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Most Anticipated: Metro: Last Light

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It’s no secret how much we here at OnlySP love Metro 2033.

Every member of the OnlySP stable has something different that they specifically love about the game, however most of it relates to the story.

Whether it’s the way the flow of the narrative, the way background story is told through environment, the characterisations, the desolate and hopeless atmosphere of the underground tunnels, the mysterious menagerie of otherness, or the immersive sense of belonging that results from the minimal HUD, there is no doubt that Metro 2033 was a high point in single player story telling.

I followed Metro 2033 from the very beginning, which would not be that unusual for a typical AAA studio production, however Metro 2033 and 4A were relatively unknown in the beginning. Hardly anyone had heard of it when those first tech trailers hit. I’d just come from the very first S.T.A.L.K.E.R – which I bought on release – having fallen thoroughly in love with the Eastern European approach to game design, and, specifically, atmosphere. I remember watching the first jaw-dropping gameplay videos, detailing all the technical bells and whistles, imagining the money it would cost me to upgrade from my old Radeon X1600 laptop into something that could look vaguely like what was being shown.

What I was seeing was the second step of my maturation in single player tastes. S.T.A.L.K.E.R is unparalleled in my mind as an open world, atmospheric story experience. Metro 2033 is its linear shooter equivalent.

When I first saw Metro 2033 I knew it would be something very special. I didn’t know how special it would turn out to be.

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Metro 2033 tells the tale of a city destroyed, and a people forced to endure. Artyom, born into a subterranean existence, is driven by a fascination for all things from the toxic surface. His friendship with the Ranger named Hunter leads him on a quest in defence of his home station, through the centre of the Metro and up onto the burnt nuclear winter of Moscow’s surface.

The narrative is rather straight forward, but the jewel of its story is in the setting. The believable recourse of living in the Metro system to escape nuclear fallout, the treasuring of pre-war artefacts that can no longer be manufactured, the jury-rigged nature of makeshift technology that Metro dwellers rely upon, the desperation in the faces of those trying to eke-out a living under constant threat from an overwhelming enemy. You can taste the oppressive, stale air from two decades living in tunnels.

The story is in all the tiny details that texture the world. Each station has its own rich history that is communicated through the small things – an old photo in a bunk, a discarded gas mask, a curious child. We see these things and instantly know this world – what has happened, and how the characters feel. We know how hard it is to live there, the difficulties they face, and the challenges that will lie ahead for Artyom.

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It isn’t just the setting that separates Metro 2033 from other shooters. Arguably, the two innovative gameplay features that make Metro unique are the implementation of the gas mask, and bullets as currency.

The gas mask was a big part of the game. Functionally, it imposed a time and damage limit restriction to some areas – notably on the surface. Narratively, it illustrated the danger and alien nature of the world above. Emotionally, it created tension, drama, and a sense of urgency, as well as a sense of disturbing disconnect from the familiar. It was a simple and elegant mechanic that served to enhance immersion and investment in the game.

Using military bullets for currency was also an innovation. Again, functionally, it served as currency, as well as an immediate damage upgrade for a measurable cost. Narratively, it showed the priorities of the Metro dwellers, who equated irreplaceable military grade ammunition with an inherently valuable trade item, and bullets with personal defence. And the emotional impact on the player was interesting – do you waste your precious money to get out of a difficult scrape, or do you persevere with your weaker dirty ammunition and keep those valuable bullets for buying weapons later on? Tension and decision making rapped elegantly into one simple game design decision.

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Metro: Last Light looks to be more of and better than Metro 2033. It extends the narrative of the original, providing a fresh gas mask filter to allow more time in the heavy atmosphere of the Metro.

It also looks like some of the issues that impacted on the first game are being smoothed out, with a better explained system of mechanics and improved gunplay. 4A are claiming improvements in stealth, a more comprehensive weapon customisation system, an opening up of levels and how they are approached, a tweaking of the in-game economy, and new weapons. Added to that are polishes to the engine and animation, and Last Light is looking wonderful.

The game still looks stunning, running on 4A’s proprietary engine. When the 2033 came out, the graphics blew everyone away. Despite a slight lack of engine optimisation that lead to even monstrous PCs being brought to their knees, it’s hard to deny the benchmark Metro 2033 set for visual fidelity. With the improvements and familiarity with the engine brought to Metro: Last Light by the team, we can expect even better visuals.

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The gameplay improvements are a bonus, though. The reason I am looking forward to Metro: Last Light is the rich fictional world Dmitry Glukhovsky created and 4A interpreted. I want to spend more time absorbing the poisonous fumes of the surface. I want to hide from Nazis and Communists, and their violent war of ideologies and lead. I want to fight for my life against rabid Nosalises with makeshift, slapped together weapons. I want to soak up the fear and misery and desperation and hope of those who remain in the dark, and I want to lead them into the light. I want to reclaim my city, my surface, and I want to take my people with me.

Lets hope that the disembowelling of THQ does not negatively impact on the development of Metro: Last Light. Considering the late stage of development, it should survive any negative effects of the bankruptcy and deliver an exceptional, narratively rich gameplay experience for dedicated single players. We will be raggedly holding the defensive line, protecting our loved ones in the Metro, waiting for Artyom to save us in March.

Official trailer.

2012 E3 gameplay demonstration.

(all images 4A)

Former Editor in Chief of OnlySP. A guy who writes things about stuff, apparently. Recovering linguist, blue pencil surgeon, and professional bishie sparkler. In between finding the latest news, reviewing PC games, and generally being a grumpy bossyboots, he likes to watch way too much Judge Judy. He perhaps has too much spare time on his hands. Based in Sydney, Australia. Follow him on twitter @lawksland.

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Shattered: Tale of the Forgotten King is a Baffling Combination of Journey and Dark Souls

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Mixing genres is a fairly common practice in video games. For some titles, the combination works well, such as Crypt of the Necrodancer‘s rhythmic dungeon crawling or Double Cross‘s use of light detective work between 2D platforming sections. Others do not fare so well, such as the out-of-place stealth sections in the Zelda-like Beyond Good and Evil, or the infamous jack-of-all-trades, master of none that Spore turned out to be. Shattered: Tale of the Forgotten King, unfortunately, falls into the latter category. Trying to combine the floaty exploration of Journey with the brutal combat of Dark Souls, the resulting mixture is a frustrating mess that will not please fans of either game. The first title by French independent developer Redlock Studio, this Early Access game requires a lot of work before it reaches the compelling gameplay experience it is aiming for.

The game begins with the protagonist waking up in Limbo, with no memory of who they are or how they got there. A tiny creature named Yaak takes pity on the player, suggesting that maybe the king Hypnos can help. The problem, however, is that Hypnos is the titular Forgotten King—a godlike figure, who mysteriously disappeared after creating the world. In his absence, demons have taken over the realms. On a journey to reclaim their identity, the protagonist just might be able to save the world along the way to finding the forgotten king.

The frustration begins as soon as the player gains control of the protagonist. Movement in  Shattered: Tale of the Forgotten King is floaty and imprecise. This annoyance might be minor in a platformer, but the inclusion of the punishing combat of a Souls-like makes it beyond frustrating. Enemy encounters are dangerous in this style of game, with the need to dodge, parry, and circle around combatants to avoid death. However, the controls simply do not have the precision needed for the task. When the game requires frame-perfect timing to parry an enemy’s attack but features a character that moves like molasses, more often than not the player will take a hit. Apart from the initial listless humanoids of Limbo, enemies are much faster and stronger than the protagonist, quickly taking down an unprepared player. The balance is so uneven that the first boss, a hulking creature with an enormous greatsword, feels like a fairer fight than the rooms full of small enemies since his attacks are slower and more clearly telegraphed. Often, the better choice is just to run past the enemies all together.

Should the player manage to defeat some enemies, they will gain essence, which is used in levelling up. Levelling up can only be done in Limbo, often requiring a fair bit of backtracking. Players can improve their vitality, stamina, strength, or mystic, but no explanation is given on what those statistics actually do. Putting one point into strength will result in the character doing one point of extra damage, but since even the smallest enemies have hundreds of health points, a lot of level ups would be required before the player would see any real benefit. 

The platforming aspect of the game fares little better. The player is given no indication of where they have to go or what they have to do, just the general imperative of finding the king. The Frontier D’Imbolt, the first real level in the game, has plains spread out in all directions, encouraging exploration. However, the map is also full of instant death; lava, spiky plants, ledges to be avoided, and, of course, aggressive enemies, making exploration much less inviting. The floaty controls cause problems here, too, with over-shooting a target platform a constant issue. This annoyance could be resolved somewhat with giving the character a shadow to see where they will land. The viewpoint will also randomly change from 3D to 2D, with no real change in gameplay. The change seems to be purely for aesthetics, which does not seem reason enough for including annoying running-towards-the-camera gameplay.

Aesthetics, in general, is a strong point for Shattered: Tale of the Forgotten King, with interesting character design and a muted colour palette. The enemies have a cool ghostly appearance, all transparent with hard planes. The blockiness of the world has an appealing look but sometimes presents gameplay issues, with a lack of clarity on which blocks can be stood upon and which cannot. Music is a highlight throughout the experience, soft and atmospheric throughout the levels but clashing into something harsh and unfamiliar for the boss fights.

As an Early Access title, bugs are to be expected at this stage of development, and Shattered: Tale of the Forgotten King has plenty to offer. Despite being set to English, Yaak would occasionally slip into French, along with tooltips and the occasional item description. The English translation in general needs some more work, with quite a few typos and some weird wording, like ‘Strenght’ in the character status screen and ‘Slained’ when defeating the boss Hob. Enemies have buggy AI, sometimes freezing in place if the player wanders slightly too far away. Some instant death obstacles seem misplaced, with death spikes jutting out of a random wall. Most devastating was the game failing to acknowledge that the boss was defeated, with the gate he was guarding refusing to open. Perhaps defeating him again would make the gate work, but few players would be inclined to do so after a tough battle. 

Shattered: Tale of the Forgotten King has the potential to become an interesting game but is simply not fun to play in its current state. The incompatibility of Journey and Dark Souls is the core of the game’s problem: it needs to lean more heavily on one concept or the other—make the levels more peaceful playgrounds for exploration, or tighten up the combat experience to reach that satisfying balance of hard but fair. Trying to have both leaves the game in this strange middle ground where no one is satisfied.

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