IGN Review of Metroid Prime: Hunters
A year and a half ago, about a million Nintendo DS owners had a chance to experience a small portion of the game design of Metroid Prime Hunters in "First Hunt," a demo cartridge that was only a sliver of the production of the final build. Even though First Hunt was a decent preview of the direction the team was taking with the first announced DS first-person shooter, Metroid Prime Hunters takes all that to a new level. This ambitious project bleeds high production values, which is something you don't normally get on the handheld side of things. Both single and multiplayer components are hugely full featured and highly satisfying, whether you're a fan of action adventuring, deathmatch competing, or - even better - both equally. But pick up and play this game is not, at least not for starters. More on that in a moment.
Metroid Prime Hunters nestles comfortably in the gap laid between the original Metroid Prime on the GameCube and its sequel, Metroid Prime: Echoes. To compliment this bounty hunter sandwich, NST's kept to the visual style and the gameplay framework on the Nintendo DS, but tailoring the idea to the strengths of the Nintendo DS. This naturally means "dual screen gaming" but it's how the team went about it that brings this design a lot closer to the first-person shooter genre on the PC than the console games (and their fancy, new-fangled analog sticks) have ever gotten.
First, the NST DS team pushed the 3D elements of the Nintendo DS to recreate the same through-the-visor viewpoint that Retro Studios developed on the GameCube. Nintendo has always downplayed the Nintendo DS system's 3D capabilities ever since the debut of the system back in 2004, placing it close to the level of a Nintendo 64 in visual performance. But honestly, few N64 games looked this good and flowed this smoothly. The engine that NST produced on the DS moves at 30 frames per second with a level of detail that can get pretty stunning. Samus' morph ball, for example, has a glossy sheen that isn't particularly necessary, but it's the spit and polish that lifts a game's visual appeal from adequate to beautiful. On occasion the game has a tendency to chug when the environments throw a few too many effects at the player's screen, which shows that perhaps NST pushed the hardware just smidge too hard in places. Even still, these places are few and far between and really don't detract from the Metroid Prime experience.
Next, using this 3D engine, the team worked the first-person action and adventuring aspect of the GameCube design on the Nintendo DS. But where the GameCube game limited the movement of view to streamline the control for the analog sticks, NST pushed touch-screen control that closely mirrors the keyboard and mouse combination that most first-person shooter fans swear by on the PC. Players can configure the controls for left or right-handed play, or totally forgo versatility for more rigid and digital movement of the D-pad and button combination, but it's using the touch screen like a mouse that really breaks Metroid Prime out of its shell.
Of course, the bigger issue becomes exactly how you decide to use the touch screen control. There are two ways: one, the stylus. Here, you can simply hold the system in one hand with the thumb on the D-pad and a finger on the shoulder button, or if you're a lefty the A, B, X, Y as a D-pad with a finger on the other shoulder button. With a little practice this works pretty well if you can stand supporting the weight of the system with the same hand that's manipulating Samus' run. The other option is to use the thumbstrap included with US Nintendo DS systems, which makes it easier to hold the system at the expense of not being able to use all of the touch-screen real estate. Honestly, it's control, and the high learning curve surrounding the control, that's Metroid Prime Hunter's biggest nemesis. But if you can fight the initial cramps and awkward amount of time practicing the controls, as well as the accidental touch-panel button pushes, you'll get one of the most intense and fun action experiences on the Nintendo DS.
The game's single player experience is surprisingly close to the same style of game design as the GameCube Metroid Prime duo. In this game, players, as Samus, set out into four planetary locations to locate eight "octolyths" that, when snagged, will answer the mystery of a strange psychic message broadcasting into the heavens. To do this, players will have to work their way through ruins and structures, hopping up platforms and activating switches to reach the next part of the area. Like Metroid Prime, scanning is key to both the gameplay and unraveling the storyline, as the entire plot of Metroid Prime Hunters unfolds in how players interpret the messages they read.
Level designs are full of action, but they're also full of puzzles as well. Some of them are pretty straightforward (scan a spot on the wall to unlock a door elsewhere in the room), while others are impressively abstract that require a bit more thinking. There are also a decent amount of "morph ball" challenges where players will have to manipulate Samus in ball form in some 2D-style designs. Metroid Prime Hunters strays a bit from the standard Metroid formula of unlocking Samus' special suit powers to reach different parts of the levels. In Hunters, Samus has all of her abilities right from the start and keeps them. The change here is that Samus will discover various weapons of different powers, and each weapon can unlock a different colored door by blasting it. Which means, like most Metroid games, there will be a lot of returning to the same location to open up blockages that you discovered on the first time through.
There are a couple of minor critiques in this adventure, though. First is the apparent laziness of the boss designs - there are only two end level boss characters, and these big guys are recycled several times, with only minor changes to their behavior. Boss battles push the game's precision control - which is good. Since they're reused multiple times, though, it sort of ruins the surprise - which is bad. Plus, every boss battle ends with the trademarked "Metroid Countdown." Even though it's a challenge to race the clock back to your ship before the time runs down, it just feels a bit anticlimactic since it's not much of a surprise when it happens. And when you get back to your ship in time
nothing. No dramatic blast off, no explosions, no nothing. You just made it back to your ship, all safe and sound. Yay.
The single player adventure is easy at first but ramps up in challenge the deeper you go, and when all is said and done it'll take a good dozen-plus hours to get through the challenge the first time. Honestly, we were worried during the course of Metroid Prime Hunters development that the solo outing would be an afterthought to the game's multiplayer focus, but after going through the game's adventure mode we're surprised at how deep and challenging it ended up becoming.
It's clear that NST has a few first-person shooter fans on-staff, as this game is incredibly full-featured in its multiplayer component as well. Metroid Prime: Echoes on the GameCube had a split-screen four player mode that felt more tacked on than integral to the design, but what's been created for Metroid Prime Hunters really fits the design and works well. This competitive mode is a nice combination of Quake and Unreal Tournament on the PC - there are many different bounty hunter characters to choose from, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and each has a secondary form like Samus' morph ball, which changes up strategy because anyone can roll up into a smaller mode for offensive and defensive attacks.
The game offers a standard point and time-based, solo and team-based Deathmatch mode, but there are plenty of other modes in this component as well. You've got the Metroid equivalent of capture the flag and king of the hill. A personal favorite is "Prime Hunter" mode where players who get the kill are awarded the Prime Hunter tag and must keep it for a set amount of time - the Prime Hunter loses energy constantly, and can only replenish it by continuing to kill other players. The multiplayer component is for as many as four players - more would have been better, naturally, but the level designs are tight enough for this amount of players to have a great time.
Now, you can either play the multiplayer component locally, or - even better than that - hit the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection service for worldwide competition. The NST team really went all out for this online experience - not only is the game tracking an enormous amount of statistics, but it's also the first DS game to support voice chatting via the system's microphone. Of course, there are limitations in place: players can only form game rooms in the lobby with other players that have been registered to your cartridge via the Friend Code system. On top of this, players can allow "Rivals" to join in, but since "Rivals" can be random players met up in the Worldwide mode, you won't be able to text or voice chat with them - only people you have a Friend Code with can be contacted interactively.
Even with the limitations in place, the online experience doesn't feel all that restrictive, and the amount of focus that's been placed in this section almost puts Metroid Prime Hunters on the PC and console level.
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