Metro: The light in THQ's tunnel

By Alan Bell

THQ's future is up in the air, but there is trouble on the ground in Metro: Last Light. Photo / Supplied
THQ's future is up in the air, but there is trouble on the ground in Metro: Last Light. Photo / Supplied

Metro 2033 was something of a surprise for most gamers at the time, bucking many first-person shooter conventions to become something unique; a first-person, post-apocalypic survival game, set in Russia.

The story behind all of this "trying to stay alive, whatever the cost" activity was that nuclear war broke out at the end of 2013 (if you've not been paying attention, that's this year, folks) and, after being bombarded with megatons of nuclear material, the above-ground area in Moscow became a no-go zone for those who liked being alive.

As often happens in nuclear-themed fiction, those that did survive above the surface (and against the odds), mutated into creatures known as Dark Ones. These powerful, hideous creatures weren't the only threat, of course, as protagonist Ayrtom had to negotiate tricky political fallout, too, as the Fourth Reich (a bunch of neo nazi scumbags) and even other Russian survivors made various plays for what little resources remain the post-apocalypse Russian underground system.

The game was well received, earning an impressive 81 on Metacritic, as well as scores of 8.5 (Xbox 360) and 8.6 (PC) on Critics liked the duality of using super ammunition as both a powerful weapon and a form of currency, and the story - along with its presentation - was a highlight for most. A common downside brought up by many reviewers was the cumbersome controls, no doubt a result of developer 4A Game's relative inexperience (this was their first title).

That there's a new game in the series, then, should come as welcome news to many. Even if you missed the first game when it released in 2010, what we've seen of the game suggests that it's worthy of your attention. In a market saturated by me-too clones, something different deserve the reward of your interest. To find out more about the game, we sat down with the title's Creative Manager, Jeremy Greiner.

"We kick off in Last Light with you as Artyom," Jeremy explained by way of introduction. "You're now a ranger and you're dealing with the repercussions of the first game. The analogy we use is that if you went into 2033 kinda like that 17 year old kid going to Vietnam, completely unaware and naive (about the world around him and about warfare in general). He's now exited that, scarred internally and externally, a kind of grizzled veteran. The story's a path of understanding, redemption, atonement - those kinds of themes."

Fans of the fiction might know that there's a sequel to the book the first game was based on, too. Called Metro 2034, its story is, however, completely unrelated to the events of Last Light. "4A and Dimitry felt that an alternate story would make for a much better sequel, in a videogame," Jeremy explained. "So that's what they went with."

The story departure isn't the only change made for Last Light, either. There were numerous little issues with the first game that THQ and 4A wanted to address this time around. That said, fans of the original needn't fear wholesale change, as Jeremy explained.

"One thing we didn't want to do was to smooth out all of the rough edges to make it an experience for everyone. Typically what we do in software design is start smoothing out that edge, then that edge, that edge, etc - to make it consumable for everyone. The appeal of this game is those sharp edges; it's the fact that you have to find out where you're going - there's no minimap. It's the fact that you have to do all those different actions - wiping masks, pumping guns - that it doesn't tell you what to do all the time, you have to figure it out for yourself."

So what did they change? "One of the changes was improving what was great in it and fixing issues that make it frustrating. One would be the control mapping in the first game; it wasn't intuitive, and it wasn't communicated well to the player from the beginning. It's now much more intuitive - you can just dive in and go at it, and there's a lot of tooltips that pop up to let you know [how they work]"

"The other would be the AI. Probably one of the biggest gripes in the first game was that one AI bug where, if one person saw you, they all knew where you were. Now there's all different kinds of states in the AI, they all behave differently, and mutant AI is completely different again."

Metro 2033 introduced a new type of currency into videogames; the kind you could decide to fire out of your gun, should you need to. It was a bold and - ultimately - title-defining choice. "In early development," Jeremy told us, "there was a question about whether to do that again. When you look at the scarcity of resources in the game, having your actual ammunition - your means of survival or attack - be your means of survival elsewhere really makes a lot of sense, and users really liked it first go-around."

"That's kinda like what the title says: Last Light. Obviously, that has a lot of meanings - it touches on the light and dark in the game, but also the scarcity of resources, and that Artyom is humanity's last hope. It's interesting that, in this self-imposed post-apocalyptic world of theirs, even though they put themselves in this position, there are still factions; there's communists, the reich, etc, and they still war, kill each other, etc. Even after we've given ourselves the biggest lesson of human history, we still haven't learned from it, we still fall into human nature."

Speaking of human nature... it seems that the trend du-jour is to slap a multiplayer mode onto pretty much every singleplayer game going. Fortunately, THQ didn't fall into this (potentially lucrative, to accountants anyway) trap. "We had a small team prototyping out some multiplayer early on," Jeremy explained, "but after E3 2012, and given all the consumer sentiment - a lot of people just didn't want it - we decided to fold them back into the main team, focus on singleplayer, and deliver on three platforms for the first time."

"Everyone was thrilled it was cut; consumer sentiment - especially for an atmospheric, story-driven shooter - seems to be that [singleplayer] is what they want. It's viewed, if you're expanding the offering, that it's actually taking away from the primary offering"

Something else that was considered was Nintendo's Wii U. That, too, hit the cutting room floor. "There was consideration, they looked into it, but ultimately, it's a smaller studio. This is their first time developing on PS3. It's a natural progression - there's only so much you can wring out of a team without taxing the software."

As PCs and consoles move further and further apart in terms of raw power, the two groups of gamers (those with consoles and those who prefer PCs) both get a little nervous when a new, cross-platform game is announced. While the actual release of the game will be the ultimate line in the sand, Jeremy had some good news for both camps.

"Of all the projects I've ever worked on, this is the easiest as far as porting cross-platform. The engine those guys created - it's called the 4A engine - it ports easily. Literally all they do after they port it over is adjust level of detail (LOD). You might have to down-res a few textures in order to fit within the parameters of the console, but when you do a side-by-side in most areas, it's nearly one-to-one."

"2033 was a benchmark game for PC; if you wanted to test your hardware, see if it would meet its maker, you'd run 2033 on it. Last Light will also be a benchmark title - we're going to be plugging in a lot of DX11 features. PC gamers love this game for good reason; the studio is a PC dev studio."

Despite its singleplayer-only nature, Last Light isn't planned to be a "fire and forget" title for either 4A or THQ. "We'll have a full DLC program," Jeremy explained, "and we'll get the content out as soon as possible. A lot of singleplayer games hit the shelf, and that's about it - but not with this one. I think players want to keep diving down the rabbit hole, so we'll ship out content; there will definitely be DLC."

"It's just growing pains"

Given the current financial problems at THQ, "definitely" might be a stretch here, but on that, too, Jeremy was positive. "When it comes to production costs, the cost that it takes to make a game in Western USA is far different to what it takes to make a game in Kiev, Ukraine. Expectations against this game are extremely realistic; we don't have all our eggs in one basket, this doesn't have to be a miracle."

"It's going to be a solid game. We're marketing it well, there's a full marketing spend behind it, and everyone's cautiously optimistic about the future of THQ. There's been a lot of negative press, and I'm sure there will be a lot more, but I think these are the kind of growing pains you need to go through when you're trying to right the ship."

"You look at our slate coming up - we have Company of Heroes 2, Metro: Last Light, South Park - all three games are super strong. Knowing internally what our unannounced portfolio is... it's incredible. I personally have no worries. It's just growing pains."

The truth of Jeremy's claims, both about the game and THQ's future, are sure to be among the more interesting stories of 2013. Based on what we saw, and on how upbeat the down-to-earth Jeremy was, we think this new Metro could be the light at the end of the tunnel for THQ - hopefully it's not the last.


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