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.

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