Back in 2011, developer 4A Games unveiled the first public footage of its apocalyptic first-person shooter Metro: Last Light. Bulging with set pieces and boasting a body count that stretched well into the 50s, the ten-minute reel failed to champion any of Metro 2033′s real glories bar, perhaps, its knack for thawing computer intestines.
2033 was a melancholic trip through a rigorously realised post-apocalyptic Moscow that nursed a thick pall of horror and stressed savvy survival skills over tales of derring-do, and while it certainly didn’t skimp on the shootouts, it managed to balance its carnage with moments of pure atmosphere. The footage of Metro: Last Light shown at E3 was of a bombastic first-person shooter starring a badass with a minigun and a few too many memories of 80s action movies in mind.
The missive was clear: we’ve fixed the shooting. The fan response clearer still: where’s my Metro?
“For those of you familiar with the first game you’ll understand when I say that Metro is a multi-faceted beast,” THQ’s Huw Beynon reminds us before we’ve even caught glimpse of Last Light in action. “I guess by genre definition we’re a first-person shooter, but we think we mix a lot of different gameplay styles and trying to encapsulate that in the E3 ten-minute demo constraint has proven quite difficult.”
The good news is Metro: Last Light seems very much a multi-faceted beast, at least no less so than Metro 2033. During our presentation, we’re taken on a lengthy tour of Last Light’s mournful metros followed by a brief trip out into the decadent skeletal remains of Moscow itself. Between the two areas we get a decent feel for how those gameplay styles differ and, while 4A aren’t looking to distance themselves from the early footage shown (linear and scripted aren’t dirty words, says Beynon, they’re part of the experience), they’re keen to shine light on the more cerebral side of Last Light.
And so we begin, not in the symbolic, tumbledown metros that have doubled over as surrogate homes for the weary survivors of the nuclear apocalypse, but in a factory lost somewhere beneath Moscow. This is bad guy territory, but it’s also an exercise in world-building says Beynon. “We don’t have these arbitrary, abstract corridors you’re funnelled down to take out whatever enemies are aligned, armed and ready for your arrival. Instead we try to create these believable spaces.”
The effect is immediate. The soldiers here have found a way to cultivate plants. They smoke cigarettes and trade stories not all of which come with a side-order of doom and gloom. Luxury is far too strong a word, but throughout the playthrough we see the slightest, seediest comforts creeping back into the metros. Unfortunately for the soldiers stationed here, seedy comforts aren’t the only thing creeping into their cold world.
Enter Artyom, star of Metro 2033, mute and murderer-extraordinaire.. Artyom’s here on a rescue op, we’re told. Russian nationalists have captured our friend Pavel and we’re jolly well not having that; good friends are hard come by in this cutthroat world. So Artyom sets about compartmentalising guard routes, using the walkways that crisscross above the factory floor to catch enemies unaware and their frequent forays into the shadows as a cue to squeeze the jerry-built trigger of his svelte silenced pistol. You learn quickly that enemies have a knack for ignoring things that have been wrapped in shadows, including Artyom himself.
Suffice to say the stealth system has been overhauled; now anchored in an impressive dynamic lighting system. Throughout this section of the presentation Artyom makes frequent use of fuse boxes peppered throughout the tunnels to douse lights and interrupt guard routines. Lights that aren’t extinguished can be unscrewed or, for those of a less frugal bent, simply shot. A wristwatch indicator informs you if you’re at risk of being spotted, but as long as you stick to the shadows and nearby enemies aren’t on high alert you can’t be rumbled. As you might imagine, it can get a touch silly – at one point during the presentation Artyom was crouched within tickling distance of a bandit who failed to notice the wide-eyed murderer hovering nearby – but realism isn’t necessarily much fun, a truth many Metro veterans will attest to.
In the next area, Artyom utilises a narrow waterway carved through the factory floor to bypass a pack of guards. He kills the fusebox and profits from the ensuing commotion by quietly assassinating the baddies. No Call of Duty-hued shootouts yet, then, but Beynon says the emphasis is firmly on choice. We could have rampaged through guns blazing.
This time round we stick to the shadows and after one last knife-to-the-throat we take leave of the concrete killing fields and leap forward in time to Venice, one of Last Light’s less savoury metro stations. “We’ve tried to bring a lot more freshness and colour into the world both indoors and outdoors” Beynon muses as we’re smacked by a wall of noise. Marketers roar proposals from behind decorated stalls while countless unintelligible conversations collide to forge a background wall of chatter that reverberates throughout the makeshift settlement. Elsewhere, music spills from an alleyway, signs point to a sex shop and overgrown spiders are kept as pets in a terrarium. While the citizens of Last Light’s metros have yet to string up the party lights and crack open the champagne, they’re certainly keen to do more than sit and wait for death’s cold clutch.
“We try to give you an impression of how people are actually living underground to put this world into some kind of context,” Beynon remarks as Artyom partakes in a cobbled rendition of Whack-a-Mole featuring real life rats and a handgun (presumably a rudimentary sport here). “It’s all there just to soak up and get a bigger understanding of the world you’re inhabiting and hopefully put your actions into context.”
Elsewhere in Venice, Artyom procures accessories for his backpack full of guns; extended magazines, stocks and infrared sights among those on offer. These enhancements prove most useful outside of the tunnels where the radiation has had a manifest impact on the wildlife and where combat seems to be more the focus.
With newfangled weaponry bundled into holsters Artyom scrambles clear of the sunless metros and emerges into Moscow-proper. A thick fog gives way to a world bristling with primordial signs that life is staging a comeback; a small patch of green exploding through the blanket of brown; a blue crack in the poisonous plume above. Don’t get too comfortable, though. The broken body of Moscow still scars the horizon and as we stumble down the embankment towards a body we hope holds precious gasmask filters (keeping an eye on how long you spend outside is vital; the threat of asphyxiation in the nuclear-tinged air forever present) a platoon of flies depart from the corpse with full bellies. We’re still in hell, then, there’s just the occasional cruel reminder now that it wasn’t always this way.
Monsters assault Artyom sporadically as he journeys through the more-open Moscow wastes to a ferry, which gives rise to one of few full-bore combat scenes. Gunplay certainly looks meatier, with Metro’s hallmark jury-rigged weapons kicking and thumping with some gusto, and it’s here that the almost-complete lack of a HUD is most keenly felt. Poison spat from one grotesque beastie muddies Artyom’s gas mask, forcing him to manually wipe the muck away – a fleeting moment but one that hammers home the sense it’s your face stuffed into that mask. Combined with the fancy visuals and the ludicrous attention to detail throughout, 4A seem to be doing a grand job of clawing you in.
It’s that obscene dedication to crafting a world that pulses regardless of whether you’re shooting or sneaking or suffocating or just sauntering through a metro that marks Last Light out for me. Beynon promises that all the mechanics from Metro 2033 have made it into Last Light (“In terms of functionality, it’s exactly the same as last time”) and the shooting and stealth in particular look to have been refined. But the star here is still Moscow and its metros filled with monsters and madmen.
“I don’t know if you can see from here”, Beynon remarks at one point during the presentation, eyeballing a figure in the gloom ahead. “But that guy’s smoking a cigarette. The cigarette is dynamically lighting his face.” Huw Beynon is clearly not a man paid by the smile, but even he betrays a modest grin at that. The smoking goon with his dynamically lit face, who so soon after dazzling goes the way of his motionless comrades piled high in the shadows, is just one of so many subtle touches that exemplify the immense detail that has been poured into 4A’s vision of apocalyptic Moscow. And there’s nothing more Metro than that.
This preview was originally published on BeefJack.