Alright, let's get this out of the way up front: Metroid Prime: Federation Force isn't a proper Metroid game. It's a spin-off — a different take on the universe that doesn't even begin to attempt to recreate the exploratory design of Samus Aran's cosmic adventures. And Nintendo has always positioned it as such.
So no, Federation Force won't scratch your metroidvania itch. Nor will it patch the Metroid-shaped hole in your life. Despite that, it's turned out to be a really solid portable shooter — probably the best first-person shooter on 3DS, in fact. Granted, it doesn't exactly face stiff competition, and frankly the game would have fared far better on Wii U. Nevertheless, developer Next Level games has taken the lemons they were dealt (create a multiplayer Metroid game for 3DS, and don't let anyone play as Samus Aran!) and turned out a pretty tasty pitcher of lemonade. It may not be the type of lemonade Metroid fans have been thirsty for (it tastes awfully saccharine, thanks to those cutesy little character designs), but it still hits the spot.
To be completely honest, I accepted this Federation Force review assignment simply because no one else wanted it, and I approached the task with a fair amount of dread. My impressions of the game were based on last year's E3 demo, which consisted of a round of multiplayer combat soccer mode Blast Ball before the developers added in support for the New 3DS system's added inputs — not my idea of a good time. In practice, though, Federation Force plays quite nicely as a traditional, single-player FPS with a simple mission-based structure. I haven't had a chance to try much multiplayer, but as a single-player portable FPS it's quite good.
Federation Force does have a few spots where the going gets rough for solo play. The game dishes out instant-kill scenarios with increasing frequency the further you get into the adventure; while falling to a giant boss or plunging into a pool of magma simply reduces a multiplayer squad's head count by one, for a Lone Wolf player it means you need to head back to the beginning of the mission to start over — and, worse, chances are pretty good you'll lose one of your equipped battle suit mod chips, too. While you can prevent an instant kill by loading your suit with a (consumable) instant repair mod, those chips prove to be rare and precious, and there's no guarantee that you'll still be able to finish out a mission even after using one up... or that you'll be able to find a replacement for the next time you need it.
Similarly, the various escort and protection missions you come across (yes, there's no escape from those, it seems) can be a real challenge when tackled alone. Trying to hold down multiple map points while clad a suit of armor that moves ponderously and offers no dash function can, at times, be a real drag. And of course, neither of the game's two controls schemes feels entirely flawless, which doesn't help matters.
Yet despite these rough patches, Federation Force fundamentally holds up. In terms of tech, it's one of the most impressive-looking games ever to hit the 3DS. Look past the misshapen hero avatars (and they are avatars, nameless space marines with no personal narrative) and you'll find a game that really pushes the system. It includes some fairly large spaces with respectable lines-of-sight, it doesn't scrimp on lighting effects, and it can flood the screen with bad guys. Despite this, the game still supports 3D visuals and avoids the busy, cluttered look that often affects the likes of, say, Monster Hunter.
In its best moments, Federation Force evokes the spirit and atmosphere of the original Metroid Prime. It lacks contiguous spaces and offers no exploration beyond poking in corners to find mod chips, instead parceling its world out as self-contained areas per mission. Yet there are moments when it really does capture the same loneliness and mystery that made Metroid Prime so powerful. When you step into an abandoned lab that's partially frozen over by the intrusion of outside weather to find a lone creature muddling along on the ceiling, minding its own business as nature begins to reclaim devastated manmade spaces, you can't help but feel a twinge of nostalgia. At the very least, Federation Force feels a whole lot more like Metroid than Metroid Prime: Hunters did.
To be honest, Federation Force in many ways works better as a multiplayer Zelda than anything else. Last year's Tri Force Heroes really missed the mark on what I would want from a cooperative Zelda, and despite bearing the Metroid name this game does a remarkable job of recreating the modern Zelda vibe in the form of an FPS. You'll find yourself solving puzzles in many missions, everything from guiding spheres into statues to redirecting rail tracks to bring a mine cart to shelter from electrical storms. The sphere puzzles provide a nice touch of Metroid referentialism — calling to mind all those millennia-old puzzles that seemingly were designed for Samus to solve by turning into her Morph Ball form — but with their emphasis on physics and spatial problem-solving, they feel decidedly Zelda-esque as well. So, too, do the occasional EVA sequences. Occasionally you'll need to leave your mech and skitter about helplessly on foot, which is probably meant to call to mind the Zero Suit sequence of Metroid: Zero Mission... but with its stealth elements taking place across 3D environments, it reminds me more of the hedge maze in Ocarina of Time than it does Zero Mission.
When you're not solving puzzles in Federation Force, you're invariably battling against space pirates. These parts, of course, feel nothing like Zelda. Generally speaking, Federation Force works better as a pure, combat-driven FPS than any of the actual Prime trilogy did. The game isn't afraid to throw a ton of bad guys at you, and you have a variety of weapons and tools at your disposal to deal with them. You have your standard blaster, a charge shot, different types of missiles, and elemental ammunition — all fairly standard imitations of Samus Aran's arsenal. However, you can also customize your load-out on a per-mission basis with more nuanced tools as you collect the appropriate mod chips: Defensive shields, armor and weapon boosts, targeting aids to help ensure critical strikes, decoys to draw fire, and more. Solo players can also take along up to three drone assistants to help soften the enemy, too.
Federation Force fills its worlds with familiar Prime universe enemies: Geemers, Shriekbats, Hoppers, and of course Space Pirates. The latter look more like Halo's Covenant Elites than ever before... especially the guys with the energy swords. And the heavily armored guys who are basically Halo's Hunters. The overall size of the game's bestiary turns out to be fairly modest, with the same creatures appearing throughout many missions on a given world and minor variations often showing up on other planets. But, they do the trick, and given the game's equal emphasis on combat and navigating environment puzzles, the repetition doesn't feel so dire. Besides, the bosses more than make up for it. Aside from some cheapness with the occasional instant-kill attack, the varied scenarios they present create huge, exhilarating battles for players to contend with.
Players have a lot of freedom to adjust the difficult of their experience through various in-game options. Besides the Lone Wolf mod that halves enemy strength and doubles attack power to even out the odds for solo players, you can also fine-tune your mech to suit your tastes... mods allowing, of course. And on top of that, the game provides you with more abstract challenges in the form of medals you earn by hitting certain score targets. To claim all three goals in a given mission, you need to be able to both complete that stage within a strict time limit and complete some secondary achievement, which generally requires mastery and replays. I can't really see myself going for 100% achievements here, but the game does reward you for earning medals by opening up new mod chip slots to amp up your mech's power.
I'm refraining from putting a score on this review for now; I still need to finish up the last few missions solo and spend more time in multiplayer sessions. However, I can definitely say that Federation Force has proven to be a pleasant surprise, and my feelings on playing the game quickly went from "reluctant dread" to "respectful delight." It undoubtedly helps that I've learned to let go of my expectations for beloved franchises... but even if this game doesn't fully deserve to wear the name Metroid, it's an excellent portable FPS in its own right.