Developers 4A Games call Metro 2033 their “flawed masterpiece.” You can see what they’re getting at. Adapted from a novel by Dmitry Glukhovsky, their 2010 debut offered a memorable world that dripped with atmosphere, yet also provided unsatisfying gunplay and some frustrating mission design.
It’s those problems that 4A are looking to rectify with the sequel, Metro: Last Light, due next year. If they can get it right, we may be in store for something very special indeed.
A recap for the uninitiated. The Metro games are set in a near future Moscow ravaged by a nuclear disaster. Forced beneath the ground, thousands of survivors now populate the city’s subterranean rail network. Each station has become a kind of ramshackle town, filled with desperate inhabitants. Meanwhile, the connecting tunnels and the city above teem with grizzly mutants.
The narrative specifics of Metro: Last Light remain scarce, but we do know we’ll be returning once more to the boots of Artyom, as the struggle between the Metro’s right-wing Reich and the Communist Reds threatens to escalate into a full-scale civil war. So dust off that gasmask, ‘cos we’re going back underground.
One of the biggest problems with Metro 2033 was the stealth mechanic. While creeping around in the murk shooting out lightbulbs was brilliantly atmospheric, it was also a little confusing. It was never clear as to when you were supposed to be doing what. Levels that seemed to be encouraging stealthy play would actually punish you for doing so, while going in all guns blazing was always a difficult choice because of the scarcity of ammunition. It was bloody annoying.
Metro: Last Light looks to address that issue. Responding to fan feedback from the first game, 4A are crafting more areas that provide scope for multiple routes and tactics. That means an increased focus on larger, more open level design. There is no one answer. Instead it’s open to interpretation and personal play style.
For example, at one point in the demo shown off by 4A recently, Artyom finds himself in the shadows of another threatening underground station. But rather than announce his arrival with gunfire, he chooses to lure a soldier towards him with a neat little trick.
Using a suppressed pistol he shoots a bubbling pot of water suspended over a small fire. As the water splashes down and fizzes noisily on the embers, a nearby soldier comes to investigate. This allows Artyom to sneak around and execute him with one of the most gruesome stealth kills you’re likely to see, a brutal throat slash that downs the soldier instantly.
It’s brilliantly inventive, yet all the more disappointing that the rest of the level quickly descends into a full-scale firefight, with Artyom shooting his way through the dimly lit camp. An entirely stealthy approach to the level is possible say 4A, but they chose the more explosive route so that the demo would survive E3, where it’s due to be shown next week. Huge noisy trade fairs are hardly the place for subtlety, goes the thinking.
Yet it’s a shame, because all-out action isn’t necessarily what people are looking for in a Metro game. It’s a problem that’s compounded by a long section in which Artyom charges along the underground on a rail cart. Swapping between a seemingly endless selection of ramshackle weaponry, mixed with some more modern guns like red dot-sighted assault rifles, he sees off the threat of train-bound attackers on a parallel line in a flurry of bullets and bodies.
It’s not dull, by any means, but it’s arguably unrepresentative of 4A’s vision of the finished product. The developers claim that they have resisted the urge to “turn everything up to 11,” but much of what we saw seems at odds with that statement. Hopefully Metro: Last Light will find the balance between brute force and finesse that this demo lacked.
However, don’t be disheartened. Elsewhere, there are some truly wonderful incidental effects made possible by 4A’s proprietary game engine. Cloth billows realistically in the wind. Spider webs disintegrate in a puff of flame when Artyom flicks his Zippo. Small fires erupt as cardboard boxes catch light in the midst of gun battles, spreading to nearby materials. Light dances beautifully around the environments.
It’s safe to say that not many of Metro: Last Light’s competitors can achieve such intricate visual feats. Graphically, Last Light is up there with the very, very best.
So you could say we’re intrigued to see more. Beyond assurances by the developer, we’re yet to be convinced that the problems of the first game will be dispelled. That will only come with the opportunity to actually play the game. But we’re hopeful. Still only at the pre-Alpha stage of development, there’s a lot to come from Metro: Last Light.
Fingers crossed that 4A can fulfill their promise and deliver a masterpiece without the flaws.