January 11, 2005

New Gamecube Metroid kills time, not brain cells

Every once in a while, a game comes along that's so perfect you can't help but admire its quality. Some games—take the fun but flawed Grand Theft Auto series—get by on entertainment alone, despite play control or design weaknesses.

Nintendo's Metroid series is an example of the first group. It is one of the most intricate, well thought-out, and technically superb game series of all time. And with Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, developer Retro Studios throws diverse new environments, innovative abilities, and some mind-bending puzzles into the mix—once again delivering everything you could want from a Metroid game.

Two years ago, Gamecube owners were treated to the first Metroid Prime, a game that recreated the original side-scrolling series's moody, exploration-based shooting and platforming action better than imaginable. Past experiments taking Mario, Sonic, and Mega Man into 3D have all resulted in some major changes. This often requires a slower design to accommodate the more intricate, wide-open environments, and the game suffers as a result.

Metroid Prime, on the other hand, felt similar to the previous games, but from an engrossing first-person perspective. Dubbing it a first-person adventure—not a shooter—Nintendo made sure that the jumping and targeting were as natural as they would be in third person, but without the latter's camera issues.

For Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, Retro Studios reworked everything from the ground up, beginning with a more intricate story and a new planet to explore. Having followed a simple directive to investigate a crash site, interstellar bounty hunter Samus Aran finds herself drawn into a civil war between the benevolent moth-like luminoth and their vile perversion, the ing.

The centuries-old battle began when a meteor hit the luminoth planet of Aether with such force that it split the planet—and its energy—into light and dark worlds. Now it's Samus's job to travel between Light and Dark Aether, capturing the energy that the ing had stolen from the luminoth and restoring it to the once-prosperous race. The space pirates are also on Aether (and up to their own no good), while a new dark version of Samus is running around creating problems for everyone.

Like the original Metroid Prime, Echoes reveals the game's storyline in an inventive way, having the player use the scan visor to study the environment for clues, personal logs, and lore. While some may construe Nintendo's choice to minimize voice acting and mini-movies as laziness, it does allow the story to unfold more organically than would be possible through movie sequences. As a solitary bounty hunter, Samus has always traveled alone and picked up clues as she went. Players are asked to do the same thing, examining the environment and delving deeper into stories through a roundabout way. Echoes relies on subtlety rather than ramming plot twists down the player's throat.

In addition to the storytelling, Echoes's design goes a long way into completely engrossing the player. The visor display returns, putting the player right into Samus's suit and allowing for a very impressive and believable on-screen display. Players switch visors and weapons acquired throughout the game that expand Samus's abilities. New visors allow Samus to see interplanetary items and enemies as well as sound, creating some very impressive level design. Some new and old movement abilities also make their debut in 3D, with great success.

The graphics are easily some of the most impressive on any system to date. In addition to their impressive technical feats, Retro employs incredible, inspired art design in Echoes. Creatures are detailed, varied, and often haunting. The environments are head-and-shoulders above anything else out there, never once making it seem like the designers have simply recycled a previous idea.

A large hub world connects three main worlds, including a once-inhabited wasteland destroyed by the meteor, a wetland rife with wildlife, and a futuristic fortress displaying the luminoth's once-advanced technology. Dark Aether—accessed through interdimensional portals—mirrors the light world but has a perverse, deep-purple tone. With a corrosive atmosphere and strong enemies, the dark world creates some tense game play moments. Nothing looks generic or plays generically in this game.

The mind-bending puzzles are perhaps the game's most impressive feat. Be warned: Echoes requires a lot from the player. Having nailed down the technical aspects of the game last time, Retro now focuses on the details that truly complete the experience. Samus's morphball returns, as does its perfect physics engine, and the level design will throw some impressive boss fights at the player as she progresses.

Echoes, like Metroid Prime, is not a first-person shooter, lacking both linear game design and free-look controlling. The lock-on system works perfectly here, requiring players to focus not on precise aiming but on dodging and puzzle solving when fighting enemies. Samus picks up light and dark beam ammo this time around, but their powers are limited and require the player to experiment with their results.

In an effort to give buyers more bang for their buck, Retro added a multiplayer mode this time around. This addition is enjoyable with four players, requiring defensive maneuvering and even more environmental interaction because of the lock-on system. Still, any purchase should focus solely on the excellent single-player mode, as multiplayer neither adds nor detracts anything here. I don't see it sticking around long.

Because of their moody storyline and phenomenal production, the 3D Metroid games have vaulted the series into the mainstream. That being said, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes is not for everyone. The approximately 25-hour game demands a lot from the player, offering an enriching and unique experience only if the player takes advantage of it. Anyone who didn't like Metroid Prime won't find anything radically changed here, except for an increased difficulty level and better puzzles. That said, as an adventure game with balanced action and puzzle-solving elements, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes is the best a player will find on any system.