NS Analysis: The Life of Metroid Prime – Federation Force
Several issues caused this article to be delayed until well after its official release, but with the extra time it’s now possible to analyse Metroid Prime: Federation Force’s performance in a broader context. Consider this article as half review and half reflection.
Was the game fun to play? Were the outraged cries warranted? Why did it sell fewer copies in its first week than Splatoon sold in that same week? Being outsold in your debut week by a game that’s well over a year old surely has to hurt. Yet another question is whether the lack of sold copies contributes to the game’s problems. Being an online multiplayer game, the answer seems obvious.
Federation Force was revealed at E3 2015, and was greeted with a mountainous furore that – tempting fate – is unlikely to be outmatched for some time. Now that the game is live, we can see how the game stands on its own merits. Does Federation Force deliver quality?
There isn’t a simple answer, and a lot naturally depends on the player’s own experience. All things considered, most of Federation Force‘s problems come from the multiplayer elements, which is a bad sign for a multiplayer-focused game.
Since this is a post-release analysis, the game’s plot and events are openly discussed. Spoilers below!
Federation Force focuses on the plight of the Galactic Federation, of which the player is a member. Piloting a mech, squads venture out to complete missions in the fight against Space Pirate forces. Before the very first mission, the commander tells the player that Space Pirates are unlikely to be encountered. Absolutely nobody is convinced. Eventually the allies uncover a dangerously powerful weapon called the Doomseye – a battleship that takes a lot of cues from the Death Star.
The mech is an extended body of the pilot, its only extra feature being a jet pack to let it hover for a few seconds. The movement is painfully slow, and the ‘blocky’ design of the mechs means that their animation is limited. They don’t run and gun with any sense of urgency.
It’s a shame, because Next Level Games have a recognised talent for quality animation. This can be seen in Mario Strikers Charged, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, and especially Punch-Out!! for the Wii. They are limited here, and it’s due to the ‘chibi’ character design more than anything. That being said, great work has been put into some of the enemies. At times I wished I was controlling a fast Space Pirate, as they were moving at speeds I could only dream of achieving in my clunky mech.
The 3DS is an awkward system for first-person shooters when it comes to controls, and Federation Force is no exception. To look up and down, the player needs to hold the ‘R’ button and use gyro controls to aim. You won’t be able to look directly up or down without significantly tilting your 3DS. You can lock on to enemies by holding ‘L’, but this is only effective against enemies that aren’t moving and don’t have particular weak spots. For a lot of fights, both shoulder buttons are being pressed constantly, alongside moving the stick and mashing the fire & strafe buttons. It’s likely to get painful, and the most advanced moves require some brain power to ensure you release the buttons in the right order.
It will definitely get painful on your eyes if you insist on playing with 3D effects on, and Federation Force is one of the least recommendable games to play in 3D due to gyro-aiming. It’s been five years since the 3DS was release, and one still wonders why a console that’s required to be held in a specific position features motion controls.
The awkward controls are barely the fault of the game, and having a button for locking on with another used for pinpoint accuracy is a smart scheme. Next Level Games have taken the best route, but I found it to be too much input required constantly on a small device. It’s possible that the New Nintendo 3DS controls are easier to use, but I was playing on a 3DS XL as I don’t have a New 3DS available. Players will likely be wanting to use the touchscreen as well to check the map and teammates’ health – if they have any teammates, that is.
The Federation’s soldiers travel across three planets in The Bermuda System, all with their own unique climate: Excelcion is an arctic wasteland, Bion is an ancient wasteland, and Talvania is an industrial wasteland. The environments aren’t too pleasant to look at, and the game tends to use bland textures most likely due to the 3DS capabilities.
The desolate locations are a suitable fit. Samus was never a bounty hunter to hang around crowdy areas either, and the missions begin with a quiet, ominous tension. Speaking of Samus, she does appear a few times over the course of the story. The ways in which she’s presented in the story are questionable, in particular a horribly misguided scene that I’ll discuss later. There is at least one pleasant change from Other M‘s attitude: the Galactic Federation talk about Samus like she’s a deity rather than an outsider. Granted, it’s irritating in its own way by being at the other end of the respect spectrum (‘respectrum?’), but it’s better than seeing Adam Malkovich treat her like a helpless child. They even mention the incredible feats she accomplished in those other, more enjoyable Metroid Prime games. But hey, spin-offs aren’t a bad thing; they give a series the chance to explore other characters and stories.
For Federation Force as a spin-off, they’ve taken a similar route to Tri Force Heroes by making it a team multiplayer. We need to consider the practicalities of this, and Tri Force Heroes is a suitable base of comparison
Tri Force Heroes only accommodates for either one or three players. You couldn’t play with two players, and any more than three was too many. Federation Force allows any number from one to four players and it isn’t region locked. They seem to be the only areas where Federation Force wins. Due to the larger focus on the story, players are not allowed to play any missions they haven’t unlocked yet even if another team member has. In Tri Force Heroes, only one player needs to have a mission unlocked for everyone to jump into it. The Zelda spin-off also allows download play on any of its missions. Someone who doesn’t own the cartridge can effectively play all of the game’s core content. Conversely, Federation Force has no download play whatsoever. Blast Ball doesn’t count.
Not that Federation Force should automatically allow download play in the same welcoming way that Tri Force Heroes did; the levels are larger and the plot is more significant. It becomes a bigger issue when we consider how many people are playing the game. Evidently, a very small crowd wanted to spend money on it, so there is a low level of activity.
If four friends are willing to purchase a copy each and play through the whole game together then they will have fun. There are satisfying moments from good team play, though there aren’t any areas that demand it otherwise solo play wouldn’t be possible. A team of friends can also properly organise the AUX Ammo that each player equips.
For everyone else including me, getting through the game is a logistical nightmare because it’s uncommon to form a lobby with competent, co-operative teammates. Solo mode is outrageously difficult and tedious in the later stages, only becoming marginally easier if the a special solo-only MOD is equipped. If you drop to zero health in a team you can be revived; drop to zero in solo mode without a special MOD and it’s game over. Solo mode does restore those wonderful feelings of isolation and loneliness that Metroid is famed for though, so it’s worth something.
I had a variety of experiences when playing online with strangers. At one point I created a lobby and waited for players to join. Nobody joined for an hour. This was only two weeks after the game had been released.
In another lobby the host refused to ready up, so we had to leave. I enjoyed a few missions in another squad, but then got unceremoniously kicked when the host selected a mission I hadn’t unlocked.
When a group of us were eventually able to start a mission it usually went smoothly with a sense of camaraderie, but there were too many annoyances. We genuinely encountered a troll player at one point who blocked the doorways so we couldn’t get past, and then ran back to the start of the level so we couldn’t proceed. I did find a ‘blacklist’ feature, but I’m not sure if my teammates did and also didn’t know if it would kick the player from the mission.
In another instance, a player dropped out right before the mission’s climax, and we inevitably failed. The missions have no checkpoints so a failed one needs to be restarted entirely, and the motivation for retrying was never very strong.
Before setting off, the squad has a shared pool of AUX Ammo they can equip. There’s a nice variety of weapons and powerups, with some offering more firepower and others to support the team. If co-ordinating is possible, players can equip appropriate ammo to suit their role. If you’re playing with strangers you can forget about carefully selecting what weapons suit the mission best, as everyone will frantically select everything as fast as possible. I usually had to take the leftovers, and sometimes nothing was even left for me. It’s odd that they couldn’t implement a turn-taking system here like they do at the end of a mission, when players select the MOD’s they take home.
There were plenty of times that I was able to join a squad and successfully complete a mission, but the negatives left a bitter taste.
The missions have a nice variety to them. While there are the typical “kill everything in your path” levels, there are also more puzzle-based challenges. There are a fair few “defend the point” missions and these tend to be the most stressful. Ironically, the most interesting missions are those where you’re not in your mech suit. Having to stealthily infiltrate a base full of Space Pirates, with no defences, is a thrilling experience with a lot of suspense. A later mission has the squad gradually retrieving their mech suit one by one, and players that are still running around as a bobblehead human need to be protected. It doesn’t make much sense for soldiers of a galactic army to be incapable of fighting without a mech, but for the purpose of exciting stealth missions it’s excused. It’s a shame there aren’t more of them.
There certainly are moments of magic in the package, but very few of them come from boss battles. In solo mode especially, most of them turn into laborious slogs as you slowly whittle down the enemy’s health bar, one small fraction at a time. The bosses don’t have many attacks, and if you’re going solo then they will likely be the worst part of the game. Four of the nine bosses – the Ice Hopper Nest, Generator, Mainframe and Master Brain – are merely objects stationed in the middle of the room, and the players focus on it while rigorously strafing to avoid whatever it fires back.
The spherical boss Cyranon is heavily armoured. It took my three-strong squad 20 minutes to bring it down. If the battle took plenty of twists and turns then the time wouldn’t be an issue, but Cyranon was repeating the same nonsense and it only dragged for that long because it was so hard to hit.
The Sawkens, the Rohkor Beetle and the Pirate Warship are more enjoyable to fight. The former two feel like classic Metroid Prime boss battles, while the Pirate Warship battle utilises ball-shooting mechanics seen in Blast Ball to create a novel attack system.
The tedious and repetitive nature comes to a head in the penultimate battle, – essentially the climax – and it’s disappointing for a plethora of reasons. Samus Aran, captured and enlarged by Space Pirate technology, turns into a giant Morph Ball and spends most of her time rolling around the arena aimlessly.
She has very few attacks and isn’t hard to defeat. The most challenging aspect is having to sit through it; it takes a long time to take her down, and most of her Morph Ball is impenetrable. Her weak spots are hard to hit because she’s always rolling around. She barely looks threatening while roaming as a giant basketball with all the speed of a Geemer, and when she attacks, it’s clearly telegraphed and easily avoided.
The scene has caused a stir, in a similar fashion to the “traumatic breakdown” scene in Other M. It’s a subjective opinion, but the Samus battle feels misguided and pointless. Part of me was expecting – and hoping – for a multi-stage battle in which Samus eventually breaks out of her ball and uses her full range of abilities. It never happened. Even the other basketball boss got multiple stages.
Fighting Samus in a Metroid game isn’t the problem itself; it’s the wasted potential of a battle that could have been as exciting as Dark Samus and SA-X. “There was no joy in that victory,” says the commander after Samus is defeated. There most certainly was not.
Samus is left for dead after being defeated. Unconscious and reverted back to her normal size, she’s buried under rubble that the protagonists could at least make an effort to lift with their mechs. Instead, they ignore her and continue on to the Master Brain. Samus survives of course, and saves the “heroes” not once but twice in the finale alone. She saves the team from death earlier in the story too. For all the positive words the Federation has to say about Samus, they don’t seem to lift a finger to help her in any way. When they initially lose contact, the commander almost brushes it off rather than investigate or send a rescue team. She’s never mentioned after that until the squad is on the Doomseye about to fight her.
There may have been emotional investment, or motivation, if Samus’ capture and location is learned in advance. Instead the encounter feels like complete chance. The protagonists infiltrate the Doomseye to destroy it, and they happen to run into her. Granted, her powers are being used as a defensive force for Master Brain, but the heroes weren’t aware of that. She could have been held elsewhere and the Federation would never know. Don’t get me wrong, I’d have an inferiority complex around Samus too, but a galactic military force should show a little more competence and care for their strongest ally.
That last point is leaning towards pedantic, but it’s an example of why it would have been better to omit Samus from the game entirely. Most people will remember the early complaints of the bounty hunter’s absence, and Nintendo’s swift defensive response that she is involved. In the end, her role interferes with the narrative and skews the importance of the Galactic Federation. Samus is still doing what she does best while we’re playing as a nameless marine, carrying out linear missions for an incompetent military organisation. Some kind of character creator would have helped to personalise the player protagonist in this regard.
Federation Force was publicly loathed upon announcement, coldly received and ignored upon release, and is now the first Metroid game that should have distanced itself from Samus Aran entirely rather than string her along for the ride. Its life has been both a mess and a mystery. Nintendo only made a few promotions after the E3 reveal, including a Direct-style video with Kensuke Tanabe explaining the game’s purpose and place in the series. Tanabe seemed defensive to say the least, as did many of the positive media reviews, feeling the need to confirm that this is indeed a Metroid title.
Tanabe also explains that the game had been in development since 2009, which is curious. The game essentially went through development hell as the handheld console market changed from the DS to the 3DS. Federation Force was first conceptualised for the Nintendo DSi, eventually receiving new life when the New Nintendo 3DS was launched in 2014. In fact, it was supposed to be a launch title for the New 3DS but was pushed further back and made compatible with the original 3DS. It was likely a good decision, as commercial sales would be even worse if it were a New 3DS-exclusive.
Consider for a moment that in 2009 – the year Federation Force was conceptualised – the Metroid series was healthy and confident. The Metroid Prime Trilogy was released that year, Other M was announced at E3 and promised a deeper exploration into Samus’ story with an ambitious “harder edge”. Nintendo DS fans had two Prime games to enjoy too. If anything, the Prime series was all about experimentation and new ideas. People were apprehensive when the original Metroid Prime was showcased thanks to its first-person perspective, and it ended up receiving critical acclaim. Hunters was a daring foray into the handheld world, and one would love to see the kind of reception Metroid Prime Pinball would have received if it took the place of Federation Force.
Tanabe can’t be blamed for wanting to develop another unique kind of experience. He has done wonderful work on what many regard as one of the best gaming trilogies ever made. However, during Federation Force’s long development time, things changed. Other M was divisive and Samus’ representation was highly controversial, her past stoic and independent nature undermined by a submissive attachment to her commanding officer.
After Other M there was nothing for five years. Retro Studios teamed up with Tanabe once again for the new Donkey Kong Country games, and Metroid co-creator Yoshio Sakamoto has been working on more non-traditional games. Even the use of Other M assets in Super Smash Bros. 4 rubbed some fans the wrong way.
In the August before launch, popular fangame Another Metroid 2 Remake was released and swiftly taken down. Whether individuals agree or disagree with Nintendo’s takedown request, it undeniably did nothing to help Federation Force and left some people bitter over the company’s ruthless DMCA policies.
Federation Force went through many twists and turns, and by the time it was ready for launch the reception was inevitable. Most of the market was uninterested and fans voiced their disapproval in every way possible, the most important of these being that they simply didn’t buy. Those that did experienced a technically sound game, hindered by its lack of judgement and playerbase.
Federation Force won’t mark the end of Metroid. Some may consider that a bold statement, but Nintendo are surely aware of why this game failed commercially and was strongly disliked. They are capable of creating another top-quality entry in the series and hopefully will do on Nintendo’s next console. If not, its lasting influence has inspired a host of incredible games that carry its legacy – the Shantae series, Axiom Verge, and Guacamelee! to name a few. There will undoubtedly be more that owe a lot to Metroid.
Then there’s the top secret project that Retro Studios have been working on with Tanabe since the launch of DKC: Tropical Freeze. Is it another entry in the franchise, or maybe a brand new IP? The reception of Federation Force has surely made an impact on both Retro and Tanabe. An even larger impact may have hit Next Level Games, a talented studio that’s had to deal with undeserved hate and cancellation petitions. They will surely improve on Federation Force and go on to create greater things.
Following suit for Metroid Prime games, there is a post-credits scene that shows Sylux stealing a Metroid egg, which confirms that the series still has somewhere to go. All things considered, this is presumably not a hint at a second Federation Force game but something else. It would be interesting to see how Nintendo could even market a direct sequel. Perhaps they can add a battle against Ridley as a big shuttlecock.