In its publisher's own words, Metro: Last Light has been "keeping its head down". We haven't seen much of the Metro 2033 sequel since the middle of last year. But the developers at 4A have been plugging quietly away, focused on making something they call "much more complete and polished" than its rough diamond predecessor, whose atmospheric post-apocalyptic gunshooting was marred by occasional jankiness.
To recap, Metro: Last Light is a direct sequel to 2033, but not one based on Metro 2034, the novel that follows the novel from which the post-apocalyptic shooter was adapted. The book sequel, yet to be translated into English, turns its attention to a new set of characters, while this game continues to follow Artyom, the hero of the last game.
The remains of the population, clumped into warring factions, still shelter from radiation and mutant beasties in Moscow's hardy metro network. Above them, meanwhile, spring is thawing the ice that covered the ruins of the city.
Up on the surface, the sunlight looks grimly pretty on Moscow's heaped concrete ruins and deadly radiation pits. Dashes of greenery break up the landscape of irradiated rubble, through which Artyom treks with an associate, forced into a surface foray by a tunnel collapse. Fancy lighting and a broader colour palette have been the focus for Last Light, say the developers, a claim held up by Last Light's good looks.
Another focus, they say, has been finding a balance of scripted scenes and emergent, serendipitous moments that make the most of Metro's open world, though there's more of the former in this most recent demo, in which Artyom and his buddy explore the shell of a crashed airliner.
In it, the skeletons of its passengers are still in their seats and, as Artyom creeps down the aisle, he's treated to psychic flashes of their screaming final moments. Those build to a full flashback in the cockpit, where Artyom relives the crash itself, with pilots panicking while the plane plummets into the nuclear firestorm that decades ago levelled Moscow: harrowing stuff.
The gritty survival horror feel of the first game persists with a scarcity of crucial supplies. The air above ground is still toxic, and gas mask filters must be scavenged for precious minutes of breathing time. Those minutes are tracked on Artyom's wristwatch, which is ever visible in his first-person perspective. 4A hasn't settled on the game's final HUD, but in this demo there is none at all, leaving only in-world items such as Artyom's watch timer to keep the player informed.
Also, by way of planting the player in Artyom as a physical avatar--instead of a head-height camera with a mounted gun--this game adds a new mechanic in which the gas mask's faceplate must sometimes be wiped to keep it clear. His flashlight, too, must still be maintained, requiring occasional pumping on a hand-charger. In this way Last Light concerns itself with the mundane but vital minutiae of survival, and that realism (check watch, wipe mask, charge lamp) is solid grounding for its horror.
Where our last demo stuck with human enemies, this one turns to the mutated nasties: oversized, fleshy spiders nesting inside a corpse; a giant, winged creature that gets its claws in Artyom and hoists him off the ground; and watchers--man-sized, wolfish rats (or rat-like wolves).
These can be dispatched easily enough when encountered individually, but are terminally bad news in packs. At one point, Artyom is jumped by a lone watcher in a dark room and shears off its ratty face with a shotgun blast. At another point, Artyom and his partner cower out of sight while hordes of the creatures stream across the surface while a dramatic electrical storm sets in.
The demo ends with Artyom lobbing fire grenades at pursuing watchers on the steps of a Metro station, defending the Metro entrance that will take him back to civilisation, or what passes for it in 2034's Moscow.
It's an impressive showing from a game we'd seen so little of for so long, but 4A and publisher THQ are determined, they imply, Last Light will not be rushed and will smooth all the rough edges off the game that came before it. On the first count, time is on their side; Last Light is now pencilled in for release early next year. On the second count, time will tell for sure, since "polish" so much depends on the feel of extended, hands-on play. For now, though, Metro: Last Light is shaping up nicely, with bleak, post-apocalypse atmosphere that can't be beat.