Metro: Last Light preview - we venture deep into 4A Games' gloomy Muscovite shooter

Chris Thursten

This preview originally appeared in issue 248 of PC Gamer UK shortly before THQ's implosion. 4A Games has since been acquired by Koch Media, and though the game's release is still anticipated, no definitive release date has been announced since.

In the tunnels beneath post-nuclear Moscow, there is a town called Theater. Like much of what passes for civilisation in Russian sci-fi author Dmitry Glukhovsky's apocalypse, it's built into the old subway – the metro system for which 4A Games' shooter series is named.

Theater's curving tilework makes it look like it might have had a bit of class, back in the day. The walls could be marble, and although they're streaked with grime they're dazzlingly white by the standards of this rust-and-blood dystopia.

I'm watching one of Metro: Last Light's non-combat sections. The campaign will lead protagonist Artyom through four waystations of this kind, places where the player can trade top-grade ammo for weapons and upgrades, scout out additional plot information, and otherwise absorb 4A's meticulous rendering of the world in the year 2034.

Artyom passes through Theater's kitchens, where a panhandling drama critic bemoans the irrelevance of his profession. Not without reason: this is a world where life is measured in bullets and gasmask filters rather than glasses of Prosecco and those little tubs of ice cream with a wooden spoon in the lid.

High art might have been a casualty of nuclear war, but culture survives. Outside the market, there's an area where an older man performs shadow puppets for an assembled crowd of children. He makes a bird and an elephant, and his audience interprets these as a demon and a nosalis – two of the mutated creatures that prowl Moscow's unsettled tunnels and blasted surface. The sequence is a touching little meditation on what it's like to be born after the end of the world. It also illustrates what 4A's proprietary engine is capable of. Dynamic lighting, audio and physics support everything that 4A are trying to achieve, from wandering around a town packed with refugees to stalking human enemies through the shadows, or engaging in a running battle with a pack of monsters.

A short time later Artyom reaches the theatre itself, where he is joined by Pavel – a returning character from the first game. As they make their way through the crowded auditorium during a burlesque performance, Pavel turns to the player and quips: “well, Stanislavski, you can watch the show if you like.”

A 20th century Russian dramatist is an odd point of reference for a character who makes his living blasting mutated rats the size of ponies, but it's a neat touchstone for Metro: Last Light itself. 4A Games are based in Ukraine. They're part of the Eastern European development ecosystem, and share a measure of its enthusiasm for simulation. Metro isn't concerned with realism in the same way as Arma – once again, rats the size of ponies – but it boasts a naturalistic attention to detail and a vigilant support for the fourth wall. If Call of Duty is a broadway musical, a wide-barrelled cannon loaded with glitter and aimed squarely at the audience's face, then Metro: Last Light is trying to be something smarter, tougher, and more rewarding – Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theatre, perhaps.

“It's this obsessive attention to every minute detail, on each individual thing in the world – the culmination is something that is greater than the sum of its parts,” THQ creative strategist Huw Beynon tells me. “We really want to impress on people playing the game that this isn't a level. It's an environment. A place.”

It's something most apparent when Artyom is facing human opponents. During one mission to escape from an engineering yard patrolled by Reich fascists, idle guards can be seen working out, tending fires, sleeping, singing and talking shop.

Metro: Last Light's stealth system is deep rather than broad, and grounded in realism. Like its predecessor, the game has a very minimal UI, with no crosshair and no artificial assists such as a mini-map or sight cones for patrolling enemies. Instead, you'll rely on the equipment in Artyom's possession: a torch, a lighter, a photosensitive gadget on his watch that glows when he's standing in light to let you know he's in danger of being spotted. Noise is important, too: even the game's hand-pumped pneumatic guns aren't perfectly silent, and will get you detected if you use them in close proximity to an enemy. The more power you pump into them, the louder they hiss – and this isn't just a signal to the player that they can stop cranking the handle. It's a sound, in the world, that a curious guard may respond to.

Throwing knives offer a guaranteed silent kill, as do lethal and non-lethal melee takedowns: but all of these require that you catch your opponent off-guard, and that means traversing the level carefully. Most light sources can be shot out, and electric lamps can be brought down at junction boxes scattered throughout each stage. Doing so will raise suspicion, however. Not only that, but the kind of light matters. Shoot out a lightbulb and you'll plunge an area into darkness with a tinkling of broken glass. Shoot out an oil lamp and you risk starting a fire that will propagate freely on wood and cardboard, not only illuminating the area more but drawing every guard in the vicinity. These, you need to blow out the old fashioned way – unless a distracting blaze is exactly what you're looking for.

Sudden darkness will cause guards to activate headlamps and torches, and these can also be shot out by a sufficiently skilled marksman. Kill a guard wearing a miner's helmet and his light will continue to shine until you disable it, adding an element of risk to each kill and illustrating what a dynamic lighting system can bring to stealthy play.

The AI seems improved from the days of Metro 2033 – I saw guards switch lights back on and respond believably to unusual sounds and the sudden disappearance of colleagues. In open combat, they fell back into a fairly familiar cover-and-flank routine. Without hands-on experimentation I'm unwilling to say outright that Metro 2033's AI problems are a thing of the past, but in two hours of live demonstration I didn't see anyone stare blankly as a colleague received a harpoon to the chest or start running laps around sandbags in the middle of a gunfight, so there's that.

Last Light isn't a dedicated stealth game, and therefore doesn't feature the full mechanical complexity of Hitman or Dishonored – you won't be hiding bodies or hacking turrets or approaching levels from a dozen possible angles. But its focus on simple details – the fact that it lacks typical stealth game accoutrements like maps and a HUD – give it a naturalism that's appealing in its own right. Last Light is more about lots of small, interesting interactions with the world, rather than making and executing grand plans.

Those small interactions are the key to the game's loftier ambitions. Metro 2033's morality system will return with alterations that THQ and 4A aren't yet willing to disclose – indeed, Beynon asks that the press give away as little as possible about the specific ways in which the game will track and respond to the choices that the player makes in the game. Metro 2033 undersold its morality system to the extent that many players had no idea it was there, but Beynon argues that 'gamifying' ethics with clear-cut 'choose your alignment' moments undermine the whole concept.

This also applies to anyone who played through the first game with a guide in order to 'beat' the morality system. “They've missed the point entirely,” Beynon says. “It's almost a hilarious joke. It's like following a recipe without understanding what it is that you're making.”

“The things that take place in the environment should be consistent and believable,” Beynon continues. “As you introduce that, people will think about the way they perceive the game-world that they've been asked to play in. I think we do a really good job of humanising all of the people that you fight against.”

The hope is that by convincing the player of the verisimilitude of the world, the decisions they make will be more genuine – and more meaningful – than those offered by a traditional RPG.

The idea of providing room for more satisfying choices has also informed Metro's weapon system, although in a different way. Where in Metro 2033 the player was limited to three weapons within different categories – sidearms, primary weapons, and secondary special weapons – in Last Light you will be free to mix and match any trio of guns you like. Extensive customisation also frees you to swap out scopes, extended clips, silencers and so on, at the cost of valuable pre-war ammunition that doubles as currency. If you want to tool Artyom out for sniping and stealth, that's up to you: alternatively, you might place your hopes in automatic shotguns and assault rifles.

“You make your choice and you deal with the consequences,” Beynon says. “If you want to, you can play it very safe throughout the game – that's fine, that might be the optimal way to play it. But you might not get to experiment with things that are really fun.”

An extraordinary amount of effort has gone into modelling the weapons themselves. Spent casings clink together dynamically as they tumble from a revolver during a reload, a detail demonstrated to me by slowing game-time down to a fraction of its regular speed. Viewing the game this way, it's also possible to pick out the way a spring pushes each new ball-bearing into the chamber of Artyom's pneumatic rifle between shots, and admire the lever mechanism that pulls the next shell into position on a jury-rigged automatic shotgun. Last Light's makeshift weapons are the brainchild of 4A creative director Andrew 'Prof' Prokhorov, whose background in aeronautical simulation gives him the technical expertise to design new firearms that would actually work.

“There's no gamification of the devices that you have,” Beynon says. “That's a contributing factor – if you want to see how much battery you have in your torch, you have to bring up the charger – a physical thing that sits in your hands. The cumulative effect of that detail builds the sense of the world.”

It's also what makes Last Light a contender as a horror game. During another sequence, Artyom drives a tram – made up like a dragster, and covered in lights – through an abandoned area of the subway. The lights keep photosensitive spider monsters at bay (sorry about those, arachnophobes), but if you choose you can stop the car at any point to get out and explore side passages for supplies and secrets. Dynamic lightning in this context means something very different.

Finding a junction box and switching on all the lights in a section is now a huge source of relief, tempered by the sound of a hive full of spider monsters screeching and thrashing in response. It feels like a totally different game to the one where a man darted between campfires, unscrewing bulbs and slitting throats – but it's based on the same mechanics, and it's part of a contiguous experience.

It's easier than ever to think of 'first-person shooter' as an outdated term. The temptation is to break it down into parts – to map out a landscape with your deathmatch blasters over here and your thinking man's sneak-'em-ups over there, your Portal-style spatial puzzlers nestling a healthy distance from DayZ's wide-open survival horror. The problem with this approach is that it downplays the unifying effect that the first-person perspective has: the way that lots of divergent experiences can be made to feel like part of a continuous whole. Game mechanics don't get much simpler or more relatable than 'looking and doing'.

Metro: Last Light is setting out to be many things: realistic shooter, stealth sim, cinematic narrative experience, atmospheric exploration game. Having been shown an extended chunk, though, I don't feel it's quite right to describe it as a hybrid. Instead, the impression I get is of a first-person shooter of an older sort – a linear game with the mechanical variety to support many different approaches and experiences, and the design sense and eye for detail to sustain dramatic shifts in tone, from frantic monster horror to blistering military shooter. It's an old model, in some ways, but a proven one – just ask Half-Life 2.

Whether or not the game can perform to those high standards remains to be seen: but it has something of that old-school sensibility. It's a show that is very much worth stopping to watch.

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