The few hours we spent playing Metro: Last Light were grim, intense, bleak, and harrowing. The heavy mood the series is becoming known for was certainly effective, but is the game itself a bright light at the end of the tunnels of generic first-person shooter hell, or a false glimmer leading us further into the darkness?
Metro: Last Light was described by Deep Silver's Huw Benyon as a personal tale. This will very much be Artyom's story (the protagonist from the first game), and will deal with his realisation that a decision made at the end of Metro 2033 may have been anything but prudent.
The people hail Artyom as a hero, but all he seeks is redemption. The last surviving 'Dark one' might hold the key to his deliverance, but to find this creature he must first deal with something potentially more sinister: his fellow man. Our hero will be guided, captured, pleaded with, threatened, befriended, betrayed, and become entangled with the all the desperation that hope (for salvation and new beginnings) and lust (for power and control) brings as humanity is pushed further into both the darkness of the metro and its own nature as it struggles to survive.
The game certainly has some grand ambitions when it comes to painting an evocative scene, and for the most part the portion of code we played through did a decent job of fulfilling the promise.
There is some heavy handed imagery present, however, blunt allusions drawn to Nazism being the main offender. It's an easy and common way to conjure instant animosity, and to paint a big “hello I'm the bad guy” sign over the heads of whoever you want your player to hate, but perhaps there's more to it and the story will develop in a more interesting way once we're able to progress past the confines of the preview code. Certainly, the dialogue and voice work were excellent and the characters we met felt well-rounded and had distinct personalities. The story will play a big role in the game's potential success, and so far it seems on track.
The decision to incorporate elements of the UI into the character's apparel and equipment was clearly made to add emphasis to the immersion, but a few elements work better than others. For instance your gas mask's filter timer (required to breath in certain hostile atmospheres) is situated on your characters wristwatch, and pressing the designated key will cause Artyom to produce a lighter, a check-list of objectives, and a compass .
The list, lighter, and compass are particularly effective designs. At times you'll be forced to head off-course to scavenge for valuable ammunition and filters, the compass your only means of guidance and lighter the only source of light while the compass is being held. With both hands encumbered and the threat that each shadowy alcove potentially hides, holstering your weapon to get your bearings can be tense.
However, the stealth meter that sits bellow your filter timer makes less sense and breaks the immersion slightly and makes the UI design seem a little muddled and some of the more realistic elements feel like a gimmick. For instance, while your gas mask is equipped you can press a button to wipe away blood or water to improve your view. However, in the few hours we played there was only a single scripted moment that really made use of this feature, the rest of the time it was completely unnecessary. Likewise, the feature of using your lighter to burn cobwebs felt a little pointless as it was hardly necessary to do so. We don't expect mini-games with thirst meters being quenched by carefully distilling your own urine, but if you're going to add features like these and push them as defining aspects they need more than the strained interactions they currently incorporate.
Movement is responsive, shooting and reloading feels solid and weighty, the animations that link these things are fluid. The basics are all present, accounted for, and up to par. The enemy AI seems a little erratic, however. One of the first encounters was against a pack of mutants on the surface world. Most of the time they charged directly at us, or sat back for a moment snarling and sniffing the air before lunging forward, but at times they ran in seemingly random directions or caught themselves on parts of the scenery waiting to be picked off.
Human AI suffers in similar ways. One area was built perfectly for stealth. There were deep shadows, lots of light sources to be turned off or shot-out, and plenty of ways to approach. However, shooting a light directly above an enemy's head sometimes went completely unnoticed, yet other times turning a light off with no enemy in direct line of sight would cause the entire room to be alerted. It felt inconsistent, which made gave the stealth approach a trial and error feel. It didn't feel like you could be reward for intelligent play as the game simply isn't smart enough (yet?) to recognise it.
We played two versions: 360 and PC. The 360 version felt a little choppy at at times, but overall the game seems to make the most of the console's ageing hardware. The PCs on show were running an i7 cpu and a 580 gpu, and I was informed some of the higher end graphical options were turned off (advanced physics and post-processing, for instance). I honestly couldn't see much difference between the two versions aside from the obvious improved frame-rate, resolution, and textures of the PC version. The devs made quite a big deal that the game hadn't made any concessions, stating they were very proud of the fact they'd squeezed everything the PC could do into the two console versions and hadn't limited their PC development at all. While the game was pretty it certainly wasn't bleeding edge beautiful, and the developer's claims that this could be one of the best looking games of the generation didn't seem very solid.
From what we played of the game it's an enjoyable, decent looking, competent (AI issues aside), atmospheric FPS with elements of realism. As Metro has built itself up as a survivalist's FPS, and as this will be the selling point for many we're hoping the features that felt contrived and tacked-on will be more prominent and necessary in the final build, and that the survival elements in general will be highlighted more. If it truly wants to scavenge its own identity from the rubble, Metro: Last Light may need to brush up on its survival skills a little.
Metro Last Light is scheduled for release on May 14th in the US, and the 17th in Europe.