Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (Wii)

The appeal of the Metroid series has long been the isolated adventure through uncharted worlds. It's surprising then in the final chapter of the Metroid Prime trilogy that Samus Aran spends so much time listening to other people tell her what to do and where to go. This is the case in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption because Samus is basically a federal contractor; a one-woman cleaning crew assigned to rid the universe of the glowing, corrosive element, Phazon.

The game opens strongly with an intense Ridley set-piece, but quickly turns chatty with the introduction of military commander types, sentient computer brains, and a butt-ugly cast of tag-along bounty hunters. Samus, like fellow Nintendo mascot Link, remains quiet through all this, coming off increasingly like a silent film actress who's just been cast in a talkie. I could relate to Samus' stoicism though, as it seemed the less said, the sooner conversation would end and exploration could begin.

While Retro Studios may have taken some of the implicit appeal of a Metroid game off the table with the tone of their third go-around, they have made additions in other places, most notably their informed integration of motion controls. One could look at the way MP3 asks you to interact with switches and levers by rotating and pushing the Wiimote as a concession to some kind of mandatory waggle clause, but I found these movements almost universally satisfying; none moreso than the Grapple Beam which is implanted in the Nunchuk controller. You can grasp onto labeled grapple points by locking onto them and them whipping the Nunchuk forward to unleash your electrified lasso. Then you can throw your wrist back to pull shields away from enemies, rip loose panels off of walls, or remove any other such precarious object from its perch. It's hard to call this motion a novelty when it comes in handy so frequently and feels like a natural part of the game.

The impressiveness of the motion controls actually comes through pretty wholesale, which leaves me dumbfounded as to why there weren't more FPS-type games on the Wii. MP3 decoded a fluid way to use the Wiimote/Nunchuk combo to turn a Prime series entry, traditionally referred to as "first-person-platformers," into a legit shooter. MP3 is still a shooter in a different class than modern military fare or even closer-in-setting Halo mechanics, but an action oriented game nonetheless. This is especially prevalent during the Leviathan boss encounters, which require you to use most of the tools at your disposal and, most importantly, to actually aim. When fighting tougher enemies you can lock your sight onto a particular weakpoint, but you still must free-aim Samus' arm cannon, which makes for some welcome wrist-cramping difficulty spikes in an otherwise breezy title.

I'm not one to berate games for being too easy if it still does a good enough job of incentivising me to keep playing. Corruption keeps pace on its main quest line pretty well (a little too narrowly perhaps), leaving the trickiest puzzle solving to missile pack and energy cell upgrade retrievals. While the additional life bars came in handy on a couple occasions, there is absolutely no functional need to have a stock of 200+ missiles since I never had an encounter where I used even 50. There's nothing inherently wrong with having collectibles, but when those items serve a purpose in the game world, it's a shame that their usefulness caps off so early.

The worlds of MP3 are in the same vein that you've come to expect from this series: lush organic environments juxtaposed with bio-mechanical factory garb, but the linear pacing of the plot and the ability to fast-travel with your dropship often leave you feeling like you're following orders instead of exploring the worlds to figure things out for yourself. One could lodge a complaint against the previous Prime games for the amount of time spent backtracking and walking through already-cleared rooms to get where you want to go. Prime 3 admirably solves this problem by allowing you to secure dropship landing sites to quickly move across the map. What this adds in ease-of-movement it loses in isolated immersion, a franchise keystone. Samus is never really stranded anywhere, she's just a tourist, popping in to have a bit of fun before taking off to do the same somewhere else. Mission objectives are boilerplate space marine droll too (power down the enemy defense shield! again!) leaving the moment-to-moment gameplay to hold your interest. Only the wrecked Valhalla space barge left me actually asking questions instead of simply pressing a button and moving on (though you do just that at the end of the Valhalla too).

Thankfully, shooting and double jumping through MP3's admittedly narrow corridors hits its Prime series high point here. There aren't much in the way of alternative weapons (your beam upgrades stack), which gives combat tactics precedent over pre-engagement strategy. Retro Studios must have known the Wii's weaknesses well enough to make sure their AI did not exploit them. The most prominent systemic hindrance is Samus' sluggish turn speed. For most traversal your stiff neck actually helps keep your trajectory steady, but when confronted with speedier foes, there's a delay in how quickly you can rotate to face them. Rarely in these cases will you be blindsided though, resulting in skirmishes that always seem fair.

MP3 is extremely balanced and well-polished, so much so that it can feel like Samus is toying with some kind of virtual training simulator instead of actually going out and being a hero. The action is tightly executed, but in an attempt that appears aimed at easing more casual players into the series, the dialogue-heavy mission assignments negate some of Samus' independent spirit. I'm not saying I think games need to be self-congratulatory, but Samus is supposed to be a rogue bounty hunter, right? Where's the grand reward?

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