Metro Last Light preview: Tiny details paint a beautiful picture

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Metro: Last Light is one of the most striking games I’ve laid eyes on this year. A recent hands-off demo displayed three different sections of the game, and while these moments were presented without much in the way of story context, the level of detail evident in 4A Games’ efforts tells an absorbing tale of its own. For those who have been flipping out at the tail end of 2012 over how effectively Far Cry 3 immerses you in its environment thanks to details large and small, Metro: Last Light is absolutely one to keep an eye out for in the early months of 2013.

The game’s story picks up several years after the events of Metro 2033. The returning protagonist, Artyom, is a little bit older, a little bit more competent now. He’s a full-on Ranger, and his time spent training translates to more competent soldiering out in the field. Veterans of the first game will immediately notice a reduced level of control clunkiness; while that may be standard practice for a sequel, it’s cool to know that there’s an actual story justification for it. For example, Artyom shoves shells into his shotgun during reloads two at a time, completing the task more confidently and quickly than he did previously. The sequel’s mechanical tweaks make for a more inviting user experience, but they’re also justified by Artyom’s growth between the two games.

This extreme attention to detail ran throughout everything on display in the hour-long eyes-on demo. Controls specific to this demo slowed down the action to highlight the mechanical workings of each weapon in your arsenal. As Artyom fires, you can clearly see each individual mechanism at work, from the moment the trigger is pulled to the moment that each shell is discarded. Outdoor locations that see you donning an air mask once again — Last Light‘s surface world is healing, but still deadly for oxygen-breathers — throw up a variety of challenges, but none more in-your-face than the threat of a see-through mask that must be constantly wiped clear of condensation and blood spatters.

The first chunk of the demo offered up an early moment in the campaign when Artyom heads off to a Fourth Reich encampment where a fellow Ranger is being held captive, slated for execution. While players can attack this problem using any mixture of in-your-face combat and stealth, the latter is the focus for this chunk of demo. Light and shadow are fundamental components in Metro: Last Light‘s stealth formula, and an enhanced set of tools offers players an opportunity to take more direct control over such elements.

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Lights can be shot out, same as it ever was, but even silenced weapons draw attention when they’re shattering a lightbulb. In Last Light, Artyom will be able to unscrew lightbulbs and blow out lanterns as well as interact with the occasional fusebox. Electricity is inconsistent in the post-apocalyptic sewers and tunnels of Eastern Europe, so enemies won’t always pay lighting changes any mind. Sometimes they will though, and that’s a situation you can use to Artyom’s advantage. Knocking out lights will sometimes draw one enemy off from a pack as he moves to check the fusebox, offering up a perfect opportunity for a quiet kill with your blade.

Non-lethal play is an option as well in Last Light. Get close enough to stealth melee someone and you’ll see two options pop up on the screen, for lethal and non-lethal attacks. It’s not clear at this time how your behavior as a soldier feeds into the larger story, but those familiar with 2033 should expect to be on familiar ground. There won’t be any “game-y” notifications to let you know if some choice that you’ve made changes the story. There are several courses that the narrative could follow in the end, and it’s all informed by your in-game actions behind the scenes. The intent there, as with the game’s high level of detail, is to deliver a more immersive experience.

The next chunk of the demo moves to an outdoor location. Artyom must cross a heavily polluted body of water, but the gas-fueled ferry — really just a crudely assembled log raft attached to a water-spanning rope — is bone dry. The goal here is more open-ended: find gasoline. Your two most likely sources, as a helpful contact informs you, are an abandoned gas station and a crashed plane. As with 2033‘s outdoor environments, you’re wearing a mask whenever you head outside. A timer on your watch constantly ticks down toward zero, an indication of your oxygen supply; you replenish it by finding discarded air filters among the loot you collect.

The swampy outdoor location is filled with mutated dangers. The water is damaging on its own, but being attacked by shrimp-like mutants of varying sizes doesn’t help matters. Even more fearsome is a winged creature type the moves lazily around the environment. Get too close though and it gives chase. Fortunately, the aboveground environments are governed by their own ecological heirarchy. Things start to look pretty dire for Artyom at one point during the demo as two of the larger shrimp mutants close in, but the day is saved when the flyer swoops in and murders one of the attacking shrimp.

The level of detail in the world impresses just as much as the tiny, nearly unnoticeable gun mechanisms showcased earlier. The swamp is brimming over with signs of alien, mutated life as scattered rays of sunlight occasionally break through the thick, post-nuclear fallout cloud cover. The world may be healing, but it’s in the process of evolving into a very different place. Red flags are propped up throughout the swampy region. Once again, this nods to the game’s refusal to hold players’ hands. Sharp-eared observers may have overheard someone speaking earlier in the game about red flags pointing out the safe routes of travel through the swamp. Miss that and you’ll wander through the environment without ever tuning into the fact that the flags actually mean something.

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The third area explored in the demo went back underground, showing off a post-apocalyptic take on Venice. The underground settlement shares a name with the canal-filled Italian city, though the game location’s waterways are filled with sewage, filth, and who knows what else. That doesn’t stop gondoliers from rowing along, but they travel through pretty murky, disgusting waters.

The settlement itself is as brimming with life as an underground, post-apocalyptic community can be. Random street-folk go about their business, pausing to deliver scripted interactions whenever Artyom stops nearby. A bartender offers up shots of some unknown drink; have one and the room starts to spin, have three and you’ll black out completely, waking up some time later on the ground outside. The bar is cleared out when you return and the bartender is pissed about the mess you don’t remember making, though you have the option of paying him off and setting things right. Again, the specter of your decisions impacting the game behind the scenes is raised.

Venice highlights neutral and friendly NPC behaviors, but it also serves as a platform for showing off weapon customization. You’ll be able to spend your military-grade bullets — Metro‘s currency, which also doubles as higher damage ammunition — on an assortment of upgrades, including silencers, nightvision scopes, and the like. The interface is simple to work with, and that’s really true in other facets of the game as well. Weapon switching is now assigned to easy-access radial menu pop-ups and secondary tools, such as Artyom’s knife, no longer need to be separately equipped.

Metro: Last Light appears to be coming along very well. THQ has yet to set a final release date, but the expectation is for early-ish 2013. The framework that was established in Metro 2033 most definitely carries over to Last Light, though small evolutions seems to indicate that this will be a more user-friendly game. It’s the little things though, the fine details, that really stand out as you watch the game unfold. That more than anything else is what struck me during the demo, and what I’m most looking forward to seeing more of when Metro: Last Light arrives in 2013.