The short gameplay demonstration that we saw as part of publisher THQ's E3 showcase hinted towards genuine potential, but in a congested FPS market, Last Light will have to really shine if it wants to stand out from the crowd.
It starts with a trailer that set the tone perfectly. Whilst far from subtle, the panic induced rush towards the Metro station provided all the context you could possibly need. A hail of missiles descend on a dilapidated Russian suburb. Those fast enough make it to shelter. A mother, in a final act of sacrifice, hands over her child to a guard. The doors to salvation shut, separating the two for ever more.
There's no western perspective here. This story is all Russian. 4A aren't worried that this cultural divide will create distance between the player and the narrative; they're confident that they have a unique story to tell.
Its predecessor, the flawed but interesting Metro 2033, caught everyone's attention when it was released in 2010. Whilst it might not have held our gaze for long, it was still abundantly clear that this was a game built on a solid premise, rich with ideas and invention.
It was, by the studio's own admission, a bit of a rushed job. An involving narrative and some clever gameplay innovations were let down by a lack of spit and polish. This is a mistake that we were told will not be happening again. 4A want to build on the solid showing of Metro 2033, and they feel that its sequel has the potential to make a significant impact when it is released early next year. The studio is already making comparisons to modern classics like BioShock. Now that's fighting talk.
Metro 2033 was based on the novel of the same name. Written by Dmitry Glukhovsky, it told a distinctive tale of post-apocalyptic survival under the streets of Russia. Last Light breaks from the pattern established by 2033; this is a completely new story, and is not based on the Metro 2034, the sequel penned by Glukhovsky (although he is still in contact with the development team).
The short section of game we were shown looked great and polished plenty. Our protagonist, Artyom, and his companion, pick their way through the rubble. Before long they arrive at the exit to the surface, and all the terrors that lurk beyond. Sunlight pours in, temporarily blinding with its alien brilliance.
Survival under the sky is dependent on the judicious use of gas masks and filter cartridges. A timer on a wristwatch shows exactly how long before the mask submits to the lethal concoction of toxic gases still mixing in the atmosphere. It's part of Metro's returning HUD-less perspective. All the visual clues needed for survival are there. The continued breakaway from the traditional HUD points to an increasingly immersive experience.
During the short walk through the ravaged landscape we encounter several different creatures. The most visually impressive (and daunting) of the lot was a winged beast - a Demon - that swooped in and attacked towards the end of the demo. Whilst my first thought was to question whether 20 years was enough time for mutations of that complexity to develop, once the scientist in me had retreated to the back of my mind, I quickly forgot thoughts concerning plausibility. Not the time or place.
Despite the grandeur of the encounter, it felt very scripted, so it will be interesting to see how 4A implement thrills and spills of this magnitude in the game proper. If these vicious and chaotic battles come about organically then Metro: Last Light might live up to the bold claims made by the studio; this really could break out of its current niche and into the mainstream.
The journey across the surface has an ultimate goal. The two adventurers are heading to another underground settlement, its entrance marked by a crashed airplane. We view the aircraft from relative safety, before the two edge down a broken wing, making their way towards the rest of the wreckage. Rains falls and vision blurs, a hand acts as windshield wiper.
As they move across the broken environment a pack of mutated monsters stampedes past. Caution is exercised, a full-blown battle here would inevitably end in death. It looks like hundreds of the creatures run by, their feral haste the only thing separating the hiding men from life and lunch.
Once the danger has passed the two enter into the crashed aircraft. Skeletons and giant insects are the only passengers still on this flight. Artyom's companion starts to cough and splutter. His gas mask has run out of juice. Lucky for him the filter is changed and he lives to hack up his lungs another day.
Entering the cockpit triggers a flashback.
The airplane soars through the sky. After emerging from cloud, a shower of tactical missiles snaps into focus. These pilots have front row seats to the end of the world, for a moment at least. The airliner quickly collides with the outgoing force of the resulting explosion. First the windows crack, and despite the last ditch efforts of the crew, the metal bird is sent crashing to the earth.
We're back in the future, and once the pair have scrounged some resources from the surrounding environment, they're ready to leave the wreckage. An encounter with the winged mutant the next destination, a recently retrieved shotgun the last line of defence.
After escaping the clutches of their airborne advisory, it was time to head back underground. A quick hand-pump to charge the torch provides the illumination to proceed. The final set piece a dramatic backs-to-the-wall encounter with a gang of grotesque rat-like mutants. They hurtle down a rusted escalator as the two men shoot bullets and throw Molotov Cocktails, trying to desperately to fend them off and buy enough time to make it inside the shelter behind them. Of course they succeed, the mechanical doors open and they gleefully accept the sanctuary offered. As they retreat inside guards push forward wielding flamethrowers, sending the beasts back to the surface in haste.
And so ends the gameplay demonstration.
It looked thoroughly exciting, and one twist had me jump out my seat, such was my surprise. Metro: Last Light portrays a dark and hostile world, full of aggressive and powerful enemies. If 4A Games can maintain the level of intensity shown in this short section of game without relying too heavily on scripted events, then they may well have a hit on their hands. However, whether they can reach the same level as games like BioShock remains to be seen. But you can't blame them for having lofty ambitions, and after seeing their work in progress, you probably wouldn't want to bet against them making a good impression when Last Light finally emerges in early 2013.