If it's true that art imitates life, we're glad that we don't live in Ukraine. Home to 4A Games, their debut title, Metro 2033, was an unremittingly bleak affair. Based on a novel by young Russian author, Dmitry Glukhovsky, it was set in a post-apocalyptic Moscow where a handful of survivors took refuge in the city's hermetically sealed underground system, a world noticeably bereft of primary colours, and largely short on laughs. Referencing its geographical origins is more than mere flippancy, however, as the Ukraine-based American producer of sequel Metro Last Light confirms.
"There's no way this game is made anywhere other than there," says executive producer Dean Sharpe, his haunted features at odds with his Robbie Savage perm. "Because Ukraine is a depressing fricking place. Ukraine is just as depressing as hell, especially in the winter. I now have a fake sun light I sit with for an hour every day just so I don't shoot myself."
It's a fascinating insight into the cultural aspect of videogame development, and one that is all the more jarring given that Metro Last Light receives its UK unveiling barely an hour after a run-through of the new Saints Row game, an absurdly cartoony affair developed in the US. They're quite literally a world apart.
I want nothing this society’s got, I’m going underground.
If you didn't catch last year's alleged 'cult hit,' there's a hefty PC demo of Metro 2033 knocking about that should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect from both the original and this sequel, which carries on from where the last game left off. Glukhovsky did bash out a follow-up to his best-selling novel, logically enough called Metro 2034 (also the game's original working title) but it was deemed a more esoteric art-house affair not suitable for a videogame plot. As such, story duties have fallen to the lead designer, with the blessing of his mate Dmitry.
The story is that people are still stuck under the ground, shitting in a bucket and waiting to die, the entire course of their brief pointless existence barely taking them more than 500 yards from where they were born. War still rages between disparate political factions based at various tube stations, and there are still a lot of things that go bump in the night, namely mutants, or as Ukrainians perversely like to call them, anomalies. However, if we are to believe the gravel-throated narrator of the E3 demo we were privy to, there may be a glimmer of hope in the toxic wasteland of the upstairs world. The air is not yet pure enough to breath – fitting those clumsy helmets is still a necessity – but the ice has begun to melt and there are rumours of a glimpse of the sun and even a hint of blue sky. It's no Sonic Adventures, but it's something to cling to.
Is the Jubilee Line running yet?
With the game being shown on PC, it is again a graphical tour de force. Metro 2033 was considered the benchmark for whether you needed a new graphics card, and that would again appear to be the case here, with the lead character's familiar lighter producing an eerily realistic flame. Darkness naturally plays a key role, and he is seen unscrewing a light bulb before slitting an enemy's throat. Given that the demo has to survive the maelstrom of E3, the stealth sections are largely overlooked though, and it's comprised of a pick 'n' mix of pre-alpha action sequences from various parts of the game, interspersed with lengthy cut scenes, spooky noises and a lot of shouting in Russian
Infiltrating what appears to be a Nazi rally, our man is shown hiding in plain sight before blowing his cover and legging it out of a side door to embark on an extended train sequence armed with an intricately detailed machine gun with which he metes out no small amount of damage. The major bugbear of Metro 2033 was its puny shooting mechanic, one of the major defects in the so-called 'flawed masterpiece.' It has apparently been addressed this time round, with much meatier, visceral gunplay promised, and surfaces reacting dynamically to bullets to create a more convincing combat environment. And while it's still a survival horror game at heart, there is a greater variety of weaponry available, and as such some debate as to whether to keep the 'bullets as currency' concept of the first game.
Despite around half the game taking place above the ground, we're barely given a glimpse of it, although they are keen to stress that it represents a very Russian view of the apocalypse: it's not Mad Max, it's not cyberpunk, and by implication it's not Fallout 3. Surely the end of the world is the end of the world, wherever you are? Not so, says producer Dean Sharpe: "I think that in general the Western view of the apocalypse is usually based on technology or war. This is more ingrained in the culture of Ukraine and Russia. It's a much more metaphysical vision with spirits and voodoo and all that type of stuff, and that's very much part of the story." Fair enough - we're not going to argue with a man who recently had his bad back successfully treated by a witch doctor, and whose girlfriend is a self-proclaimed witch...
You choose your leaders and place your trust.
Seemingly, they do things differently in Ukraine, game development included. While there are obvious comparisons with other locally developed games such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R., last year's debut title appears to have carved enough of a niche to warrant this sequel. That said, it does have a whiff of a remake about it, with talk of the same tube stations being revisited along with some new ones. There is also confirmation of multiplayer, which was absent in the last one purely because they didn't have the resources. In contrast to the sleeper hit (i.e. commercial flop) status of the first outing, it almost feels like THQ have told 4A to go away and make the game better, in return for which they'll market it properly.
"I would hope we pull in more of the Western audience," says Dean Sharpe. "I think that there's a certain stigma that goes along with development in Eastern Europe that some Americans turn their nose up to."
Underground, overground, wombling free...
They may well be missing out on one of the highlights of next year, and certainly in technical terms this suspicion is misplaced, as the game is as graphically impressive as anything we've seen recently. As Sharpe confides, "We're friends with NVIDIA. Although with the last round of video cards, we had to bribe the airport people to let us bring them in."
Hopefully their credit will be good enough to enable them to finish the game. Assuming the world doesn't end first...