If video game fans’ expectations were way too high for No Man’s Sky, the counterpoint has to be Metroid Prime: Federation Force — a game whose abysmal reception at E3 2015 became one of the running jokes of the show, particularly after its debut achieved an astonishing number of “dislikes” on YouTube. More rational gamers and media commentators were quick to point out that the hate really was overblown; after all, developer Next Level Games was responsible for a number of other beloved takes on Nintendo classics. Could the company behind Super Mario Strikers, the Wii version of Punch-Out!! and Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon really betray the magic of the Metroid universe after doing so much justice to other Big N franchises? Sure, Federation Force might not be the Metroid game so many people wanted, but keeping an open mind tends to help with these things.
While Next Level Games’s project may not have deserved all the hate, it’s my unfortunate duty to report that the final version is hard to recommend as a complete package. If you played The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes and/or explored some of the criticism of that game, a lot of what I’m going to say here will seem familiar. This is another fairly unusual move for Nintendo, a multiplayer-focused entry in one of their almost exclusively single-focused franchises. Like the last one, it’s also got a lot to offer if you’ve got some buddies to round up and take on the campaign; and also like the last one, it has the potential to be an utterly miserable experience if you choose to go it solo and/or pair yourself with the random selections of the Nintendo Network.
Since I wasn’t able to grab friends for this particular review, you can probably guess how my experience went — although, the few times I did get connected to competent and helpful teammates it gave me a taste of how fun the game could be under optimal circumstances. I’ll start, then, with the things the game does right: level design, level design, level design. Much like Tri Force Heroes and Four Swords Adventures, this is a Nintendo game that takes the formula of a beloved series — in this case, the first-person action of the Metroid Prime series — and expands it to fit multiple players, while fostering a simultaneous focus on cooperation and competition.
The proceedings here are exclusively action-oriented, as opposed to some of the more atmospheric and deliberate sections of the other Prime games, but that makes perfect sense in this case. Exploring the bite-sized missions of the campaign is absolutely a joy if you’ve got three people who know what they’re doing; blasting away at hordes of enemies, solving multi-part puzzles and taking on huge bosses can be a real blast with proper coordination.
I especially like some of the puzzles; in one section early on, your team has to split up to take on a series of four different get-the-ball-in-the-hole puzzles. Each teammate has to do a different thing to retrieve their ball; while one navigates past a series of shifting columns that threaten to push them (and the ball) over the edge, another must time their shot in order to release the ball into a moving slingshot below. This is all really inventive and fun.
I also absolutely love the way that spirit of cooperation and competition comes into play. While the vast majority of your time in Metroid Prime: Federation Force will be spent on cooperative activities like taking down enemies and solving puzzles, the game also keeps track of your score while you’re doing all this. At the end of each campaign mission, you and your teammates will be evaluated on your performance.
First, your scores are added together, with bonuses added based on certain optional objectives (destroy this many enemies, complete the level in this amount of time, etc); the result of this will determine the amount of medals you’re awarded for the mission, encouraging repeat plays in order to get up to the maximum of three. Second, you’re all ranked individually, with the winner getting first pick of the MODs (special items that can be equipped on your character for various bonuses) that were collected during the mission. This system is a pretty cool way to reward both working together and striving to be the best, and when I was paired with skilled people, the balance between camaraderie and rivalry was striking.
Unfortunately, I was rarely paired with skilled people — if I could find anyone else to play with at all. Metroid Prime: Federation Force features the worst matchmaking of any multiplayer game I’ve played in a long time. I don’t know if it’s completely random or if there actually is some sort of system guiding the folks I was placed with, but it sure felt like the former.
Then again, given that it often took me upwards of 10 minutes to get from the setup screen to the actual mission, perhaps the only requirement Nintendo Network is able to work with is “player has a pulse.” And then there are the sad facts that a) you may never find a full slate of three other players to join your team, b) these players might be completely useless for the duration of the mission and c) if one player encounters connection problems, it puts the whole team at risk of getting screwed.
I recall one specific mission where it took me 10 minutes to get the mission set up with four players, then another 15 minutes to get through the actual objectives and the end-level boss. Just as we were about to leave on the drop ship, one player’s connection cut out, causing the game to freeze and forcing me to perform a hard reset of my system.
Other players, with less-than-adequate Internet connections, spent a lot of their missions appearing to teleport around the levels due to horrible lag. Stuff like this is infuriating, and happens way more often than I ever expected it to. And that’s not to mention the purely incompetent players, who seem dedicated to making you have a miserable time — for me, this included several people who absolutely refused to follow the rest of the group, causing the rest of us to quit in frustration.
You might cry foul and say that it’s not fair to blame Next Level Games or Nintendo here, but the fact of the matter is that the stakes have been raised when it comes to online multiplayer games, and the Big N continues to tread water in a bygone era. Without decent matchmaking, a system to ban troublesome players or voice chat to coordinate your efforts, trying to play without a group of friends is a futile effort here.
That goes for anyone who thinks they’re going to solo their way through this experience, too; while Tri Force Heroes may have offered a more stop-and-start single-player experience, it was still possible for the average Zelda fan to get through the campaign on their own. Metroid Prime: Federation Force, on the other hand, is pure torture to play alone. The MOD meant for solo players — which doubles both your endurance and damage output — is simply not enough to counter the level design, which was obviously designed with four players in mind.
The Metroid Prime trilogy was known for its masterful use of atmosphere, and it’s unfortunate to report that Federation Force does not continue in that tradition despite being a rather nice technical achievement. Sure, these levels are more action-oriented than their GameCube and Wii counterparts, but that doesn’t mean they had to leave so little to look at.
Perhaps this is partially due to the inherent limitations of the 3DS hardware, which was dated at launch in 2011 and is even more so five years later — but while other games like Monster Hunter Generations and Final Fantasy Explorers offer both technical proficiency and eye-catching environments, Federation Force only brings the former. I also wasn’t that impressed with the soundtrack this time around; while the team of three composers wisely went their own way rather than trying to imitate Kenji Yamamoto’s work on the Prime trilogy, the end result can’t help but pale in comparison.
Metroid Prime: Federation Force is an odd entry in the storied franchise, offering wildly different experiences for different player types. If you’re the type who’s able to easily round up three friends to take on the campaign, for example, you’ll likely have a wonderful time. The bite-sized missions are a ton of fun if you can coordinate your team properly, with level design that rewards cooperation and competition in equal measure. For players without pals on 3DS and those who’d like to go it alone, on the other hand, I’d recommend holding out on this one — miserable matchmaking, connection drops and atrociously unbalanced solo play are frequent obstacles to enjoyment.
Overall, this is a disappointing entry for Metroid’s 30th anniversary; Nintendo, a company so dedicated to making games accessible for everyone, has simply set up too many barriers for a large segment of their potential audience.
This review is based on the 3DS exclusive, which was provided to us.
Metroid Prime: Federation Force is a bit of a sad way to celebrate the franchise's 30th anniversary — in making this entry so multiplayer-focused, Nintendo has ironically created an alienating experience.