Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Of Metroids and Woe

Metroid: Other M is here, and the short version is, it's pretty fun but the plot is HILARIOUSly bad.

A brief plot recap for the uninitiated: You play Samus Aran, bounty hunter. At this point in the story she has been through six adventures of note (in chronological order, they are Metroid, Metroid II, Metroid Prime through Prime 3, and Super Metroid). She fights space aliens, typically as a contractor for the Galactic Federation, with a special emphasis on Metroids and Space Pirates. Metroids are bulbous, hovering creatures with tooth-ringed suckers that devour the life energy of basically any creature. They are terrifying. Space Pirates are pirates – but in space. Samus has just defeated her nemeses, Mother Brain and the Space Pirates, for the second time (see: Super Metroid) when Other M picks up. The first half hour of the game consists almost entirely of Samus talking to herself, soliloquizing even, about the infant Metroid that saved her delicious, savory bacon at the end of Super Metroid. “The Baby,” she calls it, in a breathy, Bella Swan-esque murmur. Samus' weird, uncomfortable maternal attachment to a lifeforce-devouring space alien monster is, unfortunately, a reoccurring one, unfolding throughout the game. Samus is flying through space to who knows what port when she gets a distress call, codenamed Baby's Cry (I know this because the name is mentioned on at least two occasions, and is just as cringe-inducing both times; the game makes special mention of the fact that this distress call is meant to call attention to itself – like there is any other kind of distress call). Samus flies her maternal self to the source of this call, a secret GF installation called the Bottle Ship, so-called probably because it's shaped like a cricket bat. Turns out she's not the first to get there – her old commanding officer, Adam Malkovich, is already there with a cadre of soldiers, all of whom are completely forgettable except for Sergeant Black-Guy-Who-Looks-Asian. Predictably, he is the comic relief, and while he does try very hard, laughing at him feels sort of dirty since he's such a caricature of what black folk tend to look like, combined with subtly and inexplicably tilted eyes. Imagine a half-asian Al Jolson wearing blackface in a Broadway production of Aliens. Jarring. Malkovich decides that Samus can help the team take care of business and unravel the mystery of the Bottle Ship, so now, one hour into the game, is when the fun actually happens.

Now, if there's anything that defines the mechanics of Metroid games, it's exploring and shooting crazy aliens (or, “craliens”) with progressively more deadly lasers and explosives, and Other M does not disappoint on either count. Unlike in other Metroid games, Samus hasn't mysteriously misplaced all the powerups she accumulated in the first game (as in Metroid II, Super Metroid), nor does she get catastrophically damaged at the beginning (Prime, Fusion). It's actually quite clever: Samus defers to the judgment of the officer in charge and only uses the more powerful components of her arsenal at Malkovich's discretion. That's an excuse that doesn't leave a weird, vaguely unsettling aftertaste. It makes perfect sense and is probably the best bit of writing in the game.

The combat itself is easily the coolest, most fulfilling in the series. You dodge enemy attacks (projectile or otherwise) buy pushing any direction on the d-pad just before the attack connects. The window here is very wide and the action, called Sensemove, gives a lot of invulnerability. If you hold down the attack button while you do this, you'll instantly charge up your gun as you flip about – and there are a lot of times when attacks come right after the other, resulting in an incredibly satisfying series of high-power shots and exploding monsters. Samus can also get right up to her enemies and finish them off up close, which involves some acrobatics and usually puts the enemy in the sort of headlock an unpleasant uncle named Gary might give, except this one ends with a face full of plasma. These moves are smooth and an absolute joy to perform and watch, and this fresh take on Samus is much appreciated; she has always been competent before, but never has she been certifiably badass. It's also worth mentioning that there is a first-person element to the game. Most of the time, you hold the Wii remote on its side, with the d-pad on the left. To fire missiles, you must point the remote at the screen, which pulls the camera down into Samus' helmet and allows you to lock onto enemies and fire missiles. There is no way to describe this function without making it sound horrendous. It isn't. It works just like it's supposed to, and switching is one of those rare uses of motion control that doesn't feel like simply a replacement for a button press. I daresay that I would prefer more robust controls that don't require me to change the way I hold the controller and don't change my viewpoint, but they suffice as they are.

The exploration raises its hand when its name is called but does not bring cupcakes on its birthday. You explore, often by jumping from one platform to another. You backtrack when a freshly unlocked piece of equipment allows access to new areas, just like in previous titles. The mechanic does what it needs to do but does not excel. There are some minor kinks with platform edge grabs where sometimes they just don't work properly. The in-game map is two-dimensional (in a three-dimensional platformer? Really, guys?), which makes backtracking confusing at times. The scanning that was an intrinsic mechanic of the Prime series is all but gone, which is a spot of contention for most but a relief for some. I didn't miss it; the pace of the game is interrupted enough by questionable dialogue and awkward cutscenes without also forcing you to stop and scan everything around you every three minutes. The combat is very much the star of this game and the exploration elements competently back it up. Aesthetically, the places you explore are believable but not bold; they are not the unique worlds we were given in the Prime series.

The plot, though. The plot. It is brilliant, almost inspiring in its badness. The dialogue is heavy-handed and corny (“I'm here to secure your safety!”, Samus claims at one point), like it was...well, translated from Japanese. Every time I play one of these games, I wonder how many native English speakers read the dialogue before they put it into the game, if any. The pacing is off, but not Mel Gibson- or Sean Young-off. More like Angelina Jolie-off, a degree that just makes you impatient and mildly uncomfortable, and maybe you want to hit the fast-forward button.

Samus does a lot of reflecting in this game. She acts like a character out of Speed Racer, constantly spouting internal monologue (is it still internal if we can hear it?), in her dusky, soulless mutter. She is written to be an idiot, asking questions that have already been answered and laboriously explaining the obvious. Whoever wrote this game very clearly did not think much of the players if they felt that we wouldn't be able to connect the dots after seeing that the Bottle Ship has a Bioweapon Research Facility – Samus sees this and asks, “Do you think they were researching bioweapons here?” No, Samus. That's where they make the waffles. I didn't think there would ever be any video game characters who were as unintentionally stupid as Metal Gear Solid's Solid Snake: he may have a competitor in Other M's Samus Aran.

That is not to say that there are no intriguing plot elements. They are just buried under glaciers of stupid. Samus' attachment to the infant Metroid is interesting at face value, but the dialogue discussing it is all so creepy that it makes the whole thing awkward. The plot eventually turns into a government-project-gone-awry thriller story, which, again, might have been interesting if it weren't for the dropped plot points, Samus' contrived incompetence, and the fact that Metroid: Fusion already drew from that well. Ultimately, the writing is so disrespectful to the intelligence of the player that all but the truly stupid can't help but laugh. Sergeant Blacksalot probably has the best/worst piece of dialogue in the game: “Man, if something like that happened now...”. It preempted any jokes I might have made at its expense, though, since he said it the same way I might have said it if I were making fun of the cutscene right before it. That is the heart of the matter, really; the writing is so bad that it makes fun of itself on accident before you even have a chance.

It suffers from a plot that is hamstrung, to say the least, but the core elements of combat and exploration still hold up. There's little here for new fans of the series and old fans will probably be irritated by Samus' characterization, but there is some fun to be had. The only thing that stops me from calling Other M the worst Metroid title ever is the fact that Metroid and Metroid II came out twenty-four and nineteen years ago, respectively, much like the only thing that keeps Billy from being the worst Baldwin is Daniel.

5/10 for this.

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