Metro: Last Light - Interview with Huw Beynon Part Two

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Following the success of the first ‘Enter the Metro’ live action trailer for the post-apocalyptic, story driven first person shooter Metro: Last Light, this month THQ have launched ‘The Survivor Series’ – a set of stories featuring key figures from the trailer, like The Preacher - best remembered for his preaching in the streets of Moscow as people ran in fear for the safety of the underground - who has become a beacon of hope and spiritual advisor to the hopeless denizens of the Metro. The Model and The Commander, both of which are portrayed in equally dark and brutal trailers can be found on the Metro Last Light YouTube channel. Also released this week was a brand new trailer showcasing the gameplay.

Chatting to THQ’s Head of Global Communication Huw Beynon, it’s clear that this aims to be a game dominated by story over bullets (ironic when bullets are the main currency of the game) which is unsurprising considering the series is based on the best-selling book by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. “Metro 2033 was an adaptation of the novel. Of course a book is meant to be read and a game is meant to be played but thematically the two were very close and the game had the same overall narrative arc. When we approached Metro Last Light, Dmitry had written his own pseudo follow up called Metro 2034 which he described to me as art house novel; it’s not had an English translation yet but from what I understand it’s a strange three part branching story line that’s not suited to a video game structure. We wanted to make another Metro game with an original story that continues Artyom’s story and we’re actually continuing to work with him very closely.”

Metro: Last Light screen above groundThere are hints that in Metro Last Light, Artyom’s bleak world is beginning to slowly change. The weather effects above ground that we’ve seen so far are much more dynamic and the first signs of spring are unfurling with a few beams of sunshine here, a bit of vegetation there and running water that all helps bring a much broader range of colours and textures to what was previously a consistently ashen environment. The couple of times we’ve met Huw, he’s been eager and serious about the studios ambition to create one of the best if not the best looking game of the current generation. “I’d like to inject a touch of modesty here and say we’d settle for one of!” laughs Beynon, “Sometimes best looking is about technical grunt under the hood, sometimes it’s about good aesthetics and good art direction. I think we can certainly compete on both fronts. These guys at 4A games’ heritage is PC and they’re always looking to hack whatever power is available to them so as we get closer to release, the PC version will pack in as many fancy tricks as it can but it’s equally important that what we build scales effectively to the current gen of 360 and PS3. Our determination is to really make sure the game looks as good, is competitive on whatever platform it’s released on. It should look great for an Xbox360 game. Obviously, if you’ve got a ninja PC, it’s gonna sing and you’ll get something of another magnitude again.”

A fundamental part of the game is giving the player choices, particularly when fighting against human opponents. It was possible to play a number of sections in Metro 2033 without killing anyone thanks to its non-aggressive routes through, though the AI wasn’t quite as polished as it could have been. “Whenever you try…” and here Beynon takes a long pause, carefully selecting his words “... and do something more sophisticated with your AI than having someone just pop up over a barricade, shoot at you then pop back down into cover, then anytime there is an inconsistency or they do something you don’t expect it’s much more glaringly obvious. We’ve often been accused of having bad AI in metro 2033 which I think is unfair. It’s actually really really good but sometimes it doesn’t work quite as well as it should. It’s like comparing a broken but sophisticated sports car to a very simple but perfectly functioning fixed wheel bicycle; one of them is actually much more complex than the other but if the fixed wheel bicycle just works, you tend to say that’s the one that isn’t broken. So there’s a huge amount of effort and attention into improving our AI, a lot of that will come out in the amount of polish that we’re able to put in. We were kind of finding our feet the first time around so hopefully, we’ll have gone some way to address those frustrations in Metro Last Light.”

The AI is something that the team will have to get right if they are to draw both new-comers and FPS fans to the game, especially those who have been getting plump on what Beynon terms “the Call of Duty first person diet.” By classical genre definition, a first person shooter is exactly what Metro Last Light is because it’s told in the first person and Artyom is frequently carrying a gun but he also has a hand crank, fuel, flashlight, lighter or a notepad to wrap his fingers around. Could Metro Last Light be the antidote to this CoD diet? “Yes” Beynon emphatically states! “I actually think it’s more action adventure told in the first person and we use a lot of different gameplay styles within this so we have a lot of first person shooter combat whether that’s the kind of more stealthy immersive gameplay styles against human opponents or the more frantic, in-your-face combat that tends to happen whenever the mutants get involved. We also use a lot of survival horror inspired gameplay with exploration of the city stations where you might not be carrying a weapon at all. We seem to have seen the first person shooter genre or the single player component as being almost overwhelmed by this trend towards the authentic military shooter which seems to have developed this gameplay style that’s limited to acquiring a target and shooting it in the head and moving on to the next target. The weapons are very realistic, the gun play is very snappy and the death animations are very gruesome. We talk about Metro being a crafted experience which means every moment is narrative driven and then we use gameplay styles at our disposal whether it’s combat or stealth or survival horror to best support that. The player shouldn’t really know what to expect each time they go round a corner in terms of what they are actually going to come up against, what kind of environment it’s going to be, what kind of skills they are going to have to use to get their way through it. It should feel like an adventure and a journey for themselves.”

Metro: Last Light screen rallySimilar to the first Metro games, we’re told there are things to explore away from the narrative, especially if playing in Ranger Mode, and areas Artyom will have to go and seek out in order to progress. Seeking out ranger stash to stock up supplies before they run out will again be a huge part of the Metro experience. Combine the potential to run out of air and bullets with equally scary moments like when Artyom has to walk through dozens of enemies during a rival station’s rally and players can expect a very tense game. “Yeah, we were thinking of maybe doing a special edition with a gasmask away with the game but maybe a nappy would be more appropriate…! For us, survival horror isn’t all about running from monsters or spookiness. I think in many ways it’s about making the player feel very vulnerable. A lot of games are about player empowerment, having superhuman powers or you being able to mow down hundreds and hundreds of enemies and pretty much tackle anything and I think there’s definitely a place for games like that, I’m partial to playing them myself from time to time, but what survival horror does as a game play style is it puts a pressure on the player like, I’m really not comfortable at the moment, I don’t know if I’m equipped to deal with what’s around the next corner, I don’t even know what IS around the next corner, is it human? Whatever might it be? It’s that constant threat and pressure that’s piled upon the player that creates that really intense experience. So hiding in plain sight as Artyom does in the rally, with all those people around, knowing all it would take is that tap on the shoulder and you’re done for…That is scary”.

The 4A Games team Eastern European roots obviously flavour every aspect of the Metro series. If this were to be set on the London Underground and created by a UK or American team, with the lack of black Russian humour and Ukrainian gritty visuals, the outcome would be very different particular in tone and post-apocalyptic approach. Certainly, they draw from a very different set of sources and inspirations whether it’s from games, literature or film which is very specific to them in the Ukraine and Beynon reckons this has resulted in greater sense of maturity with the story telling. “A lot of storytelling within western developed games for whatever reason has quite often resulted in annoying characters with very flimsy motivations. It goes back to what we were talking about earlier about player empowerment where you’re an angry young man or a man with a past often asked to do preposterous things like save the universe and I think the Russian outlook is much more realist. I think Artyom is a very identifiable character whilst a lot more thought has gone into the interactions he has with other people. You might come into an environment where everyone is being a hostile soldier with no name or face and a gun trained on you ready to kill or you might come across guards swapping stories over a campfire, talking about their families back home or giving you little clues and tidbits. The fact that they might actually have lives beyond just being targets for you to shoot at should make players feel like they’ve stumbled into this real scenario unfolding in front of them. Maybe players will stop and think whether the appropriate thing to do is break out a gun and start shooting everyone in the head which is often the only option given to you in many other games."

Metro: Last Light is shaping up to be an intense FPS adventure! If you haven’t yet had the chance to play Metro 2033, over on THQ’s Facebook page they are giving away free PC copies of the game for Christmas. So head to the Moscow underground now and prepare for Last Light next year!

Metro: Last Light is due for release in March 2013, for Xbox360, PS3 and PC.