Hunters is a fantastic multiplayer FPS, but we're still waiting for the first Metroid game on DS.
Metroid Prime: Hunters is the best first-person shooter from Nintendo since Goldeneye 007 and Perfect Dark in Rare's heyday. It is easily the best use yet of Nintendo WiFi Connection and the Nintendo DS microphone. It makes a strong case for the versatility and accuracy of the touch-screen as an alternative to analog joysticks for 3D games. But Hunters is not, in any way, a real Metroid game. If you are hoping for a handheld version of Retro Studios' Metroid Prime games, keep waiting.
Hunters is strictly a first-person shooter and has more in common with Quake and Unreal than it does with the Metroid Prime games, much less with the original Metroid games. Even the "adventure" mode, which has some basic exploration and scanning in an appeal to fans of the series, completely misses the mark. That's because there is no upgrading beyond the six sub-weapons, which are interchangeable for the most part. And you can't have a Metroid game without upgrades; that would be like having a Mario game without jumping. You can slap these characters on whatever game you want, but no one is arguing that Mario Party and Mario Baseball are real Super Mario games. The original Metroid on NES establishes the importance of upgrading within the first thirty seconds of the game. So we can talk all day about how great Hunters is, and I will, but don't tell me it's a Metroid game just because it has Samus and her morph ball. Maybe it's a deceit on Nintendo's part; at least the franchise outsourcing was blatant with the pinball game. I have to think that some people will approach this game with the expectation that it has some grand adventure component to back up the obvious draw of online multiplayer, but that is sadly not the case. If you're clear on that fact, Hunters can be appreciated on its own terms.
The reasons to buy Hunters are its multiplayer offerings, plain and simple. Single-card mode takes a little while to upload, and the moochers are stuck playing as Samus, but it runs smoothly and is completely playable. Multi-card mode not only opens up the other characters for everyone, but you can also turn on bots to fill up empty spots. The bots have three difficulty settings and are more than competitive even on the middle setting. Another nice thing about this mode is that you can play alone against three bots to practice your skills anytime.
The big hitter is online play through Nintendo WiFi Connection. Random matching looks and works just like Mario Kart DS, but as of this writing, it's quite hard to find more than one random opponent at a time, and sometimes even these matches crash before getting started. If you do manage to get a game, and the opponent is good, you can try to add him/her as a rival afterwards, which is sort of a sub-friend. It's a great idea, because the infrastructure for friends (and to a lesser extent, rivals) is much, much better than the random matching.
With a well-stocked friends list (try our WiFi forums to find codes and post your own), Hunters is easily the best online experience yet on the DS. You can see games being hosted by friends, or create your own and wait for people to join, or view a list of all friends who are online. Once in a game, there are plenty of options to arrange, dozens of levels to choose from, and the zinger: voice chat. It works very well and makes it so much easier to agree upon the match settings, ask others to wait for a friend you know is on the way, or just gab about anything while waiting for the match to start. Voice comes through clearly, though it's a bit quiet unless the DS speakers are turned all the way up. Headphones do alleviate that problem. There's also a text chat feature, which is not only obsolete but isn't implemented very well. It's too bad the communication isn't available during gameplay, because there's no way to inform your opponent that the phone is ringing or the pizza guy is at the door, and of course you can't pause. You can try to explain your terrible playing after the match though, during roughly thirty seconds of smack talk time which does cut off even if you're still talking.
Voice chat is great, but the real draw here is the actual online gameplay. It's very fast and intense, especially with three or four players. The different match types are pretty cool and worth rotating through, but some maps are better than others for the specialized rules. Hunters is different from most other first-person shooters in that the seven playable characters have different advantages and styles. Each bounty hunter has a unique alternate form and affinity for one of the sub-weapons, meaning he will have additional powers when equipped with that weapon. This assortment of characters and abilities just adds a tremendous amount of variety to the game, and you'll probably find yourself developing preferences for two or more of the hunters. Some of the characters seem to be unbalanced (Noxus in his alt form and Trace with his sniping laser), but the playing field will probably level out as more players log on and learn to deal with these threats. The variety quotient is multiplied again by the large number of levels, which are conveniently grouped into small, medium, and large categories to help you choose based on the number of players and match type. All in all, online play in Hunters is robust and addictive.
As of this writing, there are some bugs preventing a fourth player from joining most games, and sometimes friends will join the same game but not be able to see or shoot each other for the entire match, but Nintendo is working on these problems server-side and should eventually iron them out. Those players with little patience for connection errors may want to wait a few weeks to buy the game, because the adventure mode is not an adequate alternative to playing online.
No, sadly the other side of this coin isn't nearly as polished. The so-called adventure mode in Hunters is a lame attempt to string together the multiplayer levels and other bounty hunters into some kind of story-driven artifact hunt. The mission has some exciting moments, particularly the escape sequences and a precious few morph ball puzzles, but any initial promise quickly wears thin as the game becomes formulaic and quite difficult. At least the bosses are pretty cool…both of them. Yes, there are eight main boss fights (plus the final), but only two basic boss designs across those eight fights. The bosses are challenging and look cool, but you won't care by the time you fight the fourth revision of each one. The later versions just tack on more firepower and more shielding, so you don't need to change strategies, just be more careful about dodging and conserving ammo. In contrast, the rival bounty hunters are initially quite hard but soon become laughably easy as you tack on energy tanks and missile upgrades (which tend to sit out in the open, requiring little of the skill needed to find such items in the GameCube titles). The levels are, however, chock full of moving platforms and bottomless pits, which happen to require careful use of jumping, the only function that doesn't work well enough with the game's default touch screen controls. But the scan visor, that's like Prime, right? Wrong. There aren't nearly as many items to scan for back-story, and the scan logs lack the clever writing that drives this feature in Retro's games. The bottom line is that adventure mode just isn't worth playing beyond the initial encounter with each rival hunter, which will unlock him for multiplayer. The whole mode is repetitive, frustrating, and just not much fun. It's certainly a far cry from the quality and overall design philosophy of the real Metroid Prime games.
What both adventure and multiplayer have in common is the amazing Hunters graphics engine, which pushes the best 3D graphics ever seen on Nintendo DS. This game features fast movement, detailed level geometry, impressive character animations, and even some cool special effects like particle and reflection tricks. The touch-screen radar displays are rather bland, but you hardly ever need to look at them anyway. Hunters even uses a surprising amount of color in its art style, though it's easier to see these touches on a DS Lite screen. The sound design is less impressive, as the music tends to be more action-oriented like the rest of the game, but it's fitting if not quite memorable.
And no review of Hunters would be complete without getting into the game's controls. The options are good: touch screen and all-digital schemes for both left- and right-handed players, plus look inversion and a sensitivity slider. Touch controls are really the way to go, as they offer the most speed and accuracy, but they aren't perfect. As I mentioned earlier, jumping under pressure is tricky; you have to double-tap the screen, which is simple enough, but sometimes a double-tap is registered when you just want to put the stylus on the screen after lifting it for a while. Moreover, holding the entire system with one hand, which must also control movement and use the shoulder button to fire weapons, can be strenuous on your wrists, even with the lighter DS Lite model. There's probably no better way to do it, but your hands will still hurt after half an hour of playing. Take frequent breaks and experiment to find the best control style for you.
Hunters is really two games; one is fantastic, the other is not. One is easily worth buying if you have good access to wireless Internet, while the other feels slapped together to dupe hardcore Metroid fans and to put "Action-Packed Single-Player Mode!" on the back of the box. As a multiplayer-centric title, even if you have no DS-owning friends in the local area, the online mode saves this game. If your nearby friends do get their own copies, so much the better.