Last Light, from an hour or so I spent watching real-time play recently, appears to be almost a do-over of the ambitious but awkward Metro 2033 rather than a traditional sequel. It's rescuing and remixing the stuff that worked but, as far as I can tell, without devolving into a shiny Call of Dudebro affair. That critical switching between indoor and outdoor action and gun-free survivor settlements remains, as does the strange bullets-as-currency system. It's much more like 2033 than I'd presumed, I'm relived to find, glossier though it may be.
The world-building stuff I'll get to in a minute, but first let's talk about the action as that's perhaps where the bulk of the alterations are focused. The devs seem almost pathological in their fondness for weapon design - I'm shown reloading animations slowed down to paint-drying speeds, and the sheer level of detail in there, all those moving parts and flashes of light and flexes of finger, is scary. I'm not entirely sure what purpose it serves as we'll just see it all go by in a flash, but I suppose it speaks to the diligence and passion of the folk involved.
Such painstaking visual and animation work is perhaps more apparent and satisfying is the dynamic destruction of environments as those impeccably-rendered bullets fly. Walls erode and rain debris when shot, windows shatter, lights are extinguished - never mind the apocalypse that devastated the surface world, an automatic weapon seems like enough to bring about the end of the world down here in the subway tunnels underneath Moscow.
Returning protagonist Artyom has, apparently, become a more proficient fighter since the last game, which is an explanation of sorts for why the gunplay is less fraught and taxing than before. He can, for instance, now reload both barrels of his shotgun at once, and there's now an FPS-standard melee attack rather than the need to switch to a melee-specific weapon.
Most levels offer a stealth path as well as the inevitable shoot everyone deaddeadddead choice. Snuffing out lights and turning off generators helps to create distractions, while Artyom's fancy new digital watch includes a light meter with which to guage his visiblity. While apparently a planned body-hiding mechanic was ditched because it wasn't serving much purpose, guards will freak out and go into high alert if they stumble across the body of a throat-slit or knocked-out comrade on their patrols. A neat new trick is turning off downed enemies' headlamps so that their allies don't come to investigate. These human foess are easily downed while in stealth, as opposed to bullet-soaks they become once in high alert mode, and apparently there may be some sort of consequence to either killing or stunning/avoiding your opponents. Even open conflict seems to involve a lot of taking shelter, waiting for enemies to reload, and flanking - it's not COD even though Artyom has a little more of the super-soldier about him.
On occasion, once again, we get a semi-guided tour of the raddled society making do underground. The game's setpiece moments aren't so much big explosions, scary monsters and super-creeps as slices of jerry-rigged life. Odd ad-hoc machinery and fishing apparatus abounds, idlers tell stories or play cards at a bar decorated in what look like Christmas lights, and a group of kids has gathered to watch an old man's shadow puppet show. We can stop to watch it too, as he forms the silhouettes of farmyard animals that these tunnel-born children have never clapped eyes on in the flesh.
While, apparently, the level of civilization down here hasn't moved on between games, there will be more variety between the 'stations' that house these civilian communities. For instance, one known as 'Venice' is more bright and decadent than the others, and generally there's a bit less grey and brown dominance. There's not much in the way of interaction to be had in these sections - they're most about mood-building and tension-breaking, although apparently many overheard conversations offer foreshadowing of events and enemies, or oblique hints about how to deal with later situations.
There's also a strip club, and a lurid one at that. I don't know, from this brief glimpse, if the, uh, glamour of it supposed to sound a note of discordancy with the tatty, subdued world it's set in or if it's just tawdriness for tawdriness' sake. An overheard comment from one of the heaving-bosomed girls states that they have no bosses and are very much in charge of their own situation and business, so while the sudden blazing sexualisation is uncomfortable perhaps its purpose here is more carefully-crafted than it might appear. Perhaps. Inevitably, there is an option to have a 'dance' from one of the girls, though somewhat mercifully I am not shown this. I don't know - this stuff may well provoke a reaction but I don't want to judge it without having more context.
Also down here in the stations is shopping, with a significantly cleaned-up and slicker system for that odd bullets-as-money concept. Your three weapon slots are no longer restricted to certain classes either - now, any weapon can go in any slot, so there's more scope to head out there with your preferred arsenal. That said, you're far less likely to find, say, sniper rifle ammo randomly lying around, so it pays to keep a more generic automatic weapon around even if it's not your preferred killing tool, purely because you'll stumble across more bullets for it.
There are weapon upgrades to be bought too, which allow some pretty heavy customisation - for instance, an AK47 can wind up with a scope, silencer and stock to become something of a stealth weapon. The limited currency means buying an upgrade is a big deal, and if you swap out an upgraded weapon for something else you'll lose the new bits and bobs until you buy them again.
Now for the third arm of Metro, the outdoor sections in which we explore the ravaged, mutated overworld which, once upon a time, was Moscow. While in 2033 these areas were strictly linear, most of Last Light's are, I'm told, much more exploration-based with no set route. There are set objectives, in this instance a ferry point on the other side of the map and the requirement to find boat fuel before we can use it, but we're free to roam as we like on the way over there. Shattered buildings might hold fuel tanks, but they might well be empty, requiring Artyom to go search somewhere else. As he does, darkness falls - there is a day/night cycle outdoors, as well as changing weather conditions such as rain, cloud and electrical storms.
The landscape, a little greener than 2033's frozen climes, with flooding, sunshine and vegetation suggesting it's not the hopeless place it once was even though Artyom still must wear a breather at all times, is dramatic and mesmerising. It puts me in mind of an enormous matte painting that I can wander into and around. Imagine if Fallout 3 had looked like this! I found myself wishing for an entire game set here, but at least this section does seem significantly more STALKER-like than trad. manshooter-like.
Assorted mutants roam the overworld, unscripted and in most cases going about their own business rather than attacking on sight. They're unpredictable in both movement and attitude. Certain types, especially the flying 'demons', will go for you, while loud noises or getting too close may inspire even the more peaceable types to have a bit of a face-chew.
There are also all manner of outdoor-specific animations and features to enjoy/manage up here. Artyom needs to use his torch carefully, to wipe mist from his gasmask, to change its filter regularly, while exploring a sheltered area sees flies swarm over his vision. A string of red flags indicates a safe passage across a patch of swamp, something we happen to know about because we heard it mentioned by rangers socalising in one of the stations.
As the sun dips, more beasties appear, and at the same time become harder to spot. Horrible things move through the water, and a creature apparently made of mossy bark comes crashing through the reeds as Artyom struggles to fuel his makeshift ferry. In a setpiece fight, an enormous, mantis-like foe appears, and proves very hard to kill because it can shelter its face and body with its four massive, armoured arms. It can lob poison spit at Artyom too, requiring him to wipe his mask in order to see as well as suffering damage. This all makes for a frenetic, sinister Alamo moment as we wait for the raft to be ready, as the light dims further and more and more enemies head towards the action. I'd gone into this demo hoping Metro 2033's slightly silly mutant aspect had been dropped, but I leave it feeling that these open, stressful, dramatic outdoor monster battles are Last Light's most tantalising element. Let's just hope 'last light' doesn't prove too accurate a name, eh?
Metro: Last Light is in theory out in March.