A couple of weeks ago I spent roughly 10pm to 7am one day playing through Metro: Last Light on the highest difficulty. I’ve previously played Metro 2033, and despite a few flaws I found it to be a refreshingly difficult FPS, with some challenging mechanics (gas masks/filters, and bullets-are-money), sometimes very difficult level design, interesting quasi-bosses and a willingness to try weird ideas which (generally) worked very well. It also had that notorious checkpoint-free area where you interfere in the battle between the Communist and Nazi factions, which rates as surely one of the hardest and most rage-inducing FPS checkpoints in history (at least with the impressive itinerary of useless weapons I was carting around at the time). In Last Light, there are two parts I want to talk about, which it respectively does far better and far worse than the original. The first is to acknowledge how well-done one particular area of the game – “the swamp” – was, and how cleverly a bunch of different mechanics were brought together in this area, along with some nice subtle and passive aspects of world-building in the Metro universe; the second is to do with item balance and the importance of item scarcity, the way in which Last Light inexplicably did away with a central part of what made the original so interesting.
- The Swamp
As Artyom, the hero of Metro, you explore this area twice (or possibly the second time is a “marsh” rather than a “swamp”, but the distinction is irrelevant) – it consists of a combination of land and water, containing various red flags that denote safe areas. If you plunge into the foul water below your character drags himself back out, having lost several seconds, but if you do so too many times in short succession (I think there is a timer here) a creature will swim up and consume you in short order. First time you arrive you come here in the day – another apocalypse survivor has set up an automated raft to ferry you across the swamp, but it requires fuel which you must find and deliver to the motor which will drag the raft towards you, before then allowing you to escape.
The swamp succeeds firstly because it feels like a genuine ecosystem – when you get here you see some water-based enemies you’ve met once or twice before, but also a host of other creatures who do not interact with you, but just swim or scuttle about. Other enemies disappear and reappear from the surface of the swamp (I think/assume despawning when they dip under the water) and, whilst they rarely attack you, their constant presence lends a lot of life to the area and emphasizes you’re stepping into somewhere with a very alive and very active selection of mutated fauna, not the dark and silent catacombs that make up many of Metro’s levels. It’s a welcome change of pace - whilst much of the world is dead, this section serves very well as a bit of ambient storytelling to demonstrate that much of the world is not deserted of life (even if the life is nothing like we recognize) and that entire ecosystems have built up; we see larger creatures preying on smaller ones whilst we’re out here, and just the general flurry of biological activity all around.
This flurry of activity also serves a few clever gameplay effects. It builds up a stronger sense of urgency about your activity than in darker, ostensibly “spookier” regions – all this activity around you suggests at any moment the occupants of this swamp might lose their patience with you and attack, whilst the player wonders what exactly might set off such a response. Are the enemies programmed to attack after a certain period? Maybe only after you pick up some fuel? Or perhaps they’ll leave you entirely alone unless you attack or come to close to one of the creatures minding its own business? The uncertainty over what exactly might trigger them is eminently realistic – who could possibly guess what would incite giant mutant shrimps to attack you? The region seems less safe than other areas despite being so bright and open, and you’re constantly spinning around and checking behind you. This is not because you fear things emerging from some dark crevice or hidden hive, but because you want to make sure you haven’t done anything to annoy the inhabitants. Equally, if you do, the ensuing combat feels subtly different to that elsewhere in the game, where you attempt to deal with the creatures you’ve annoyed whilst avoiding triggering any others. Having only played it once, I’m uncertain what the actual triggers are, but I’m pretty certain proximity to the “shrimps” aggravates them, and possibly just standing still for too long makes them increasingly annoyed at the bipedal invader tramping around above their swamp.
Another effect of keeping you moving to avoid the foes couples nicely with the filter mechanic, which is everpresent in outdoor areas. This consists of managing the air filters on your gas mask, which are in short supply and must be replaced whilst outdoors to filter out the toxic fumes of the world above. In the swamp the player wants to push forward without bothering the inhabitants too much, whilst the filter time constraints prevent you from necessarily pushing up against the boundaries of the play area. It’s a pretty simple trick, but an effective one to stop you finding all the invisible walls. The swamp seemed like a genuinely massive area and I never came up against its boundaries. You still need to explore to keep a decent number of filters, but the constant threats (which often respawn in areas like this) and the timer combine to keep you moving and stop you breaking the illusion of the open level. The outdoor levels seem far more open than in other games, due partly to the superb design of the outdoor areas (when you make it to St Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin Wall is a particularly good moment), but also because of this exploration limitation.
- Item Balance
The original Metro had two central forms of limited resource. These were ammunition and the gas mask filters discussed above. Sadly, whilst Last Light improved on the formula of the original in terms of world-building, these two aspects were very much dumbed down in the sequel, regardless of the difficulty level you choose to play on. Firstly, ammunition. The currency in the game is “military-grade bullets”, which are more powerful than normal bullets. You can shoot them, but as the game reminds you this would be “literally burning money”. In the original Metro (at least at max difficulty) such bullets were genuinely rare, however much you explored, and there were situations where the use of these bullets was a difficult decision. You can get the extra damage in your current battle, but you won’t be able to buy new bullets or upgrades for your guns later down the line. It worked very well. Here, however, even when I just held down automatic fire to pour bullets into certain bosses or hordes of enemies, not even once did I a) even consider using a military-grade bullet for extra damage, nor b) come even close to running out of military grade bullets to sell and fully restock every single ammo clip and grenade inventory every time I found a vendor. You can get through the hardest challenges the game has to offer as long as you have decent aim, don’t hold down the trigger like a madman on every enemy, and you make sure to scavenge every corpse (which takes seconds). I think this is due to two factors – firstly there are simply more bullets around the place (obviously), but the knife is far easier to use in this sequel, and as a non-depleting resource, the number of bullet kills I had was maybe 10-15% lower than in Metro 2033 due to the immense quantities of humans and mutants I stabbed in the face. This combination means the careful inventory management of the original is, sadly, a thing of the past. I would go as far as to say the number of military-grade bullets should have been halved, at the very least, to keep that mechanic intact.
Secondly, filters. In the first half of the game these work great, and as mentioned above serve a very good purpose in some of the tougher outdoors sections. However, after you enter the third (and worst) act of this four-act game, suddenly the developers seem to have had the “place air filter” button permanently held down on their mice. Although struggling to get above 2:00 of air for most of the first half (and often having to survive without a filter at all for many seconds whilst finding another), I believe I finished the game with something stupid like 20:00 of air backed up. Filters are everywhere. Every corpse, every box, every toilet contains one. Every filter seemingly contains another filter, hidden within it like Inception’s dream layers, just to make sure you don’t run out. Artyom’s movement speed should have been halved at the very least by the sheer weight of these things he’d have been lugging around by the end. A lot of the final two acts take place in the outside so you need a lot of filters – that’s fine. But either the developers assume people wouldn’t explore, or they assumed players are just painfully incompetent, as otherwise there’s simply no other reason to simply hurl as many of these things at the player. All the tension and difficulty of maintaining your air earlier – sometimes even deliberately choking for a period to extend your life – whilst sometimes fighting difficult fights is utterly lost when you can just chuck in a new air filter with the same ease as reloading a gun. Tension evaporates, and fighting outside is no different to fighting inside, except having to replace Filter n with Filter n+1 every few minutes, which is a pretty meaningless act when there’s no possible way you could run out. It also enables you to rush through this third act without pausing and feeling any real pressure to explore, making the several-hour section absolutely trivial – the filters are placed directly in your path, rather than hidden, and no extra effort is required to build up your impressive stash of filters.
- Final Thoughts
Both Metro games are skilled at coupling environments, subtle storytelling and gameplay together. The level design is generally combined well with the creatures you find there, and does work for contributing to the story and generating specific feelings in the player. Whereas a game like Bioshock can be heavy-handed in its level design – it gives you a puddle of water or a pool of oil, immediately setting up obvious combinations of weapon/plasmid use – Metro’s environments seem to me much more interesting, and much more willing to produce a unique enemy or unique idea purely for that one region, and the effort combining the environments and the gameplay really shows. As for item balance, the first game in particular gave you a very stringent inventory system which promoted difficult and interesting decisions (much like other games which present you with limited resources), an aspect which was sadly lost in the sequel, even if those mechanics remain interesting ones which will hopefully be meaningfully reinstated in any future edition of the franchise. In a future blog entry I want to talk more about the kind of background storytelling I’ve mentioned here, and also how I want to couple environments and gameplay and URR in the future. For the more roguelike-minded, a great example of this is the new version of the Vaults in Dungeon Crawl (as of 0.12), where the enemy set and the physical layout of the area work together in interesting (and generally unpleasant) ways… but that’s a post for another time.
Next time, we’ll have a URR update, at which point everything to do with traps, throwing and handling projectiles (as those who watch my stream will know) have been finished, including graphics for all objects and all traps. After that, I’ll either be moving onto a lot of tweaks and small changes for 0.4, or the other large part of the next version – the health system. Stay tuned…