Exploration-based gameplay, a branching and positively labyrinthine world, that behind-the-visor view: in many ways, Metroid Prime was like a dash of ice-cold water across the face of a tired FPS genre, yet it still surprises PALGN that it left such an indent on our imaginations. After all, the signs leading up to the game's release had hardly hinted that such a refined, original and innovative slice of adventure gaming was about to enter our lives. From the beginning, there seemed a distinct lack of trust in Nintendo's then curious decision to hand development of the game over to Retro Studios, a relatively untested, untried developer. And if this weren't ominous enough, let's not forget that Metroid Prime was withdrawn (reportedly at the request of Shigeru Miyamoto) from an E3 2002 showing due to 'control issues' just over a year before it's release.
Now, just three months before it's PAL release, Retro barely has to pay attention to any such doubts concerning the sequel, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. With the first game embraced by the critics (including PALGN, who gave it a hefty 9.5), and appearances in countless 'Game of the Year' lists a regular occurence by the end of 2003, the pressure was inevitably lifted from the shoulders of the Texas-based studio. That Echoes should be the title that provides the heartbeat to Nintendo's Christmas line-up says it all.
Something special is required then, so for this sequel it seems Retro have taken a leaf out of Nintendo's own prestigious book of game design, and in particular from 1993's astounding Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past. As in Link's third (and arguably finest) adventure, the singleplayer mode of Echoes is set in two parallel worlds; one 'light' and one 'dark'. According to the backstory, these two separate realms were created some decades ago by a meteor hitting Aether, the planet where your adventure begins, opening up a dimensional chasm which proceeded to produce a shadowy Aether clone. PALGN suspects the science is probably a little shaky, but at least it explains the 'Echoes' subtitle.
Either way, the two realms apparently share a largely similar layout (though, as will be discussed later, rather different contents), and are linked by portals that grant Samus the ability to travel back and forth between light and dark worlds freely. However (and this is arguably where the Link to the Past analogy is most relevant), by accessing certain unique areas or pathways of Aether's dark half, previously inaccessible sections of the light world open up to the player.
No Place Like Dome
The differences between the two realms aren't merely aesthetic though, and the dark world that features in Echoes is a fittingly oppressive place. When visiting the dark Aether for instance, Samus needs to be surrounded constantly by protective domes of light that are generated by strategically placed crystals (these domes look quite sensational incidentally - take a look here for yourself, though bear in mind the effect looks far better in motion). Stray outside these illuminated points of refuge, and the environment's hostile atmosphere eats away at the heroine's energy cells.
Scanning and then shooting a crystal in the distance will result in another bubble of protective light spreading itself over another part of the world, and Samus can continue traversing the level. With each bubble of light having a limited lifespan however, speed is of the essence - when the protective bubble expires, Samus is left stranded as the environment takes it's toll.
PALGN just hopes that enforcing such time limits doesn't result in the dark sections becoming little more than tedious memory tests, with the player being pressurised into remembering the positions of each crystal and having to repeat large parts of the dark levels every time a wrong turn is made. After all, much of the joy of Metroid games is in the exploring, and making the player rush through levels in this way could be a mistake. If a quick getaway is required however, things should be made easier thanks to Samus' new moves. The screw attack is just one addition to the list (though it actually appeared in earlier Metroid games some years ago), and as well as providing yet another mode of attack, it allows Samus another method of accessing certain parts of levels.
The weapon you use in each world is critical also: in a style reminiscent of Treasure's excellent 2D shooter Ikaruga, the enemies of Aether's dark dimension are susceptible to Samus' light beam, whilst the enemies you'll find in the light world are quickly dealt with by employing - you guessed it - the dark beam. Using, say, the dark beam on an enemy of the same shade is perfectly possible, but wreaks far less damage. Naturally, in true Metroid fashion, there's a number of other beam and missile variations to be uncovered, and each one promises different degrees of usefulness to the player, depending on what type of enemy is being faced. Some weapons, PALGN has been reliably informed, may even strengthen certain enemies if aimed at the wrong foe, suggesting that the combat in Echoes is likely to demand a slightly more strategic approach from the player than in the first game.
Perhaps even more intriguing are the new visors. With the visor HUD of the first Prime slightly tweaked (it's now actually a close approximation of the display in the first game, with a few more user-friendly tweaks), players now have the chance to use the dark visor, allowing Samus to spot dark enemies that would otherwise be invisible in the light world (enemies can also make the transition from dimension to dimension). It's a blessing when facing the lightning-quick and semi-invisible space pirate commandos. However, PALGN's favourite new addition to Samus' array of visors is the Echo visor which, as the name suggests, allows the player to track the damaging waves of sound that some enemies can deploy. The idea of enemies using sound to attack is deliciously original in itself, and these audio onslaughts are typically accompanied by some wonderful visual effects that warp and twist the surrounding environment.
Samus vs. Samus
So far, so uncontroversial. But if the leap into 3D was an apprehensive one for the Metroid fanboys to make back when the first Prime was announced, the introduction of a multiplayer mode looks set to be almost as significant a development in Echoes. As exquisitely crafted as Metroid Prime's singleplayer quest was, there is no doubt that Halo's scarily complete multiplayer mode meant Bungie's game trounced the opposition purely in terms of lifespan. Thus Retro have developed the first ever Metroid multiplayer, though just as Metroid and Halo are very different beasts in singleplayer terms, the two titles also contrast sharply once more than one controller is plugged in.
The one multiplayer level PALGN has seen to date is 'Sidehopper Station', a rounded, spaceship-based level complete with cannons that, rather excellently, can be deployed to fire a morphballed Samus across the arena. It's a stylish way of escaping a too-close-for-comfort firefight. Meanwhile, locking onto enemies is possible, though doesn't guarantee a hit: locks can be broken once the target either dashes or morphs into a ball. There's little information concerning the actual modes available in multiplayer, though Retro have confirmed (along with the obligatory standard deathmatch mode) 'Bounty' mode, which is dedicated to collecting the currency that players drop upon being killed. Sadly, the lack of a LAN mode may prevent Metroid seriously competing for Halo's multiplayer crown, but what has been displayed so far shows promise.
PALGN confesses to remaining slightly cynical as to whether or not Metroid's obvious singleplayer charms will translate well into a multiplayer setting, though that's not to say we're ruling it out just yet either: the limited information dispensed so far regarding the multiplayer does hint at an enjoyable alternative to Samus' solo adventure. Whether it will capture the imagination of gamers to quite the same degree as the likes of GoldenEye, Halo or TimeSplitters isn't the biggest question mark hanging over Echoes though. Not quite.
The biggest challenge facing Retro and it's hugely promising sequel is whether or not it can win over the doubters, the cross-section of gamers who found the first Prime just a little too distinctive for their tastes. With it's unconventional controls, the first game wasn't embraced by everyone: indeed, Prime's brilliance was buried beneath an interface and control system that required time and effort to learn, but rewarded those with the patience handsomely. There are signs that Retro are focussing on making the Metroid experience a little less daunting for newcomers however - a Halo-esque dual-stick option has been promised this time, and scanning has been made far more intuitive, with objects that can be scanned assuming a coloured outline once Samus' scan visor is activated. It should all make that 100 per cent mark a little less elusive, and will hopefully mean Echoes makes it into even more homes this time around.