Metroid: Other M won't be out for a few months yet, but already the game seems to be splitting opinions. One side of the divide there are the naysayers, the people who are lamenting the decision to add a voice to the usually tacit Samus Aran. These same people are also getting a bit grumpy about the fact that the game shifts back and forth between first and third person perspectives, in accordance with how the Wii Remote is being handled at any given moment. Some members of Team Frowny (as I've decided to christen them) are also annoyed by the fact that Other M finds Samus fighting alongside a group of Federation troops, rather than working by herself.
So, that's the view from the doubters. But on the other side of the fence there's a bunch of happy positive types - let's call them Team Smiley. These happy-go-lucky funsters reckon Metroid Other M will be rather good, actually. In support of this view, they point to the involvement of Team Ninja - the studio behind the ooh-it's-dead-hard-but-also-very-good Ninja Gaiden series. The Smileys also like to trumpet the game's graphical slickness, both in-game and during the expensive-looking rendered cutscenes. On the whole, these people just seem happy about the fact that Nintendo is putting out another Metroid game. After all, this is one of the big N's classic franchises - one with a highly successful track record, to boot. Under the circumstances, it's reasonable to expect greatness.
For the sake of being wilfully contrary, I'm going to lump myself directly in-between these two warring factions. I'm probably far closer in temperament to the latter group, but I certainly wouldn't class myself as a hardcore Metroid fan either. I've seen Other M twice now, enjoying a generously large slice of demo play on each occasion, and both times the game has struck me as a big-budget project with oodles of potential - provided that the rather odd perspective-shifting mechanic doesn't get in the way of things. I'm still a little undecided on this, but I've certainly liked a lot of what I've seen and played of the game thus far.
The odd thing about Other M is that it's immediately reminiscent of Resident Evil - and by that I mean the original Resi, not the silly superhero fist-fighting stuff of Evil 5. The similarities here are principally atmospheric: the story begins when Samus answers a distress call and finds herself exploring the seemingly-deserted halls of the Bottle Ship, a massive space vessel. She runs into a group of Federation troops, headed by her old chum Adam Malkovich, and before long the gang has encountered signs of Serious Trouble - namely a goo-covered dead body, and a whole bunch of nasty insect creatures. Needless to say, Adam takes his tactics from a manual of horror movie clichés - ordering his men to split up and head off, alone, into the darkest corners of the ship. After getting the power back up and running, Samus finds herself working as a free agent; each section of the Bottle Ship is home to one of Adam's men, and as you'll explore your surroundings you'll also gain new abilities that let you access new areas.
That's the theory, anyway. Even after playing the game for the best part of an hour, I'd only gained access to a smattering of tools. Samus has a quick-fire blast that can be charged up for more powerful attacks, and shortly into the game you'll get clearance to use missiles that can only be fired from a first-person perspective (more on this in a bit). At the tap of a button our lady in red can switch to her iconic Morph Ball mode, allowing her to roll about on the floor and through tight gaps. You'll soon get given the ability to drop mines while in this state, and the in-game tutorial teases the player by letting them toy around with nuke-like Power Bombs, only to then snatch the ability away again. Samus can only make her biggest bangs when Adam says it's okay to do so - and by that point in the plot, things will probably have gone seriously tits-up.
In the early stages at least, there's an oozing sense of menace aboard the good ship Bottle. Along with the gloomy-yet-beautiful graphics, the game's soundtrack plays a pivotal role in establishing this tense mood. Samus is more than powerful enough to deal with the minor threats that come her way, even when the enemies arrive en masse, but there's a constant feeling that something really nasty is lurking around the next corner. The voice acting is really decent from what I've heard so far, but there's certainly some truth to the idea that the game works best when you're on your own. Fortunately, that seems to be pretty much all the time.
There's a nice sense of pacing too, dividing your time between acrobatic platforming and twitch-happy battles. The latter seems to handle really well - even when it comes to the new elements. Tapping the d-pad at the last minute before an attack allows Samus to dive out of the way, landing on her feet with cat-like agility. More controversially, she's also able to perform close-up executions on certain enemies - and yet even these brief cinematics somehow fit the Metroid vibe. Samus has always been a bit of a badass, and even if she's a bit more fancy with her techniques now, she still exudes this vibe of focused, introvert professionalism.
If there's going to be a sticking point with Other M, it's going to be the perspective switch, and the associated control issues. For the most of the time you'll be controlling Samus from a third person view, with the Wii Remote held sideways. While the d-pad is understandably a lot twitchier than an analogue stick, movement generally works very well, while a slight degree of auto-aim ensures that shooting remains simple and un-fiddly. However, if at any time you should aim the Remote directly at your TV, you'll suddenly switch to first-person. You can pan around and inspect your surroundings, you can blast enemies or lock onto them and toast them with rockets, but crucially the one thing you can't do is move around. If you need to re-locate - perhaps because some kind of massive alien wants to turn your entrails into a funky hat - you'll have to flip to the other perspective. In the heat of a battle this back-and-forth can be a quite disorientating, and since the game hasn't been exclusively designed with a third person view in mind, you'll occasionally find yourself dealing with unhelpful camera angles, running or shooting towards dangers that may or may not lurk off-screen.
It's a concerning situation, because history is littered with games that were scuppered by dodgy camera setups. For the time being, however, I'm willing to give Nintendo and Team Ninja the benefit of the doubt. I've not yet encountered anything that suggests the switching will be a big problem, and on the other hand I've seen an awful lot that convinces me that this could be one of the best Wii games in recent memory. It looks great, sounds wonderful, and has an atmosphere to die for - so for the time being at least, the members of Team Smiley can count me among their ranks.
Metroid: Other M will be released on September 3, exclusively on Wii.