The Mushroom Cloud Kingdom

Editor’s Note: This preview will reference events in Metro 2033 and might spoil some things for those who have yet to play it. Consider yourselves warned. 

It may not have been the prettiest game, and the AI was definitely flawed, but Metro 2033 was able to immerse gamers in ways other properties only dream of. Because of that, it earned a special place in the hearts of those who played it. In fact, it was difficult not to get sucked in to the hardship of everyday life that our hero Artyom had to go through, feeling like you were indeed living in Moscow’s Metro system after a nuclear holocaust.

You had to keep track of the air in your gasmask filter, scavenge for military grade bullets to use as currency, and use nothing but an old-school compass to navigate the world around you. And then, as many of these stories go, you became caught up in events much larger than yourself.

These events led to one of two endings in Metro 2033. The good ending saw you save the Dark Ones, strange creatures who were desperately trying to communicate with human kind and accidentally harming them in the process, and helping them learn how best to help us. The bad ending, which was much more common for most players, is also the canonical ending that Dmitry Glukhovsky penned in the book the game was based off of. In that ending, Artyom destroyed the Dark Ones, only realizing his blunder when it was too late, and then returning to the Metro, guilt-ridden and dejected.

After Metro 2033, Glukhovsky wrote a sequel titled, appropriately enough, Metro 2034 that took place one year after Artyom’s failure. But instead of having 4A Games craft a game directly around that novel, Glukhovsky wrote a new story, original to the video games, that follows Artyom down a different path. And thus, we have Metro: Last Light, which we were able to finally go hands-on with recently.

Still picking up a year after the events of the first game, Artyom, who was a bit green behind the ears before his encounter with the Dark Ones, has become a grizzled veteran Ranger of the Metro under the careful guidance of Miller, of the Spartan Order, since last we saw him. While going about his daily business, Artyom is confronted by one of his other mentors, Khan, who reveals to Artyom that a young Dark One survived despite his misguided efforts and was seen fending for itself amongst the shattered nest the creatures had once lived in.

Since many still perceive the Dark Ones as threats and that Artyom did the right thing, he is ordered by his superiors to destroy the creature, even if Artyom may have his doubts. Things have a habit of going sideways whenever you venture to the decimated surface, far away from the Metro, though. So, soon after beginning his search for the creature, Artyom runs across members of the Fourth Reich and things just get worse from there.

With the Metro series being so story driven, I really can’t go any further into the rest of the tale I saw unfold before me, but let me tell you, that if you’re a fan of the first Metro’s story, this looks to be shaping up to be even better.

I can talk a bit more about the game play, however. A lot of the great survival features from the first game are coming back. You still have to monitor your air when you go to the surface, ammo is scarce, and you still have to charge your headlamp manually. The entire idea of having to really struggle to survive is still perfectly in tact as you wrestle with situations like only having one clip left in your assault rifle, yet there is a room full of Nazis ahead of you and who are ready to turn their fully loaded rifles on you if you step into the light or make too much noise. Do you run or fight? And if you do fight, do you go the stealth route with your knife or go all out hoping to find extra ammo on dead bodies?

There are some critical differences to these situations as compared to the first game, though. 4A has crafted their own in house engine and have really keyed in on enemy AI with it. Should you alert one foe, the “hive mind” AI where the entire room would be aware from the first Metro is gone. Mind you, if you make too much noise you might alert the entire room anyway, but it makes sense now. Or if you’re too slow to take out the one enemy whose attention you’ve drawn, he will go get his trigger-happy buddies.

But should you choose to not fight and run away, or duck into air ducts or sewer grates and try to hide, the AI won’t stop looking for you after they’ve spotted you. You can’t trick the AI as easily in that regard. Like rabid dogs, if the AI knows there is an enemy nearby, they will continue to think their enemy is there, somewhere, until they get an all-clear from someone who has actually shot you, or you clear them all out first.  Or you keep moving away from where they are and hope they don’t follow, which sometimes they will!

And that is something else the AI impressed me with, even of the new mutant animals you’ll face: it is completely random. No situation will play out the same way twice. Paths enemies will walk around in a room, where monsters will or won’t spring up from, even who will attack whom when different species of monsters or conflicting human groups come across each other. You might be able to sneak by a firefight between the Reds and the Fourth Reich, or a shrimp monster (think of the prawn mutated to the size of a person) sparring with a dragon while on the surface looking for supplies.

The AI isn’t the only thing that is benefiting from this 4A engine, however. The graphics have been drastically improved, especially in terms of lighting effects. You can shoot a lantern and it will start a slow burning fire if it was set amongst dry boxes or kindling. Lighting is also a more critical factor in order for you to take the stealthier route through combat situations, as darkness is your greatest ally when you’re alone in the Metro.

In real life though, I hadn’t been alone and just as my hands started to work a groove into the controller from gripping it so tightly, it was time for me to relinquish it as my time with Metro: Last Light was up. When I was done with my slice of this post-apocalyptic first-person shooter, I was mighty impressed with how far the franchise had come technically in terms of game play, and I couldn’t help but immediately be sucked into the new, original story. Now it’s just a matter of waiting for May to go even deeper into the Metro.