onto a target and fire a missile. You unlock the seeker missiles, and now you do the exact same thing but now they home towards the target. You unlock the super missile and it's just the exact same thing as shooting a regular charge beam. You unlock the heat resistant Varia suit and it doesn't do anything unique except make it so you don't suffer a drain on health while in lava rooms. You unlock the gravity suit, and all it does is nullify the effects of interesting gravity distortions to make the rest of the game exactly like the first 80%.

So, yeah, the exploration just isn't that great. It's all too linear and most the rooms aren't memorable at all, and without much to see and not much to do, apart from exiting them on the other side. There's no sense of reward or challenge in anything, and nothing really changes significantly from the beginning of the game until the end.

Next on the list of problems is the general way in which the game feels so heavily automated. The third-person running, jumping, shooting, and climbing trees stuff is all pretty fluid and works well, but because of the choice not to use the Nunchuk, there's a lot of limitations to the controls, and so the game ends up doing a lot of the work for you.

You only have two buttons with the standard controls: jump and shoot, plus the directional pad for movement. But because you're moving in a three-dimensional space and aiming with a two-dimensional plus-pad, the game has a heavy-duty auto-aim feature that makes it so that if you're facing the general direction of the target, your shot will hit it. Or sometimes it will miss completely because you can't manually aim the shots yourself in third-person. The auto-aim is absolutely essential, otherwise aiming would be impossible, and it's not a huge deal, but it does detract from the experience enough to make third-person combat kind of dull after a while, since all you do is hold a button and release it every so often.

But besides that, there are a lot of cool dodging maneuvers and melee attacks that all happen automatically. If an enemy shoots a laser at you, you don't have to press a button to do a spiffy roll or somersault, you just press the directional button and Samus does it herself. Most of the time you can just be running in a straight direction, holding the button down, and she'll do the thing on her own without even a directional push for input. When certain enemies get in close, if you press the "shoot" button (which you'll be pressing 100% of the time anyway), the game will take the control away from you and play a quick animated scene of her doing some kind of elaborate round-house kick or whatever.

The other fun example is that the input to interact with a save point or a computer console doesn't even have a button press, you just take your hands off the controls for two seconds. "Press nothing to interact." This isn't a big deal, but it's a subtle thing that gets into my brain and exemplifies the fact that I have actually very little input on the game. It also brings up some weird moments where you just awkwardly stand in front of control panels trying to interact with them, wondering if Samus isn't doing anything because you're not standing in the right spot/angle, or because you can't interact with it at all.

Also on the list of automated and restricted controls is the fact that you can't freely grapple onto grapple targets from whatever angle to use them for whatever creative means you want. Each grapple hook has a singular axis on which you can swing, forcing you to swing in one direction only. It makes that mechanic just a matter of "press A to grapple onto target and press button again to jump off." It's not involved in any way and further detaches you from the game world. Even just regular jump-platforming is more involved and entertaining than the grapple beam.

You're also unable to shoot missiles freely; you can only shoot missiles while in first-person mode and while locked-on to a target. So you can't shoot missile at glass walls hoping to break them and access some secret spot unless the game automatically locks onto a specific portion of the glass window that you can shoot. And if you are locked onto a target while in first-person mode, you can't shoot regular beam shots, because every shot will be a missile.

So the first-person perspective is especially atrocious. Since they didn't opt for the Nunchuk, you cannot move around while in first-person, which makes it feel like a death-sentence during certain boss fights that require the use the missiles. The normal third-person controls have you holding the wiimote sideways like a classic NES controller, and in order to switch to first-person mode you have to rotate the controller, grab it at a new angle, and then point it at the screen.

Besides the fact that switching from each position rapidly is almost literally a juggling act and is way too awkward to do, pointing the wiimote at the screen from that horizontal position inevitably means that you end up pointing at a weird spot on the edge of the screen for a brief moment, with Samus turning or aiming somewhere other than where you expected her to. It then takes a second or two for you to orient your brain to what's happening on screen in this sudden, jarring new camera angle, while also trying to figure out where your cursor is aimed while a bunch of things are attacking you.

Even once you're in first-person and you're through that terrible, horrendous transition, it's just not that great. The wiimote controls are kind of sluggish and don't allow you the kind of precision you need when you have to rapidly move the cursor around the screen, shooting different things that are all coming at you very quickly and threatening to kill you. In some battles where you're forced into first-person and can't switch out, it becomes a real chore to even lock onto targets because they get up so close to you that their target lock could be anywhere, and you just can't look around fast enough to keep up with what's happening.

Some of these sections are surprisingly difficult, only because you have to struggle against the terrible transitions from third-person to first-person controls, or because the aiming system is too sluggish to get the job done. It makes a generally easy game (with a lot of hand-holding) artificially challenging, which only makes it frustrating and tedious.

The whole game isn't that challenging, apart from the bad controls, largely because of how much of the game's action is automated for you, and because of how much the game streamlines everything directly to you (you can't wander off the main path and get lost, you can't miss important upgrades, they give you all of the equipment that you need without having to lift a finger yourself). But perhaps the most iconic gameplay device to illustrate the hand-holding is the "noob button" which replenishes your health and all of your missiles by pointing the wiimote upward (in the "umbrella stance") and holding the A button.

It's not a perfect "win game" button, because it does take a few seconds to charge and get the effect of the replenishing health/missiles (one hit interrupts it), but it takes a lot of the classic gameplay out of the series when you don't have to scrounge for ammo or health drops. It takes a lot of the long-term tension out of the game of being low on health and having to risk your own death battling more enemies just to find some health, or on trying to avoid enemies while running for the next save point.

If your health is low during any time outside of a boss fight, it's a piece of cake to just magically replenish it. Even some of the bosses have parts in their attack cycle where they just sit there for four seconds, giving you enough time to do the umbrella stance. But the sad thing is that with the game's artificial difficulty (battling the awkward controls), the umbrella stance becomes a necessity. So all it does is make the game even easier, and help to alleviate a little bit of the unnecessary frustration you get by taking lots of damage due to the shoddy controls.

In terms of the pacing, it seems like the whole game is designed to be like more of an action game than an adventure/platformer/puzzler. I generally don't like it when games do this, because they lose a lot of the appeal of the original formula (see Resident Evil, and how the survival-horror franchise is now neither survival nor horror with its overuse of action). But you know, most of the action is fairly competent and can even be considered fun, excepting for the fact of how shallow and repetitive it really is.

Even then, with the apparent intent of making it a faster-paced action game, the pacing is really jagged and inconsistent. There are a whole bunch of different gameplay elements that are mashed together in such an incoherent way, and it just keeps pulling you out of the groove and calling attention to its lack of cohesive design.

You can spend 15 minutes running down hallways battling enemies, and then suddenly the game will change perspectives to a weird over-the-shoulder thing where Samus walks very slowly and can't jump or shoot anything (as if trying to build suspense for something), and then it will suddenly take control away from you and make you watch a 15 minute cutscene, and then it will drop you into an awkwardly-forced "Where's Waldo?" section where you look around in first-person mode hunting for one pixel to target in a bland environment. It's just constantly breaking the flow of the game without any apparent form of rhyme, reason, or structure.

The "Where's Waldo" moments are especially stupid and frustrating, because the thing you have to target is never the most obvious thing in the environment. Other times you wave the cursor over the seemingly obvious solution, but the cutscene never triggers because of the imprecise motion controls and you're left thinking the solution lies elsewhere. It's especially bad at one point when your team is standing over the corpse of their fallen squadmate doing absolutely nothing like a bunch of slack-jawed idiots while you, yourself, stand around doing basically nothing.

It's almost like five different teams made different aspects of the game and then cut them all together without any thought of how the different design elements would integrate with everything else. I just think that with the game's emphasis on more action, faster pacing, and more streamlining, it takes away from your ability to truly enjoy the atmosphere of the game, since you never get a chance to just soak in the environments you're in.

Not that there's much atmosphere to be had, really. I've commented already that the level design is kind of bland, so I'll bring it up again. There's just not a lot of really interesting scenery. The Metroid games usually have certain staple elements in its level design, like the ice level, the fire level, the lush forest level, the desert level, the water level, but for the most part in Other M, they're not functionally different from each other. 

Usually each new thematic area introduces new types of gameplay on top of just the ambiance and visual aesthetics. Ice levels might mean slippery surfaces, and you'd shoot icicles from the walls/ceiling to solve puzzles. Water levels affected the range of your jumps and the efficacy of missiles, and required you to solve puzzles with the water level or flow. Each area also had different types of enemies that required different strategies to kill, besides just "shoot it in the face with a fully-charged beam shot." In Other M, these stages all play largely the same, and so they all end up feeling phoned-in and uninteresting.

It doesn't help that there's almost literally no music in the game to accent these unique areas, or to add some depth to the atmosphere. Instead of a musical soundtrack, Other M's average gameplay track is ambient noises with very minimal music work, as if it's trying to be more immersive and atmospheric by mimicking the background ambiance of an actual space station. This can work well in certain games, but for a series that has relied heavily on inspired musical tracks to establish the unique tone and feeling of each environment, the lack of music stands out and detracts from the experience.

Metroid Prime, for example, has a great soundtrack that is both melodic and atmospheric. The music doesn't interfere with your suspension of disbelief, because it's subtle, and also because it fits the aesthetic design of the levels perfectly. It ends up contributing a lot to the atmosphere of the levels, while making you feel alone on a desolate world, and also giving you something pleasing to listen to while you wander around. Other M has.... nothing. There's music during cutscenes and battle themes during boss fights, but that's it. This is a huge missed opportunity.

I mean, seriously. Just listen to these tracks from Metroid Prime, and then listen to some tracks from Other M. Is there anything positive to say about Other M's soundtrack when compared to its predecessors?

Metroid Prime: Tallon Overworld
Metroid Prime: Crashed Space Frigate
Other M: Sector 1
Other M: Sector 2

Which brings me, finally, to the story, which nearly everyone has criticized. I don't mind the idea of having a more prominent story in a Metroid game, at least not in theory, but the execution of the story in Other M is just rubbish. As a story, it's bland and uninspired, without any kind of dramatic build or progression, the way it's told is boring, and as it stands in the Metroid universe, it only goes to retcon all of the things we've come to understand about Samus in her 25 year role in the series.

Too much of the story is told through cutscenes where you have no choice but to take your hands off the controls and watch, sometimes for 15 or 20 minutes at a time. It's almost like Nintendo made a two hour long CGI film (with D-Rockets) and had Team Ninja do gameplay bits to fit between the stuff in the cutscenes. Oh wait, that's exactly what they did. Basically, the story and the gameplay don't integrate at all, and it makes it a little harder to care when everything of importance happens during cutscenes that you have no control over.

But even then, the cutscenes just aren't all that interesting. Most of the story is told through monologues, with Samus narrating her internal thoughts on what's happening, or just reiterating things that we've already been told or figured out. All-the-while she talks with a monotone that's completely void of life, emotion, or personality, which not only makes it hard to listen to, but seems to contradict Nintendo's intention of giving her a personality and backstory.

Despite all of the long cutscenes, the actual story doesn't really go anywhere. It mostly amounts to: "Hey look, something weird is going on! Let's split up and investigate other sectors!" Over and over again until the climax of the game, when a 20 minute cutscene finally explains everything in such a boring way that makes it impossible to care about anything, since all of it was sprung on us so suddenly and because there's now zero consequence for any of the story so late in the game.

You know the story is especially lame when, at two points in the game, the game forgets what it was setting up and drops the issue completely. Early on they start a "traitor" subplot, where one of your team is going around killing other squadmates and doing things on the ship. They call him "the Deleter" (a corny, stupid name) and at one point you actually fight him in a huge robo mech suit while the camera angles conveniently obscure his face, and then he disappears after the battle and nothing ever happens with that subplot again. Was there supposed to be some point to this, or did they just forget about it?

Near the end of the game, your commander tasks you with a series of assignments, chief among them is "defeat Ridley." Well you never get to fight Ridley after that part and then the ending just sneaks up on you. You fight an underwhelming final boss (who doesn't even feel like a final boss because #1 you're expecting Ridley to return, and #2, because of how diminutive it actually is), you never officially "defeat Ridley," you go through a stupid first-person shooting sequence, and then the credits roll. You never even get the power bombs by the time the game ends, and the whole thing is just perplexing.

All-the-while we're constantly treated to flashbacks of Samus growing up. We learn that she's got daddy issues, has insecure attachment issues, has a clingy personality with a hint of passive-aggressiveness in that "I've got an attitude for no good reason" sort of way, and that she utterly lacks independence and self-reliance. All of this tends to go against the established role of Samus as a strong, silent type. For years we've played Metroid games where Samus was an all-business bounty hunter who got the job done all by herself and kicked-ass while she was doing it, and now she's like a whiny imbecile.

The story element of having all of your power-ups at the start of the game proves to be perhaps the best example of the absurdity with her portrayal in Other M. You've got all of the tools you need to do everything in the game, but for some inexplicable reason, Samus refuses to use any of it until Adam specifically authorizes it. This just makes no sense when it's been kind of established over the last 25 years that Samus is resourceful and will do whatever it takes to get the job done.

It's especially absurd at one point when you're in a lava area suffering constant heat damage just for being in the room, and taking massive damage when you fall into the lava. And yet Samus doesn't activate the Varia Suit's heat resistance until much later when Adam finally authorizes it. You'd think that if she were in a boiling lake of lava, she would screw protocol and do what she had to do to stay alive. But I guess Samus isn't a strong independent bounty hunter, she's just an overly loyal imbecile who lacks the independence to keep herself alive.

I bet if Adam offered her a sandwhich, she wouldn't even swallow it until he authorized her to.

When it comes down to it, Metroid: Other M is a decent enough game, but it lacks nearly all of what I've come to expect from the series. The alternating third and first-person gameplay is kind of a novelty, but there's nothing else to praise about the gameplay. It's just there in like a compulsory sort of way, not really striving to do anything exciting or remarkable. The only unique aspects to this game also happen to be its worst aspects (notably the story).

I don't regret playing Other M, but unlike other Metroid games, I'm confident that I'll never have a desire to go back and replay this one.

1 comment:

  1. Other M was PANNED by a lot of critics, mainly for the story. I will admit Samus seemed a bit less badass when she was taking orders. Yes, that was dumb. But the overall gameplay was pretty awesome, even though the story wasn't. But, again, I can see why this would piss people off. I have collected it from at PIJ.
    Really cool one.