Ever since its initial announcement, Metroid Prime: Federation Force has been fighting an uphill battle. After a hiatus for the Metroid series, some fans were expecting something a bit more back-to-basics than a co-op shooter with a chibi artstyle set in the Metroid Prime universe. While there's still a week left at the time of writing before the game launches on the 3DS, Nintendo opted to put Metroid Prime: Blast Ball - the game's spin-off competitive multiplayer mode - on the eShop for free (as an early access demo in North America, full download in Europe), no doubt in an effort to try and convince jaded fans that it's not as bad as the internet response would make it seem.
Blast Ball is a rather fascinating piece of software, in that there are flashes of great fun sown throughout its general mediocrity. Throughout the whole experience there's a constant feeling that something is missing, yet you play one more game because it's also quite fun. As a standalone experience, Blast Ball doesn't nearly have enough of a draw to hold your attention for very long, but that doesn't mean that it's something to be skipped over without another thought.
Gameplay could be most closely described as a slow-paced Rocket League with guns. You pilot a mech suit in first person in 3v3 soccer-like matches where the goal is simply to shoot the ball into the opposing team's goal. Additional layers are integrated by the inclusion of a few powerups and the ability to shoot opponents, but the central gameplay is extremely approachable and easy to pick up. The controls handle just fine, but the cracks begin to show when everything goes into motion.
The central problem with Blast Ball lies in the physics of the eponymous ball itself. To put it bluntly, it's way too heavy. Your blaster has two settings: a standard shot that can be fired in rapid succession, and a slower but more powerful charge shot, but the charge shot is the only thing that has any notable effect on the ball. It can be frustrating, then, when your efforts are generally inconsequential, such as when you spam the fire button and watch the ball gradually start moving in the direction you wish, only for a charge shot to send it careening away. It's like an inverted game of tug-o-war; nobody will make any notable progress one way or the other, until a sudden play occurs that swings the advantage.
That all being said, it gets better the more one gets into it. Once you get past the horrendous weight of the ball, it can be pretty fun to predict where it'll be going next and time a well-placed shot that sends it away. Powerups are given out sparingly, but some of them can be real game changers, such as an ability that instantly incapacitates all enemy players temporarily. The sluggish pace of gameplay never goes away, but adjusting to it allows one to find deeper enjoyment.
There's a bit of character progression, too, which puts a little more incentive behind each match. Achieving certain feats, such as making five blocks in a match, unlocks special skins and paint jobs for your mech suit and allow you to give it a personal touch. Of course, you rarely see this because the main camera is in first person, but it's still cool to see in replays after each goal. Additionally, all players start with a rating of 1000, with the outcome of matches raising or lowering this depending on wins and losses. It's a meaningless number for sure, but it still adds a competitive metagame to all of the matches you take part in.
There's not a whole wealth of game modes on offer, but there's only so much that can be done with the main concept that's also being given away for free. Both on and offline, you can either partake in a standalone 3v3 match or you can take on five consecutive teams of bots which progressively get more difficult. Ultimately, it's fairly difficult to notice the difference between whether you're online or offline, something that could be seen as both a positive and a negative. The inclusion of voice chat would certainly be appreciated, but the series of pre-made phrases that can be mapped to the D-Pad do a sufficient job of allowing communication.
In terms of presentation, there's not much to complain about. The artstyle may not be to everyone's taste, but everything has a nice level of polish to it. Blast Ball definitely isn't a showcase for what the 3DS can really do, but it has some nice lighting effects, rich colours, and a frame rate that doesn't get bogged down by the action. Given that all matches take place on the same type of field, there's not a whole lot to see, but what's there is satisfying. The music is mostly forgettable sci-fi guff, but you won't be paying much attention to it in the thick of the action.
Blast Ball very much feels like a game that's still in development. The ball physics feel off, there's not a whole lot of content and it feels half-baked. When viewed as a standalone piece of software it's not exceptional in any way, though it's still worth a shot as a free download. It'll also feature within Federation Force (with the servers switching to that full game in North America), and it seems likely to serve as a shallow diversion that you'll no doubt find yourself coming back to now and then. We'd recommend you pick up Blast Ball in its free incarnation (which is permanent in Europe but not North America) as it's an entertaining mini-game that offers up some mindless fun, but it's not necessarily the best advert for Federation Force.