One last trip through a scanner darkly.
It’s all but impossible to find a game quite like any in the Metroid Prime series. Admittedly, the developers have cobbled together a wide variety of specific, and frequently not very subtle, influences from other games (think Myst, Half Life, System Shock, Marathon, Doom, Zelda…). While the specific elements of any given Prime game may be easy to trace down through the annals of gaming history, the cumulative impact has always been a profoundly singular one. Now comes the third and final installment in the Prime trilogy, and much has changed since the original Prime descended from the heavens like Kubrick’s (and Clarke’s) mysterious monolith for the gaming apes to marvel at. Does it still hold the same other-worldly elegance and rapturous immersion of its predecessors?
Retro Studios has made some significant changes to the Prime formula to adapt it to Wii, and while some gamers may be apprehensive about it, there can be no doubt that Prime 3 is the gameplay pinnacle of the series. In tone, theme, and execution, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption outstrips its 3D predecessors in almost every way imaginable. This is the most accessible, most exhausting, and most brilliantly hypnotic game in the series and a reminder of all the different ways games have of deserving our attention, above and beyond the staid point and shoot mechanics that have predominated first-person gaming experiences throughout the years. Metroid Prime 3: Corruption is a definitive first-person gaming experience that is unmatched by any game, on any platform.
The most dramatic changes to the Prime formula will be apparent from the very beginning. Players wake up in the cockpit of intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran’s ship after a brief opening dream sequence. In order to progress, you’ll have to figure out a basic environmental puzzle using the Wii Remote as if it were your very own hand. The cockpit is filled with buttons and flashing panels to interact with, all of which require actual physical movement of some sort to operate. It may seem like a minor evolution to physically aim Samus’s finger at one of several different buttons to bring up a status screen, but it’s a thoroughly beguiling experience.
The gestures effectively act as a subconscious umbilical cord that shatters the mystical fourth wall of gaming, and it helps to underscore the epic nature of the feats you will have accomplished by the time you reach the journey’s end. What starts as a simple button push lays the foundation for the operation of massive weapons, ancient artifacts, and levers that ultimately unlock some of this universe’s most profound mysteries. More importantly, it underscores the core precept of the game by forcing you to view your interface primarily as a contextual problem-solving tool rather than a blunt instrument of laser-powered destruction. Combat remains an important component of the game, but you won’t get very far in Prime 3 just shooting stuff.
Once you get out of your space ship and begin the game in earnest, you’ll be treated to a lengthy and startlingly linear prologue that has been designed to ease players into the new control scheme. While this may be an off-putting change of pace for long-time fans of the Prime series, it will likely prove to be an irresistible hook for fans who had little patience for the lock-on aiming and methodical puzzle-solving of the previous games. Instead of abandoning players on a disorienting alien planet with no real directive or strongly-framed story, Prime 3 puts you in the middle of a massive planetary invasion filled with a marauding fleet of space pirates. Everything you do for the first hour or two is directly tied into a major battle that will determine the fate of the planet you’re standing on. Don’t panic, though; it’s still handled in a very "Metroid" kind of way. Fetching energy cells from one room and delivering them to a generator somewhere else still miraculously unlocks a door or powers a conspicuously useful piece of machinery.
After the stirring prologue, the game eases back into the heavily immersive puzzle-solving and exploration elements that have defined the series since the beginning. I won’t spoil how or why the narrative suddenly shifts from intense battle with Space Pirates to traditional exploration on a series of mysterious alien worlds, but rest assured you’ll be learning about long-dead civilizations and scanning strange alien installations soon enough. In both combat and exploration, the new Wii control scheme is a brilliant addition to the series, adding a significant layer of interactivity to the game world while streamlining many of the more cumbersome aspects of the lock-on movement system.
Retro’s use of the Wii Remote’s IR function and free-look should serve as irrevocable proof that first person games can be done better on Wii than any other console, past or current. On the advanced setting, the aiming-cursor glides speedily across the screen in a seamless way, adding a pleasurable sense of accuracy to combat. Likewise, the ability to independently aim while still locked on to an enemy complements the old style of Metroid combat beautifully. In past Prime games, shootouts were all about rhythm and timing, knowing how many shots you could get off before you would have to jump out of the way. Introducing aiming to the "shooting and jumping" mix helps enliven the combat and makes up for the sometimes limpid enemy AI. It’s true that regular enemies in Prime 3 have relatively simple AI routines that become predictable over time (and over multiple encounters required by the game’s re-traversal). Even still, combining the nimble jumping/dodging abilities of Samus with the free-aiming is an amusing enough puzzle in and of itself. You probably won’t spend much time wondering about the AI when just hitting an enemy is so immediately rewarding.
The game has been streamlined in other areas, with beam-switching converted into a stacking system that upgrades the strength of your basic charge beam. Visors can be switched by holding down the minus button and aiming at one of three on-screen wedges that corresponds to the specific visor you want. Hitting down on the D-pad will fire off a homing missile, and the C button switches Samus into morph ball mode. Samus can also enter Corruption mode for brief periods of time by holding down the Plus key on the remote. Staying in Corruption mode eats away Samus’s health and is limited to one energy tank’s worth, but it adds a nice strategic element to enemy encounters. You can clear out the enemies from one or two rooms with relative ease, but how much energy will that ultimately leave you to get where you’re going? This won’t seem like much of an issue playing on the default Normal difficulty, but on Veteran (and above) it becomes a much more immediate part of your play strategy.
And then there’s scanning. While Prime 3 has some intriguing cut-scenes with dramatic voice-acting (a series first), the bulk of the story will begin to piece itself together as you scan for lore on computer panels, ancient hieroglyphics, and alien data terminals. Initially, it seems like a cumbersome process with nothing more rewarding than some anecdotal tidbits about a specific person or planet. Over time, however, the cumulative impact of all these little puzzle pieces fitting together to contextualize the deeper importance of your mission (especially entries that give you the point of view of the other side in some of the many battles you will have fought earlier in the game) becomes genuinely addictive. The need to scan to find these lore entries dovetails perfectly into the overarching structure of the player defining the depth of their play experience through direct interaction. Admittedly, it’s not a sophisticated layer of interaction, switching to another view and hitting the Z button to scan a glowing red or blue icon. It does, however, reinforce that core gameplay precept that the world you are in is filled with secrets, and it is your job to uncover them.
Metroid Prime 3 is also one of the most beautiful games ever made, on any system. It may not have all the technical underpinnings of games running on more powerful hardware, but it perfectly exploits the Wii’s capabilities to express a world that is instantly believable and enthralling. Human faces may look a little dodgy, but you will be hard-pressed to move through any of the game’s over-flowing environments and doubt that they could have been real, functioning worlds independent of your place in them. The subdued color pallet and over-the-top bloom lighting add an ethereal gloss that brings out a ghostly desolation. There are brief but annoying load times waiting for some blast doors to open while the game streams in data for the next area, but you’ll forget about the inconvenience as soon as the door pops open and another visual marvel is available for your explorations.
One big area where Prime 3 stumbles a bit is in the presentation of its story, especially towards the end of the game. Retro Studios should be given credit for adding voice acting and some action-heavy set-pieces to help frame the story. It’s a broad attempt to be cinematic, but cut-scenes are put together with simple edits and basic camera angles that, quite honestly, hearken back to the crude attempts at filmic story-telling from the PS1/N64 days. The decision to use all in-game assets for cut-scenes also frequently shows environments and character models from unflattering angles that help to break the atmospheric spell of the gameplay. The characters all have relatively unexpressive faces that can’t add any layer of emotion or immediacy to the stilted camera angles. While the attempt to broaden the scope and approach to narrative in the games is a commendable one, it doesn’t come together nearly as well as the rest of the game.
Another quibble one could pick with the game is with the ending. By all accounts, the writers at Retro have crammed the game full of archetypal characters and story arcs that flirt with mythic elements: a war for survival between competing civilizations, a mysterious energy source that is slowly corrupting our protagonist, evil henchmen who are ultimately in over their heads, and the Galactic Federation that may or may not have the purest of intentions. As the ending to a trilogy of games, Retro dives right into the meat of the story with bravura, but all of the elements introduced never really pay off. The way the story winds to a conclusion lacks any serious twists and utterly fails to make some of the more elemental themes resonate in any visceral way. The story told in the snippets of scanned lore and data entries is as compelling as it’s ever been, but it’s also frequently tangential to the main storyline of discovering the true nature of phazon and why it’s corrupting Samus. Not that the game needs a huge cinematic finish, but when the first half of the game features so much action-heavy flair and dialogue infused cut-scenes, it feels weak and inconclusive to finish in such a predictable way.
As a sheer gameplay experience, however, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption ripples with life. It doesn’t offer mindless escapism; it demands you actively engage in the world you are placed in. It rewards curiosity, exploration, and careful thought applied to the obstacles in front of you. It gives gamers a visceral and subconsciously intuitive interface that will draw you into a more tactile experience than you are likely to ever have experienced. Even while the story fails to match the sublime depths of the gameplay design, Prime 3 is a beautiful game, an artistic monolith that consumes the player with possibilities. While the answers aren’t always as thrilling as the questions, the fact that a game exists capable of providing the kind of haunted examination and reflection that Prime 3 does is a feat of the highest magnitude in the medium. I’m done with Corruption, but it will be in my dreams for a good while yet.