This article first appeared in issue 242 of PC Gamer UK. Written by Matt Lees.
No one expects Russian mutants to be gorgeous all the time, but it's nice to see them make an effort now and then. Ukrainian developers 4A Games seem well aware of Metro 2033's shortcomings, and first on the list is getting things dolled up. Skulking through the underground tunnels shows off the improvements to a degree, but it's the outside world that impresses the most.
As the smoggy black ash clouds begin to clear from the city, the next stages of nuclear fallout kick in. Thick-cut lightning appears intent on cutting the sky in two as rain starts to fall, obscuring the main character Artyom's visor.
As Artyom pushes through crunched-concrete streets, his travelling companion tells him to keep his head down. Around fifty mutated rat-like creatures bound across the crumbled vista ahead, appearing equally shaken-up by the storms. Metro: Last Light's flair for cinematic moments scoffs at the efforts of the slightly wonky Metro 2033, but this upgrade comes with a shift in tone that won't please everyone.
The regular presence of a follow-me-buddy and an emphasis on building drama through scripted moments reminds me an awful lot of games like Call of Duty. If you were holding out for something more like Stalker, switch your eyebrows into frownmode now.
One of the first scripted moments I spot makes me jump: a giant, horrible rat-like thing leaps out of the shadows, showing a mouth full of sharp teeth that hint towards sour intentions. Pinned to the ground and away from his buddy, Artyom forces the barrel of his shotgun beneath what appears to be the beast's chin, relocating key parts of its brain into a brand new drippy red spot on the ceiling. I'm happy to invite more moments like this, but other scripted sections don't nail the tone.
A supernatural sequence on a wrecked airplane had great intentions, but fell a bit flat. Flashing images of the plane's passengers just before the crash felt like home-brand horror, and a longer sequence showing the reactions of the pilots as they flew towards a freshly-grown mushroom cloud somehow misspells shock as schlock. It reminded me of the iconic nuke scene from Call of Duty 4, but the comparison wasn't wholly kind.
The depictions of pre-disaster civilians in the game feel wooden when compared with excellently silly antics with neo-Nazis and monsters. Hopefully these sequences won't take the limelight.
I'll need to withhold judgement until I get a chance to play the game for myself, but THQ's Huw Beynon insists that the mainstream-facing stuff won't detract from what made the last game fantastic: “Dumbing down is when you strip all of that stuff out and say 'let's keep it simple',” explains Beynon. “What we want to do instead is to introduce these mechanics better, and weave them into the narrative more… let players get comfortable with ideas one at a time, and they'll gradually realise a wealth of new options.”
If linear jollies aren't a total turn-off, this one still looks set to be a treat. Most of Metro 2033's esoteric features will also play a part in Last Light, which means winding up an electric torch, frantically hunting down fresh oxygen canisters and manually wiping your mask's visor clean. An excess build-up of water, blood, or indeterminate mutant-juice can severely damage your ability to shoot things.
And trust me, you're going to want to shoot things. Using bullets to kill things in the last game felt a bit like to trying to knock someone out with half a Battenberg. It's a criticism the developers have taken note of, and the gunplay this time around seems more substantial. One fight sees Artyom squaring up against a giant bat-bastard, which insists on grabbing him with both claws before dropping him again from an unhealthy height.
A few high-calibre rifle rounds make light work of the beast, putting an end to the encounter. The raucous exchange attracts even more attention, though, forcing Artyom and pals to make a dash for the subway.
Making a last stand at the bottom of the escalator, both rangers run out of Molotov cocktails as giant rat-creatures continue to arrive. A chunky sub-machinegun chews through the mutants, but looks set to be useless once the ammo runs out. An incendiary-flavoured rescue arrives just as things are looking truly desperate, and two flamethrower-wielding rangers open the doors to give the vile creatures a blast.
Last Light's blasted, wrecked world looks surprisingly beautiful, and I'm fascinated to see just how well it handles. I'm also faintly worried that 4A Games might have fluffed up the balance between freedom and scripting, but Beynon is making reassuring noises that it'll be something more than a corridor shooter with added radiation. “People like complexity, and gamers aren't stupid,” he says.
Last Light could shape up to be the sexiest apocalypse in 2013.