Rarely have we seen games receive such a rocky unveiling as the one endured by Metroid Prime: Federation Force back during E3 2015. Even the abbreviation of the title almost started to sound like a bad joke (Metroid PFF). Fans of the saga have long-awaited the glorious return of Samus Aran, and not as a minor game with big headed action figures on a portable console. The atmosphere amongst the Nintendo community was already poisonous because of a serious shortage of AAA games on the Wii U and there was even a petition asking for the game's cancellation.
But in Kyoto they have always defended the project and the work of its developers. They insist it has plenty of quality and we played the demo to test that claim, not the old demo either, but a near final version that best reflects what this first-person action game will be like at launch. It's part shooter and part adventure (the latter being the main focus). It's also a multiplayer-focused game, but by no means is it the online shooter they made us believe at first.
It is true that the controls are very similar to other action titles. It's controlled just like any other two-stick FPS, one stick for the camera and the other for aiming, therefore requiring either the C-stick included with the New Nintendo 3DS, or the old "frankenstick" add-on if it's to function properly. The other alternative is to try and aim with motion controls. At first there are a couple of tutorials to test the sensitivity and responsiveness of the cannon. The curved trajectory of your shots means that you can't rely too heavily on the crosshair. Still, there is the option to lock on targets with the shoulder button, as in the rest of the Prime series.
In this instalment you're not bounty hunters, but well equipped Federation soldiers inside mechanised suits. Before each mission you have to set and customise these robotic costumes with skins and stickers, filling three slots with handy perks such as improved defence, buffed effects for your various items, or adding more power to your lasers. Some have limited use and others don't, but in the first couple of missions we played there were around a dozen. More important when setting up the mechs is to choose the best weapons, because it's better going to a lava world with an ice cannon than something that spits out fire. These loadouts mean there is quite a lot of strategy, and part of the reason for this stems from the level design.
This level structure was the real surprise in Metroid Prime: Federation Force. The stages we tested in the demo, played in local cooperative multiplayer, are seemingly best suited to an adventure game, and not your typical shooter (and by this we mean there is a lot of exploration and platforming). The first, called Remote Base, is an expedition on a snowy planet to wipe out every form of wildlife. It's a small map that encourages players to stay together while they take out all the flying creatures that cross their collective path. Abandoned buildings form a small maze to walk through in search of secrets and hidden compartments to find the switch that opens the main front gate. Interspersed in this part of the map are panels to interact with, and these reveal the story of what happened here. Again, Metroid Prime-style, but simplified. After taking a zip line and taking out bugs in giant test tubes, there is also a monster, the final boss, and it's a proper challenge for the player.
The second mission is set in another warm environment, so the Ice Beam seemed the best fit, however, we soon found that aside from freezing a few opponents, the level revolved more around puzzles. During the cave section of the level there are balls scattered around the place - very similar to the morph ball in fact - and players are tasked with leading them to holes using energy beams, which in turn opens doors, while you deal with enemies at the same time. This level doesn't even have a boss - the end goal is just to retrieve an artefact.
Another reason the game was criticised was because of its overall look and the visual finish, but what we have seen of the demo suggests that this won't be a major issue. Although the characters lack charisma, their animations and movements are competently done, meanwhile the stages are compact to fit the capabilities of Nintendo 3DS, and yet the visuals are simplistic. But again it's perfectly in line with what you'd expect from a Prime title.
After more than an hour of gameplay, we have to say that Next Level Games have done a good job and that the criticisms made were more based on the use of the franchise and the Prime brand, and how Nintendo first revealed it. Metroid Prime: Federation Force is a surprise in terms of its originality, and its ability to mix shooter controls with an adventure-like level design. However, we still have yet to see whether the mech customisation is deep enough, or if the game structure, which appeared to be somewhat anarchic and arcade-influenced, is able to sustain the weight of the series it represents. We'll tell you all this in our review, in little over a month.