Did you play Metro 2033? You really should have. A mish-mash of post-apocalyptic survival horror, stealth and action, based on the novel of the same name by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky, it was utterly beguiling. Sure, some of it was broken, but it had a sense of place and a character all of its own.
Much of this was down to the world that Ukrainian developers 4A Games crafted from Glukhovsky’s text. Metro 2033 was set in Moscow’s gloomy underground rail system, where survivors were forced to live following a nuclear disaster. Beneath the ground, each station had become its own makeshft community, full of paranoia, politics and fear. Meanwhile, in the connecting tunnels and the city above, savage mutants roamed, ready to pounce on anyone brave or stupid enough to leave the ragged, candlelit stations.
What could have been just another post-apocalyptic shooter had an utterly unique feel. It’s just a shame that the shooting was wonky, the stealth didn’t always work and bits of the mission design were infuriating.
Which brings us to the newly-announced sequel, Metro: Last Light. 4A have proved they can create a compelling world filled with atmosphere and tension. But can they correct their previous game’s mechanical shortcomings? It’s far too early to say, but the initial signs are promising.
Some housekeeping first. Last Light is not, as some have previously suggested, based on Glukhovsky’s novel Metro 2034. That was a far more arty affair than its predecessor and didn’t lend itself well to videogame adaptation. So instead, with a little creative guidance from Glukhovsky, 4A are now going their own way.
An introductory cinematic begins with the camera tracking down from grey, leaden skies to the ornate golden spire of a cathedral. “The ice has begun to melt,” says the voiceover, suggesting that the wasteland of Moscow is becoming more hospitable. But it’s much the same as before. As the camera continues to move down, the cathedral becomes increasingly ragged, with crumbling stone and diseased concrete leading to streets littered with cars and debris. A winged beast, familiar to fans of the first game, flaps into view.
Little has changed below ground, either. The demo begins with returning protagonist Artyom in a dark tunnel. Menacing Russian voices echo in the distance. Artyom flicks on his Zippo lighter to get his bearings and a large cobweb catches alight, its strands curling and melting realistically, flame erupting in a little puff. As it settles, he moves toward a lightbulb and quietly unscrews it. Darkness and stealth still play a major role.
Creeping out from cover and up behind the source of those distant voices, Artyom pulls a machete from its sheath and slits the throat of one man - in a surprisingly quick, brutal fashion - before taking out the next with a quick headshot. Stopping quickly to grab some bullets from a messy corpse, he pushes on through the tunnels.
The next section offers a tiny glimpse of one of the more open levels promised for Last Light. Responding to fan feedback praising areas like Black Station from the first game, 4A are looking to increase the focus on sections that offer a choice of multiple routes and strategies to progress.
Beyond larger, more complex geography, what that broadly means is a choice of stealth or balls-out blasting. Which is the same as before, of course. Only this time there’s a little more nuance. So for example, at one point Artyom shoots a boiling pot bubbling away above a fire. As the water splashes down, fizzling on the embers, a nearby guardsman approaches to investigate the noise, allowing our hero to kill him out of earshot of everyone else.
Now, whether the combat will truly provide such depth remains to be seen. The game is still in an early pre-alpha build. But 4A’s intention is to create more moments like this. If they can, the results will be very special indeed.
Elsewhere, the demo was perhaps uncharacteristically action-orientated, built to survive the rigours of E3. The thinking is that a moodier, subtler sample of the game would simply have been swallowed in the bombast of a trade show. As a result, that brief stealth section quickly gives way to plenty of gunplay, as Artyom blasts through a station outpost, with bodies, bullets and masonry flying this way and that.
Later, a long, (literally) on-rails section bears witness to an extended shoot-out as Artyom swaps between a seemingly endless selection of weaponry, from red dot-sighted assault rifles, to crank-action machine guns, as trains charge through the tunnels. It’s all very exciting, but its the quieter, moodier sections we were keen to see. We’re promised more of that in the future.
Throughout the demo, there was an intriguing level of environmental destruction. Concrete cover blew out to reveal bare iron reinforcements and cardboard boxes caught light as flames spread through rooms. A chat with someone from 4A failed to clarify whether this is scripted or procedural, but either way it does imbue the world of Last Light with a satisfying physicality. It looks fantastic.
As does much of the rest of the demo. In terms of lighting it’s hard to think of anything that matches 4A’s proprietary game engine. Lights cast long shadows across the subterranean gloom of the underground. Candlelight silhouettes dance on the walls. Even more impressively, we’re assured that the demo was running on a “modest” PC set-up and that only very few of the flashy effects will have to be cut for consoles. It’s a tantalising promise.
Yet still, many questions hang over Metro: Last Light. Questions that can’t be answered with a short hands-off demo. Will that loose, unsatisfying gunplay be improved? Will you truly be able to stealth your way through the game, or will it be easier to just blast through it as in Metro 2033? Will the mission design be sorted out, with less of those horrible escort missions? Time will tell. But the prospect of descending once more into 4A and Glukhovsky’s world is an exciting one.
Metro: Last Light will be coming to PlayStation 3 in 2012.