4A's sequel to Metro 2033, Metro: Last Light, seems to have been slipping beneath our radar a bit. The post-apocalyptic original was so close to being proper good that it's definitely worth keep an eye on what they're up to next. With that in mind, we caught up with THQ's Huw Beynon to find a bit more about what's happening with the game, which is set for release in mid 2012.
RPS: Can you tell us a bit about what the plan is for Last Light? How does it follow on from the original game's ending? (Or endings?)
Beynon: Last Light is a direct narrative sequel to the Metro 2033 the game – and we follow the canonical, essentially tragic ending of the book. We can see from Achievement data that the alternative, ‘enlightened’ ending was only achieved by 2 – 3 percent of players, so although it’s become common knowledge that 2033 had two endings, that ‘enlightened’ path remains elusive. As I think it should be!
But as the basis for an interesting narrative for Last Light, it made no sense to base a sequel on anything other than the book’s ending. The enlightened ending of Metro 2033 represents a fleeting glimpse at what could have been, nothing more.
RPS: How much is the world's author, Dmitry Glukhovsky, involved in plotting this game? Does it deviate significantly from the books?
Beynon: Last Light is an original storyline that follows directly from the events in Metro 2033 the game. It bears no relation to Dimity’s pseudo-sequel - Metro 2034 – which, by his own admission, would not really lend itself to a video game adaptation in the same way that Metro 2033 did. So Dmitry conceived an original plotline for the game that follows Artyom’s story, and the studio have been building the narrative around this. He’s crafted some specific scenarios for us too. So Dmitry may not be involved to the same degree he was last time, but his influence and input is definitely still there.
If you’ve read Metro 2033 as well as played the game you’ll understand just how different book and game are – even when your source material is so strongly suited to adaptation. Dmitry really understood that a game does not have to follow the exact plot-line and pacing of the book to be a ‘faithful’ adaptation – instead we took the painstakingly imagined world, and the major plotlines, characters and themes, and built our gameplay goals around them.
RPS: How did the team react to feedback from the first game? Was it a case of being encouraged that they were doing the right thing? Or were there changes to be made?
Beynon: As always, a combination of both. We’re the first to recognise that there were flaws with Metro 2033, and I don’t think any of the negative comments came as any surprise to us. But what’s been so encouraging for the team is the sheer, unbridled positivity shown towards the first game from our ever expanding fanbase.
The broader picture we built from all the feedback, good and bad, was that we’d created something very special with Metro 2033 that a lot of people regarded as one of their favourite and certainly most memorable games of recent times. There’s a huge number of players who were able to overlook the flaws, and enjoy what we hope was a pretty memorable, unique experience.
For others, those flaws were too much of an obstacle to enjoyment. And we have to respect that viewpoint too.
How we interpret and act on that feedback is really critical to the development of Last Light – we believe, and this is something that THQ have thankfully been very supportive of, that we got the basic formula right. So when approaching Metro: Last Light, our first goal was really to capture and preserve the ‘soul’ of the Metro experience. We’re not trying to make our game more like other shooters out there – we’re trying to take, and perfect that Metro formula, because we felt we were close to creating a genuine classic last time around, and with Last Light we’re determined not to fall short.
We’ve paid a huge amount of close attention to the negative feedback, and made every effort to address those issues. We feel that without compromising the essential DNA of the game, we can answer our critics and make the game a lot more appealing to more people.
RPS: Has the combat been changed at all? I recall it was pretty brutal the first time around - should we expect a similar challenge?
Beynon: Our goal is to make the combat experience feel not just brutal, but deadly – fraught with danger. Artyom is not a super soldier meting out death and destruction to waves of faceless cannon fodder. We want to strike that balance between making the player feel powerful and skilled in offence, while still feeling vulnerable and threatened. With Metro 2033 I think we achieved the latter – where we aim to do better this time around is to make the combat experience more satisfying for the player.
We spent a long time analysing all the feedback we go from the combat in 2033, and the same things kept surfacing – the AI was inconsistent, the weapons felt underpowered, you couldn’t tell if you were hitting the target or not... Some of these criticisms were valid. Some stemmed from that fact that we hadn’t explained how our combat systems worked as well as we should. For example, most human enemies wear extensive body armour that ‘dirty rounds’ (the inferior post-apocalyptic ammo) have trouble penetrating – listen closely and you can hear the ping as bullets ricochet off metal, or the meaty crunch if they meet exposed flesh.
But we didn’t accentuate those effects as much as we needed to, we didn’t have appropriate visual effects to support, our animation system was a little basic at times and enemies seemingly did not respond to being shot at...
So for Last Light combat has probably seen the biggest focus for improvement. There are so many elements of an FPS that affect the overall combat experience, from control to AI, to animation, to visual and aural feedback... every part has gone back to the drawing board, and hopefully our E3 demo showed some of the progress we’re making here.
But in terms of the player experience – combat in Metro is meant to feel like a deadly risk at all times, not a shooting gallery. In that sense, you should expect another challenge of your wits and tactics as much as your skills, particularly on higher settings.
I know some fans of the original game have seen our E3 demo and maybe felt concerned that we’re veering towards a run-and-gun approach to combat – that’s really not the case. That demo was there to showcase some moments of high spectacle, but you can be assured that attempting to run-and-gun in Metro gets you killed very fast.
RPS: What about environmental hazards and so forth? Any variation there?
Beynon: The world of Metro is a hostile place, full of environmental hazards and foes, both humans and mutant. The surface is the most hostile environment of all – it’s full of things actively trying to kill you, and that constant struggle for survival, the desperate need to preserve your lifelines of ammo, medical supplies, light and filters is something we feel is intrinsic to the Metro experience. One of the things we were proud of in Metro 2033 was the sheer amount of environmental variety we achieved for a ‘post-apocalyptic’ game. We used light in particular to give us a rich colour palette, and we’ve tried hard in Last Light to keep surprising the player with a scope and scale of the environments they’ll encounter. So yeah – plenty of variety. And most of it deadly.
RPS: We've seen quite a lot of "surface" shots so far, is that indicative that we're going to spend more time above ground?
Beynon: We take the player back up to the surface multiple times in Metro: Last Light. I think on balance it will be a little more than it was in 2033.
RPS: Presumably the stations make a return? I think they were a favourite aspect of the game for a lot of people. Are they different at all this time around? Any more things to do in those areas?
Beynon: Yes, you’ll be visiting Stations along the way again. They really help us establish the world, break up the pacing of the game, let the player explore – they’re critical parts of the game. Their fundamental role hasn’t changed – they are areas to explore and soak up the game world, so don’t expect to be getting side-quests from NPCs, but we’re trying to make them less linear, and more interactive environments. We’ll have one ready to show next time we present the game, so you can judge for yourself.
RPS: One a scale of one-to-pretty the original game was about an eight, but people are saying Last Light will be a nine. Is that true? Any new visual tech being deployed? Or is it just a case of learning to use the existing tech more effectively?
Beynon: Obviously we are extremely proud of the visual quality we achieved with Metro 2033. On PC we gave owners of the latest generation of cards a glimpse of what their hardware was really capable of. The 4A engine continues to evolve, it’s eminently scale-able, and by the time we approach release we will no doubt will be making full use of the latest developments, as we did with 2033 when DX11 was still relatively new. We’ve made substantial enhancements to the tech across the board – hopefully we’ll be able to share this with you in more detail in the near future.
At the same time, we’re making the engine work more efficiently than it ever did before. The code we’ve been showing since E3 runs around 70 FPS in 1920 x 1080 with DX11, on a single NVidia 590. More people will be able to run Last Light on significantly higher settings than Metro 2033 on the same hardware.
RPS: And would you say that there is a significant advantage to be had from 4A using their own engine?
Beynon: Without question. It’s not just the technology itself that’s important, it’s the working practices and process of the studio, and how that technology is understood, shared and used. We are not limited by a ‘feature set’ as we might be with a 3rd part engine. We are free to create the feature set we want, as needed.
RPS: I understand we can expect some multiplayer, too. What can you tell us about plans for that?
Beynon: Not much right now! All I can say is, we’re aware of all the misgivings towards any game famed for its single player that adds a multiplayer component. We understand those concerns. But having had multiplayer prototypes up and running since early in the development of Metro 2033, the studio really wants to bring those ideas to fruition.
We know the single player experience is the main attraction for many, and our efforts with MP are not going to be to the detriment of the quality or quantity of the single player campaign.
RPS: Thanks for your time.