Metroid Prime: Federation Force
We could argue that the extreme negativity of the fan reaction to Nintendo's latest entry in the Metroid franchise was the prominent game publisher's own fault. Six years out from the release of the last official Metroid title (Other M) and nine years out from the last generally well-regarded installment (Metroid Prime 3), they should have known that fans were frothing for the announcement of a traditional single-player, exploration-driven entry in the series, and so they ought to have foreseen the backlash to their announcement of this cooperative multiplayer, mission-based spin-off. If Nintendo had shown Federation Force at the same time or shortly after they had allayed everyone's fears by confirming that a traditional single-player Metroid was also in the works, maybe fans would have judged the game on its own merits or lack thereof like any reasonable human being ought, instead of ranting off various lists of arbitrary rules that define what a Metroid game is and how Federation Force completely and utterly fails to fulfill even a single criterion. If I could brook my own presumptuousness to tell someone else how they ought to be handling their affairs, I wouldn't necessarily deny that Nintendo could stand to improve how they communicate their intentions, or at least do better to gauge the temperature of their fans' interest, if for no other reason than to relieve some of the headaches on their own end. But isn't it sort of ridiculous that we solemnly believe it falls on somebody else to manage our own expectations and the gratuitous outrage that ensues thence? Let's be honest with ourselves: we are just circumventing the blame for our own embarrassing behavior. Saying that Nintendo should have known its fans would react like temperamental toddlers is not a justification for acting like one, and it really says more about the lack of faith we expect Nintendo to place in our collective character than it does anything about their incompetence as a game developer.
"No one asked for this!" we clamored. "It's like Nintendo is completely clueless as to what it is about their franchises that makes them so appealing!" we railed in indignant disbelief. "This is what happens when you give your designers free rein to do whatever they want without any consideration toward the expectations of your fanbase!" we halfway recollect having read in a thread on some online forum somewhere. Okay, until now I have employed the first person plural in a thinly veiled effort to imply my complicity in this whole ridiculous to-do and, thus, soften the condescendingly didactic tone of my observations, but I can't even pretend to empathize with this line of reasoning. It's the sort of attitude from fans that fosters a spirit of creative stagnation among developers, preventing them from ever trying anything that deviates from the established method for fear of alienating prospective customers, and ultimately leading to more criticism from other fans claiming that all such-and-such developer ever makes are iterative sequels of the same game they have been making for the last however many years. Sometimes it's precisely because you didn't ask for something that what you ultimately get turns out to be a welcome surprise. And what's wrong with a game designer being free to follow their own muse? Oh the horror of them actually making the project that they want to be making rather than slavishly responding to fans' demands! Heaven forbid that they should actually be invested in their work and able to derive some creative satisfaction therefrom! That might result in them actually enjoying what they are doing, which might redound to the quality of the finished product itself, ultimately overflowing to the enhanced enjoyment of the players of said product. It may not necessarily be the recipe for creating the best-selling or most popular game (as current sales trends for Federation Force are already proving), but I'd wager that this method harbors better odds of yielding a good game than the impossible endeavor of chasing an audience's widely varied and fickle tastes.
But there. Now that we're done being honest about our own flawed human nature, we can move on to being honest about Nintendo's latest offering in the Metroid universe. Parsing through the exaggeratively exhaustive list of objections that enraged fans have taken to Federation Force's existence, I think what offends them most is its abandonment of the series' conventional exploration elements in favor of a more linear, mission-based structure. Metroid games have traditionally featured a cohesive, non-linear world design that eschews arbitrary restriction of the player's exploratory freedom. The gates to progression seem to occur organically: the piecemeal unlocking of enhancements to Samus' Power Suit constantly affords new methods of interacting with the world, which anon sparks the player's realization of the solution to some previously overlooked environmental puzzle, which subsequently grants him access to new areas, gated by new interactive puzzles, and new upgrades capable of unlocking their tantalizing mysteries. It's an approach to world design that encourages players to backtrack through previously visited areas, enhancing their appreciation for all the nuances tucked away in the crevices of the game's engaging level design.
"Some would argue that if you strip all the exploration elements out of a Metroid Prime title, all that you're left with is a sluggish, awkwardly controlling, mediocre FPS. But I think that's a somewhat snide oversimplification... The focus is less on making the player feel like the gun-toting badass protagonist of a sci-fi action blockbuster, and more about experimenting with "gamey" strategies."
I definitely understand players' grievance with this fundamental aspect of the series' gameplay being jettisoned, even if it does make sense to streamline the experience for Federation Force's focus on cooperative multiplayer (you don't really want your companion reconnoitring ahead of you and spoiling all the secrets). Trust me, I desire a mainline, single-player, exploration-driven entry in the Metroid franchise as much as the next rabid fan, whether it be a new installment in Retro's first-person Prime series, or something in the vein of the even more traditional 2D Fusions and Zero Missions. But I don't think the existence of Federation Force threatens the possibility of that game's theoretical future development. It seems clear that Next Level Games is striving to do for Metroid what Tri Force Heroes and Four Swords Adventures did for the Zelda series—condense the spirit of the parent games into the kind of light, multiplayer-friendly, bite-sized chunks of gameplay that traditionally work well on the handheld format. And for the most part, I think they have succeeded at what they set out to do.
Some would argue that if you strip all the exploration elements out of a Metroid Prime title, all that you're left with is a sluggish, awkwardly controlling, mediocre FPS. But I think that's a somewhat snide oversimplification. It's not so much inferior to traditional shooter fare as it is a slightly different, more Nintendo-like FPS. I realize that sounds like pretentious fanboy drivel—as though there is some indefinable magical quality that elevates all Nintendo games above the riffraff, and I'm willfully interpreting characteristics that would be regarded as flaws in any other game as just another part of that good ol' Nintendo charm. But I don't really mean it as a statement of adulatory praise. I just feel that Federation Force is objectively a more deliberate, "designed" game, of the sort that Nintendo has traditionally prided itself on making, where victory is dependent on the player figuring out what each situation entails and employing the right arsenal of tools and abilities to match. The focus is less on making the player feel like the gun-toting badass protagonist of a sci-fi action blockbuster, and more about experimenting with "gamey" strategies.
That said, I cannot be expected to suppress the fonts of my adulatory fanboy drivel indefinitely: I would argue that the scenarios on display here are slightly more creative than your typical shooter's wave after repetitive wave of shooting gallery sandboxes and overly scripted set pieces. Next Level Games has managed to incorporate an impressive variety of traditional combat, light puzzle stages, intense escape sequences, and pattern-exploitation boss fights, many of which I could see working as climactic moments to punctuate the framework of a more traditional exploration-based Metroid (and in which context they would undoubtedly have been spared much of the unmitigated antipathy they have otherwise sustained). There's a really fun stealth / platforming mission that requires you to vacate your mech, which enhances both your character's mobility and vulnerability to enemy attacks, so you need to use your improved speed and scrappier size to circumvent all potentially lethal confrontations. There's another stage populated by Yeti-like Ice Titans, but instead of simply blasting them away, your objective is to lure them into holding facilities positioned at each of the four cardinal directions on the map; equipping your mech with decoys and slow beams during the pre-mission loadout phase can prove particularly effective here, providing you with the specialized ordnance necessary to stall your quarry just long enough for the automated hangar doors to secure. My favorite mission, however, takes place on a moving skiff that is sustaining steady bombardment from a Space Pirate warship. Your vessel's bow is equipped with catapults to ward off the aggressors, but the dispensaries for their morphball-like ammunition are positioned at the stern, so you need to use your charge beam blast to propel the spherical projectiles across the barge's deck, all the while navigating around the invasive boarding parties and the detrimental rifts that the enemy barrage is tearing into your craft.
Though the game features only slightly upwards of 20 distinct missions, their replay value can be extended by trying for the extra gold medals available on each stage. Each medal is received upon achieving a certain point threshold, and collecting all three usually requires you to go for the two end-of-level bonuses; the first of these is invariably contingent upon completing the mission within a certain time limit, while the second entails the fulfillment of a mission-specific secondary objective, like capturing two Ice Titans per cage instead of just one, or making sure that none of your "morphball" ammunition self-detonates or falls off the edge of your crumbling skiff before reaching its destination. Shooting for a high score, I suppose, may not seem like the most exciting method of extending replayability—hardly as satisfying as, say perhaps, backtracking through an expertly crafted interconnected world to discover previously hidden or inaccessible secrets. But I'm the kind of gamer who has replayed all three of the Pikmin titles multiple times just for the challenge of reducing my count of game days spent and Pikmin casualties needlessly suffered, so suffice it to say that I enjoyed my self-improving playthroughs of the missions in Federation Force, probably a little bit more than someone of more modern gaming tastes would be proud to admit.
Despite it belonging to a completely different genre and arguably sharing absolutely none of the same underlying mechanics, I feel Federation Force warrants a comparison to another 3DS title that garnered slightly mixed reviews upon its original release, Kid Icarus: Uprising. That game suffered from some rather awkward touch-based controls, and it probably would have been better served by the pointer / motion-based functionality of the Wii or Wii U, but the gameplay underneath it all was quite satisfying. Metroid Prime: Federation Force seems similarly held back by the handheld's inherent limitations (i.e., lack of dual analogs on the older 3DS models, less grippable pads and nubs as opposed to the more traditional sticks on consoles).
Let me preface my criticism of Federation Force's controls by saying that I'm a strong proponent for motion controls in any kind of shooter. I enjoyed them in Metroid Prime 3, and more recently in the Wii U titles Splatoon and Star Fox Zero, and I always miss them when I return to a more traditional dual analog shooter, as I always find aiming in those to be a bit "janky." The sensitivity of the analog stick is never quite satisfactory—it either moves too quickly, causing me to overshoot the minute adjustments I need to make to align my perfect shot, or too slowly, preventing me from turning around with the speed necessary to react to my character being shot in the back of the head. Since motion controls are one-to-one with how you move your own body, I find they offer a more satisfying level of precision. But instead of having the gyro aim turned on by default, Federation Force enables it only while the player holds in the right trigger, which also toggles the left analog's x-axis movement to strafing rather than turning. The motion controls in Splatoon and Star Fox add an extra layer of precision-aiming on top of the analog stick's broader 360-degree movement, and while the gyro aiming in Federation Force works just as well as it does in those games, it feels slightly awkward without the ability to make broader turns simultaneously using the analog. I wish there could have been an option to have gyro aiming free by default, without needing to hold in a trigger to activate it; at the very least, it would have been nice if the same button that enables free aiming didn't also restrict movement. Really, it's a small quirk, to which any player possessed of the least determination or skill will probably not take too long to acclimate, but it was not immediately intuitive to me.
While the right trigger is used for gyroscopic aiming, the left trigger fixes all of your focus on a single target. Target-lock is a staple of the Metroid Prime franchise, and it works much the same in Federation Force as it does in Retro Studios' original trilogy. Still, it can occasionally be the cause of some unnecessary aggravation when there are multiple targets on the screen. It will attempt to lock on to the nearest entity, which may not necessarily be the target you want, and you'll often need to release the lock-on trigger and reposition yourself so that your desired mark is more centrally positioned on-screen. The developers could have implemented the D-Pad's left and right buttons—relegated here to mostly frivolous quick chat functions—as a means of adjusting the player's auto-target on the fly. At the very least, it would have been smart to prioritize enemy targets, instead of just latching onto whatever happens to lie closest to the reticle, as sometimes you can target non-hostile objectives as well, and when you really need to be focusing return fire on a Space Pirate that's rapidly depleting your mech's health reserves, it can be kind of annoying to have the lock-on snap onto a less immediate peril, like a doorway or a switch.
An unfortunate pairing to these awkward controls is the game's somewhat uneven difficulty, especially since it seems like both flaws could have been remedied with only the most minor of adjustments. The developers themselves have publicly stated that the game is best played with a quartet of players through local wireless communication, and little to no effort was made to scale the strength or number of enemy encounters to accommodate fewer than the recommended amount of participants. Personally, I enjoyed the challenge that the game provides, and I never found it to be as overwhelmingly imbalanced as some other reviews have suggested. Yes, clearly Federation Force was designed to be played together in a team of four, but I conquered every mission as a co-op experience with just one other friend, and again later as a solitary undertaking, and though I will plainly admit to encountering my fair share of "Mission Failed" screens, I never felt like I had hit a wall that a little further practice and a slight revision to my strategy could not in short order surmount.
That's not to say that there wasn't the occasional stage where it seemed, at first blush, that having fewer than four team members would be setting ourselves up for inevitable frustration. Transport missions are notable offenders in this regard: one or more players must carry a particular item from one location to another, but while doing so, the primary function of their weaponry is disabled; in a two-player game, this leaves just one player with weapons free to ward off the enemy ambushes that inevitably occur to spoil your precious cargo's safe transit. These missions could be genuinely frustrating, but some other ostensibly trying moments proved later to be the result of player error, and no real fault of the game's design itself. One particular stage culminated in my small two-man team overseeing the defense of a computer terminal from increasingly chaotic waves of Space Pirates. After enduring the roughly 20-minute trek through Planet Excelcion's frozen wastes that preceded this climactic encounter, we failed the entire mission in less than 30 seconds when the incoming rate of enemy fire proved more devastatingly intense than we had cause to anticipate. We eventually pulled off a narrow victory on our third or fourth attempt, with our poor charge exhibiting barely a sliver of remaining health, and we were glad to be done with the harrowing ordeal and never to look back. It wasn't until a few missions later that it dawned on me: repair capsules, which I had heretofore been reserving for use on only myself and my fellow teammate, can be used on props as well. One or two restorative donations to offset the damage dealt to the terminal, and we might have sailed through the mission on our first try without breaking a sweat.
Said repair capsules are part of the game's varied selection of auxiliary items and weaponry, from which players are given the option to assemble their arsenal at the start of each mission. The game offers several unique choices, including missiles that home in on their targets, proximity mines that can decimate the vanguard of an enemy incursion, and a scan that exposes enemy weaknesses and increases the amount of damage dealt thereto. Additionally, there are numerous "mods" to further alter or enhance the effectiveness of these weapons, and if strategically equipped, they can offset some of the game's more taxing spikes in difficulty. Finding yourself taking too much damage from enemy attacks? Equip one of the mods that reduces damage sustained. Are you the designated healer for your team? Take along a mod that enhances the efficiency of your repair capsules. Want to carry every kind of shiny secondary ammunition you can get your grubby little mitts on, but find your unchecked avarice limited by your mech's pathetic weight capacity? There's a mod for that as well. And when venturing forth on a solo mission, you can take along the indispensable "Lone Wolf" mod, which doubles the efficacy of all your attacks while halving those of the enemies. It may not be the most graceful solution for scaling an experience designed for multiple players down to a manageable single-player challenge, but it gets the job done.
A word or two should probably be mentioned about Blast Ball, the additional competitive soccer-like game mode that comes packaged in with Federation Force, but me being the professional game reviewer that I am, I couldn't be bothered to play more than a few minutes of the demo version that was offered on the eShop a month or so prior to the official release. Any opinion that I might offer on the topic, therefore, is bound to be highly uninformed, and a wise reader would do well to disregard it out of hand. That being said, if you are still reading this, you are not likely the sort of reader who would disregard uninformed opinion out of hand (or pick up on even the most overt of implied insults), so my all but nonexistent hands-on impressions shall serve no less than anything else to edify you. The game is a basic three-on-three arcade soccer match, where players use blasts from their charge beams to propel a giant ball into the opposing team's goal. It draws immediate comparison to the hit remote-control-car-racer-meets-professional-sports-simulation Rocket League, as well as Next Level Games' own fantastic Mario Strikers titles, but it lacks the immediate appeal of either. Since all six players are firing at the ball from who knows how many different angles (probably six, now that I think about it), it feels almost impossible to gauge how your own shot is likely to affect the ball's momentum, and the outcome of every scrimmage seems always to devolve into a chaotic crapshoot. Again, that's just my initial impression based on barely ten minutes of play time with the demo, but the obligation to include it in my review has now been met with minimal effort, and you are none the wiser.
I would actually recommend Federation Force to most Metroid fans. If they come into it with an open mind, I think they will find many set pieces, boss fights, and other bits of game and level design that would fit quite nicely into a more traditional mainline Metroid Prime game. The open, cohesive world and exploration-based gameplay has been eighty-sixed to streamline the experience for multiple players, and fans of more traditional first-person shooters will probably balk at the game's slower-paced combat and somewhat clumsy control scheme (most of which comes courtesy of the handheld's inherent limitations). But while it may not come close to the the rank of "timeless classic" to which most Metroid fans would like to see their beloved franchise return, it's also far from the prestige-marring monstrosity their pre-release anti-hype would have had everyone believe. It feels silly having to phrase it like this, but… Really, Federation Force is not a bad game. And I don't think that's damning it with faint praise either. I liked it. And maybe you will too if you give it a chance.
*: too long; didn't read (but I'm actually literate--pahlease! omg**! seriously!
**: ow, my groin!