Metroid: Other M ReviewJason Venter
New video games are released each week. Some of them are more exciting than anything we've seen before and some are not. Some are incredible experiences that push the medium forward and some are content to rely on past accomplishments to generate goodwill. Each new release means that when you sit down to play a game, you have more options than you ever would have enjoyed in the past. Each new game of quality ensures that you will have fewer reasons to ever consider playing something that you don't adore. Gaming is an exercise in choice and there are few reasons to play anything but the very best games.
That's bad news for Metroid: Other M, which is not one of the very best games. It merely exists, relying on the success of past Metroid gameswhich were some of the very best games up to and beyond their release datesto satisfy its audience but never exhibiting the sort of compelling design that helped those earlier titles to build a fan base in the first place. In short, Metroid: Other M is only worth a look if you love the Metroid series and you have decided that you'd rather play a decent Metroid game than a great something else.
The game begins by evoking imagery from the installment in the series that many older players would consider its highlight: Super Metroid. A cinematic sequence depicts bounty hunter Samus Aran battling Mother Brain, a life form so powerful that an entire planet has fallen within its thrall. Exhausted to the point where she has almost lost consciousness, Samus is about to be pulverized by an energy beam. Then, unexpectedly, a metroid hatchling comes to her aid. The creature has mistaken Samus for its mother and now it instinctively fights to save her. In the ultimate sacrifice, the baby absorbs the blast that was meant to kill Samus. She will live to fight another day and the memory of that encounter will haunt her forever.
The opening is exciting, but things cool down considerably from there. A tutorial and some cutscenes follow. Finally, Samus lands her ship on a distant planet in a sector positioned along the edge of the galaxy. There, she finds an abandoned research facility. Something stinks, she decides for no apparent reason. She begins exploring the deserted corridors with her blaster at the ready. Eventually she makes the contact the player has been waiting for except that contact is with other people. These are people she knows and, we learn, people she once deserted because she's a young woman and that's what young women do. In an unlikely turn of events, the soldiers she meets in this abandoned research facility are the members of the team that once trained her in the art of kicking butt. They are led by a man named Adam. Yes, that Adam.
More exposition follows. Samus lost her parents at an early ageblah, blah, blahand she was raised by an overbearing military manblah, blah, blahnamed Adam. She rebelled against her father figureblah, blah, blahanswered his calls for support with an impish thumbs-down signal that was apparently profoundblah, blah, blahand in the end left behind the one man who truly understood her. It's a bit like Ally McBeal, only there's less action, the dialog forgets to be interesting and everything is set in space. The little differences are the ones that matter.
Everyone standing around the space station chats for a moment, and thensuddenly!they all come under attack by a mysterious life form. You win the fight against the game's first boss by circling the attacking blob and occasionally firing bullets at its weak points (which are conveniently highlighted so that you don't get confused about how the whole shoot at things that are trying to hurt you process works). Then the developers return to that which is obviously their true passion: the story of a little girl grappling with her feelings. Eventually, by decree of Adam, everyone splits up to explore what they have all decided is a dangerous space station that should by no means be explored alone. Alone, you can now proceed along a linear path but you can't use your more powerful weapons because Adam hasn't yet authorized their use.
The adventures to come take place from one of three possible perspectives. First there are side-scrolling moments. They work as you'd suppose. Samus runs and jumps like a champion, clings to ledges that extend from walls, fires her blaster at enemies while dangling in a precarious position you know the drill. However, there's also an over-the-shoulder perspective that leaves much to be desired. Enemies like to wander off-screen, then suddenly emerge again in the middle of a rush that you couldn't see coming. You can take a proactive approach to eliminating them, but then you might run into a threat that you couldn't possibly know existed. Firing bullet spreads off-screen doesn't work because some foes must be defeated with grapple attacks. You have to jump onto their backs and then hit them with charged blasts, only for that to happen you have to maneuver around them until they actually come within sight. The whole process is a bit of a mess.
There's a third perspective, as well. Mostly, you'll play the game with the Wii Remote held sideways like an NES controller. That works well enough, but you can also swing it to face the screen and when that happens, the camera assumes a first-person perspective. Now you can hold the B' button while you move the Wii Remote back and forth to look around, and you can press the A' button to fire shots at enemies who likely saw fit to swarm you while you switched perspective. Strafing isn't really an option since the whole game is controlled with just the Wii Remote, so the first-person perspective is best reserved for those instances where the camera won't let you see what you need to see and you're hopeful that a change of camera angle will afford you the view that you seek.
Metroid games have always featured a vast and hostile world that you must explore. Metroid: Other M wisely upholds the grand tradition, but sometimes the varying perspectives get in the way. You'll navigate numerous corridors that twist around themselves, pull plenty of switches and backtrack like it's going out of style. The whole time, there will be dozens of tiny recesses that you can access and some of them will allow you to reach missile upgrades or perhaps new areas. That exploration should be enjoyable, as it has been in the past, except that sometimes you can't see what you need to see unless you know ahead of time to look for it. A shaft may lie hidden off to the side of a path, or there might be a piece of destructible ceiling that you can't spot unless you happen to switch to the first-person view at the right moment. If you don't, you could be wandering around for hours and that's just no fun. The game holds your hand throughout much of the adventure, but it also picks some odd moments to leave you to solve problems alone.
The unfortunate result is that exploration isn't as much fun as it could have been. That's true in part because backtracking is such a risk and seldom yields any rewards. While most enemies are easily routed with blaster shots or bombs, some fairly weak enemies are capable of ruining your day in a split-second because it's difficult to judge their movement or because they cheat and use your limited viewing angles to their advantage. Cheap hits didn't pose much of a problem in past Metroid games, but here they're a nuisance because you can't simply farm weak enemies for energy drops. If you find yourself battling an enemy group, you have to carefully defeat all of them and then you can hold the Wii Remote upright to partially refill your energy after several seconds of inactivity. However, enemies get to whittle away at your health reserves for a good long while before finally restoring some of it is even an option, and then you're pretty much toast if you come up against a competent enemy ahead of a checkpoint. The system keeps things tense but it doesn't work as well as the old one did. There's no telling why the developers felt the need to reinvent and then break the wheel, but that's precisely what they've done.
Metroid: Other M does have a few important things working in its favor, though. While not everyone will appreciate the ambitious exposition, some will see it as long overdue and mostly it does get better as it proceeds. While not everyone will care for the shifting perspectives, some will welcome the variety that they bring to the experience and will appreciate the return of true platforming segments. Consider all of that stuff, then factor in the excellent graphics and a haunting soundtrack and you have a Metroid game that certainly fits within the canon, even if it falls short of its predecessors. In short, it's a competent game and an interesting way for a Metroid fan to spend some spare time. If you regard each past Metroid title as something truly special, though, consider pretending that Metroid: Other M doesn't exist. It gets the job done, but it can hardly be called special. The franchise deserved better than competent' and so do you.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.