Never mind Super Mario Galaxy - the one forthcoming Wii first party title that has me frothing with giddy expectation is the latest in the Metroid Prime series. After the majestic beast that was 2004's Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, Retro Studios latest offering was always going to get the red carpet treatment from us - appropriate, given that Nintendo's swanky new offices are literally next door to the Queen's modest abode in Windsor.
Presented with a near-as-dammit finished build, we played through the first five per cent of the game, encompassing two bosses and a few of the early weapons and armour upgrades. First impressions? No great change or evolution in the gameplay or graphical stakes, but a significant overhaul in how you play the game - to the extent that it still ends up feeling fresh and interesting.
The premise for this one is, as the title suggests, corruption. The final part of the trilogy kicks off six months after Echoes, with the Galactic Federation’s network computers (the Aurora Units) all rendered useless thanks to a virus. Having managed to shut down the network quickly, some of the Aurora are still operational and give Samus a head-up on what the problem is. To cut to the chase, entire planets are being corrupted by something that's launching "enormous seeds" called Leviathans into them. That 'something' - although not spelled out in the portion of the game we played - is Samus' long-time nemesis, Dark Samus.
Keep it dark
[small spoiler alert]Apparently Dark Samus defeats Samus and the other bounty hunters, and corrupts them all with 'Phazon' in the process - a corruption that the Galactic Federation uses to enhance the hunter's powers. These Phazon Enhancement Devices, allows Samus to go into a state known as the Hypermode. Now, although it promises to grant her super-powered weapons that are essential to take down the so-called 'Phazon impediments', it drains her health to use them - so, in effect, on a time-limited basis. Nevertheless, she now has the tools to take on Dark Samus..[end spoiler]
In the practical terms of the early part of the game we played, this corruption of the space station means that all sorts of essential operations are out of action, and it's up to Samus to go around and fix certain things before she can strike back. For example, at the start you must bring the power back online so that the planetary defence system can once again repel the Space Pirates busily making a nuisance of themselves - as usual. Over the course of this no-doubt-epic adventure you'll be travelling to multiple planets ("each with their own unique landscapes and dangers") to halt this ongoing corruption.
However, we didn't get that far into the game to enjoy these lovely new powers (we'll have to wait for the forthcoming review for that) - but we did get a good feel for the controls, duked it out with a few bosses and played tourist to the visuals to get a solid first impression of what to expect.
Controls first, then: as you'll no doubt already be aware via the various hands-on to emerge from the last two E3s, it's another first person title to employ the regulation 'point, aim and shoot' system, where the nunchuk's stick controls movement, and the Wii remote controls the camera and aiming. Although I'm not about to jump on the bandwagon of complainers, there are certain situations when it works perfectly, and others where you seem to end up in more of a muddle than you would under 'normal' circumstances. Let me explain.
Assault and buttery
While wandering around the confines of the ship, scanning items, and picking off the odd space pirate, it feels great. It feels fluid, intuitive, responsive, precise. All the things you'd hope it would be, basically. The ability to lock-on, too, adds greatly to the sense of being in control, allowing you to strafe with ease, and get shots on target. Better still, more advanced difficulty levels force you to aim within the lock-on reticule in order to gain a hit, ensuring that skill is still a factor even when you're relying on the lock-on time and again.
Where it seems to feel less than satisfactory is when you're under huge pressure - such as during the boss encounters. As per usual, these tend to take place inside an arena-like environment where the giant enemy sits in the middle and gobs acid, white energy balls and electricity at you while you hot foot it around, strafing it in circles. The general idea is to repeatedly perform the dash move to keep out of the way, and then lock-on and target its weak spot for MASSIVE DAMAGE. Ahem. Dashing is fairly inelegant, though, as you end up bounding around, losing your lock-on and often looking the wrong way. Once that's happened to you, getting the reticule centred again costs you precious seconds, and you'll end up losing health in the process of wrestling with getting it all back on track. I'm probably making it sound like a bigger deal than it is, but the point is that there are moments when the controls hinder more than they help - but on balance the general degree of precision they offer more than offsets moments of clumsiness. Maybe over time we'll learn how to use it more effectively.
While we're on the subject of the first boss (known as the Berserker Lord if you get around to scanning it), he appears to be harder than he actually is - in typical Metroid Prime fashion ("I've never seen anyone get past him," admits the Nintendo rep). But success isn't far away, once you shoot the glowing red balls around his chest area - this forces him to shoot giant white balls of death at you - but shooting them right back at him opens up a weak spot which you can then unload everything you've got into. Standard laser fire's fine, but if you want a quick kill, then pressing down on the dpad unleashes your newly acquired missile attack. After a typically satisfying death animation sequence it's onto the next section - arguably the first 'proper' part of the game.
Shortly after this we gained one of Samus' trademark upgrades - the grapple. By locking onto certain obstacles (such as grates, rocks, broken doors and even enemy armour - as a mini boss section revealed), you can cast your Nunchuk forward to 'throw' the grapple towards your target. Once attached, pulling the Nunchuk back towards yourself in one swift motion yanks the attached item towards you. It immediately felt quite natural, and, more importantly, a lot of fun. It also immediately added a new puzzle layer to the general exploration, forcing you to think about whether to blast something out of the way, or simply attach the grapple and pull it.
Needless to say, the morph ball comes into play early on too, with a couple of sections for us to play around with - including one where you you have to time your leaps to co-incide with little gusts of air. Either you'd have to studiously avoid them, or time it just right so you ended up with a bit of wind assistance to see you across a gap. Control, once again, felt slick, responsive and intuitive - certainly no complaints here.
Occasionally you might come across a door entry system that requires you to twist the lever like you would in real life, or line-up a pattern until four bars appeared on the screen. Both felt like typical Wii mechanics in as much that they didn't really add anything to the game other than, perhaps, a degree of immersion to otherwise mundane tasks. Whether we'll still appreciate the novelty value of it 20-30 hours through the game we'll let you know.
In terms of how the game's shaping up technically, that's an easy one - it hasn't really changed or moved on a great deal since the last one, with the early levels, at least, giving the impression of Retro Studios wanting to keep the look and feel consistent, rather than go for a dramatic overhaul. Given that both Metroid games were arguably the best looking titles on the Cube, we're not exactly complaining, as it's still a slick looking game with plenty of nice effects that look sweet even on a big screen.
One thing we did notice over the course of the first couple of levels is the Retro appears to have given Corruption a more cinematic push, with a greater emphasis on longer animated cut scene interludes, and more characters to talk to on your travels. Whether this approach extends to the rest of the game we'll have to see, but it's a promising venture into making the game feel a little more 'alive' than previous the almost 'silent movie' approach of old.
With the review code a matter of days away, we're certainly looking forward to getting stuck into the next Metroid - and being tested to the very limit once again. Check back soon for our in-depth thoughts on this first-rate Wii exclusive.
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption will be released on October 26th. The US version is due on August 27th - expect an import review around its release date.