Release Date: March 21, 2006
Everyone gather 'round because I have an announcement to make: Bounty hunters are freaking cool. I mean all of them, from Domino Harvey to Boba Fett to heck, even that "Dog" guy from the Discovery Channel. It's a filthy, violent, sexy job, and it's one that just about every young man longingly dreams of as a boy ... especially if he gets to be a super-hot, compensation-collectin' mama in a nigh-indestructible, ball-morphin', bomb-droppin', thermal-scannin' steel suit. Enter the latest chapter in what is generally known as the 800-pound gorilla of Nintendo action properties: Metroid Prime: Hunters.
Samus Aran, the previously mentioned titanium-clad hotness, has gotten the wild hair to go gallivanting around the galaxy in search of eight ultra-powerful artifacts called Octoliths, which she will presumably lock firmly away in a display case on the other side of the universe so that they won't appear in the next game. She tends to do this every few years, and no one's really sure why. People seem to be getting kind of tired of her antics, so a motley collection of six other bounty hunters has set about the task of beating our fair metal maiden to the proverbial punch.
This is where it gets weird. Now, I've been playing Metroid since its eight-bit debut back in the days of the many long-long-agos. Over the course of five consoles and about eight games, the only real difference has been which type of giant pterodactyl is going to eat Samus. Hunters totally changes the paradigm. These other hunters are not only completely new concepts in the Metroid universe, but they are genuinely original and interesting characters in their own rights. Each and every one of them comes complete with his (or her … or its) own fascinating, albeit brief, back story. In a few cases, these histories actually even intertwine with Samus' somewhere along the way. Ever wanted to know what happened to that insane Space Pirate boss you threw down with way back when? Check out the rundown on Weavel. Want to find out if our busybody protagonist's meddlesome nature has ever rubbed anyone the wrong way? Read up on the blue devil, Sylux.
The story behind the adventure is interesting as well, and takes Samus all over the newly imagined Alimbic system of planets. Typical Metroid puzzle-solving comes into play as you fight to gain access to new weapons which can then be used to open new doors and advance you in the storyline. As in all Metroid games, some amount of aimless wandering is required as you try to figure out your next goal, and there are also some truly exciting scripted moments. One such incident finds Samus stumbling across two other bounty hunters duking it out, completely unaware of her presence. Of course, they quickly discover her, and missiles start flying. Another cool oddity is that if you are defeated by another hunter, he can actually steal one of your Octoliths, which you will then have to track down and recover.
Samus' arsenal has always contained the standard fare. A missile launcher here, a charge beam there, top it all off with some variation of a super bomb, et voila, Samus becomes an estrogen-slinging weapon of mass butt-kickery. These days, however, Nintendo has upped the ante considerably. Each of the other hunters possesses a totally unique weapon system that Samus can, throughout the course of the game, acquire for her own personal cache. Some of these weapons, like Noxus' Judicator, are ostensibly reminiscent of old-school armaments like the Ice Beam. Others though, like the sniper-rifleish Imperialist, are completely new to the series.
If you opt to play against one of the other hunters, you'll also find that each of them has an exclusive morph form, as well as a special attack for that form. Samus' precise morph-ball bomb is absolutely deadly in close quarters, while Trace's spidery Triskelion form delivers an equally lethal, if slightly harder to control, groin-impaling rush. The characters are beautifully balanced for multiplayer.
Speaking of which … multiplayer is downright awesome. Allowing you to challenge up to three other players or bots, Hunters takes a page from Halo 2's big book of tricks and offers a slew of play modes that brings tears to your eyes and beckons you to throw your arms skyward in praise to the gods of FPS loving. The standard games are all represented, with the deathmatch Battle and Capture the Flag (or in this case, Octolith) modes. Should you get bored with these offerings, however, you can test your skill as the Prime Hunter. Endowed with super health, shields, items, and damage, the Prime Hunter only gets to keep his powers as long as he can successfully defend them; kill the Prime, and you become him. You can also try your hand at the Hunters version of King of the Hill, called Defender. Rounding out the multiplayer experience are Survival, in which you have a limited number of lives; Bounty, in which you must capture Octoliths and deliver them to variable locations; and Nodes, in which you must capture and defend multiple areas to gain points.
In each of these modes, you'll find that the plethoric portfolio of arenas is well-planned and executed, offering each player some geographical staple of his particular play style. Sniping roosts, cover areas, and wide-open berserk rush lanes are all included, and every map has its own specific strategic design which requires one to create a plan based on each contour of its layout. Whether you're avoiding the lava pit on the huge maps like Alinos Gateway or getting sliced to bits on the tiny gladiatorial style Sanctorus, as much hinges on your tactical know-how as does on your twitch skill.
This is where games like this tend to fall apart. They have such an outstanding multiplayer game and a slapdash single-player campaign that seems to have been thrown on as an afterthought. Hunters — and this is important — does not fall prey to this all-too-common occurrence. The single-player adventure is engaging, and is by far the longest action game I've played for the DS so far. Just as in multiplayer, the level design is both functional and pleasing, and every world that you visit stands out and is memorable for its own particular feature.
For all of my Kool-Aid drinking, though, I must admit that there are at least a couple of flaws with the single-player experience in Hunters. One major problem is in an area that no Metroid game has ever suffered before: bosses. All the way back to the original Metroid game, the bosses have always been interesting and tough, each one usually having some pattern or weakness totally unique to it. The big bobbing plant in Super Metroid, the Omega Pirate, Ridley, Kraid — all of these were superb monsters and were highly original. The same cannot be said of the thin selection of Hunters' big bads. In fact, Hunters really only has two bosses: the laser-beam shooting totem pole and the floating eyeball with plasma-shooting tongues. Every boss on every planet is a varyingly difficult version of these two.
Another problem involves the game design as it applies to the DS hardware. The screen on the DS is, in fact, rather small, and without magnification gear, tiny objects displayed in the game world can be downright impossible to spot, especially if you're looking for, say, a light blue scan icon on a light gray wall of ice. This can lead to ages of frustrating searches for locks and keys that need to be scanned to progress in the game.
This criticism isn't to say, however, the graphics aren't crisp. They are, and are among the best graphics of any game the DS has to offer right now. The textures are lovely, the animations are exceptionally smooth and liquid, and the colors are bright when appropriate, or somber if the area calls for it. Enemies are well-designed and realized, and you'll have no problem spotting old favorites, as well as quite a few brand-new baddies. While there does tend to be some pixelation in certain areas, the game still impressively utilizes the hardware.
The sounds, on the other hand, are nothing short of perfect. Each and every beam blast, bomb explosion, and death wail in the game are brilliantly done. Missiles impact with bone-crunching thuds, power shields emit throbbing hums, and the entire game world buzzes with sounds so realistic and yet so alien that you'll be stunned that they're even coming from a handheld. The music is surreal and exciting, with perhaps the single best theme song any Metroid title has ever had. I'll even let my geek flag fly and admit that when I play online, I hook up the DS to my surround sound system. Yeah, that's right. I'm hard.
All in all, Metroid Prime: Hunters is an outstanding game. The single-player mode is compelling and fun, the graphics are above par, controls are super-precise, the sounds are perfect, and multiplayer makes owning a DS worth every penny. However, the boss style is a bit limited in single-player mode, and some mission-advancing objects can be difficult to spot. The super-precise controls can also come close to breaking your hands after extended bouts of gameplay. Despite these minor flaws, if you have a DS, and you are the least bit awesome, you must have this game. It's like, a law or something.
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