Metroid Prime: Federation Force has attracted its share of consternation in the year and a bit since it was announced, largely because long-time Nintendo fans yearning for a new Metroid game weren't quite expecting a multiplayer Nintendo variant on Rocket League. Nintendo perhaps regrets the decision to introduce Federation Force to the world by showing off 3-versus-3 robot football.
The game is more than Blast Ball, though, and there's some magic in its co-operative, more action-centric approach to Metroid Prime. Split up into short missions of 15 minutes or fewer, Federation Force dresses you up in a cute wee mech and sends you to strange planets in the company of 1-3 friends. You are part of an galactic team here, not a lone bounty hunter. That does somewhat diminish the atmospheric unease that made the single-player Metroid Prime trilogy so memorable, but these places are still mysterious and dangerous, and you're still never quite sure what might happen when you get there.
You may end up scrambling from a self-destructing building, shooting space pirates as you go. You may be trying to lure huge beasts into cages, trapping them inside as a teammate scarpers past the descending gate. A poisonous gas leak might totally derail the mission, or you might just be stepping on switches and shooting orb-shaped artefacts into the appropriate holes, mini-gold style. There's a story tying things together - a story in which Samus Aran does factor, incidentally - but Federation Force's levels are a series of gameplay vignettes, of ideas that don't outstay their welcome.
A lot of those ideas naturally revolve around things that can only be done co-operatively, though Federation Force automates some of these things to mollify lone players. One of you might have to hide somewhere high-up to shoot a switch whilst the others lure a creature towards a trap, for instance. There's even a slight Monster Hunter vibe to the mission preparation screen, where special ammo is laid out in front of you and you must agree how to divide it amongst yourselves. You might send one player out with shock bullets to solve certain puzzles, whilst one takes care of the mega-missile that can take a big chunk off a big enemy's health. The missions aren't easy - death comes easily, and involves restarting the whole level - so it's necessary to think carefully.
Where the last Metroid Prime game, Hunters, turned Metroid into an arena shooter with touch-screen aiming, Developer Next Level has found a different way to force a full first-person shooter control system onto Nintendo's handheld system. On the New 3DS, with its little nubbin, you can attempt an approximation of twin-stick controls. Otherwise, holding down the R button and moving the console around using the gyroscope is a surprisingly effective solution. You don't have to twist around absurdly; small movements are enough to finesse your aiming, and you can keep moving with the control stick at the same time. Shooting and jumping are done with the shoulder buttons, with charge shots from your energy weapon doing far more damage. It's definitely not natural, but it does work well.
Federation Force does what it can to prevent one more experienced or skilled player from dominating. Sections of the levels are gated off by doors with pressure-plates that require all of you to be present before letting you continue, stopping one player from running off ahead and taking all the spoils. The drama comes from unfolding set-pieces: as a door opens and you all walk through, things might be eerily quiet before enemies suddenly appear, or there may be a very obvious puzzle that needs solving, or you might find yourself in what turns out to be a boss arena.
This Metroid is made by the same people as the stellar Luigi’s Mansion 2, and although the two games are hardly similar on the face of it, things like the scoring system, the omnipresence of hidden secrets and the tempting replayability of each section reveal a consistent approach to game design. Once you've been through a Federation Force mission once, it becomes a speed-running high-score challenge, with a "par time" that challenges you to hone your skills. Meanwhile, accuracy and charge shots will gain you more points when shooting than firing continuously in the vague direction of the enemy. There's depth to the systems that makes you want to try again.
Like TriForce Heroes, Federation Force doesn't work as well on your own. Drones hovering around your head make up for the reduced firepower of just one mech, and it feels rather transparent to find a door with four switches in front of it, three of them greyed out. This might turn out to be comparatively unexceptional in single-player - a lot of the moment-to-moment drama comes from co-ordinating with your fellow players, alerting each other to what you've seen, or communally figuring out a plan.
Blast Ball, the straightforward 3-versus-3 competitive multiplayer mode, is a different idea altogether: you have 3 players on each team, mechs equipped with charge weapons, two goals, and a gigantic ball that crackles with electricity. It's surprisingly tactical, though you can't body-block the ball or you'll pretty much immediately explode. Instead you must guide it by shooting it with precision. It's fun; not as much fun as Rocket League, but fun nonetheless.
What I love about Blast Ball is that it takes place in the hull of the same ship that takes you on missions, which makes me imagine that the little Federation Force chaps leap out of their work-mechs after a long day of dangerous exploration and leap straight into play-mechs for a match of robot football to blow off steam. It's actually available right now from the eShop; though not remotely indicative of Metroid Prime: Federation Force in its entirety, it will give you a feel for its control system. The full game is out on September 2nd.