Metro Last Light is not a first-person shooter to be enjoyed by casual gamers after another spoon-fed style experience - rather than being an arcade style shooter, it’s more of a ‘simulation experience’.
This was the mantra given at a recent demonstration of the game I attended.
Metro Last Light creative manager Jeremy Grenier explained this philosophy while playing through an hour or so of the game in front of me and I have to say I was very impressed.
The game is a sequel to Metro 2033, a 2010 adaptation of a novel by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. The Metro story takes place in post-apocalyptic Moscow, mostly inside the metro system, but occasionally missions bring the player above-ground.
It’s a first-person shooter with survival horror elements that rewards stealthy play rather than run-and-gun rampages.
Developed by 4A Games, a Ukraine based developer, there is an oppressiveness and bleakness embedded in the Metro games. They’re built with a very different set of sensibilities to the more gung-ho American shooters.
In Metro Last Light there are controls for everything from wiping condensation from your gas mask to holding a lighter up to journal to see it. There’s no HUD or info on-screen information about your enemies.
There are various states of alert with the enemy characters who can perform complex actions like retreat and surrender. If they get shot in the leg, they'll crawl away behind a box and wait for you to come close before shooting with a pistol. And once you make an enemy alert, he won’t go back to relaxing until either you are dead, or he is.
Ammo is very limited in Metro Last Light so stealth kills are highly preferable. You can blast away a lot of ammo on an early section of a level, but that will make things very tough later on.
The game is linear, but there are many ways to get through each section, and many things you don’t have to do if you don’t want or don’t actually see that it’s an option.
During the demo, a few things struck me in addition to the ‘simulation experience’ aspect, which was very impressive. The game has a great, nicely atmospheric orchestral score, which kicks into a hard electronic beat when enemies become alert.
There’s also some amazing work going into making the game look good, with an intense level of detail that is rare in the gaming world. Grenier elaborates on this in the interview below.
A lot of the gameplay I saw involved shooting out lights to allow moving around in darkness. The game has a dynamic lighting system, so if you shoot out all lights it's completely dark.
There’s also a full day/night cycle and while underground your watch shows time of day. Grenier recommended players avoid going above ground during night because the monsters mostly come out at night... mostly.
And those monsters are very fearsome. The enemy humans are very clever, but can be put down with headshots or a few body shots, as is normally the case with humans. The monsters rampaging around on the Earth’s surface were much tougher.
The above-ground level I saw being played was in a swampy section of Moscow and involved the use of a lot of claymores to fell the swamp monsters. At one point a random, thrilling event took place that surprised even Grenier – some sort of winged demon flew down and attacked one of the swamp monsters, providing him with an unexpected helping hand.
The demonstration took place across three different levels of the game, each quite different. In addition to the above-ground swamp section, I saw a level based in an underground tunnel from the titular Metro, and a third in Station City, which was teeming with characters that could each be interacted with.
As is often the case in game demonstrations, after watching someone else play the game for a while I was itching to get into it myself, but not allowed to. Metro Last Light is still a few months away from release.
Following the demonstration, I sat down with Grenier to chat at length about the game.
You describe Metro Last Light as a simulator shooter rather than an arcade shooter, can you elaborate on what that means?
Well, it’s not a simulator shooter per se, it’s a first-person shooter, but we're trying to make it as much of a simulation as possible. Basically, we want you to become as fully immersed as possible. The incredible level of detail being put into the game, you don’t really notice it at first, then you start picking up on it and then you realise over time this is what’s making the experience great. It’s making it feel completely new and unique. This is a game that may not be for everyone, like that more casual audience that is used to having everything spoon-fed to them. We don't put up tool tips, or mini maps, or have routes showing you where to go – we strip that all away, because we want you to figure it out as a player.
Do you think that will ultimately reward players more?
I think it does. One of the great things about Metro 2033 was that there were alternate endings to the game that no-one knew about at first. It took a while for someone to trigger that alternate ending. There was a choice system in the game, players made a lot of choices without realising that they were making them. Some are overt, like a guy putting his hands in the air and saying “don’t kill me". But there are others that you’ll never realise are choices as you're making them. And I think that’s a great thing. In most games it’s a very literal, explicit communication to the player, like press ‘A’ for this, or there’s something at the end of the road where there’s an incentive. You choose the good choice or the bad choice because you want the good powers or the bad powers, for example. With the Metro system players play through and explore and learn things about themselves as they go through the game.
I think one of the things that this game does is it really strips back your predispositions and things that you think you know about a shooter. Typically when I play a shooter I run & gun, I shoot everything up and it’s a blast. I’m a superhero. But this is very different. Over time you learn that maybe your intuitions and actions while playing a videogame are not correct for this one, so you start to re-evaluate your own play styles. It makes for a great experience, especially where we are in this hardware cycle. We’re towards the end, and most games out there, like the ones in our competitive window, they’re all sequels, or rebrands. There aren’t many truly unique franchises. Metro 2033 didn’t get a lot of love from THQ and it turned out to be a cult hit. It was kind of a flawed masterpiece. I think Last Light is a new proposition for a lot of people out there, and it will be a welcome change, kind of like we saw with Dishonored this year.
The marketing has focussed a lot on story with the live action shorts and so on showing off what looks like a mature, dark, narrative. Is this indicative of the story being very important to this game?
It’s hugely important. I think the story is just as critical as atmosphere and immersion, it weaves it all together. Much of Metro 2033 is based on the highly successful novel by Dmitry Glukhovsky, and he helped to write this game as well. So the story is hugely important. The more time you take to explore the world and listen to interactions, the deeper you can go down the rabbit hole and make it a more rewarding experience. That bar scene where I sat down and got drunk, I walked past it a hundred times not knowing it was there. There’s all this stuff that exists in the game's world and you have to peel off the layers to find it.
Did you have to get drunk to progress that bit like you did?
No, I could’ve walked right past. It was just something that I decided to do. There's so much stuff that the team has built in.
And when you’re drinking, the girl at the bar got more attractive?
Yeah, you put on beer goggles!
So you didn't have to drink at that bar, but you opted to drink quite heavily, which in turn triggered the bar being smashed up when you woke up from blacking out. That all wouldn't have happened if you walked past the bar?
Yeah. And then I could’ve walked past the bartender in the morning and not given him money, but I chose to give him 100 military grade bullets, which is a veritable fortune. So all that extra stuff exists in the game. There’s a lot going on in the story, with the different factions of survivors. You have your fascist Nazis, you have the Communists, you have the Rangers. There's all these warring factions underground - even in a self-inflicted post-apocalyptic world, the survivors of humanity still can’t manage to get along. They will fracture, and kill each other, and I guess that says a lot about human nature.
That’s unfortunately realistic, looking at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and so on.
It makes me think of a line in The Matrix. When the agent was talking about humanity and saying that it was like a virus growing out and destroying the world, because every other organism has a symbiotic relationship with its environment, yet we’re the only organism that destroys its environment and keeps spreading. So a game like this makes you think a little differently, which I think is ultimately what the fans are looking for. Especially in an atmospheric, story-driven single-player-only experience like Metro. If you’re looking for that break from reality, it’s almost like going to the movies and just stepping out of your own body and into that ultimate world.
Forgive my ignorance, but you were brought up in the United States?
Yeah, I’m a New Yorker. I came across to THQ during Homefront, I was the communications manager on Homefront. Once we shipped that game and moved out to corporate, I became communications manager for all shooting titles. So I’m working on Metro Last Light, the next Homefront, and an unannounced game from Turtle Rock, the guys that made Left 4 Dead.
During the demonstration you mentioned some differences between Stateside developers and how the Kiev-based 4A Games work. There seems to be an Eastern European influence on the story in how oppressive it is, is that strong across the whole philosophy of the game?
It's hugely strong, yes. I couldn’t see a Western studio making this game, because I think you have to live in that environment. You have to live in Kiev, Ukraine - live it, breathe it, love it - in order to depict a post-apocalyptic experience in the Metros in Moscow. One thing in Metro 2033 and Metro Last Light is all the above-ground stuff is taken from real world places. Someone online did a side-by-side comparison of in-game images versus real-world photos and it’s just incredible how much detail and research has gone into it. The more important thing for me as a former game designer, and as a current marketer, is that they didn’t go the easy route in making it feel like Moscow. They don't just throw in the Kremlin or Red Square or any super easy way of illustrating that you’re in Moscow. They went with more obscure imagery, and what’s great is you can feel like you’re there without being force-fed the fact. That’s what this game does, it doesn’t spoon-feed you.
But that Eastern European work philosophy goes into the level of detail as well?
We have a guy on the team who’s a former nuclear engineer. There's guys from the old world of Russia in the studio, the guys who made Stalker, and they’re trying to make the most atmospheric and most realistic game experiences possible. The amount of detail that goes into the game is absolutely astonishing. The fact that every single bullet is an actual object in the world with physics to it, and if we shoot a round out it actually shoots a projectile out, and then it’s not in the casing any more. And then if you eject the casings they each clink off each other. Normally in game design we don’t do that, we's just paint the texture on instead. It’s low resource, it’s low memory, it’s very easy, it’s quick and efficient, but this team puts all this extra detail into their design. Each lightbulb has two forks for the filament that have actual geometry to them, the filament itself has geometry, the glass casing has geo, everything is actually real in that world.
The control panels in the game, again normally we’d just lay a picture on it and put some texture down. The control panels in Metro Last Light have buttons elevated off the panel you can look at, they have removable switches - the game has all that extra detail. You’re not smacked in the face by detail, detail, detail, it all just adds into this experience where all of a sudden you have a bit of a revelation, and you’re like wow, this is really interesting, there’s something more to this. I think that comes from those guys, whether it be their culture or what have you, but that Eastern European influence definitely bleeds into the game, which is great. I think the entire package could have only been delivered by these guys.
You mentioned there was negative feedback Metro 2033's control scheme because it was so complex. Was that quite a large focus on the sequel, improving the control scheme?
Yeah, it has been a big focus. Ultimately you want a challenging experience, but you don’t want a frustrating experience. You have to make sure you stay on that razor’s edge and don’t fall to the frustrating side. There are two things that in 2033 could have been done better if THQ had shown it a little bit more attention – one would have been communicating to the player via the game and via the environment what to do, and the other would’ve been to actually physically have more intuitive control mapping. So a lot of focus went into that in Metro Last Light. One thing we’ve tried to do in Last Light is not change anything great about 2033. A lot of game sequels, we try to make them more palatable for a broader audience, to round off all the sharp edges, so it’s like the most consumable product possible. But it’s those sharp edges that make Metro the unique experience that it is. So we're trying to keep that flavour, but also improve the user experience. We want to make what was great better, as opposed to changing it to make it more consumable.
Lastly, Jeremy, sum up what gamers have got to look forward to with Metro Last Light.
Gamers have to look forward to a highly atmospheric shooter that challenges your predispositions and opens your eyes to new possibilities in gaming. That's probably the best summary I could give.
Metro Last Light is being released next year on the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.