Has every game got to break new ground?
Silly question, really, as the annual crop of EA Sports titles should show. Just bang a couple of updated player names, blather on a bit about intelligent marking and the offside trap, and Bob is your proverbial uncle.
It's an important starting point, though, when you're taking a look at Metro: Last Light. There is nothing mechanically going on here that we've not seen a billion times before in FPSes - it's a straightforward story-driven shooter with stealth options that doesn't really offer much in the way of pathway options. In fact, it's really easy for any FPS player to immediately pick up.
But, you know, it's about video gaming as a storytelling medium. It's the sequel to a game based on a novel, so you'd really expect the yarn-spinning to be up to snuff. Fortunately, it is.
Following on from the story from its predecessor Metro 2033, much of the action predictably enough takes place in the cramped tunnels of the Moscow metro system. Graphically the subterranean sections have a haunting quality, heaps of shadowy debris and cobwebs choke the forgotten rail lines, and the inhabited sections are rammed with people, giving a cramped, claustrophobic atmosphere not all that dissimilar to travelling on the present-day metro. The outdoor sections are combat-heavy races against time where waves of mutants need to be overcome before the air supply in your gas mask runs out. Again, the visual feel is powerfully delivered. The crumbling edifices of the pre-war city manage to cling to some semblance of dignity and grandeur even when overrun with freaky beasts.
Weapons, combat, movement – all are done in familiar ways. Really, from a gameplay perspective, there's not a huge amount to really report on. It's all about the story and – importantly – how it's told. Sometimes, story elements are delivered simply by having you creep past whatever it is the game wants you to see, and at other times, short non-invasive cutscenes (usually delivered from the gameplay POV) fill you in on important details. You can walk (or crawl through airducts) for ages without having a challenge, as the game subtly lets you know that you're moving between areas – and, usually, there'll be a pacing change. You'll go from an exposition-heavy stealth section to a tense, creepy exploration sequence (complete with ghosts, demons and other gribblies) not exactly seamlessly, but with masterful precision on the part of the writers.
Characters that you meet on your travels are nuanced and complicated, and even some of the villains you can't help but sort of forgive. The whole thing actually has a little taste of Half Life 2 about it – there's another game that delighted in switching it's pacing in order to keep you involved.
So it's a great story told through the time-honoured medium of the FPS. But it's not perfect. Sometimes, the AI is a little on the dim side, and even on the hard skill setting there are swathes of the game that feel less than massively challenging. This isn't altogether a bad thing, necessarily – I'm sorry to keep harping on about it, but it's the story they're obviously interested in, and if you're caught on an unfairly tough stealth section, you're not moving through the story. Nevertheless, it felt like perhaps a little more time spent on tougher AI may not have been a bad idea.
Sound is used cleverly, particularly in order to ramp up the frightening bits, but sometimes conversations can overlap in a slightly unrealistic way, even with good quality 3D sound. As you're wandering through a faction's lair, the game really wants you to hear what people are talking about, and by default these NPC interactions are also delivered as on-screen text. Where several conversations are happening right next to each other, the on-screen text devolves into weird, impossible-to-follow crossed lines, and the clear, well-delivered voice-acted lines fail to really sound like the hubbub of a busy bar, for example. Still, it's a workmanlike way of delivering plot.
More than anything else, though, it's the use of visuals to communicate the story that is so clever here. Ghostly apparitions manifest in a number of different ways throughout the game, and even the lighting can readily communicate ideas. The different styles of the various factions can be confusing to differentiate at times, but the story makes sure you always know where you are and who's who.
Metro: Last Light really showcases where we're up to with FPS games when you don't try to do anything too mechanically unusual. Clearly a high-budget title, and obviously the result of hard work by some extraordinarily talented people, the game really does feel like reading a novel – you're playing it to see what happens as much as for any other reason. I, for one, love to be told a good story by a game, and while it might not be a game I'm talking about for years to come, it is a compelling tale, well-told.