Nintendo 3DS spinoff, the 2DS, announced

As many of you may have already heard, Nintendo has made some interesting announcements this morning.  Most interesting to me (and probably most others) is a new spinoff handheld called the Nintendo 2DS that will be released in the near future.  This device features the same functionality as the 3DS–analog disc, two touch screens, cameras–and can play all 3DS and original DS games, just as the original device could, but strips the 3D feature out of the device in order to cut costs.  This means that Nintendo can finally hit that sweet spot price point of $129.99.

I find this a very interesting move on Nintendo’s part.  It’s smart of them to find a way such as this to cut the production costs on the 3DS, easily their most profitable device right now, and get more of them into the hands of kids and adults around the world in order to sell more games (and in turn make more money on that).  Cutting the 3D may seem like it removes the original point of the device, but it seems like few people even use the function more than a few minutes (my usage of it varies from game to game, but it’s usually off).  Whether this means that 3DS developers will no longer bother to code for 3D screens at this point remains to be seen; perhaps Nintendo will still recommend developers work on the feature (and I’m sure that they as a company will still use it too).  The lower price point coupled with the pretty exceptional library that the 3DS now has makes it a pretty good deal for those wanting to get into the handheld space again.

The only real problem I have with the 2DS is its look.  I attached an image of it above, and it doesn’t look great.  Many have joked that it looks very Fisher Price-esque, a fact I can’t help but agree with.  Most distressing to me is that this redesign ruins what I see one of the biggest pluses for Nintendo handhelds–its portability.  There is no longer a hinge in the center, meaning the device cannot be closed for easier transport.  From the pictures, the 2DS looks to be about as big as the 3DSXL when opened, a size that is fairly large.  The lower price point and no 3D may better sell the device to younger children, but I wouldn’t want to carry around something so large if I was a kid.  Maybe I’m underestimating how much it costs to build in a hinge, but I still think that Nintendo would have been better off just stripping the 3D functionality but making the device still fold (and differentiating the device through a stylistic choice instead).

Even with my distaste for the design of the 2DS, these are some of the smartest business decisions that Nintendo has made in months.

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S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl (PC) review

An example of the creepy creature design.

Few games incite as must cult fervor as the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series.  Made by several of the people who eventually moved on to the Metro games, this three-game series will instantly spark an enthused discussion and fond remembrance if you mentioned on a message board or to a group of gamers.  Anyone with a remote liking of open-world games will inevitably give one a try at some point.  I’ve owned the first S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game, Shadow of Chernobyl, for years now.  A few times here and there, I’ve tried to give it a shot but just couldn’t give it the time I needed to really sink into the experience as needed.  Finally, I sat myself down recently and forced myself through the first painful hours.  By the time I had finished the game, I had just had one of the most fascinating open-world experiences I’ve ever played.  Unfortunately, my time with S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl was packed with frustration and anger too.

The world of S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl is quite easily the most interesting and well-realized world I’ve ever seen in an open-world game.  It takes place in the area around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor a few years after it blew, called the Zone by its inhabitants, with the resulting radiation causing several mutations to local wildlife and the area itself; imagine a lot of flat, open space and blown-out buildings populated with several conflicting factions and horrific mutants.   As I was playing through, I couldn’t help but feel creeped out and unnerved every second as I traversed the world, due to the various hideous creatures (some of which are grotesquely creative and terrifying) that could pop up at a moment’s notice and dangerous anomalies, essentially pockets of radiation, randomly scattered throughout the world which are hard-to-see and damage you if you stray too close.  The sounds of the world are also fantastic–far-off gunfire letting you know that fight has just broken out or the snarl of a stray mutant coming up behind you.  The whole game is a super eerie experience throughout, even when you feel somewhat comfortable with the mechanics and have a decent amount of supplies.  No other open-world game has made me feel so vulnerable out in the wilds.

The story doesn’t fare as well.  You play as the Marked One, a man who doesn’t remember who he is but is branded with the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. tattoo, a sort of mercenary feared by those in the Zone.  Your PDA has one objective on it: kill a man named Strelok.  This may seem like the main storyline, but it actually ends up being a side-objective.  Instead, the man you were brought to after being found unconscious gives you a mission at the start of the game; this series of missions is actually the one that leads you to the center of the Zone and the end of the game.  I do suggest you finish the Strelok missions as well, however, as they lead to the better endings of the game (of which there are several).  I rarely cared about why I was doing an objective, instead using the opportunity to see more of the world and progress through to some gated areas.  The end of the game is quite fascinating, but you might suffer a bit of boredom and fatigue getting there.  The awful characters don’t really help either.  A few of the characters in the Zone are somewhat animated and interesting, but most are so boring and dull that you immediately forget about them once you finish speaking with them.  They don’t feel like people: just walking information terminals.  It’s too bad, really, because some interesting characters placed into a world like this could have really spiced up the game’s feel, even more than it already has.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl mostly resembles Fallout 3 in gameplay–of course without the VATS system.  Most of your time is either spent running from place to place, exploring the various destroyed structures throughout the environment or fighting off the hostile denizens of the Zone.  You start the game with very few supplies and no good ways to expand on those supplies at first, other than trying your best to fight off other loners or looking around for hidden caches.  Slowly, over the course of several (10+) hours, you will find guns with MUCH better accuracy (a key stat in this game) and more ammo and health items to keep you going.  Every new gun or piece of armor is immensely important.  I have never played a game where a new, more accurate gun has given me so much joy and relief, knowing I could now manage enemies from a distance without so much headache.  It really sells the scrounging nature of the world in a way I haven’t really seen before.  Balancing weight is also quite important as going over your limit first hinders your sprint speed and distance and can eventually prevent you from moving at all.  However, bringing back items, particularly the strange artifacts which can be attached to your belt for a variety of effects (but each also has cons to balance as well), to sell for more money, and therefore supplies, is crucial to surviving in the Zone.

Be prepared: S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl is probably one of the hardest games I’ve played to date.  I will note here that I played on the hardest difficulty setting, but I’ll explain why that choice felt necessary (as I don’t usually play on the hardest difficulty setting in games) in a moment.  As I mentioned above, the beginning hours are particularly tough as you try to get a foothold supply-wise.  All the early guns are terribly inaccurate and do very little damage, forcing you to play smart in order to succeed.  You don’t really have much in the way of ammo or health packs either.  The AI can be quite brutal at times too, actively flanking intelligently and catching me off-guard more than once.  Large groups, which are quite common, can absolutely shred you without proper planning.  Playing strategically by using cover, peeking corners, and sneaking up close to enemies (especially with those early, inaccurate guns) is key to succeeding in the Zone.  It’s almost like you have to earn the right to play the rest of the game, which isn’t a cakewalk either but at least becomes more manageable as you build up a stock of supplies.

Now, let me explain why I chose to play on Master difficulty.  S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl has one of the oddest ways of scaling difficulty I’ve ever seen.  As you increase the difficulty, the percentage chance your and your enemies’ bullets have of hitting goes up, capping at 50% on Master.  This means that for every shot that hits the intended target on Master, only half of them (on average, of course) actually register as a hit.  I started playing this on an easier difficulty and couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t hit anything at all at first.  When I discovered the reasoning for this inaccuracy after some research online, I started over on Master to try and ease the pain.  I will say that it helps the feel of the game tremendously and will actually recommend that anyone who is willing to play S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl play on Master, but it still never felt fair to me, even when the enemies had the same restrictions.

This was the source of ALL my frustration with the game.   I would go through whole clips of ammo, from a relatively close range mind you, and not kill my target even with multiple headshots (which are quite powerful here) as they would just seem to land but not actually “hit.”  It felt like a roll of the dice every time I shot at a enemy, which led to me quicksaving constantly to rollback a particularly bad string of misses.  The late-game rifles become much more manageable, accuracy-wise, but still never felt 100% right.  Combine this with the scarcity of ammo and high damage the enemies deal out also as part of Master difficulty (which should have just been enough on their own) and S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl is quite the challenge.  You will need a lot of patience and strategy, or masochistic tendencies, to deal with this.  Optionally, you can download the COMPLETE mod, a suite of patches and changes to the game, which supposedly fixes some of these issues.  I chose not to install COMPLETE on my first playthrough because of arguments made against the mod for ruining the feel of the game–an opinion which I can agree with personally now.  However, if you lack the perseverance for such annoyances, I urge you to at least try S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of the Chernobyl with the COMPLETE mod first before dismissing the game outright; it is too great of an experience to pass up entirely.

My time with S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl was often met with a variety of feelings.  Every amazing ambient moment or fantastically realized mutant was paired with a boring objective or my frustration with being seemingly unable to shoot a gun straight.  I ended up really enjoying my time with the game, enough so to lament how long it took me to get around to finishing it, but I really wish it hadn’t been such an annoyance time and time again.  I can understand the developer wanting to craft a difficulty that wasn’t just more damage for enemies and less damage for you, but I really hate the idea of a game that makes you feel like you can’t hit a damn thing due entirely to dice rolls (Alpha Protocol, I’m looking at you).  Still, it didn’t much matter at a point.  The difficulty was something I grudgingly grew accustomed to, and no longer cared much about, as the strength of the game, its immersive and unsettling world, were enough to make it a game I’m glad I finally played.  S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl may require a bit of patience (or modding) to enjoy, but it is absolutely worth seeing by those even slightly intrigued by its ideas or setting.

Gone Home (PC) review

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This year in games has been absolutely fantastic.  There have been some great games that are fun to play and appeal to a wide audience, sure, but 2013 has also brought some unmatched examples of why indie games are the future of the medium.  Indie developers are willing to take a concept or idea that might not be widely accepted, something new or exciting in a way that we haven’t seen before, and risk a year or two of development to make it happen.  They are the ones that have the commitment to the stories they want to tell or the feel of the game they want people to experience and are not willing to cave to a large publisher’s pressures to change them in any way.  Gone Home is a perfect example of one of these games.  Made by The Fullbright Company, a small team featuring members with impressive credits (particularly the Minerva’s Den DLC for Bioshock 2, a contained but excellent story add-on), Gone Home is one step further down the path that games should be taking, focusing on creative experiences and meaningful narratives..

The gameplay of Gone Home is relatively simple.  Set in June of 1995, you control a young woman who is returning home to her family after a year abroad in Europe.  A late flight brings you home in the middle of a stormy evening, and the house seems to be completely abandoned.  Wandering around the house, reading notes, and picking up a variety of objects to look at is how you uncover the story of the year you were away from your family.  You can interact with an absurd number of objects, plenty of which are completely nonessential and just serve to make the house seem more like a real place.  There’s something refreshing about a game with a setting that is so well-realized, entirely unlike the flat, funneled design found in most other games.  It also has the unfortunate effect of making those objects you may feel should be interactive but actually aren’t stand out more, an understandable but slightly disappointing limitation of the small team and budget.  Certain objects are also paired with audio journals from your younger sister which fill in the gaps even more.  Some areas are blocked off at first, requiring you find a key or something similar to explore a new piece of the area.  Over the course of a two or three hours, you explore the whole house and put the story together.

Having to put the story together yourself is the main reason I like Gone Home so much.  Too many games today constantly remind you what you are supposed to be feeling or what is known at that point in the game, practically shoving it down your throat at times.  Any backstory is usually dumped unceremoniously into your lap, and there is no question about how you are supposed to react to every moment.  Gone Home, on the other hand, very much drops you into the house and lets you figure it out and feel for yourself.  Some slight interpretation means that you could see a particular note or an item’s placement in a way that the developer may not have intended but still seems correct to your view of the household.  You can go as far, or not, as you want to with piecing together the lives of the characters.  Personally, it made me want to read everything I could get my hands on, to get the next piece of the giant puzzle that is this family.  Finding a new note that references something from another part of the house, suddenly having a detail made clear, is unlike any game I’ve played before.  It feels very emergent; I didn’t have to find all the notes to enjoy the game, but I wanted to find them all to sate my curiosity about various events.

While you can learn a lot about your family solely through exploration of the house, it is the journal entries that make up the bulk of the story in Gone Home.  Sam, your younger sister, writes these journals as a way of talking to her older sister while she is away.  Since the game takes place in 1995, there isn’t an easy way for them to easily chat with one another, so the journals are the only option she has.  I can’t say a single word more about what this narrative actually is because doing so would rob it of some of its emotional punch.  Know that it is an extremely poignant story, one you’ve probably heard before and can easily predict, but it is told in an expert manner.  The journals are voiced by an extremely talented voice actress who manages to convey so much in so few words; I think it is easily the best performance I have heard in a game all year.  The nature of the story wasn’t something I could personally relate to, on multiple levels, but it still managed to tug at my heartstrings on a constant basis.  I couldn’t help but smile or cringe at certain points, feeling that tightness in my chest of real human emotion for a completely fake person, a true testament to the writing and performance found within the game.

The one problem I had with Gone Home was its strange mixing of tones that felt constantly at odds with one another.  The house where you spend the entire game is quite eerie, with flickering lights and creaking floorboards.  A storm is randomly flashing outside the window or startling you with a peal of thunder.  Talk of how the house is haunted is mixed with a few creepy notes or items lying around that make you think the game is going to scare you.  But it doesn’t.  There are no ghosts, jump scares, or spooky moments (not really a spoiler since the developers have said as much).  The house may seem foreboding, but the tone of the story never veers away from being charming and emotional.  I kept waiting for something to happen, a twist, something to mess with me as the player, but it never came.  Why then did the house need to be so eerie in the first place?  I didn’t really have issues with the dark house or the stormy weather and actually think those elements added to the overall experience, but there are plenty of obvious points where the developer seemed to want to put me on edge that just felt like silly, cheap scares.  Some may see this as a way of messing with player expectation; I just found it oddly out-of-place.  It almost seems like the game wanted to go both directions at a point in development and just gave up on the horror side of things.  It felt really out of place and bugged me for awhile, until I realized that it didn’t matter one iota and had absolutely no effect on my love for the game.

Gone Home is one of those games that I could not get out of my head after I played it.  Last night after I finished it, I was lying in bed for maybe an hour thinking about it and its effects on me.  I had to replay it today to see everything again and find anything I missed.  I’ve had that heavy feeling in my gut where I just need to get my thoughts and feelings on it out into this review ever since I finished it.  I still feel like I haven’t done the best job of articulating what makes it so special, but I still urge everyone to play through it.  There may have been a few minor issues I had with it, but the impact it had on the way I see games swept all those concerns under the rug.  They didn’t matter because I could already tell that the experience I had just had was singular and unbelievably important.  Games that have this effect on me don’t come around very often; when they do, I make sure to take notice and try to get others to understand too.   I can’t help but feel that the industry needs to stand up and take notes on creative games like Gone Home.  They are quite possibly the direction for future expansion of the medium, the way to make them intense and thought-provoking in a way that no other medium can hope to emulate.

The emotional impact of Papers, Please

An example of the game’s full-body scanner

Recently, I’ve been playing a decent amount of Papers, Please (3-ish hours, according to Steam).  If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a game where you sit at a border checkpoint and must check entrants’ documents for a variety of things to decide whether or not they are allowed into your country.  As the game progresses, the rules change to match recent events and new protocols get added on a regular basis.  It eventually becomes a crazy mental checklist of a variety of different variables including appearance, expiration dates, and tons of other things in order to verify whether or not someone is allowed through.  It’s a great deal of fun for emulating such a menial task and I highly recommend it.

There are several points where the game is obviously trying to have some sort of message or moral quandary.  Do you refuse a woman’s entry because her papers are wrong even though her husband just went through ahead of her?  Is a direly-needed bribe, one that could buy food for your own family, enough to get you to break the rules just once?  Possibly the most depressing moment, however, is when you get access to an X-ray scanner.  This scanner takes full-body pictures of the entrant and shows you their completely nude form in shockingly clear detail.  The usual intended purpose is to check for contraband or weapons, usually taped somewhere to the body, but there is one other reason for it as well.

Sometimes, the gender on the entrant’s passport and the gender of their character model don’t seem to match up.  You are supposed to prod the person on this and scan him or her to check their gender for correctness.  At first, I just saw this procedure as an attempt to catch those entrants who were using some sort of fake passport and posing as another gender  Their unwillingness to answer the question “Are you a man or a woman?” was due to fear of being caught and possibly detained.  It was just another bullet point to check on my list of things-to-do.

However, I soon started wondering if this was the case.  What if the creator, Lucas Pope, instead wanted these particular entrants to be seen as trans people trying to outwardly project the gender they want to be?  What if the the wrong gender on the person’s passport was just the rigid rules of society forcing his or her true gender to be displayed on the passport, even though he or she ached to be seen as otherwise?  When this thought occurred to me, I started to feel very disgusted with myself every time I was forced to scan a person to confirm their gender; it was as if I was outing his or her’s closest-guarded secret, something one should never do to a person EVER.  That question “Are you a man or a woman?” took on another meaning.  I was asking that person something he or she most likely heard on a regular basis, a depressing question that reminded him or her that gender is seen as binary by society.  It was almost enough to get me to stop playing entirely, for fear of outing yet another person.

I wasn’t expecting these feelings when I started playing Papers, Please.  The X-ray scanner and stark, nude photos were something I had seen before in earlier coverage of the game, and they had elicited different feelings of disgust; I  knew that I was seeing someone naked without their permission, something that the other person didn’t even seem to realize I could see (that’s the way the game makes it seem, at least).  The idea of outing trans people is even worse than that to me, having the knowledge that I’m seeing such a conflicted, personal part of their lives.  My interpretation of these particular entrants may be incorrect, as it’s possible that Pope never intended them to be seen as trans, but I stand by it.  I also feel it gives the game even more impact emotionally.  It may be horrible to allow a person through whom a woman begs you to deny, saying that he will kill her if he gets through, but I still think that outing a trans person’s biggest secret will weigh most heavily on my mind from my time with the game.

Sang-Froid – Tales of Werewolves (PC) review

Tower-defense is a rather divisive genre.  Some people find it boring and refuse to touch it at all, while others can’t get enough of it.   I am not the biggest fan of the genre, but I can appreciate a well-designed example when it comes along.  Sang-Froid – Tales of Werewolves may not immediately strike you as one of these shining gems of the genre, but you will likely be as surprised as I was when you dig into its depths and see just how well-made it really is.

The story starts off with a bit of a shock: your sister gets sexually assaulted by a priest, their struggle burns down the church in local Wolfsbane, and she runs to hide out with her brothers in the wilderness.  It also turns out that she has inherited from her mother, a member of a local tribe with ties to mystical powers, the gift of precognition.  She sees that a terrible beast is coming in the future, one that must be stopped or the world will end. Her brothers must fight the denizens of the forest night after night and eventually work with the tribe in order to save the world.   It’s all rather grand for the small nature of the setting, which strikes an interesting balance between seemingly petty events like brothers fighting and the devil making deals with the priest who tried to assault your sister.  The story beats are a bit silly and very easy to predict but are still fun to watch play out.  The voice cast does an admirable job providing character, but it is of an overall quality level of what you would likely expect from a game made by such a small team.

As for the gameplay itself, Sang-Froid is very much a tower defense game, albeit one with a directly controlled character as well.  The way it works is that every day starts at dawn.  This is when you can spend your action points, (AP) which represent the amount of things the brothers can do in a day, and your money on those traps that require it (which not all of them do).  You can also take the money to the nearby town to buy potions with a variety of effects, new weapons and ammo (you always have an axe and a gun at your disposal), gear to make you faster or tougher, and blessings for your weapons to better fight mystical creatures.  After you set up your traps for a day, you choose to move to evening and can roam about the map, fighting the creatures who made it past your traps.  There are between two and five structures that must be protected at night; lose one of them (or die) and you fail.  Succeeding gives XP for various helpful skills and money to buy more weapons and traps.

The number of options you get by the end of the game is absurd.  There are twelve traps, such as exploding barrels or traps to snare wolves, with a variety of effects.  You can also fight some of the groups on your own with a mixture of holy weapons and regular ones, but trying to juggle multiple groups in this way is highly improbable. Using bait and traps to snare one group while taking one out personally is a strategy used often, but it is far from the only option.  You may be surprised at how many things actually work.  Impressively, none of the traps feel useless; each of them have a particular situation they are best suited for and can be useful if placed in a smart way.  It’s likely you will rely on a few easy-to-do tricks, but there are plenty of options for those who want to try something new.

I really liked the mix of placing “towers” and fighting the creatures myself.  A balance is necessary most days as you cannot easily take several groups on without perishing and don’t have the speed to traverse the map quickly enough to deal with various structures being attacked.  Clever usage of traps, however, can make it so you don’t have to fight certain waves at all, especially with some of the most powerful, late-game traps.  The actual fighting is quite simple but also fun to execute well.  You have a basic combo and an unlockable rage move that does extra damage.  Dodging is also important, but both swings and dodges tie into your stamina meter–which you don’t want to run out of.  Your rifle can be used to pick off distant targets and does reward good aim as headshots do large amounts of hurt to an enemy.  Also important to note is the Fear Factor system.  Enemies will sometimes be afraid of you, especially if you have a bonfire lit nearby (one of the traps) to keep them at bay.  Those foes who are afraid will keep their distance, allowing you to pick a target out from the crowd or shoot a particular one without fear of being hit.  The bigger the group, the harder fearing them is.  This is why it is extremely important to set up enough traps to thin the crowds before thinking of fighting up close; you will be quickly overwhelmed otherwise.  The combat never feels like the focus of the game, but I greatly enjoyed scrapping with various enemy types from night to night.

Sang-Froid is quite good at giving you the information you need to set things up ahead of time. Every day, you get to see all the incoming waves and the direct paths they will take, allowing you to easily set up traps to stop or snare them.  It also has a hint system on the menu that gives you an idea of what kinds of things to use to best fight the various waves (although this information trickles down to useless as the game progresses).  Most of the traps have a very clear area-of-effect that allows you set them up perfectly, but the bait in particular can be hard to use.  It lures enemies over to it, allowing you to better trap multiple enemies or simply keep them busy.  The distance of this luring effect isn’t shown on the map (unlike the other traps), an unfortunate oversight that would have curbed some of my annoyance with setting up a viable strategy.  Much of the game is dependent on doing a night multiple times to figure out the right techniques to succeed.  This bugged me a little bit as I wanted to succeed the first time, but couldn’t accurately predict where I might need a change in my plan.  Of course, this fine-tuning of strategy and focus on retrying levels to perfect them is almost expected in games of this genre, so I can’t fault it too much.

If this seems like a lot of mechanics to take in, that’s because it is.  Writing all this down made me realize just how much this little game packs into its seven or eight hours of gameplay.  I will note that the game does a good job of slowly easing you into the various concepts and strategies, never outright overwhelming you–unless you are new to this genre in general, maybe.  Videos of traps and new mechanics pop up daily to let you know how everything works.  The difficulty curve of the game itself is nice and gradual at first, but it gets quite rough at the very end.  Expect 5+ waves of various creatures to manage, attacking the five different structures you have to defend.  It’s never insurmountable, of course, but prepare to put on your strategy hat to finish the game.

I love the way Sang-Froid looks.  It may seem a bit lacking in detail in spots, but the art design makes up for this in spades.  Everything has a slight cartoony look, with proportions looking strange and a very flat color palette.  The game takes place in the Canadian wilderness, so expect to see plenty of fur caps and plaid during your time with the game.  Some of my favorite parts of the game are the creature designs; it’s interesting to see what the art designers do with the various mystical creatures that appear in the game.  Musically, Sang-Froid is also fantastic.  I would love to describe why it is so great, but I am absolutely atrocious at describing music.  My suggestion is to listen to some of it and hear for yourself.

I never expected to like Sang-Froid as much as I did.  Few tower-defense games (out of the ones I’ve played, of course) do such a good job of implementing so many mechanics while also managing to make each of them viable and useful in their own situations.  Some clever touches, such as the way that each wave’s direct paths and the area-of-effect of traps, make the whole strategy part of the game much easier to predict.  The actual player-controlled combat is pretty fun too.  Consider that the overall audio-visual package is dripping with character and you have a pretty fantastic game overall.  I urge you to give Sang-Froid a chance if you have any interest in it at all after reading this review; most likely, you will enjoy it just as much as I did.

Metro: Last Light (PC) review

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The worst immersion break in the game

The world of Metro: Last Light is a horrifying one.  It takes place after a nuclear apocalypse has rendered the surface uninhabitable, due to radiation and mutant creatures who have made it their home.  All the remaining humans, at least the ones in Russia where the game takes place, live in the underground Metro system, using the tunnels to cross between various outposts scattered throughout the old rail lines.  Several factions have risen within the Metro in the years since the bombs; you play as Artyom, a member of the peacekeeping, neutral Order.  A new form of the Reich has returned, but instead of worrying about purity of race, they are concerned with mutations in its various members.  If you don’t fit into their specifications for any number of measurements, you are put to death.  Finally, the remnants of the Red Army make up the largest armed force in the Metro and are constantly at war with the Nazis.  They strive to control everything they can get their hands on.

It is the conflict between the various factions in the Metro that makes up the majority of Last Light’s story.  The rest of the plot is concerned with the Dark Ones, a mysterious telepathic race of mutants that everyone in the Metro fears due to their unexplained nature.  Your character destroyed all but one of them in Metro 2033 and spends this game wondering if that was the correct thing to do.  He is tasked with killing the remaining Dark One by his superiors but often has moral conflicts about doing so.  It all stays exciting and interesting throughout its length; however, there is often a bit too much time between story beats for its own good.  At times, you may feel like you are endlessly following a quest arrow without much of a goal or will be heading for the same goal for a rather long amount of time with no changes.  Many of the story moments also fall a bit flat, often due to the pretty terrible voice acting.  Anyone who played the first game will recognize that the voice acting has gotten better, but it still is quite laughable at times, especially with the child voices.  The main characters pull their roles off fairly well, but the rest of the spoken roles can make it hard to take the story seriously.  It is really a shame, because the world of Metro is so fascinating and willing to pull the player in.

Metro 2033, the previous game in the series, was more immersive than any other game I had played before it, and the developer really nailed it again with Last Light.  Few games are able to so realistically create a world that feels like more than just linear corridors and static AI.  The areas in Last Light are very linear, but every detail of each environment feels perfectly in place and all of them are dripping with small touches that sell the atmosphere.  Towns are particularly fun to walk through, noticing all the different shops and people going about their (scripted, but still fascinating) business.  Last Light is a technically impressive game (on the PC, at least), with an absurd level of detail and some intense graphical effects, such as the rain and wind that blow you around when on the surface and some creative eerie moments with shadowy spirits reminiscent of those sections found in the first game.   Its setpieces may not be pretty by nature, due to the rundown nature of the world, but they are technically impressive.  There are a few occasional moments that are questionable immersion-wise, particularly when I saw an ad for the next book in the series the game is based on in one of the outposts, but Last Light is otherwise extremely well-crafted.

At its core, Metro: Last Light plays like your average first-person shooter.  Metro 2033 was a bit rough to control, with weapons that felt like they couldn’t hit anything they aimed at.  Thankfully, this has been cleared up for Last Light; if you’ve played a Call of Duty game (or any of its several derivatives), you know how the overall shooting will feel here.  I’m not saying that the action is run-and-gun, but the basic gameplay now controls well enough that you have a more realistic chance against a group of enemies, if said situation arises–and it will.  Sadly, boss fights are one of the things that have been added to the game, and, as you might expect, they are quite awful.  I’m of the mind that first-person shooters shouldn’t have boss fights at all, because they are often the worst parts of the game, due to their tendency to devolve into a very simplistic pattern or pumping an absurd amount of ammo into a weak point.  I’m sad to say that this is the case with Metro: Last Light.  They are infrequent enough and easy enough to dispatch that it doesn’t hurt the experience too much.  Be prepared to be a little annoyed by these fights, though, especially if on a harder difficulty.

Where Metro games are truly unique, however, is in the mechanics they add to the gameplay, further adding to the immersion of just how rundown the world you are in is.  Your flashlight needs to be charged constantly by pumping the triggers (or mouse buttons) or it goes dead, maybe at the worst possible time.  Any time you venture onto the surface, you have to wear a gas mask and manage filter time carefully or suffocate in the toxic air.  If you get hit while wearing a gas mask, it will crack and obscure your view; blood and water will also splatter across the mask, forcing you to hit a button to wipe it off in order to see the next enemy coming.  Some of the weapons even require a pneumatic pumping before they can be used, with higher pressure making the shots more powerful in return.  No other shooter has so many systems like these and refuses to compromise on immersion for smoother gameplay.  Managing all these tasks can be frantic at times, but it adds a huge deal of enjoyment to the whole experience.  Running out of flashlight juice in a dark Metro tunnel or hearing that beeping telling me my filter was almost empty always made my heart pound frantically.  You must constantly scrounge for more filters and ammo or risk running out and being screwed.  Well, that is how you would expect it to be, at least.  On Normal difficulty, which is what I played on, supplies were never really an issue.  There is an abundance of everything as long as you poke around just a little bit.  It was a little disappointing, because it made me wonder how the denizens of the Metro had any trouble with so much stuff just lying around.  If you want to raise the immersion bar, I highly recommend playing on a higher difficulty to decrease the available supplies.  It most likely makes the experience fit the tone of the world better.

Of course, you don’t have to shoot baddies; in fact, stealth is a better option in several areas of the game–pretty much any time you are facing human enemies instead of mutants (which can’t really be snuck up on).  Metro 2033 made stealth a bit too difficult, with guards that seemed psychically connected to one another and could hear noises from long distances.  Last Light is much more forgivable in this respect.  You now have a light on your watch that tells you exactly when you are visible or hidden instead of making it seem like random chance.  Throwing knives have been added, a completely silent option for taking out guards that can also be reclaimed from the bodies of those you’ve slain for an endless supply.  I had a blast with these stealth sections, using my knives or silenced pistol to clear a path through an area with no alarms whatsoever.  The immersion breaks a little here, though, as there is a very clear path through each area to avoid all conflict, obviously designed by the developer just so.  Also, the changes to the stealth probably made it too easy to sneak through every camp.  Guards are pretty stupid, not even noticing when you are practically on top of them as long as you are “hidden” in shadow.  They also tend to forget about you fairly quickly.  It definitely takes the error out of the trial-and-error: this makes it a simpler, sillier game but also makes it much more enjoyable.

In a world filled with very similar first-person shooting experiences, the Metro series is a breath of fresh air.  The developer did make some compromises in the transition to a second game, but they were all made with the intent to make the game more enjoyable for the masses.  Another developer may have compromised a little too much, removing what made the experience unique; 4A managed to find a perfect balance between unflinching immersion and actual player enjoyment.  The world is expertly crafted to feel like a real place, a place that you may want to visit but certainly wouldn’t want to live in.  I noticed immersion breaks quite often, but I feel that it was only because the world is so good at pulling me in; that realism made every little break stand out that much more.  It’s also unfortunate that the voice acting is still a little iffy, ruining some of the impact of the memorable story moments, but it is forgivable for a smaller studio, especially one that hit the mark in so many other ways.  These mistakes hold the game back from being the best experience it could be; however, it is still stands out as a singular gaming experience.  While Metro 2033 is still probably a more memorable game for me, I think Metro: Last Light is just as impressive.  It stands as a lesson to other developers in how to sink players into a created world and make them feel like it really exists.

P.S.  I really suggest that anyone wanting full immersion with Last Light play it on a harder difficulty, or even one of the Ranger difficulties.  This will lower the supplies to a much more realistic level and makes the experience even more accurate to life in the Metro.