Metroid's first outing in years strips away the series' isolation and exploration for a serviceable co-op experience.
This, then, is how Nintendo has chosen to mark Metroid's 30th anniversary. And this is how Nintendo has elected to break six years of silence for one of its most celebrated series: a co-op shooter with chibi visuals in which Samus Aran, the stoic bounty hunter who's fronted every Metroid to date, is relegated to the sidelines. Ever since its announcement at last year's E3, the reaction has been resoundingly negative. Given the path Nintendo's taken with this 3DS entry, it's no wonder some noses have been put out of joint.
The lonely exploration that's long been a series staple has been jettisoned in favour of levels explicitly designed for four players to work through together. The backtracking and world map that slowly unfurls is torn asunder, now simply a run of 22 partitioned missions with a neat through line. The cold, cool art-style has been swapped out for a world of Tonka toys and throwabout mechs, all of which look like they've been freshly wrestled from a toddler's hands.
Federation Force is a bizarre spin-off from the Metroid series, though despite all the hostility thrown its way since its unveiling it's far from a bad one. The work of Canadian developer Next Level Games - previously responsible for the wonderfully charming Luigi's Mansion 2 - it's a game that's full of neat ideas and a fair amount of novelty. You're one of the Federation Force, a small bobble-headed soldier that clambers into a hulking armour suit at the outset of each mission as you explore three different planets in events that take place just after the climax of Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.
Corruption always was a faster-paced, trigger happy take on the Metroid Prime formula, and Federation Force only takes that further, serving up equal parts gunplay to puzzle solving across its missions. Perhaps Next Level's smartest move - and the one where the family ties to the series it shares its name with are the strongest - is Federation Force's appropriation of Metroid Prime's control system. It turns out the single stick approach is the perfect tool for playing first-person games on a handheld, supplemented here with a little Splatoon-style gyro control that allows you to fine tune your aim (a more traditional dual stick first-person shooter style system is available for those with a New 3DS, though the smaller nub doesn't seem up to the task it's been handed).
Playing a trimmed down Prime on 3DS is impressive at first, but this isn't a Metroid game in any traditional sense. Beyond those controls and the occasional cameo from Samus and the space pirates, it's hardly a Metroid game at all. Instead it's been engineered to play with others, its challenges designed to be taken on by small squads. You can choose to go solo in Federation Force - one of your mod slots can be equipped with the 'Lone Wolf' power that increases your firepower while limiting the amount of damage you take, while AI assault drones can also be also called into play to fill any empty slots - but as you get further into its campaign it becomes harder to trudge through puzzles and challenges clearly intended for multiple players. It's possible to go it alone, then, but in later stages it can prove to be an absolute pain to do so (and if you're chasing all three medals on any given stage having a team is an absolute necessity).
Get a group together and Federation Force can be great fun, but the likelihood of getting four people together to play is slim at best, with the online option a decent substitute that suffers somewhat from the lack of voice chat. That barrier to entry is going to be enough to turn most people away from Federation Force, which is a small shame as Next Level has crafted a competent, enjoyable co-op experience. Missions are bolstered by their variety, with objectives rarely repeating themselves and each mission always with some new trick at hand to share; from shepherding colossal ice titans into cages, pushing carts through storm-battered temples or escaping your mech suit for a stealth-fuelled search of a pirate-infested factory. Squint and you could be playing a handheld Destiny strike, with Federation Force's 10-minute missions featuring waves of enemies broken up by the constant discovery of new mechanics.
There's even loot to procure - in this case mods and loadouts that can be equipped for each mission, including some delicious gadgets like an inflatable Samus that can be deployed as a decoy - and a scoring system that binds each level, with points doled out for charge shots, missiles or long-range hits all pushing you towards the three medal ranking that's hard to attain for all but the most regimented squad. It's all smart, enjoyable stuff, but none of it's quite enough to give Federation Force a sense of purpose. Next Level has done all it can to fill its brief to create a cut-down co-op Metroid Prime, but you can't help but feel that brief was fundamentally flawed in the first place.
This isn't the first Metroid spin-off, of course, and Federation Force sits alongside other offshoots such as 2006's adequate if flawed Hunters. Next Level Games' effort may suffer from the lack of that DS game's more traditional campaign, but it benefits from a more approachable control system and a few more ideas of its own, and it deserves to see through the storm around it to find some appreciation. Unfortunately it shares some of that games' spartan looks - Federation Force is far from a pretty game, and regardless of where you stand on its chibi stylings there's no getting away from the drab feel of its environments and lo-fi renditions of familiar enemies that struggle to convey the chilly atmosphere that's at the heart of Metroid games.
Which gets to a core problem with Federation Force, a game that's quick to strip away the fundamentals of Metroid but doesn't quite find enough to fill the void that's left. There's a spark missing, and while this spin-off is competent it's never quite convincing. Metroid Prime Federation Force is okay, and for a series that's been away for so long and a game that boldly chooses to bear the Prime moniker that doesn't feel like it's going to be enough.
By a process of simple inversion Nintendo's done some wonderful things with its staple series in the past. A Mario game without any jumping? Tokyo EAD's Captain Toad's Treasure Tracker proved there's plenty of magic and a fair few surprises to be found when Nintendo is working with one hand tied behind its back. Metroid without Samus, without that sense of exploration and lonely adventure? It's a much tougher ask, and while the best efforts of Next Level Games have ensured an enjoyable off-shoot it was perhaps only inevitable that Federation Force would end up falling a little short.