E3 2011: Metro Last Light First Impressions

We head back under Moscow in our first look at the sequel to Metro 2033.

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Though it's not titled Metro 2034, as was originally rumoured, Metro Last Light is still a direct sequel to 2033, the grim, postapocalyptic, Russia-set shooter. In the wake of devastating nuclear war, Moscow's survivors still huddle belowground in the city's hardy metro network. The plot is original, rather than based on further works of Dmitry A. Glukhovsky, whose novel the first game was based on, but we're told Glukhovsky worked with 4A Games, the Ukrainian studio behind both games, to shape this story. The demo we saw is a vertical slice packaged to show off punchy, linear action rather than exploration or horror, and begins with a long cinematic pan across the ruined cityscape, taking in a crumbling cathedral, a rusted aeroplane, and winged mutants. "The ice has begun to melt," intones the narrator. "War still rages throughout the metro."

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Then we're belowground with our protagonist, Artyom, the hero of the previous game, and a buddy. They are infiltrating the subterranean base of the Reich, one of the metro's fascist factions. As they slink through the outer guard posts, quietly putting down guards with bullets to the back of the head, twitchy, oversized spiders crawl about in webs covering the tunnel walls and casting eerie shadows.

The lighting is especially spiffy, powered again by the developer's 4A engine, with electric lamps throwing off pretty flare effects. To show off the interactive scenery and dynamic lighting, our demonstrator, concealed by shadows, pings a few bullets into a pot simmering over a nearby campfire. Water spills out and into the flames, which flicker and spread convincingly. And by disturbing the fire, he draws the attention of a guard, who comes over to investigate and gets shot for his trouble. The demo is designed to showcase player choice in approaching situations such as this Reich base infiltration--the choice here being to stealth through or charge in with all guns blazing.

All guns are blazing soon enough, though, as the duo's cover is blown. The demonstrator picks up a hulking Gatling gun--intricately modelled, like all the weapons we see, with a painstakingly detailed reload animation--and rips into the Reich's tatty shalters. As the Reich troops return fire, cover shatters and crumbles alarmingly fast, underlining Last Light's destructible cover, more extensively smashable than that of the first game. In this early version of the game's code, a pre-alpha build, there's no HUD at all, with necessary information, such as there is, indicated on the protagonist's wristwatch.

Having raised the alarm, our protagonist and his partner flee up an escalator, straight into a Reich rally. Here they do their best to blend in, wandering through the (underobservant) crowd towards the speaker's podium. This social stealth isn't effective for long, though, and soon the pair are running once more, sprinting through the civilian quarter, through alleys, and across scaffolding walkways.

The demo builds to a minecart-chase-style sequence--that is, a spot of on-rails shooting enlivened with a grenade launcher--and a corridor shooting sequence through a train carriage with a shotgun. Both look like explosive good fun, though we'd have liked to see some non-human baddies and exploration elements. It's a prepackaged demo, meant to show off linear action, and it does--but we're assured the action focus here doesn't mean survival horror has fallen by the wayside.

Huw Beynon, THQ head of communications, says 4A Games came to Last Light determined to "resist temptation to Westernise, simplify, to tap into the mass market" and said that this Metro 2034 follow-up is still "Eastern European in [its] every fibre." That meant, he said, a drive to preserve the mechanics that made the original something of a cult hit, while repairing the defects that kept it from winning wider popularity. So frosting masks and flickering flashlights are in, along with more station cities to visit and the return of a super hardcore mode, just for the masochists, but creaky core mechanics are out--meaning slicker shooting and no more underpowered weapons.

Hit animations are snazzier, too, as we see in the demo, with better visual feedback as to when and where hits land. A new armour plating system also means that you can shoot off individual elements of an enemy's armour (a helmet, for instance, or a plate of body armour). Shonky artificial intelligence is gone as well, claims Beynon, with more complex and consistent computer-controlled enemies to contend with. It all sounds promising; publisher THQ considers Metro 2034 a "flawed masterpiece" and is saying the right things about producing a slicker, flaw-free sequel. When it's ready to show us more, we'll be here and waiting.

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