SEATTLE--After its debut at E3 this year, impressions of Metroid Prime: Hunters--what with its strange, stylus-based control scheme--were mixed. But today at Nintendo's Gamer's Summit, our fears were soundly allayed when we played a new demo of the game. In fact, we played the First Hunt demo that will ship with the DS hardware, and we got a taste of the redesigned control, display system, and game modes that the final package will offer to the public.
The First Hunt demo features two game modes to try: training and multiplayer. The training mode offered three levels to play through. The first was a short level that basically had us blasting hovering green baddies, which included some mocktroids (definitely familiar to old-school Metroid fans) while we moved around a futuristic installation of some sort (par for the Metroid course). The second level was a survival mode that saw how long we could last against waves of enemies. Finally, the third level offered a morph-ball mode that tested our skills in ball form (which can be controlled with the D pad or touch screen) on a special course. Because these single-player bits are labeled "training," and since (we expect) it won't keep players occupied for very long, the included multiplayer mode is what will have early DS adopters blasting away for weeks.
We got to engage in a quick deathmatch session against several other Samuses (Sami?) using the DS's built-in Wi-Fi support, and we found the game to be extremely smooth. No lag was apparent as we ran and morph-balled our way around a tightly constrained base while laying waste to our opponents. You'll initially start out in multiplayer with only the standard arm cannon and the ability lay bombs in ball form, though you'll be able to pick up the classic Metroid missiles (as a power-up) pretty quickly, since they seemed to be scattered everywhere. These worked much like the rocket launchers in so many first-person shooters, because they provided some splash damage that made it easy to put at least a little hurt on foes, even if we couldn't hit them directly. We also noticed a double-damage power-up that understandably made it especially easy to rack up the kills quickly.
Playing through the available modes in the demo let us reexamine the game's control scheme, which left us, as it did many at E3, a bit cold due to its awkward setup. Thankfully, the game's developer was listening to the cries of the masses and has included no less than five control configurations in the options menu to allow players to tune the game's controls to their likings. The five modes will let you use the E3 stylus-centric scheme or two variations of D pad and button combinations for right- and left-handed players, which offers a good amount of options for all interested parties.
Previously, Hunters used the bottom, touch-sensitive screen both for input and to display the game's action. This required you to literally move the stylus where you wanted to look, and then you had to awkwardly tap the screen to shoot. The far superior new setup has the action view moved to the top screen, while the map is displayed on the bottom. This allows you to essentially use the stylus like a mouse, moving your perspective around without actually having to look at the pointing device (and without part of your hand) obscuring the action.
In fact, this scheme does work amazingly like a mouse with a PC first-person shooter. When we first saw a video of the game being played today, it looked like the player was using a mouse, and it felt like we were using one when we got to play the game, too. The left shoulder button is now used for shooting, which is a much more sensible approach, and you'll double-tap the screen to make Samus jump (which works better than you might think). Another significant tweak to the gameplay experience is the removal of the lock-on feature that was in the game at E3, which took the edge off of the competitive nature of multiplayer.
The demo played well and addressed the bulk of the concerns we had with the game at E3. The only trouble spot is not gameplay-related. Rather, it's a shipping issue, because the game is now slated to ship in early 2005. But this demo ought to whet the whistle of anyone who buys the DS hardware later this year, and let's be realistic: If you're in that category, you've probably got at least a passing interest in the Metroid franchise already. Look for more on Metroid Prime: Hunters in the very near future. For more updates on the Nintendo DS and other impressions and media, check out GameSpot's coverage of Nintendo's Gamer's Summit.