Metroid Dread hands-on preview – nothing to worry about

The original Metroid saga is coming to an end in Nintendo Switch OLED model launch title Metroid Dread, and GameCentral has already played it.

The Metroidvania genre is a very strange one; all but ignored by big budget publishers and yet embraced almost to the point of oversaturation by indie developers. On top of that you have the fact that the two games which helped create the genre, and gave it its name, are so rarely seen that most ordinary gamers have probably never played either of them.

Despite the highly popular Netflix series there hasn’t been a brand new Castlevania for seven years and if you don’t count Federation Force there hasn’t been a new Metroid for over a decade. Although there was remake Metroid: Samus Returns in 2017, which added enough new elements to Metroid 2 that it could be considered a new game. If you still don’t think that counts though Metroid Dread is the real deal: a brand new Metroid that plans to conclude the whole five-part saga that began with the first Metroid back in 1986.

Don’t let that status put you off – storytelling in Metroid has never been a priority – but in trying to cap off 35 years of lore Metroid Dread will also be drawing a line under the whole franchise up to this point, and potentially the whole genre. Given how rarely Metroid titles are released we weren’t really sure what to expect from this new game, but if you worried about a watered down experience, more tuned to mainstream sensibilities, then that is one fear that Dread will not perpetuate.

Metroid Dread is primarily the work of Spanish studio MercurySteam, who not only made Samus Returns but also the last three Castlevanias – which makes them one of the most experienced developers in the whole genre. What we played was the opening two hours or so of the finished version, which might seem a bit odd as it’s out in two weeks, but Nintendo wanted to show off not just the game itself but the new OLED model of console.

We’d already gone hands-on with the Switch OLED but only using older games. Metroid Dread is out the same day and at first that seems not much more than a coincidence, given the series is not exactly Nintendo’s most well known. Following the price cut of the original model of Switch though the OLED model is now £50 more expensive, which makes it a more premium purchase, aimed at a more veteran audience. And in that context Metroid Dread makes perfect sense as a launch title.

The gameplay of Metroid Dread plays out on a purely 2D plane but don’t take that to mean that the graphics are low tech or uninteresting. An opening encounter with a silver-suited warrior looks magnificent on the OLED model’s new screen and not only are there plenty of 3D cut scenes but the attention to detail is excellent, not at all diminished by the Switch’s modest resolution and featuring great use of light and shadow – as machinery and (mostly) harmless aliens go about their business in the background.

The game looks great but what also stands out is the complete lack of handholding, even from the first moment. The controls are explained but the first real obstacle not only requires you to wall jump but involves shooting apparently ordinary parts of the background, where there is no visible indication that they’re in any way important. Neither element is explained at all and you just have to work it out for yourself, which is old school Metroid to a degree we weren’t expecting. And while the game is not overly difficult, it’s certainly no pushover in terms of either puzzles, platforming or combat.

All the other classic elements of Metroid are present and correct, as you explore the labyrinth maze of an underground instillation, collecting new weapons and items as you go – which either unlock new doors or allow you to survive or explore in previously inaccessible areas. At the start this includes upgrades to Samus’ main laser cannon, rockets, a device that lets you stick to walls of a certain colour, and an invisibility cloak.

The latter is vital for the game’s main innovation: nigh-indestructible robots which stalk you around the map and will both chase after you if they see you and react to any sound you make. The robots only operate within a pre-set zone, which they won’t leave, but getting through these is surprisingly tense stuff, especially as you’re only playing a 2D game on a portable – not some high tech first person game (there’s always Metroid Prime 4 for that).

The best you can hope to do is briefly stall a robot or win a QTE when they catch you, which the game describes as being near impossible and which we managed only twice out of maybe 20+ encounters. The only way to actually kill them is to absorb the power from one of several mysterious lifeforms – which look suspiciously like someone trying to clone Mother Brain – at which point you have a one-shot chance to confront the robot head-on, with the camera rotating to a more cinematic over-the-shoulder perspective.

Mechanically speaking, the game makes full use of almost every button on the Switch, and that was after only a couple of hours play, but in terms of gameplay and presentation Metroid Dread seems largely faultless. The level design – perhaps the most important aspect of any Metroidvania – is also very good, with hugely complex maps that still contain subtle signposting and manage to stick in your head surprisingly quickly.

As further proof that this is not a dumbed down experience, the game also seems impressively non-linear and yet without relying too much on backtracking. In that respect it already seems superior to the otherwise well-regarded Metroid Fusion and is in real danger of being described as the best 2D entry in the series since Super Metroid on the SNES.

Of course, we’ll have to play the full thing to know for sure, as many Metroidvanias suffer from a reverse difficulty curve where things get almost trivially easy by the time you’ve got the majority of weapons and items. We’re also wary about the storytelling, which has been very weak in the last few entries, most obviously in Other M.

How much Nintendo realises the damage that game did to the character of Samus is still not clear and while Adam Malkovich is dead in the current chronology, an AI version of him is still in the game and referring to Samus as ‘Lady’.

But since everything else about what we played suggests Nintendo, and MercurySteam, understand very well what is needed to make a good Metroid game we’re increasingly confident that Metroid Dread will bring the current saga to a very satisfying conclusion.

Formats: Nintendo Switch
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: MercurySteam and Nintendo EPD
Release Date: 8th October 2021

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