I picked up Metro 2033 in one bundle or another, and it was a surprise hit for me. The stealth mechanics were admittedly wonky, but everything else clicked, from the secret morality system governing the endings, the vintage weaponry being decayed and purposefully clunky in deference to the post-apocalyptic setting, and the way in which the already tense, claustrophobic journey through the Russian Metro tunnels captured the realistic feel of having to perform mid-combat maintenance on malfunctioning gear–cranking a portable generator to keep your flashlight alive, increasing the hydraulic pressure in some of your weapons, and changing the filter in your gas mask (lest you suffocate). It wasn’t just a first-person shooter; it was, at times, a genuine survival horror game, especially at the highest difficulties, with players forced to agonize over every bullet–better to use them as currency or as higher-grade ammunition?
To that end, I was reasonably excited by the sequel, Metro: Last Light, but ultimately sort of disappointed, too. The graphics had been updated (giving you a reason to wipe dirt and blood off your gas mask), but nothing else had really changed. Well, there was now a blue light strapped to your wrist/HUD that indicated whether you could be seen or not, and that helped to smooth over the stealth sections, but the rest played out like the first installment. Also, the gating was far more noticeable–your character would occasionally be forced to move very slowly, or get trapped in a room, all so that the story might be spelled out–and some of the big besieged firefights, particularly the finale’s, felt as if they were at odds with the otherwise stealth-oriented action. It was clever of the design team to craft a game that could be played as a pure FPS, if you wanted to sacrifice the good ending, but unfortunate that weird bottleneck boss fights couldn’t be resolved or completed without getting all gun(g)-ho about it.
I guess it boils down to this: there are good obstacles and bad obstacles in game design. Good obstacles are ones that give you agency and, as with Deus Ex, allow you to come up with various approaches to them. Along the same lines, obstacles that are incorporated into the gameplay itself work well, whether that’s a shaky trigger arm (as in The Last of Us) or the aforementioned survival mechanisms (generator, filters, etc.) that cut into Metro: Last Light. Bad obstacles, however, and this goes back to Half Life, are ones that either force you to play the game in a specific way or interrupt it in order to make sure that you don’t miss out on the sights, sounds, and story of the game. No matter how sincere or plausible some of these scenarios are–being held in quarantine, wading cautiously through a Neo-Nazi rally, encountering a gang of refugees on the tracks–it’s frustrating to not be able to move on. Better to compromise: if you’re going to get stuck on an elevator (or railcar), you should be able to shine your flashlight into the darkness and shoot down approaching enemies at the same time. And it’s not as if the developers didn’t realize this: there are plenty of small side quests and story-enhancing side conversations you can partake in as you move through some of the palate cleansing “safe” zones–if you want to bypass them, you can. But when the game ties achievements to watching a five-minute theatrical presentation, it’s trying too hard to immerse you in the world, to the extent that it actually pulls you out. (Are we there yet? isn’t what you want a gamer to be thinking.)
Mind you, the good far outweighs the bad in Metro: Last Light, and this pet peeve of mine is in no way specific to (or born from) the Metro games. (The most egregious example, actually, is probably the Gears of War trilogy.) It’s more of a credit to how much I fell for these chilling tunnels that I couldn’t wait to dive back into them. After all, as we all know, nothing should stand between a gamer and the actual game–not unless it’s absolutely necessary.