Metro 2033 was an imperfection. The game was pretty yet unoptimized, the shooting was functional but disjointed, and while the immersive world was excellent, the gameplay couldn't hold up its end. Enter Metro: Last Light, the sequel that almost wasn't, which improves on all aspects of its predecessor to make one of this year’s most compelling titles thus far.
For those who don’t know, Metro: Last Light is a first-person shooter from Ukrainian developer 4A Games, and the universe the Metro titles are based on was created by Russian writer Dmitry Glukhovsky in his novel Metro 2033, which the first game borrows the name from. The series takes root in a post-apocalyptic Moscow, although it is unknown why the nuclear downfall of civilization occurred; rather, it simply has, and humanity must deal with the consequences. Now Moscow's denizens live in the subterranean metro stations, and travel between them by way of creature-infested tunnels or scant sojourns across what remains of the devastated Russian city.
In Metro: Last Light, the player resumes the role of Artyom, a young man whose special telekinetic link he shares with mysterious beings called the Dark Ones has made him an important asset to the Rangers. At the end of the previous game, players discharged a missile strike on the home of the Dark Ones, though the sequel picks up one year later by having Artyom venture to the Gardens to find a Dark One rumored to be alive there. Artyom and his partner Anna, however, lose the creature to the Nazis and are captured themselves. For the rest of the story, the player must track down the Dark One and, as per orders, kill it while dealing with the constant threat of war between the game’s main factions.
This isn't where I parked my car...
The narrative itself might not sound particularly interesting, but there are surrounding elements that invigorate the storytelling, like the not-completely-foreseeable plot twists and fantastic interplay between Moscow's three opposing factions. The Order, placed in the center of the spectrum, governs over Artyom and the Rangers; they rely on western capitalism as their ideal system for society. The Nazis, much like their WWII counterparts, strive for purification of the human race, although it's purification of genes rather than religion and lifestyle this time. Finally, the communist Reds also behave like their forerunners, breaking down class walls to make everyone equally poor and miserable. The feuds between these factions' values, then, remain one of the most intriguing parts of the game, and one scene in particular gives you the opportunity to listen to the Communistic spiel of a buddy that really has you believing in their cause before knocking the chair out from under you (figuratively and literally).
The other aspect that aids Last Light's story is the atmosphere the game is bathed in. There are certain titles renowned for their atmosphere – Metro 2033 being one of them – but Last Light brings the believability to a new level, topping even the previous game. When you are traveling throughout the metro's stations, either to reach your destination or buy new weapons, you get a real sense that humanity is struggling to survive. From the small conversations between upset children and their mothers, to the drunk and downtrodden soldiers, every detail adds to the feel of the world, helping you connect with its people and appreciate their plight. The ambience isn't limited to just the stations, though, as creepy tunnels full of cobwebs and the expansive outside environments of destroyed Moscow really drive home that society has been forever changed by the nuclear fallout.
Welcome to life in the metros.
The encapsulating atmosphere bleeds into the gameplay as well. For the most part, Last Light is a first-person shooter with survival elements woven in alongside a decent layer of stealth. The shooting itself feels solid, but it won’t be winning any awards. Similarly, the stealth system appears robust, though you’re merely visible or you aren't. Your visibility is shown on Artyom's watch, where a blue light will illuminate if you can be spotted, and music cues act as warnings to your impending doom. Meanwhile, silencers can be used to eliminate enemies quietly, along with my favorite weapon: the throwing knife. On the whole, the stealth feels is but not very rewarding. Artyom can crouch two feet in front of a guy without him noticing, and there are clearly prescribed paths that usually get you through the levels unseen.
Still, my main complaints with Last Light are the certain sections where you are forced to fight waves of incoming enemies, like watchmen or nosalises, and cannot employ stealth to save yourself. This was particularly frustrating when I had spent the first half of the game enjoying a pure stealth run, and now I needed to use the serviceable shooting (less so in close quarters) to progress. What truly annoyed me, then, was that these sections almost always occurred while waiting for a ferry or elevator, and thus, they feel very gamey and out of place (read: contrived).
The ruins of post-apocalyptic Moscow
My other complaint stems from the spider-like enemy types that require you to shine the flashlight on them until they flip over dead (almost like a twist on the Alan Wake-style enemies). While these creatures were not the most fun to fight, they at least induced a bit of unease in large numbers and contributed to the creepy atmosphere. But these enemies disappear completely about a quarter of the way through the story, not to be seen again. It seems weird to introduce a new, somewhat-inspired enemy just to eliminate them entirely and revert back to fighting the beasts from Metro 2033.
That being said, there are better parts to the gameplay. For one, the survival aspect that encourages players to search every corner for additional ammo and gas mask filters (so you can breathe the toxic air above ground) makes for some harrowing situations. For example, I reached a point above the surface where I ran out of filters during a nosalis attack, after which Artyom has about 40 seconds to find more before he dies. After perishing four times, because the next level-ending objective took a minute to reach, I was forced to hurriedly scavenge the surrounding area while choking (spoilers: I totally survived). The paranoia of running low on filters or ammo only adds to already considerable tension, and really feeds back into the atmospheric experience.
Some of the other neat gameplay mechanics actually appeared in the previous game, but I’m glad they found their way into the sequel. The first is bullets for currency. In Last Light, there are two types of bullets: regular and military grade, where dirtier, regular rounds are your ammunition and military-grade bullets are your currency for new weapons and upgrades. The catch is, if you run out of regular slugs, you can shoot military-grade bullets, but at that point you are literally shooting your money away. The other gameplay features I liked are the pneumatic firearms and flashlight. Although you are given a flashlight here, rather than having infinite batteries or waiting 20 seconds for the light to recharge, you must use a pneumatic pump to recharge the torch every so often, lest it run out (which is why those light-sensitive enemies were so interesting and disconcerting). Certain weapons also feature this pumping system, which requires you to make sure they are adequately pressurized and reloaded – otherwise your shots will have little stopping power. While I tended not to use these weapons as much, they are a neat concept and fit with the universe's scavenger motif nicely.
People weren't kidding when they said Russian drivers are crazy.
Finally, nothing helps an atmosphere pull you in more than some beautiful visuals. Luckily, Last Light delivers with phenomenal graphical prowess – this is one of those games you should really play on PC over consoles. The excellent indoor lighting sets the metro's mood, and the constant fog, along with floating dust particles, makes for suffocating sequences when crawling through abandoned tunnels. Hands down though, it’s the outside views of Moscow that make Metro: Last Light a beautiful game. The dynamic lighting and looming depression that hangs in the air as you look out at the city is top-notch, and the detail in the destroyed buildings is gorgeous. (Some of the views in this game make Fallout 3 and New Vegas look like they were made for 64-bit consoles.) My only two issues with the aesthetics are the textures that look like they just came back from the gym with a weird sheen, and if you are playing on a PC, hopefully you have a Nvidia card. I have an aging Radeon HD 6970, and I only play on High settings to get about 45-50 FPS. The game was made in partner with Nvidia, however, so it uses the native PhysX engine (which can be toggled on and off) that does not cooperate with ATI cards. Also, the Steam overlay is jacked up (at least it was for me), so I cannot recommend using it.
Overall though, Metro: Last Light is a great game and probably one of my favorites this year. It does have some flaws, but Last Light improves leaps and bounds over its predecessor to make a more accessible, playable game while retaining the ideas that keep the series unique and the atmosphere best-in-class. At about 10 hours long (doing a decent amount of scavenging) and four DLC packs coming soon, Last Light is likely going to be one of the best single-player experiences I have all year.
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: 4A Games
Release Date: May 14, 2013
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox 360, Playstation 3