This preview originally appeared in issue 248 of PC Gamer UK shortly before THQ's implosion. 4A Games has since been acquired by Koch Media, and though the game's release is still anticipated, no definitive release date has been announced since.
In the tunnels beneath post-nuclear Moscow, there is a town called Theater. Like much of what passes for civilisation in Russian sci-fi author Dmitry Glukhovsky’s apocalypse, it’s built into the old subway – the metro system for which 4A Games’ shooter series is named.
Theater’s curving tilework makes it look like it might have had a bit of class, back in the day. The walls could be marble, and although they’re streaked with grime they’re dazzlingly white by the standards of this rust-and-blood dystopia.
I’m watching one of Metro: Last Light’s non-combat sections. The campaign will lead protagonist Artyom through four waystations of this kind, places where the player can trade top-grade ammo for weapons and upgrades, scout out additional plot information, and otherwise absorb 4A’s meticulous rendering of the world in the year 2034.
Artyom passes through Theater’s kitchens, where a panhandling drama critic bemoans the irrelevance of his profession. Not without reason: this is a world where life is measured in bullets and gasmask filters rather than glasses of Prosecco and those little tubs of ice cream with a wooden spoon in the lid.
High art might have been a casualty of nuclear war, but culture survives. Outside the market, there’s an area where an older man performs shadow puppets for an assembled crowd of children. He makes a bird and an elephant, and his audience interprets these as a demon and a nosalis – two of the mutated creatures that prowl Moscow’s unsettled tunnels and blasted surface. The sequence is a touching little meditation on what it’s like to be born after the end of the world. It also illustrates what 4A’s proprietary engine is capable of. Dynamic lighting, audio and physics support everything that 4A are trying to achieve, from wandering around a town packed with refugees to stalking human enemies through the shadows, or engaging in a running battle with a pack of monsters.
A short time later Artyom reaches the theatre itself, where he is joined by Pavel – a returning character from the first game. As they make their way through the crowded auditorium during a burlesque performance, Pavel turns to the player and quips: “well, Stanislavski, you can watch the show if you like.”
A 20th century Russian dramatist is an odd point of reference for a character who makes his living blasting mutated rats the size of ponies, but it’s a neat touchstone for Metro: Last Light itself. 4A Games are based in Ukraine. They’re part of the Eastern European development ecosystem, and share a measure of its enthusiasm for simulation. Metro isn’t concerned with realism in the same way as Arma – once again, rats the size of ponies – but it boasts a naturalistic attention to detail and a vigilant support for the fourth wall. If Call of Duty is a broadway musical, a wide-barrelled cannon loaded with glitter and aimed squarely at the audience’s face, then Metro: Last Light is trying to be something smarter, tougher, and more rewarding – Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre, perhaps.
“It’s this obsessive attention to every minute detail, on each individual thing in the world – the culmination is something that is greater than the sum of its parts,” THQ creative strategist Huw Beynon tells me. “We really want to impress on people playing the game that this isn’t a level. It’s an environment. A place.”
It’s something most apparent when Artyom is facing human opponents. During one mission to escape from an engineering yard patrolled by Reich fascists, idle guards can be seen working out, tending fires, sleeping, singing and talking shop.
Metro: Last Light’s stealth system is deep rather than broad, and grounded in realism. Like its predecessor, the game has a very minimal UI, with no crosshair and no artificial assists such as a mini-map or sight cones for patrolling enemies. Instead, you’ll rely on the equipment in Artyom’s possession: a torch, a lighter, a photosensitive gadget on his watch that glows when he’s standing in light to let you know he’s in danger of being spotted. Noise is important, too: even the game’s hand-pumped pneumatic guns aren’t perfectly silent, and will get you detected if you use them in close proximity to an enemy. The more power you pump into them, the louder they hiss – and this isn’t just a signal to the player that they can stop cranking the handle. It’s a sound, in the world, that a curious guard may respond to.
Throwing knives offer a guaranteed silent kill, as do lethal and non-lethal melee takedowns: but all of these require that you catch your opponent off-guard, and that means traversing the level carefully. Most light sources can be shot out, and electric lamps can be brought down at junction boxes scattered throughout each stage. Doing so will raise suspicion, however. Not only that, but the kind of light matters. Shoot out a lightbulb and you’ll plunge an area into darkness with a tinkling of broken glass. Shoot out an oil lamp and you risk starting a fire that will propagate freely on wood and cardboard, not only illuminating the area more but drawing every guard in the vicinity. These, you need to blow out the old fashioned way – unless a distracting blaze is exactly what you’re looking for.
Sudden darkness will cause guards to activate headlamps and torches, and these can also be shot out by a sufficiently skilled marksman. Kill a guard wearing a miner’s helmet and his light will continue to shine until you disable it, adding an element of risk to each kill and illustrating what a dynamic lighting system can bring to stealthy play.
The AI seems improved from the days of Metro 2033 – I saw guards switch lights back on and respond believably to unusual sounds and the sudden disappearance of colleagues. In open combat, they fell back into a fairly familiar cover-and-flank routine. Without hands-on experimentation I’m unwilling to say outright that Metro 2033’s AI problems are a thing of the past, but in two hours of live demonstration I didn’t see anyone stare blankly as a colleague received a harpoon to the chest or start running laps around sandbags in the middle of a gunfight, so there’s that.
Last Light isn’t a dedicated stealth game, and therefore doesn’t feature the full mechanical complexity of Hitman or Dishonored – you won’t be hiding bodies or hacking turrets or approaching levels from a dozen possible angles. But its focus on simple details – the fact that it lacks typical stealth game accoutrements like maps and a HUD – give it a naturalism that’s appealing in its own right. Last Light is more about lots of small, interesting interactions with the world, rather than making and executing grand plans.
Those small interactions are the key to the game’s loftier ambitions. Metro 2033’s morality system will return with alterations that THQ and 4A aren’t yet willing to disclose – indeed, Beynon asks that the press give away as little as possible about the specific ways in which the game will track and respond to the choices that the player makes in the game. Metro 2033 undersold its morality system to the extent that many players had no idea it was there, but Beynon argues that ‘gamifying’ ethics with clear-cut ‘choose your alignment’ moments undermine the whole concept.
This also applies to anyone who played through the first game with a guide in order to ‘beat’ the morality system. “They’ve missed the point entirely,” Beynon says. “It’s almost a hilarious joke. It’s like following a recipe without understanding what it is that you’re making.”
“The things that take place in the environment should be consistent and believable,” Beynon continues. “As you introduce that, people will think about the way they perceive the game-world that they’ve been asked to play in. I think we do a really good job of humanising all of the people that you fight against.”
The hope is that by convincing the player of the verisimilitude of the world, the decisions they make will be more genuine – and more meaningful – than those offered by a traditional RPG.
The idea of providing room for more satisfying choices has also informed Metro’s weapon system, although in a different way. Where in Metro 2033 the player was limited to three weapons within different categories – sidearms, primary weapons, and secondary special weapons – in Last Light you will be free to mix and match any trio of guns you like. Extensive customisation also frees you to swap out scopes, extended clips, silencers and so on, at the cost of valuable pre-war ammunition that doubles as currency. If you want to tool Artyom out for sniping and stealth, that’s up to you: alternatively, you might place your hopes in automatic shotguns and assault rifles.
“You make your choice and you deal with the consequences,” Beynon says. “If you want to, you can play it very safe throughout the game – that’s fine, that might be the optimal way to play it. But you might not get to experiment with things that are really fun.”
An extraordinary amount of effort has gone into modelling the weapons themselves. Spent casings clink together dynamically as they tumble from a revolver during a reload, a detail demonstrated to me by slowing game-time down to a fraction of its regular speed. Viewing the game this way, it’s also possible to pick out the way a spring pushes each new ball-bearing into the chamber of Artyom’s pneumatic rifle between shots, and admire the lever mechanism that pulls the next shell into position on a jury-rigged automatic shotgun. Last Light’s makeshift weapons are the brainchild of 4A creative director Andrew ‘Prof’ Prokhorov, whose background in aeronautical simulation gives him the technical expertise to design new firearms that would actually work.
“There’s no gamification of the devices that you have,” Beynon says. “That’s a contributing factor – if you want to see how much battery you have in your torch, you have to bring up the charger – a physical thing that sits in your hands. The cumulative effect of that detail builds the sense of the world.”
It’s also what makes Last Light a contender as a horror game. During another sequence, Artyom drives a tram – made up like a dragster, and covered in lights – through an abandoned area of the subway. The lights keep photosensitive spider monsters at bay (sorry about those, arachnophobes), but if you choose you can stop the car at any point to get out and explore side passages for supplies and secrets. Dynamic lightning in this context means something very different.
Finding a junction box and switching on all the lights in a section is now a huge source of relief, tempered by the sound of a hive full of spider monsters screeching and thrashing in response. It feels like a totally different game to the one where a man darted between campfires, unscrewing bulbs and slitting throats – but it’s based on the same mechanics, and it’s part of a contiguous experience.
It’s easier than ever to think of ‘first-person shooter’ as an outdated term. The temptation is to break it down into parts – to map out a landscape with your deathmatch blasters over here and your thinking man’s sneak-’em-ups over there, your Portal-style spatial puzzlers nestling a healthy distance from DayZ’s wide-open survival horror. The problem with this approach is that it downplays the unifying effect that the first-person perspective has: the way that lots of divergent experiences can be made to feel like part of a continuous whole. Game mechanics don’t get much simpler or more relatable than ‘looking and doing’.
Metro: Last Light is setting out to be many things: realistic shooter, stealth sim, cinematic narrative experience, atmospheric exploration game. Having been shown an extended chunk, though, I don’t feel it’s quite right to describe it as a hybrid. Instead, the impression I get is of a first-person shooter of an older sort – a linear game with the mechanical variety to support many different approaches and experiences, and the design sense and eye for detail to sustain dramatic shifts in tone, from frantic monster horror to blistering military shooter. It’s an old model, in some ways, but a proven one – just ask Half-Life 2.
Whether or not the game can perform to those high standards remains to be seen: but it has something of that old-school sensibility. It’s a show that is very much worth stopping to watch.
THQ is no more: the bankrupt publisher and developer auctioned off its assets in U.S. Bankruptcy Court today. Though the court must still approve the sales, a letter from THQ's CEO (which was passed to Kotaku by an employee) reveals the bidders, which include Sega, Ubisoft, Deep Silver, Crytek, and Take-Two, and the THQ franchises and studios they'll acquire. Below is a breakdown of who's getting what, and what led to today's sale.
Who's getting what? Based on what we know right now...
Company of Heroes and Warhammer 40,000 developer Relic Entertainment is going to Sega.
Saints Row developer Volition, Inc. and the Metro series are going to Koch Media (Deep Silver).
The Homefront franchise is going to Crytek.
THQ Montreal and the South Park license are going to Ubisoft.
Evolve, a game in development by Turtle Rock Studios (which worked on Left 4 Dead), is going to Take-Two Interactive. THQ will "make every effort to find appropriate buyers" for its remaining assets, such as Darksiders developer Vigil Games.
On November 13, 2012, THQ announced that it had defaulted on a $50 million loan. Its subsequent Humble THQ Bundle raised about $5 million for THQ, charities, and the Humble Bundle organizers, but it wasn't enough: the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on December 19th.
Bankruptcy isn't necessarily the end—Chapter 11 allows the debtor to stay in control of the company under court oversight—but things didn't go as planned. THQ expected to sell itself in whole to a private equity firm called Clearlake Capital Group, but THQ's creditors and the bankruptcy court rejected that proposal earlier this month, which led to today's piece by piece auction.
We're heading towards the conclusion of THQ's ongoing bankruptcy saga. After the publisher's creditors raised objections over its hoped-for quick sale - objections which were upheld by a US judge - details are emerging about how that sale will eventually go down.
THQ had hoped to sell themselves as a whole, ensuring the company could exist as-is under a new owner. That's now not going to happen, after it was decided that a wholesale attempt would fetch less money than dividing the company up and selling each franchise separately. A tweet by the Distressed Debt Investing blog confirms this move, saying "The auction will allow for piecemeal ("title by title") sales of THQ assets"
DDI's latest blog update on the THQ case explains how the sale will work. THQ's properties will be auctioned off on January 22nd, with both titles and studios up for grabs. So far EA and Warner Brothers have been revealed as interested parties, although it's not known which titles they're eyeing up.
Also unclear is how this arrangement will affect THQ's upcoming games. Company of Heroes 2, Metro: Last Light and South Park: The Stick of Truth all seem close enough to completion that a prospective buyer would almost certainly want them released and making money. The status of their other projects - like Volition's Saints Row 4 - may be less secure. This is assuming the auction will keep each developer with their respective games, which itself is far from certain.
We should start to finally get some solid details come the sale hearing on January 23rd. In the meantime, wild speculation! Where would you like to see THQ's many great franchises end up?
Last week we brought news that THQ's hopeful quick sale to the equity firm Clearlake was in trouble, following objections raised by a US Trustee and the publisher's own creditors. Today, a US judge has upheld those objections, saying the proposed sale process hasn't given potential buyers enough time to make a bid.
The Clearlake sale was scheduled to complete this week, but US bankruptcy judge Mary F. Walrath has found in favour of the creditors, noting that the aggressive timetable had pushed out other interested parties. "I have problems concluding that the pre-petition sale process was fulsome," she said, finding problem with the way THQ "did not even put out to the public that it was for sale" until after Clearlake had signed a non-disclosure agreement over the deal.
Walrath cited 10 possible buyers that had contacted THQ following its bankruptcy, saying this was evidence that the publisher wasn't doing everything it could to maximise the sale price. She also queried THQ's desire to be sold wholesale, saying "individual titles may have substantial value," and adding that the requirement to purchase the company in its entirety "may depress bids." Despite these concerns, as yet no ruling has been made on whether this requirement will also be blocked.
On THQ's part, the company is claiming it wanted the quick sale to fund the $37.5 million bankruptcy loan it's looking to take out, which would need to be paid by the 15th January. The judge dismissed this, saying "I am not convinced that we are under the gun to have a sale process by the 15th."
The revised date for the sale of THQ has yet to be decided, although the creditors are looking for a three week extension to the process.
Last month THQ declared bankruptcy and announced plans to sell to the equity firm Clearlake Capital. It was a troubling development for the struggling publisher, but if the sale goes as planned, it will mean they could potentially continue to operate, without the need for staff cuts or game closures. Unfortunately, the sale may not go as planned.
Distressed Debt Investing report that two objections have been filled in the case. The first, raised by the US Trustee overseeing the bankruptcy, is... complicated. Essentially her complaint is that the short timing of the sale and high reimbursement rate unfairly benefit Clearlake. The proposed sale hearing of January 10 and $2.25 million due to Clearlake if another company won the bid essentially block other interested parties from participating.
The second objection was raised by THQ's own creditors, and its motivations are far more obvious. Their problem with the sale is the way THQ management have arranged the terms to favour keeping jobs and ensuring the company's future over debt payments. Standard bankruptcy practice is to chop the company into little bits and sell each one piecemeal. THQ's terms ensure the company would be bought as a whole. Which sounds like a good thing, but it doesn't let the money-men maximise their profits, so obviously it must be bad.
"Taken as a whole, the bidding procedures are designed specifically to ensure that Clearlake is the successful bidder and that the Debtors' business will continue as a 'going concern,' whether or not such outcome would be in the best interests of the Debtors' unsecured creditors and/or maximize the value of the Debtors' estates," the committee of note holders stated.
The court hearing on bidding procedures is scheduled for tomorrow.
THQ's global communications boss Huw Beynon recently spoke to OXM about Metro: Last Light's post-apocalyptic appeal and handsome Russian mutants. Benyon's thoughts eventually expanded to a criticism of the rut he believes the FPS genre has wallowed in for years. Specifically, he calls out Call of Duty's rinse-repeat military formula for "stamping out" other creative shooter ideas.
"I think it's probably very true to say that there's reaction to what used to be a small subset of the genre of a military shooter," he said. "It's ballooned and mushroom-clouded to almost define the genre and kind of stamp out memories of what I remember being great about first person shooters, whether that was Half-Life, System Shock, or GoldenEye—where a FPS didn't necessarily have to involve military material, it just meant an invitation to a fantastic other world, which to me was always the point of video games in the first place."
Beynon also suggested gamers are slowly detaching themselves from the idea of always playing as a military superman, and that gamers are hungry for different experiences—like Metro. He also points to Dishonored as a successful experiment. "I've hugely enjoyed and I'm thrilled that they've had success with that—it's probably the game that's interested me most this year and am glad to see it get the critical and hopefully commercial success that it deserves."
THQ filed for bankruptcy earlier this week but continues to keep its publishing duties and upcoming releases active. Elsewhere and earlier on, Black Ops 2 raked in gobs of profit, but not quite as many as its big brother, Modern Warfare.
In a statement released today, THQ announced it filed bankruptcy as part of a sale to equity firm Clearlake Capital. Though financial issues troubled the publisher in the past, the announcement stressed everything will continue as normal while THQ seeks a new owner.
"THQ will continue operating its business without interruption during the sale period," read the statement. "All of the company’s studios remain open, and all development teams continue. Consumers and retailers should see no changes while the company completes a sale. The new financing will support business operations throughout the period. THQ does not intend to reduce its workforce as a result of the filing."
THQ's filing specifically fell under Chapter 11 of the government's Bankruptcy Code, which allows a company to reorganize and essentially get its bearings without disappearing entirely. Which is a good thing, with upcoming games such as Metro: Last Light, Company of Heroes 2, South Park: The Stick of Truth, and Saints Row 4 hanging in the balance.
On a positive note, THQ's substantial success generating over $5 million through its recent Humble Bundle deal boosted its stock nearly 40 percent!
The Ranger difficulty for Metro 2033 (PSA: free keys are being given away on Facebook) stripped the UI, crosshairs, and health while making precious ammo even more scarce in Russia's monster-infested tunnels. Such a masochist's dream come true degree of challenge will reappear in Metro: Last Light, but only as part of a deal for those pre-ordering the $60/£37 Limited Edition.
Early buyers also receive an extra bandolier of military-grade ammo for barter or blasting and a modified AKS-74U rifle. Ranger was also previously packaged separately as free DLC for Metro 2033, so THQ will probably follow suit for Last Light. To some, Ranger might represent the "best" experience of a harsh, barely survivable world, but at least the pre-order is the same price as the launch version, and will probably be available to everyone after release.
Everything sounds so much more bleak when it's being narrated by a despondent Russian. This new Metro: Last Light footage could have been showing a day out at the circus, and the voiceover would still give it the sombre tone of a slowly dying civilisation.
Bad example, thinking about it. Circuses are usually pretty harrowing as is.
Instead we get a moody and atmospheric tour of Metro's decrepit cityscapes and squalid tunnels, all while our cheery friend gives a sermon from the book of Genesis, complete with an extra line that I'm pretty sure isn't church-approved.
It all looks suitably true to the melancholy of the first game. Metro 2033 was a brilliant way to have a bad time and, if you never tried it out, is still available from the Humble THQ Bundle for the next day and a bit. Metro: Last Light is due out in March 2013.
Update: Ooh! As Hitman Dead Man and GinjaNinja32 point out in the comments, THQ are also handing out free Steam keys for Metro 2033 for folks who like their Facebook page. At least, they will when the currently overloaded page comes back online.
THQ's previously reported financial difficulties continue with the resignation of CFO Paul Pucino, who leaves no named successor in the wings. However, there are some glimmers of light on the horizon for the troubled publisher, which reports that it's in negotiations with an unidentified financial sponsor (expected to result in a "significant and material dilution to shareholders").
It's also established a "forbearance agreement" with the bank Wells Fargo, which essentially allows THQ extra time to catch up on its debts - until January 15 in this case.
"This agreement enables us to continue focusing on bringing our games in development to market," said THQ's CEO Brian Farrell. "Meanwhile, we are evaluating financial alternatives that will transition the company into its next phase."
With Company of Heroes 2 looking very special indeed, and other promising titles like Metro: Last Light trundling toward release, we're keeping our fingers crossed that THQ manages to climb out of this financial hole.