By Paul Hunter
For decades the enigmatic Samus Aran has remained one of the most fascinating protagonists in gaming, a silent bounty hunter who protects the galaxy from marauding Space Pirates at the request of the Galactic Empire. After a haunting past left her orphaned as a child, Samus enlisted in the Galactic Federation Police before mysteriously leaving to pursue the solitary life of a bounty hunter. The typically emotionless heroine has since preferred to work alone in her quest to rid the galaxy of the ruthless Space Pirates and their bioweapons known as Metroids and Phazon.
Sound familar? If so, Metroid: Other M won't feel very familiar.
On the surface, it would seem that Nintendo and Team Ninja is an odd pairing for co-developing a Wii-exclusive Metroid game. Team Ninja's catalogue consists of hyper-fast, insanely challenging action titles that are the antithesis of Metroid's methodical, exploration-focused adventures. From the moment you begin playing the game, the influences are obvious.
For starters, the first few minutes of game didn't given me any real sense of isolation. Samus' adventure begins in a dormant space station known as the Bottle Ship, which feels vast and roomy. As a 3D third-person action-adventure game with fixed cameras, and not a single-plane side-scroller, you're given a lot of freedom to move to and from the foreground, giving each zone a wide sense of depth. Breaking from Metroid tradition of one or two lollygagging enemies at a time, enemies are abundant and deliberate, with most combat rooms unleashing several waves of hostile lifeforms in rapid succession. They're quick too, and so are you. Instead of the usual jog which gains momentum into a run, Samus now instantly bursts into a frenzied sprint even with the slightest press of the D-pad.
Action is intense in Other M, and relentless. In the 30 minutes of hands-on time I had, at least half of that was filled with nonstop combat. Movement is performed by holding the Wii Remote sideways like a standard controller and using the D-pad. Firing energy-based Arm Canon shots from her Power Suit is done with the 1 button and jumping with the 2 button. Wall-to-wall jumping is also possible with multiple button taps, and easily accomplished since you don't even need to use the D-pad to indicate which direction to jump. The classic Morph Ball returns, and is activated/deactivated with the A button, and Samus can plant bombs to blast enemies or catch some air.
What really sets this game apart is the ability to switch into first-person perspective mode, a la the Metroid Prime series, at any time during gameplay to engage enemies. There is one major difference however: while in first-person your feet are firmly planted on the ground and you cannot move. Making the perspective switch is intuitive, simply point the Wii Remote directly at the screen and the view automatically leaps to first-person. At this point you might be asking what advantage there is to making the perspective switch. Well, in first-person mode the arsenal at Samus's disposal changes, most noticeably the ability to deploy heat-seeking ballistic missiles from her Arm Canon. Pressing the B trigger locks-on your target -- enemies, air ducts, or other objects -- and the A button deploys the missile. It's a neat feature that is easy to perform, but I was immediately frustrated with the experience.
The problem inherent in the modality shift is there's a distinct learning curve. Aside from the annoyance of having to constantly change from holding the controller horizontally to transitioning to a point-and-click position, you need to be surprisingly aware of where you're facing prior to making the switch. The first long corridor I entered in the Bottle Ship had a swarm of enemies and my initial reaction was to back up a few feet to put some distance between us, then blast them in first-person mode from a safe distance. When I made the camera switch however, I was facing the towards the corridor blast door, and my back was exposed to my enemies leaving me vulnerable for attack. What I failed to realize is that whatever direction Samus is facing in third-person mode will be the exact direction she faces upon entering first-person mode. Even the slightest angular movement in an unintended direction while in third-person will mean tedious, and potentially deadly, reorientation in first-person. While it might sound apparent when put in print, in practice it takes some getting used to. It was fine during the introductory areas I explored since the enemies were basic and the damage they inflict was minimal, but I can see this clunky transitioning being problematic during stronger enemy encounters.
There's no need to find certain weapons or abilities -- such as the Morph Ball or Missile -- traditionally found in a Metriod game as Samus is equipped with these upgrades from the get-go. You will find scattered around the large space complex many hidden enhancements like Energy tanks or Missile enhancements. To replenish missiles it's as easy as finding a safe spot away combat and hold the Wii Remote vertically, pressing a button to "concentrate". While in her concentration stance Samus will also regenerate some energy provided she is on her last tank of power. What this means is you're never in any real danger of dying, provided you have a means of exiting the skirmish.
After about 15 minutes with the game I was beginning to get a handle on the perspective switch and more easily alternated between third-person laser blasts and first-person missile shooting. Both weapons possess auto-tracking, so even though flipping perspectives might be a little disorienting at times, at least your aim can be a bit off mark and still pummel your enemies. I found that the more comfortable I became with modal shifting the more satisfying the game mechanics, and by extension the game as a whole, became.
By the end of my second run through of the demo the controls were intuitive and my initial dissatisfaction had melted away. The lesson here: while frustrating at first, the playability improves noticeably with experience.
[This article originally appeared on the Future Shop Tech Blog]