Developer: 4A Games
Publisher: Deep Silver
The terror's still here. Whether you're down to your last bullet against monstrous hordes of mutants, breathlessly sprinting through choking radiation to find a gas mask filter or seized by delusional hallucinations, Metro: Last Light has lost none of the atmosphere that made the original sleeper hit so compelling. But this time, you won't have to fight against its rougher edges.
If Metro 2033 was a rough diamond, Metro: Last Light is all about polishing up the experience to a mirror shine, and fixing some of the things that were flat-out broken. Stealth, for example, has been overhauled - and actually seems to work properly now. The 4A Engine is ready to deliver some surprisingly gorgeous eye candy, especially on PC. A slick new interface puts quirks like wiping your gas mask and drawing your lighter at your fingertips rather than obfuscating at every opportunity. Metro is still an intimidating beast, but dare I say it, may be better for a little more accessibility.
4A survived the fall of THQ relatively unharmed, and now under Deep Silver management, were keen to loose us journalists on a playable preview build. From my seventy minutes of uninterrupted play, it's clear that they're trying to flesh out a cult classic into a serious contender capable of taking on the AAA titans. And they're succeeding.
I daresay that some of you will be keen to know about the premise and setting, so let's get the spoilers out the way with early. From what I can tell, Last Light picks up from 2033's 'Ranger Ending,' which results in Artyom exterminating the enigmatic Dark Ones and discovering the D6 complex. Hailed as a hero yet sick to his stomach, our protagonist is wracked with guilt and a nagging feeling that his actions might have been a huge mistake. Totalitarian forces such as the communist Red Line are readying full-scale war to secure the D6 bunker, while a single living Dark One might provide Artyom with one last shot at redemption. It's suitably grim and morally complex setup, penned specifically for the game by author Dmitry Glukhovsky rather than drawn from an existing novel.
From here on out, I'll try to keep details about character and plot to a minimum, though note that minor spoilers will be unavoidable.
The preview build opened with Artyom and Red Line defector Pavel preparing to make a jaunt up to the surface, with the nearest safe Metro station several kilometers away over open ground. You'll still have to scavenge for supplies, with every military-grade bullet acting as currency as well as ammunition, and every decaying gas mask filter giving you a few more seconds of clean air. The total isolation of the destroyed cityscape is frequently broken my maruading packs of watchers and winged demons, pushing your makeshift weapons to the limit. At one point, upon proceeding to the cockpit of a downed airliner, Artyom experiences vivid hallucinations of the doomed flight, watching the pilots desperately trying to keep the plane in the air as nuclear missiles turn the horizon into gouts of flame.
So far, so very Metro.
4A Games have attempted to keep Metro's action as authentic as possible, even down to having to wipe the grime off your gas mask faceplate at regular intervals, but with an eye to making the experience much more intuitive. Accessible menus (accessed by holding down the left bumper or Y) now make switching between weapons and ammunition types much easier, and hopefully will stop us accidentally wasting our precious clean rounds. Your lighter, so useful for illuminating tight quarters or burning away spider webs, can be hefted alongside a weapon or your journal, which displays a handy direction marker on its compass. Pumping up pneumatic weapons and charging you torch all requires manual labour on your part, but again, there's less faffing with the controls and more frantic pumping this time around.
Metro stations provide the only safety in Glukhovsky's post-apolcapyse, and a perfect opportunity to explore how humanity would adapt and survive in these untenable conditions. Making my way to the Bolshoi theatre station revealed a bastion of civilization built around a pathetic parody of the former world-class dance troupe, to which civilians flock for a shred of levity amidst the hopelessness. Children grow up knowing only Watchers and Demons, never having seen birds or visited a zoo, while once-feared critics beg for bullets in the gutter (a subtle dig, perhaps?). A vibrant bazaar lets players barter for ammunition or purchase new weapon upgrades, all of which is much more comprehensively explained than the slightly obtuse original. The environments have been packed with detail, from interactive scenery elements like pianos and mandolins to subtle Easter eggs, and an enormous amount of optional dialogue to flesh out the plight of refugees. Though relatively safe, these sections will give players real insight into the everyday hardships faced by the Metro dwellers.
Every safe haven will be short-lived, however, and Artyom soon found himself escaping from Red Line captivity. After a harrowing crawl through a warren of air ducts, players emerge into a series of large hangars and courtyards bristling with armed guards and technicians. Though big guns and quick trigger fingers might well work on the lower difficulties, stealth has been significantly beefed up, and provides a viable gameplay style. Sticking to the shadows (a relatively easy job since Artyom's watch contains an accurate light level metre) allows you to sneak past soldiers undetected, silently subdue or kill them, or brutalise them with throwing knives. The multi-level hangars provided numerous opportunities for clever environmental chicanery, such as finding junction boxes to disable the lights or sneaking through recessed tunnels under the tarmac. With gunplay and stealth both equally useful, replay value should be fairly substantial. If you're interested, 4A have suggested an 8-10 hour runtime on default difficulty settings.
The Railcar will also make a welcome return, allowing players to explore the tracks at greater speed while safe from the light-fearing arachnid critters. Despite being bound to the rails, players can dismount at any time, free to explore some beckoning dark doorways that promise extra ammo and air filters. Exploring these dismal oubliettes before desperately sprinting back to the relative safety of the railcar provides an exhilarating change of pace, as will facing off against bandits holding refugees hostage. Will you hop out and quietly take them down, or drive straight in using the Railcar as a makeshift battering ram?
It's often pointless to talk about graphics when discussing preview builds, but since 4A promised that the PC version will offer "truly next-gen visuals," we were keen to put their boast to the test. Impressively, they might actually be right. Metro: Last Light takes advantage of practically every DX11 bell and whistle (Tesselation? Multithreading? No problem!), as evidenced by a robust options menu and the game itself. Even before optimisation, the bespoke 4A Engine delivers high-resolution textures and smooth animations, though lip-sync and facial animations sometimes left a little to be desired. The dynamic lighting is some of the best I've seen, with a shadow puppet theatre being as useful a demonstration as the dark corners in which you'll aim to secrete yourself.
Though the console versions will probably look fairly sharp (and our test rigs were top-flight flame gouting beasts, naturally), the PC will probably deliver the definitive edition. As, I hasten to add, is so often the case these days. Here's hoping that it won't need as many patches as Metro 2033, mind.
Many Metro 2033 veterans will be keen to cut their teeth on Last Light's Ranger Mode, which makes the game much more difficult, but also gives players more money to spend on the stealthiest gear from the get-go. Unfortunately, this optional difficulty setting will only be available as a pre-order exclusive, or included with the first print run as a DLC code. It's a shame that this fan-requested feature isn't a standard part of the game - can you imagine paying out for Fallout: New Vegas' hardcore mode? - but the harder difficulties will still be extremely tough according to a nearby rep.
We still don't know whether Metro: Last Light can sustain its atmosphere for another ten hours, or if we'll be left alone long enough for true fear to set in. The story remains a wild card, divorced from the novels, while Ranger Mode's DLC status will likely aggravate any number of players. But, at least from what I was able to play, Last Light is going to instil that same sense of despair and panic, while giving you just enough hope to let the next betrayal and setback sting all that much more. Here's hoping that it doesn't go off the rails.