Monday, September 27, 2021

Metroid Dread: The Final Preview

If you want to know what makes Metroid so special after all these years, consider the opening moments of Super Metroid. After narrowly escaping an exploding space station, Samus Aran descends on Zebes to investigate the ruins of the pirate base she destroyed in the first game. It’s a perfect example of Super Metroid’s minimalist storytelling, wordlessly conveying the tense anxiety of exploring the ruins of Mother Brain’s old Tourian base amid rain and crashing thunder.

Such moments find Metroid at its best, effectively conveying the sense of fear and mystery that drives the series forward. Metroid Dread does its best to capture that feeling with its own opening, which once again finds Samus descending toward an unknown planet to investigate the mystery below.

It’s the opening moments that give me the most hope that Metroid Dread will live up to its famous namesake. While Metroid Dread doesn’t exactly sport AAA production values, its first few scenes manage to be beautiful in their own way, sparking that familiar feeling of tense curiosity endemic to the series. A wordless duel serves to establish the mood as Samus begins delving into the mysteries of Planet ZDR, which is swarming with aliens, robots, and maybe even Metroids (after all, what’s a Metroid game without Metroids).

Journey's End

Billed as the conclusion to the Metroid story arc, Metroid Dread is the first new 2D Metroid adventure since Metroid Fusion in 2002. Other games have been released since then, but they’ve all been remakes like Metroid: Zero Mission, or they’ve been first-person adventures like Metroid Prime. That makes Metroid Dread a special occasion for fans of the series, not the least because series producer Yoshio Sakamoto has been trying to make this game for a good 15 years now.

Metroid Dread follows in the footsteps of Metroid: Samus Returns, the remake of the Game Boy’s Metroid 2 released on the Nintendo 3DS back in 2017. Like Samus Returns, Metroid Dread is being developed in part by MercurySteam, the Spanish studio once responsible for Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. As you might expect, it’s a clear step up from the 3DS visually, its color palette allowing it to shine despite its otherwise simple presentation.

It’s buoyed by the Switch OLED’s improved screen, which goes a long way toward bringing Metroid Dread’s otherwise spare environments to life. Due to launch the same day as the Switch OLED, Metroid Dread is being treated as a showcase game for Nintendo’s new console. And honestly? It looks great. The Switch OLED’s more vibrant colors really help it to pop out of the screen.

Its map is once again massive, filled with a multitude of alien-infested nooks and crannies to explore. Adding to its sense of scope is the way that Samus takes up much less screen real estate this time around, making the caverns and hallways feel vast by comparison. I got turned around more than once in my hands-on with Metroid Dread, slightly flustered by the lack of a Morph Ball (Samus, as always, is bereft of her powers to start the game). Notably, the map seems more complex than before, making it much harder to “simply go to the spot you haven’t explored yet.” Traversal definitely requires some thought in this game, which I appreciate.

This sort of exploration is a big part of the Metroid experience, and Metroid Dread has plenty of it. Where it parts ways with the rest of the series is in its emphasis on combat. The quintessential Metroid Dread moment comes in the first few minutes of the game, when a damaged E.M.M.I — one of the robots that relentlessly hunts Samus — shudders to life and gives chase, moving with the slow but inexorable gait of a Terminator. The camera shifts to more of an over-the-shoulder view as Samus aims her Omega Cannon and fires. For better or worse, Metroid Dread is replete with such “cinematic” moments, which are designed to punctuate the action in a manner resembling bigger-budget action games like God of War.

Feeding into this approach are the E.M.M.I. rooms dot the map, serving as bottlenecks where Samus is hunted by droids that desire only to harvest her DNA. These rooms are actually my least favorite part of Metroid Dread, despite forming the core of Sakamoto’s original vision for the game. They seek to expand on the famous encounters from Metroid Fusion, in which Samus is hunted by a frightening doppelganger called the SA-X. But where those encounters are terrifying in the way that they can just appear out of nowhere — the image of the SA-X moving slowly through a tunnel while Samus hunkers in a vent below is burned into my memory — the E.M.M.I encounters feel more stilted, perhaps because they’re artificially limited to certain rooms.

The flipside is that the E.M.M.I encounters make ample use of Metroid Dread’s various traversal mechanics, which are as fast and enjoyable as anything I’ve ever experienced in a Metroid game. Samus is able to bounce, slide, and air dash around foes, and pinballing off balls while an E.M.M.I. slithers in pursuit is a cool spectacle. Notably, Metroid Dread's mechanics are already garnering attention from speedrunners — a series tradition dating back to the days of Super Metroid. In that respect, at least, Metroid Dread is very much in the vein of its predecessors.

Metroid's Special Atmosphere

My hope is that this is only the beginning, and that Metroid Dread will find increasingly inventive ways to make use of its robotic foes while leaning into its excellent movement mechanics. I’m also hopeful that Metroid Dread won’t suffer from quite the same bloat as Samus Returns, which somewhat overstayed its welcome in dramatically expanding its Metroid count and the scope of the map. Most of all, I want to see what Sakamoto and MercurySteam are able to do when they’re not beholden to an established structure like they were in Samus Returns.

As the grand finale of the Metroid arc, it will ultimately be up to Metroid Dread to close out one of the most beloved storylines in gaming history. That’s a tall order, and Metroid’s storytelling track record has been decidedly mixed over the past decade (Metroid fans would definitely prefer to forget Metroid: Other M). But it’s hard not to be enticed by Metroid Dread’s earliest moments, which so effectively establish the mystery at the core of its story. They serve as a wonderful reminder that the atmosphere that has long made Metroid so special is alive and well.

Metroid Dread will be out October 8. Make sure to check out our coverage of the Switch OLED, which releases the same day, as well as 7 things you (probably) didn't know about Metroid.

Kat Bailey is a Senior News Editor at IGN.


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