Metroid Prime: Federation Force Makes a Lousy First Impression, But It Gets Better

Metroid Prime: Federation Force Makes a Lousy First Impression, But It Gets Better

Seriously, it's not as bad as its reputation would suggest.

Ever eager to disprove the axiom that you can't judge a book by its cover (or E3 announcement trailer), the internet rose up as one within seconds of the initial reveal of Metroid Prime: Federation Force last summer to declare it Total Garbage and also Very Definitely Not Good.

I certainly understand the collective frustration about Federation Force, speaking as someone for whom the original Metroid helped define my affection for and expectations regarding video games. Do you know how much I love Metroid? And how much I'd like to see a worthwhile sequel? We haven't had a genuinely great Metroid game since Zero Mission in 2004, and since that was a remake, you'd have to go back to the original Metroid Prime and Metroid Fusion in 2002 if you want to track down the last great new Metroid releases. That's 14 years, and the original NES game just turned 30! It's been almost half the franchise's existence since we last had a truly groundbreaking new entry. And whatever Federation Force is, it sure isn't what anyone thinks of when you say the word "Metroid."

In space, no one can hear you scream. In first-person mode, no one can tell you're a macrocephalic manbaby.

Next Level Games' weird aesthetic choices certainly don't help matters any. Where the Metroid series has always belonged to Nintendo's small corner of "realistic" looking games, eschewing cartoon visuals, Federation Force is just straight up super-deformed bobblehead people stomping around in goofy-looking mech suits. There's actually some small precedent for the game's look, as Zero Mission originally was slated to feature a squat, big-headed Samus sprite (which was changed late in development, though the game's backgrounds retailed much of the original comic book look that was created to go along with Samus' midget rendition). But interesting cutting room floor minutiae aside, this team-based squad shooter full of squat space marines is a long way from what anyone ever would have asked for in a new Metroid game.

I'm afraid Federation Force doesn't really make any better of an impression once you actually begin playing it. The very first thing the game asks of you is to walk through a control tutorial, which is the point at which you discover that, as with an alarming number of Nintendo first-party titles of late, Federation Force expects you to interact with it by means of clumsy, obtrusive, ill-considered motion controls. We get it: Game systems have gyro sensors now. That doesn't mean they're the best way to play a first-person action game. Pokémon Go? Sure. Metroid Prime? Not so much.

Federation Force expects players to spin through 360 degrees of virtual motion with this gyro interface, holding their system upright and turning it to take aim at bad guys. Since it would be ridiculous to expect players to actually be able to physically turn through a full circle of motion, Next Level has added a function modifier to the motion controls: You hold down the left trigger to enter pan mode, which means once you reach the limit of your real-world ability to rotate, you can release the button and move your system back in the other direction without shifting your viewpoint inside the game.

There was precedent for Federation Force's visual style, though Nintendo had the good sense to walk the earlier bobblehead design style back before launch. [Courtesy of Unseen 64]

Thankfully, once you slog through the tutorial, you can change your control scheme to a more traditional setup. You can't actually switch buttons or fine-tune the interface, though, and that's a shame; Federation Force's alternate control scheme saddles players with some pretty lousy button assignments. The controls would be fine on a controller with more traditional shoulder button arrangements, but the New 3DS (which is theoretically the optimal way to play) has a strange shoulder button arrangement with large triggers on the outside edge of the system and two smaller, inset buttons that can be difficult to reach without brushing the triggers.

The problem is that the game sets four key commands to the shoulder buttons, from right to left: Fire, alternate weapon fire, lock-on, and jump. Three of those abilities are also mapped to face buttons, but the one that isn't — lock-on — is the one command you use almost as much as standard weapons fire. Placing it on the inner left shoulder button, where you have to reach across the less-useful (and redundant) left trigger jump button, feels like the kind of hostile design decision that makes you wonder if actual humans bothered to play-test the game. Who thought this arrangement made sense?

It's all so awful at first blush! Metroid Prime Federation Force, what a disaster! But then once you start playing, a funny thing happens: The game turns out to be pretty good.

Aw, it's like the Phendrana Drifts all over again.

The game's first mission sends you to an abandoned outpost on an icy planet, and despite the low graphical resolution of the 3DS and the blobby character designs, it feels like Metroid Prime. There's atmosphere, a dearth of needless action, some moderate environmental puzzle-solving, and a pretty decent boss at the end. (Actually, two bosses.) Granted, the Metroid-ness of the game is probably less profound if you go in under the auspices of a multiplayer session, but the game actually does account for solo play (despite early reports that it would commit the same sin as Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and fail to scale to the number of players in a given session). From the very outset, you receive a suit modification called "Lone Wolf" that you can plug into your mod slot and boost your own power while damping down enemy ferocity.

It all works pretty well. By the end of the first mission, I had the slightly awkward alternate control scheme down; it helped once I realized that the lock-on system uses a toggle mechanic rather than hold, so you just need to tap that badly placed shoulder button rather than strain to keep it depressed. The first mission's enemies are pretty unthreatening with the Lone Wolf mod installed — an endless succession of low-grade cannon fodder, a handful of shriekbats hanging in strategic spots so they'll spin into your face as you round a corner, and the bosses.

I can already spot moments where the game was conspicuously designed for multiplayer. The first boss, for example, comprises a pillar surrounded by hard shells that snap open to attack (and, naturally, reveal their weak points), and you'll frequently see shells open wide well outside your ability to reach them — but which would be perfectly within sight of another player if you were playing as a team. You'll also come across door switch plates installed on the floor that always require the exact number of players currently active in the game to stand on the switches in order to activate them. Despite this, it still works quite well.

The first mission even ends with a pleasant surprise: A second boss that appears out of nowhere as you prepare to exit the level. The whole affair comes together far better than the raging outcry against it had led me to anticipate. I've stayed neutral on Federation Force, preferring not to condemn a game until I've played it, and so far it's proven to be a perfectly solid little shooter. Despite those unfortunate first impressions.

Sometimes we include links to online retail stores. If you click on one and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. See our terms & conditions.

Read this next

All the Metroid Prime 4 Information we Know so Far

Here's all the details we know so far about Metroid Prime 4 for the Nintendo Switch.

A Metroid Cartoon Proposal Made Samus a Man, Embodying Everything That was Terrible About Video Game Cartoons in the '90s

Anyone who says licensed cartoons were better in the '90s has vapor for brains.

The 10 Best Cosplays We Saw at PAX East 2019

Welcome to PAX East. Normal clothing is entirely optional.

A New Patch Lets You Play the Oppressive Metroid 2 in Full Color

A little color should brighten SR388 right up (oh God it didn't work)!

Metroid Art From Castlevania's Animation Director Causes Me to Reflect on Samus' True Nature

Samus is 32 years old, and I dare say none of us really know her.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze's Cute Metroid Cameo Remained Hidden For Four Years

Usually Metroids aren't this shy about getting up in your face.

More Previews

For Honor Preview: A Whole New Sword Game

Jaz plays Ubisoft's upcoming sword fighting game, and talks to creative director Jason Vandenberghe about how it was developed.

Dragon Quest VIII 3DS Preview: New Characters, New Dungeons, New Challenges, Black Sabrecats

Though Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King for the Nintendo 3DS isn't a ground-up overhaul the way Dragon Quest VII 3DS is, there's still tons of new stuff to get excited about.

Will Final Fantasy XV's Big Twist Ruin The Game?

Early details about about FFXV's endgame have emerged, to much consternation.

Final Fantasy XV Travel Diary, Final Day: Stray Thoughts and Observations

There's still plenty to see and do in Duscae, but it's time to close the book on this massive RPG (until November 29).

More on 3DS

Shovel Knight's Final Expansions Are Coming Next Month

They'll mark the end of Treasure Trove, but not for our brave blue Knight.

Reggie Fils-Aimé Given Lifetime Achievement Award by Video Game Hall of Fame

The former NoA president credits his connection to the community.

Mario & Luigi Series Developer AlphaDream Files for Bankruptcy

The Superstar Saga creator is reportedly in severe debt.

Why Are Portable Systems and RPGs Perfect Lovers? Axe of the Blood God Talks it Over

Nadia and Eric go over the reasons why handhelds are perfect for RPGs and name some of their favorites.

Shovel Knight Developers Say King of Cards and Showdown Mark "The End"

After releasing these final two free updates, Yacht Club is moving on to new projects.

Who's Your Favorite Video Game Cat?

COMMUNITY QUESTION | Morgana? Cait Sith? Tell us who your favorite video game feline is.

The Wii U And 3DS Both Have The Same Number Of Upcoming Games... One

THIS WEEK IN BUSINESS | Nintendo sticks to its traditions of focusing on families and pretending its older hardware is still viable.

More Action Games

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order Review: A New Hope

Respawn bursts on the scene with one of the best Star Wars games in ages, but there's a dark side.

Microsoft X019 Recap: A Flood of Games to Finish the Generation

At the generation wraps up, Microsoft goes big.

A Deluge of New Announcements for Xbox Game Pass Came Out of X019

The Witcher 3, Rage 2, classic Final Fantasy titles, and more.

Project xCloud’s Preview Selection Makes Stadia’s Launch Lineup Look Tiny

Dozens of games are coming for testers of Microsoft's game streaming service.