Right now Nintendo is building the hype for Metroid: Samus Returns, but it's not been that long since our last game from the IP graced the 3DS. Metroid Prime: Federation Force was divisive (to put it mildly), and is now one year old. Amusingly, our editor Tom Whitehead and reviewer extraordinaire Conor McMahon only recently finished a rather long playthrough through online co-op. Conor tells the story, with a few little snippets from Tom, of how two bumbling Federation Force soldiers saved the universe. Expect a few spoilers, but we don't give away 'that' ending.
A Journey Into The Unknown
Conor: Back in 2015, an urgent call was sent throughout every star system, soaring across time and space in order to secure a spot during Nintendo's digital event at E3. The prestigious Galactic Federation needed brave and enthusiastic new recruits to enlist, and by all accounts it should have been a time of excitement and heroics. This new adventure would shed light on the noble Federation troops, and offer a fresh perspective on the Metroid universe as a whole. At a time when we barely expected to see a new Metroid title, it should have been extremely welcome news, but that wasn't exactly how things panned out. The fan outcry towards this weird spin-off title was immediate and severe, cutting the whole idea down before it ever really got a chance to take off. Many would go on to ignore the game entirely, even going so far as to prompt others to do the same.
For my part, I wasn't ready to grab my pitchfork just yet. While I understood the sense of frustration many others felt at the time, my own personal take on Federation Force was primarily one of cautious curiosity. Being a huge fan of the developer Next Level Games, I was willing to give the game a shot even if it wasn't anything close to what I had been expecting, Whether or not it 'deserved' the sacred mantle of a Prime title was an interesting and valid conversation, but it didn't really concern me as long as the game itself was something fun and worthwhile. The grumpy, pessimistic side of me screamed that this was the death of Metroid, that it had no place in the series and wasn't worth a second glance. Maybe I just happened to be in a good mood on release day, but I managed to tune those negative thoughts out and picked it up at a nearby store, grimacing slightly at the fact that I had to send someone way into the back to fetch one of three copies they had, total.
Initially, I was tempted to just check the game out in single-player, but it definitely felt as though this wasn't the intended experience and the missions would be way more fun with a full squadron of four people. With that in mind, in the weeks leading up to Federation Force's release, I sent out a few messages on social media to see if anyone I knew was planning on picking it up as well, instigating my own little recruitment drive for fellow troopers. Part of me expected to get absolutely nothing in response, but I was glad to see a few interested parties reply back, not least of which was our dear editor Tom, who helped me round up a group, arrange a time, and after an impressive little training sequence we were launched into our first mission together. It was the beginning of something both epic and surreal, and a journey that would be a year in the making.
Tom: The Metroid Prime Trilogy copy I have for Wii is, without a doubt, one of my most treasured gaming possessions. I didn't have a GameCube but fell in love with Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, and then went head over heels for the full trilogy when the compilation came out. They're extraordinary games, and I was one of those with goosebumps when Metroid Prime 4 was 'revealed' with a logo this year.
I bought Federation Force for two reasons. One was that I felt sorry for Next Level Games, a top notch developer that produces quality titles but was on a hiding to nothing with this one. I also got annoyed with people who point blank refused to give it a chance, and heard from a few people that reviewed it that said actually, it was decent. The other reason I bought it was because it was called Metroid Prime, and therefore I had to experience it.
When Conor put the call out I was relieved, because playing it solo had made me want to cave in my own skull due to the bullet-sponge enemies. Finally, I thought, I'd play it the right way.
Saving the Universe, one shambolic mission at a time...
Conor: Playing with four people in separate rooms, separate cities, separate countries - all without the use of voice chat to coordinate - made for a particularly chaotic first experience, and not in a fun, Overcooked kind of way. It felt a little like a space marine daycare, as objectives were left totally ignored while we silently squabbled over who would do what, attempting to relay orders through limited voice commands and allowing certain players to just do all the work for us. Each player was at the mercy of their team the entire time, so when someone just decides to wander off you have to cross your fingers and hope they know what they're doing, quick to return victorious. Of course that's if they decided to return at all, and not just take in the sights. I remember sharing a few grumbling messages with Tom as we watched the armoury get picked clean, with four characters all fighting over the best equipment like wolves, bickering over the bones of a recent hunt. What's more, just one accidental disconnect would affect the entire team, who would be left to carry on with a significant disadvantage. I was enjoying parts of Federation Force, but I was beginning to regret my decision not to fly solo.
That would be the first and last time I ever played Federation Force with a full squad, but with 90% of the game still left to explore Tom and I had a chat and decided to play a few more missions together as a duo, and see if we fared any better that way. This, over the course of an entire year, would become a strange kind of ritual for us, as we spent an hour or two each evening on a shamefully irregular basis tackling a handful of missions. Maybe the stars aligned, maybe the Galactic Federation have a statue of us erected somewhere, or maybe we just had nothing better to do. Whatever the reason, the whole experience just clicked right into place after the two of us formed Team Conor (great name, right?), and powered through the next few missions like seasoned veterans.
Tom: Part of the problem with the original full group was that the others had reviewed the game, so were actually trying to meet tough objectives for extra medals. Conor and I, meanwhile, were trying to figure out the fiddly controls and exploring it for the first time. In hindsight maybe we should have used Discord or something, but in the end two pairs were trying to do different things, and it just wasn't fun.
I was keen to continue as a duo because I wanted to beat the game, and as I said before had little fun playing it alone. Besides, rather than do the equivalent of herding cats in getting four friends together at once it was easier for Conor and I to randomly dive back in every month or two, stumble around remembering the controls for the first 10 minutes and clear a few missions in each session.
Conor: Needless to say, we went on to make our mark as true heroes, no matter what the Federation asked of us. The mission variety is surprisingly fantastic, which is definitely something that the game doesn't get enough credit for. Each level doesn't take more than a half hour to complete, generally speaking, which allows for a rapid-fire burst of ideas that kept us on our toes. Through sheer lazy genius, we developed our own 'unique' arsenal of problem solving techniques, generally consisting of 'blast first, ask questions never', and 'if we die, it's the game's fault'. We'd be tasked with carefully guiding a sphere along a narrow path, only to charge our weapons and try to blast it over like a puzzle-solving cannonball. This kind of thinking made the game weirdly entertaining, as we trundled through missions like space rejects rather than the Force's finest. In between rounds, Tom and I would poke fun at what just happened by texting each other, revelling in moments of sheer stupidity like when we tried rushing to the end of an escort mission only to both get stuck out in a sandstorm, armour torn to shreds and returning to the intended route, pride wounded.
Our messages would always jab at certain aspects of the game, moaning about some particularly dull or unfair missions for example, but we always came back to one simple fact - we were having a load of fun. Even when the game wasn't at its best, we were enjoying the co-op gameplay when it was boiled down to a duo, laughing at cheesy lines of dialogue, discussing any new mechanics that were introduced, and coping just fine without any form of direct communication. Just a few snippets of voice commands worked fine, and these were mostly just used for comedic effect anyway.They're so basic that they somehow get funnier the more you hear them, and rarely serve any other actual purpose. In fact one of the most importan-
Progress on the Doomseye is advancing rapidly. A new shipment of vital tubes has arrived and soon we will have a working superweapon of our own. It is time to bear the fruits of our research. A gigantic space craft the size of a moon, capable of firing a concentrated laser beam capable of destroying planets. A star of death! Why has no one thought of this before? Foolish humans... Furthering our successes, research has concluded on the latest cloaking technology, and we have begun making things invisible, because we can. Cloaked troopers, cloaked space craft, even the Doomseye in all its moon-sized glory could be cloaked! We are geniuses.
Unfortunately... the hunter clad in metal is no longer our most feared adversary. Pirates within the Bermuda system have filed multiple reports on a pair of bizarre, hulking golems far larger than any mere human. They are to be considered hostile, though we cannot be sure of their allegiances. Reports are conflicting, many claiming that the so-called 'Conor Team' attack everything in sight, including even each other at times. Their war cry is a string of monosyllabic commands, barked into the abyss like metallic lunatics. "Good game." "Charge!" "Thanks" "North!" It seems impossible for them to communicate in any other way, and they use these terms constantly, as if chanting. It is baffling, and clearly some form of impenetrable cipher they use to pass secret intelligence. Our top minds are working on it as I compile this log.
In order to combat this growing threat, we have executed protocol 893R, a sophisticated and dangerous technological pursuit that should aid us in the fight for dominance. That's right, our giant ray that will make everything giant. As is well-documented, the solution to any problem is to throw pirate troopers at it until it crumbles. Giant pirate troopers will prove to be doubly effective. If these golems are somehow associated with the accursed Galactic Federation, then we question their motives, as they seem to only work to meet their own agenda. Perhaps by throwing enough swarms of pirate troopers at them, over and over and over again, along with local wildlife, we may destroy their outer shells and see the masterminds within. Surely they are gods, to act with such authority and confidence. I trust in our abilities as the superior force, however. We are geniuses.
Server Wars: The Disconnects Strike Back
Conor: I've held off on digging into this topic until now, but it's high time we mention the buggy elephant in the room when it comes to Federation Force. The game's online servers are held together with tape and glue, and at certain points of our experience that description might even be a little generous. It wasn't uncommon for Tom and I to get booted out of a game mid-mission, forcing us to restart again from scratch.This is made even more annoying by the fact that it counts as a loss, so there's a chance you'll lose a precious mod chip in the process. There were times where we barely managed to get a single mission completed over the course of an hour due to multiple resets, which simply doesn't foster much goodwill towards a game reliant on its online stability. If you're looking for a tense, terrifying horror exerience on 3DS, just play through a difficult, overlong mission in Federation Force while constantly wondering if it will disconnect randomnly. It's very effective.
It's not as if the servers were being particularly taxed by heavy traffic either. At any given time that we played, maybe one or two other games were actively available to join, tops. These were often empty rooms set up by a single player, hoping to gather randomners to join the team. Of course Tom and I completely ignored these pleasant invitations and stuck to our nice, private, 'FRIENDS ONLY' room. It's not snobbish or elitist of us...It's just good teamwork, that's all.
A string of bad experiences with the online functionality would often send us away from Federation Force for months at a time, only to get that itch again at some point down the line. Texting out of the blue for another play session isn't a booty call, it's a Mech call, and one ongoing phenomena was trying to relearn all of the controls each time we stepped away for more than a few weeks. They're not bad by any means, in fact the motion controls actually work pretty well for some simple shooting, but it ended up being customary to take a minute or two at the top of each session just to get used to things again. But saving the universe in a giant, destructive mech suit is like riding a bike - you never really forget.
Tom: I always forgot the button for jumping, for some reason. I'm not sure why.
Those disconnects, good grief. I pictured an old gentleman riding a bike to power the servers, and occasionally he'd dose off and end a round. Amazingly, in one recent session I think we were the only people in the world (or our region, anyway) playing it online. I got to the online area before Conor (he always set up the room, as we were Team Conor) and it was empty, completely empty. I felt both amused and a bit sad at the same time.
The Final Push
Conor: After a year of playing on and off, a year of messages, jokes, taunting, and shooting everything, recently we finally finished Federation Force for the first time. It wasn't our intention to line our finale up with the 1 year anniversary of the game's release, but it feels pretty appropriate. Our last few sessions were some of the most fun I had thoughout the entire game, as the story ramps up and the missions become tougher, more challenging affairs. Normally we would play on a whim, but after properly getting into the swing of things we jumped online faster so we could play more within the space of a few days. Right up until the end credits I was being surprised by what each mission would entail, often going in expecting one thing and getting something else entirely. A climactic final attack on the Space Pirate superweapon is the perfect ending, as Samus makes her triumphant appearance and congratulates the Federation for their help. After putting in all that effort, enduring the hand cramps from playing on a tiny New 3DS and gnashing our teeth through repeated disconnections, it felt as though we'd really earned that congratulations. Tom even chose to sit through the end credits, bless him.
Tom: In one of our later sessions my older brother was also in the room, and he found my intense focus and pained expression quite humorous. I love my small New Nintendo 3DS, mainly because I have the Xenoblade Chronicles cover plates that everyone secretly wants, but it's horrendous for long sessions in this game. The later enemies and bosses are sponges - some of the late bosses are annoying for that reason, frankly - and the issues of cramp were very, very real. All of that said, I enjoyed playing through it with Conor a lot, in fact at times I'd have actual giggle fits - it was both absurd and wonderful.
And by the way, I always let the end credits roll, which is particularly painful when it's a Ubisoft title, I must say. Once I had a toilet break and got a coffee during the credits for Assassin's Creed III on Wii U; they were still running when I got back.
Conor: Over the course of 12 months we were able to experience the game on our own terms, enjoying it for what it is and making the most of some really fantastic co-op gameplay. My initial thoughts were correct; it was far superior when playing as part of a team, albeit a rather small team. Communication, combat and puzzle-solving is all much more manageable and engaging as a duo, especially if you've got a sense of humour and don't take the game too seriously. I'd be confident in recommending this as a worthwhile co-op title, but we were also able to witness firsthand the bitter reality of just how few people are actually still playing this game. In fact we'd often wonder if maybe we were the only ones in the middle of a session at any given moment. The reasons for this are up for debate, but after playing through the entire campaign I personally think that the actual game here is solid, but it isn't a Metroid title.
That being said, it wasn't ever really trying. Sure, it's set within the same universe, and it bears the same title, but it's definitely a spin-off experiment, jumping around a variety of different gameplay styles to suit the mission at hand. The problem there being that, at the time of its announcement, this spin-off was all that Metroid fans had to look forward to, and it strayed far from the mark of what they wanted. I believe that first impressions mean quite a lot in this industry, and with Federation Force it was all in the naming. It's not really possible to claim that it feels like a sandard Metroid title - in fact the titular lifeforms actually look a little strange in game - and so it's perhaps wrong to file it under the rest of the 'Prime' series. That title alone is sacred to many, so this lighthearted effort felt extremely out of place, if nothing else.
If you can get past the name and enjoy this game with a friend, I'd highly encourage you to go for it. Don't let the cartoony graphics fool you, joining the Force is no easy task, and your hands will be put to the test. Who knows, maybe your statue will grace the halls of the Galactic Federation right alongside the famous Conor Team. But don't count on it.