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Underground Sensation: Beynon on Metro: Last Light

More Metro? This is a horrifying Russian apocalypse dream come true. But is Last Light on the right track? We saw the game and spoke with THQ to find out.

To this day, I'm grateful that none of my terrible friends were in the same room as me the first time I played Metro 2033. Sitting there, completely spellbound by a sense-engulfing tidal wave of sights and sounds, I was essentially a vegetable. Pigs squealing, grime-encrusted people chattering away, dust flecks wafting through the air and settling on creaky, rotting wood. I wasn't watching a glorified virtual puppet show – strings bouncing and twisting about for all to see. I was in another world. Briefly, I forgot my own body even existed. Someone could have thrown a shoe at me or drawn a series of “hilarious” images on my face, and I probably would've just kept right on staring blankly ahead. The gaming industry's been searching for the holy grail that is “immersion” since time immemorial. But while everyone tried desperately to pretend that Wii, Kinect, and Move were real-life holodecks, Metro 2033 turned out to pretty much be The Matrix.

Then it gave me gun. And hey, why is this guy having so much trouble comprehending who's shooting him in the face when I'm two feet in front of him, shouting “I am shooting you in the face! I am two feet in front of you!” Also, why does it feel like I've sustained permanent brain damage from shoe-related injuries? Fortunately, THQ's decided to give Metro a second shot, and thus we have Metro: Last Light. So, the (perhaps literal) million dollar question: Has 4AGames made the shooting portions of its first-person shooter, you know, fun?

“That's kind of the focus of this demo,” studio communications lead Huw Beynon told VG247 during a post-demo interview.

“So in terms of what that demo is showing, first of all, the weapons are obviously a hell of a lot more powerful. We've completely changed the animation system. Before, you weren't getting that sort of feedback when you were hitting the targets, so it felt like you weren't actually scoring. We've added many more visual effects – blood, sparks, dynamic damage effects on different surfaces like glass shattering and tiles cracking. All that stuff. It's really empowering when your bullets are hitting home with the reactions of the enemies and the visual effects.”

Lights, camera, action

Before the bullets started flying, however, the demo opened on a rather subdued note. The camera panned across what was perhaps the most gorgeous falling-apart-at-the-seams city I've ever seen. A light layer of snow glistened on the ground as the camera slowly worked its way past piles of rubble, crumbling buildings, dead plants, and – hey – a mutant! Boy, some nightmarishly horrible things never change. Even so, things didn't look so bad topside, and some in-game narration drove that point home. “Much has changed since the Dark Ones were scorched from the earth,” it explained, pointing out that the ice had begun to melt. “We ourselves have not changed.”

"The weapons are obviously a hell of a lot more powerful."

Artyom and another conspirator busted their way into a sewer system. Down they climbed, cloaked in nearly pitch-black darkness. They were on the hunt for someone – to “end this madness.” Tip-toeing through murky waters, they made short work of two oblivious guards. All the while, Metro's trademark mind-blowing sound design was on full display, with silent assassinations presenting a frantic mix of knives slashing, horrified gasping, fabrics rustling, and weapons clattering and clanking to the ground. Honestly, it was pretty unnerving. I could practically feel the life drain out of Artyom's victim – and I wasn't even playing.

Before long, however, Artyom and Friend of Artyom moved into a more open space, and a gunfight broke out. True to Beynon's word, it was pretty damn intense. Muzzle flashes lit up the dark space like bolts of lightning, and bits of cover shattered and scattered as bullets buzzed every which way.

The scene then shifted, and we found Artyom and A Different Friend of Artyom infiltrating a colossal gathering of one of Metro: Last Light's many warring factions. I'm not going to mince words: these guys were future Russian post-apocalypse Nazis. They were being addressed by a self-proclaimed Fuhrer, they were shouting and saluting in unison, etc. After an ill-advised attempt to push their way to the front of the crowd, our intrepid heroes were spotted, which resulted in a madcap chase scene through one of Metro's gloriously lived-in underground cities that – sadly – looked to be completely on autopilot. It was brilliantly cinematic, sure, but I'm really hoping it's playable in the final game.

What happens during awesome cut-scenes does not, however, stay in awesome cut-scenes. While dodging and darting between crowds, Artyom took a bullet, and his pal was forced to drag him onto a mine cart. There, control returned to the player, and Artyom feebly fired his pistol while other carts attempted to overtake the duo. All the while, guitar music blared and – at one point – there was even a slow-mo cart explosion. To be sure, 4AGames is doing its darndest to make sure Last Light's action scenes are all bang, as opposed to the previous game's rather pitiful whimper.

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Metro: Last Light's E3 2011 gameplay

Then Artyom – apparently healed by the soothing power of guitars and explosions – boarded a train all by his lonesome and proceeded to advance through its many carts. Crates splintered as bullets missed Artyom's head by mere inches, and innumerable baddies fell in his wake. Even so, this section overstayed its welcome a bit, and looked quite repetitive as a result. Fortunately, the train was apparently just as fed up as I was, so it promptly exploded, leading to another scene transition.

For a brief moment, we were treated to a scene of Artyom duking it out with gigantic, bulbous-bellied mutants in a none-too-pleasant cave. The mutants were well-versed in the ancient art of charging like bulls hopped up on Red Bull, and they did so with reckless abandon. Unfortunately, that was the oddly abrupt point where the demo drew to a close.

Amoral choices

So Metro's kicked its action scenes up a few notches. That's fantastic and all, but what about, you know, everything else? First things first: Worry not, gamers who've grown cynical and world-weary after years of clicking men into their graves. Metro hasn't suddenly become Call of Duty.

“The original Metro is much more than your typical run-and-gun,” Beynon said. “So we didn't really show any of the survival-horror elements [during the demo], but I think we can reassure the fans that we're not going to deviate from that balance of gameplay and that Metro experience.”

“I kind of have this almost-fatigue with contemporary shooters. I can't remember what I've played or where I've been when I look back on them. If your focus is just pure adrenaline action all the time, then I guess that thing is made a little more disposable. But for us, it's really important to create the sensation that this is a place you visit and explore. And even though it's horrific, you want to return to it.”

“Ultimately, I love that world-building. I love games that really build up their fiction and consistencies in the world. That's why you can take any great game – like Legend of Zelda. You think of that and you think of Hyrule and the field you cross over. It's this massively evocative memory of a world that you played in. And I guess from modern times, we're looking at places like City 17 or Rapture – these places that leave an indelible memory.”

On the subject of another key – though lesser known – ingredient in Metro's unique recipe, Beynon was equally animated, though a bit more cryptic. Metro 2033, you see, wasn't entirely linear, despite how it may have seemed. So, is the player's ability to subtly send ripples through the entire plot making a return in Last Light?

"We're looking at places like City 17 or Rapture – these places that leave an indelible memory.”

“A lot of people didn't quite get what the choices were and how they were made,” he explained. “And we made sure to not give the player that really overt – I'd say almost game-breaking – stark morality choice. Because role-playing games aren't accurately telling you whether you're a good guy or a bad guy. They're sending you, you know, 'This is how you pretend to be the good guy. This is how you pretend to be the bad guy.' They're absolutely [about] what the choice is, what the consequence is. So if you choose to play like a dick, it doesn't mean that you are.”

“So yeah, we had a much more subtle system than that. It's not looking at morality in that sense. We don't even call them the good or the bad ending. There's a lot of separate play in there, and we've seen a lot of comments on the Internet about how people have worked out what some of the major triggers are.”

“But no one's adequately been able to explain exactly what it is that the game is asking of you. And given that no one's tracked it, I'm not going to reveal our plans for Last Light right now. But I think you can expect something pretty interesting in Last Light as well.”

The end of the tunnel

What little I saw of Last Light left me hopeful, but – as is often the case with these things – unanswered questions abound. Granted, Beynon made it very apparent that 4AGames hasn't lost sight of what made 2033 so brilliant, but words only carry so much weight. However, if Last Light is able to balance its newfound love of slow-mo-splosions with the jaw-droppingly atmospheric moments that so defined Metro 2033, we're going to be in for one hell of a ride.

In which case, I should probably find some new friends.

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