Yes, I played the final version for over three hours, straight through. Wouldn’t you like to read about it?
Although the E3 demo for Echoes was remarkable, this is a series that I think has to be experienced in the proper context and sequence to be appreciated. Playing a demo in which you’re thrown into a particular section of the game with upgrades you shouldn’t have yet, it just doesn’t capture what makes Metroid unique. So, you could say that my excitement level for Echoes was less than it should have been up until Thursday. That changed immediately when Nintendo sat me down in front of the final, production version of the game and challenged me to “get as far as you can”. Okay, you don’t have to twist my arm.
The beginning portion of the game is much different than the demo you may have played. Some of the locations are the same, but they are in a completely different order, with many more sections added in. One of the early corridors in the demo doesn’t show up for over an hour into the real game. And by the time you reach it, your abilities are much more limited than they were in the demo. Echoes starts out much like the first game, in that Samus is armed fairly well and investigating a massacre. Searching through the corpses, you see Dark Samus up to no good…but she escapes through a portal. Samus follows, but the other side is uninhabitable, and worse yet, she is surrounded by amorphous Ing creatures. They attack en masse, stealing her equipment and throwing her back through the portal. This is how the game sets you up for the game-long process of recovering the standard weapons and tools and finding many new ones. However, a new twist is that the Ing bosses you meet will actually use your equipment against you. So the first boss is the Bomb Guardian, and you beat it to earn back your bombs. Other bosses may be guarding new upgrades; after I finally reached the battle with Dark Samus (the same one from E3, though much further into the game), I took a newly revealed elevator to the Dark Beam.
Story takes on a stronger role in Echoes, as cut-scenes have emerged alongside scanning as another way to present information. Most of the cut-scenes in the first Metroid Prime were purely decorative, but in Echoes, they tend to be more frequent, longer, and packed with plot details. The first one that really floored me was when I came upon the fallen leader of the human troops. Samus accesses the nearby computer terminal to view his logs, which are presented as video clips (actually rendered in real-time) with narrative text subtitles, though the soldiers are shouting to each other in English during some scenes. The log entries become more harrowed as the troops are forced to crash land on Aether and are soon surrounded by hundreds of Ing. The captain has just enough time to send out a distress call, which is what brought Samus to the planet. After seeing what happened to this man and his squadron, Samus kneels down to pay her respects. Obviously, this is way beyond any of the cut-scenes in the first game. Another great example is when Samus meets a representative of the Luminoth in their temple. He floats in from the side and surprises her, but tries to defuse the situation by explaining himself. The Luminoth warrior speaks in an alien tongue, so there is (unintelligible) voice-acting, and his words are translated in text on the screen. Once he has given Samus her mission, he remains in the temple and can be engaged at any time for a recap of what’s going on. Samus will also find holographic messages from other Luminoth who have died protecting something important. These scenes are played out in the same way, with alien speech and a text translation. None of this would be a huge deal in most games, but for the Metroid series, this kind of direct communication is unheard of. And, I’m very happy to report, it is handled with enough delicacy to avoid upsetting my Metroid sensibilities.
One of the greatest achievements of Metroid Prime is how organic its environments look and feel as you move around. Echoes pushes this effect even more, which less strictly themed (and thus, more believable) locations and distinct architecture styles depending on which faction controls each area. As you move through different parts of Aether, you can tell whether the Space Pirates had their mining operation set up there, or whether the Luminoth’s ancient technology has been ravaged by the war with the Ing. The Dark World has its own style and attention to detail, while being eerily reflective of the Light World. Some objects are caught between the two worlds and appear as ghosts, which disrupt your visor for a very cool visual effect. The Ing themselves are a sight to behold. In the Light World, they emerge from temporary portals as a cloud of black particles, which can infest nearby creatures and make them much deadlier. In the Dark World, the Ing appear as blobs of darkness, sticking to the walls and occasionally forming solid creatures which can be attacked. More disturbingly, in this environment they will try to infest Samus herself, and the only recourse seems to be standing in a protective light bubble. One of Nintendo’s presenters showed off just how deep the light/dark mechanic can go, as he used the Dark Beam to intentionally turn off one of the light bubbles, lured an Ing warrior next to the crystal, then shot the crystal with the Light Beam to turn the bubble back on, causing massive damage to the Ing. In another area of the Dark World, I found a roaming creature that produced its own light and was impervious to my attacks. It turns out that you can follow this benevolent creature and use his aura to cross a long path that otherwise has no protection from the poisonous atmosphere.
Since I knew I could only get so far into the game myself, I asked Nintendo’s reps about some things later in the game. They wouldn’t discuss the Screw Attack much, but I got the impression that it hasn’t changed much since E3, when I uncovered a ton of information from talking to the game’s producers. I also asked about the Morph Ball, since Retro Studios have recently commented that there will be a greater emphasis on using the ball in both puzzles and combat, including some boss battles fought entirely in this mode. It seems that there is only one new ability for the Morph Ball, but it holds great potential in expanding what the designers could do with environments. When you are using Spider Ball to stick to a magnetic track, you can charge up the Boost Ball and release it to shoot out and away from the track. This means you could roll up a track on one side of a room and shoot across to a higher track on the other side. It means Spider Ball puzzles are now more 3D than the simple 2D track designs of the last game, and the camera will sometimes pull out quite a bit to show you where you can boost to. As for Morph Ball boss battles, it seems these are being handled within the ability’s pre-existing limitations. You still attack with only bombs and power bombs, but the arenas are set up so that you have to roll around (and use magnetic tracks) in clever ways to avoid the boss and get in your own offensive moves.
I finished off my time with Echoes with a few rounds of multiplayer. The mode has not changed much since I played it at E3, though the final game has several levels to select (at least two of them must be unlocked) and has some more weapons to find. The Annihilator, which will show up in the single-player mode too, uses both light and dark ammo, but it dishes out pain by the bucketful while it lasts. It homes in on the nearest opponent like a missile, but you don’t have to lock on for this feature to work, and the rate of fire is much faster than with missiles. One level, called Shooting Gallery, also includes a huge turret, like the ones the Space Pirates use against you in the demo. Just walk into the turret hologram, and you will see through its reticule and be able to fire large green blasts that can kill opponents in just a couple of hits. However, the aiming and firing speeds are slow, and it’s hard to see anything close to the turret. If you can sneak by the turret without getting fragged, there is a bomb slot behind it which will immediately destroy the turret and kill whoever is inside it. Multiplayer is undeniably fun with three or four players (it’s a bit dry with just two), though I was disappointed to see that the framerate suffers with four players, at least on some levels.
Having now gotten a substantial taste of the game as it was meant to be played, I couldn’t be more hyped for Echoes. The game is facing major competition this holiday season and will probably end up being an also-ran in the sales race, but Metroid Prime fans are going to be delirious when they finally get their hands on this sequel. Check back soon for my full review!