Review: Metro: Last Light
Metro: Last Light is a first-person shooter based on the world created by Russian novelist Dmitry Glukhovsky. Developed by Ukrainian studio 4A games, Last Light is a direct sequel to the 2010 game, Metro 2033, which was received with generally positive reviews. This post-apocalyptic horror game does an excellent job of getting you engaged in the world, but ultimately its shallow gameplay and atmosphere just skates the edge of being truly scary and it leaves you wanting more from this stunning world.
The world of Metro: Last Light is dark and gritty as there is not much of a reason for laughs when humanity, as far as 2030’s Russia knows, is confined to scratching out an existence within the Russian metro system after the world is reduced to rubble by nuclear missiles twenty years prior. The metro tunnels have been divided by newly emerging factions - all vying for power within a world where the only currency that matters is the bullets in your gun (literally; money in Metro is military grade ammo—more on this later).
The three factions in Last Light are almost comically defined: 1) The yellow lined Reich, a community of neo-Nazi’s that strive for purity of blood above all, executing anyone suspected of having any form of mutation derived from the radiation in the world; 2) The red line Communists, a militant police state fostering the ideal of perfect equality while simultaneously attempting to eradicate any form of opposition; and 3) The Hansa, this world’s version of capitalists - who by default are the “good guys.” Combined with smaller groups such as bandits, the Rangers of the Order, and neutral settlements like a vegas-esque pleasure station; the Russian Metro is full of bodies and blood.
The world of Last Light is beautifully realized, especially when playing the game on the PC—which I did. Metro's surface world is the devastated landscape of nuked out Moscow, which provides a gorgeous backdrop for your desperate scramble for safety as you dodge the mutated life forms that now own this irradiated world. Gigantic and monstrous versions of rats, bears, and shrimp (slug?) things hound your every step as you dash from hole in the ground to hole in the ground to escape the radiation and poison air. The underground is just as striking in its transition from packed, claustrophobic train stations to abandoned tunnels littered with the corpses of unprepared travelers who ventured too close to bandits or the mutated spider nests that infest the darker regions of the tunnels.
Probably the most memorable aspect of the world of Metro: Last Light is the infrequent visits to civilization--or what qualifies as civilization in this world. The shantytowns set up on old metro stations almost feel alive with the claustrophobic bustle of citizens. These villages are full of real people with real problems that are completely unrelated to the events of the stories and makes it worth exploring every corner to see marketplaces brothels, gunslinger challenges, and even minor side quests that impact nothing other than a scared little boy finding his lost teddy bear. These forays into civilization are perfectly placed to break up the tense action/exploration sequences and provide an excellent insight into the human spirit that survives through the adversity that this world exemplifies. The contrast the game draws between the desolation of the tunnels and the liveliness of the stations provides a perfect tonal shift that keeps you from being overwhelmed by the dark imagery that the game assaults you with throughout. The one complaint I have with these stations is that sometimes they are just too busy. Often I would find myself straining to hear what NPC’s were saying over all the background noise. Some sort of filter while dialogue was occurring would have done a lot to allow you to more fully appreciate the world around you.
The marketplaces in particular, provide for one of the most interesting aspects of the metro’s economy. Military grade ammunition is the currency of the realm. You have the choice throughout the game to either use your money in a fight, providing extra damage, or save it so you can refill your munitions or replace your guns. This also provided me one of my most frustrating moments in the game; it turned out that a gun I had been using for the first few levels had somehow been loaded with this precious ammo without me even realizing it. The game had not even told me how to switch the ammo type yet, and I had not played the original Metro to know how to do it (and let’s face it, who checks non-essential key bindings before you need something—men do not ask for directions). I never quite recovered from wasting so much precious money and only got to stare longingly as the market teased me with the promise of new guns.
There is very little to nit-pick with due to the obsessive attention to detail that the people over at 4A studios put into this world. The occasional low-res texture pops up from time to time and I did experience once where portions of a barricade did not appear, but those are the extent of the complaints that I can level against this gorgeous post-apocalyptic piece.
Now, what is a beautiful world without a compelling story to accompany? Nothing, if you ask me. Thankfully, Last Light's story is compelling enough to make you want to see your way to the end - even if it's nothing revolutionary. I cannot comment on how closely it resembled the source material as I have not read the books myself, but the tale of underworld deceit does an excellent job of framing all of the events that you are experiencing in these tunnels.
You play as Artyom a member of the Rangers of the Order or Spartans as they call themselves. You were the protagonist in Metro 2033 and recent destroyer of the Dark Ones, a new race of sentient beings that have evolved to thrive on the irradiated surface. The humans feared this new race because whenever one was near the person was overcome with crippling pain before eventually blacking out from the telekinetic powers the creatures possess. The game starts out with one of your fellow rangers spotting one last Dark One, and being as terrified of this threat they send the one person they know to be immune to the Dark One’s overwhelming telekinetic power. Something goes wrong though, and Artyom finds himself captured by the sinister fourth Reich. From here Artyom embarks on a desperate scramble to make it through the Russian metro to get back to his people to warn them about a sinister plot that will entangle the entire metro in a new world war. It is not the story that legends are made of, but it is well thought out with a few well timed twists to keep everything interesting. The biggest complaint I have with the story, without spoiling anything, is that the ending felt premature. The build-up that the game had been establishing for the last third of the game hinted at some greater conflict that was never delivered. The final sequence was nothing more than a defend the hallway set piece that was followed by the limpest conclusion to a top-tier game story that could have been conceived.
The actual game play of Last Light is where things tend to be a little less… realized. The biggest issue occurs before you even turn the game on: the pre-order bonus offered with the game. Ranger mode, or as 4A markets it as, “The way the game was meant to be played.” Ranger mode is hardcore mode for Metro: Last Light; what better way to experience the desperation of the world of Last Light than by limiting the amount of ammo along with other supplies available throughout the game? Alas, though, I will not review a game based upon optional content that is not available to everyone who purchases the game.
Billed as a survival-horror game (a la Resident Evil or Silent Hill), I entered Metro: Last Light expecting to be, if not terrified, at least scared a little. The game does a great job of building tension. You are constantly confronted with time limits: How much battery does my flashlight have left? How much time is left before I need a new air filter for my gas mask? The tension inevitably leaves you wanting as it culminates in unfulfilled expectations. Filters are so common when not playing on Ranger mode that it was not even a thought later in the game, and the flashlight charge mechanic allowed me to pump my flashlight to full power in seconds between encounters. There was not a single instance where I truly felt like the game was even trying to actually be scary. The music and atmosphere sets the tone that you are screwed. Everything about this world screams death. When I was on my own, exploring the deep dark remnants of the Moscow underground, I was begging the game to truly terrify me. Inevitably, every creepy hallway culminated in a large arena where the game just threw enemies at me as I simply waited—for an elevator, for a ferryman, for a [insert convenient plot device here].
Even the “super monsters,” that often tease you throughout levels, end in disappointment. Every "boss" encounter begins by having you engage in a series of smaller skirmishes that are designed purely to be bullet sponge segments meant to waste your ammunition. Under normal circumstances, this would be an excellent strategy to emphasize the desperation of a world where ammo is supposed to be scarce-- even though, outside of Ranger mode, ammo is literally around every corner. Every one of these extra-curricular battles was tedious beyond reason. The beast AI was designed with one action in mind and that was to get near you and continue swiping until you are dead. It is the one thing that games should never be, annoying.
So far, I have only commented on the player versus mutant combat; the player versus human combat is much more engaging even if it is no scarier than before. Human combatants provided the opportunity to delve into the usually game killing mechanic of introducing stealth into a first-person action game. Oddly enough, I found the stealth in this game to be much more thrilling than the gun fights that broke out once you failed at being a shadow—appropriately enough, gunfights truly felt like a punishment for failure. The dark, dank metro tunnels and ramshackle villages are the perfect environment for Artyom to channel his inner Sam Fisher. Unfortunately, it was much too easy to ghost every single enemy in a given area. Armed with a light meter, a combat knife, and a pocket full of throwing knives (that you can pick up after one-shotting unsuspecting foes) the challenge is non-existent. Almost every light in any room that you are in can be extinguished and after that, life is as simple as turning on the trusty night vision and tossing a knife across the room.
These stealth complaints are minor as I truly enjoyed slinking around, and the stealth route is the only way that you get to experience all of the chat that your enemies engage in. As mentioned earlier, being discovered and being forced to engage in a gunfight is not the most satisfying way to handle the game. The armaments in this game are pretty standard: variations of pistol, assault rifle, sniper, and shotgun; the three weapon slots and ample gun attachments allow for you to be prepared for every situation that may arise. The issue is that almost every gun fight devolved into me planting my back to a wall and mowing down the enemy AI as they funneled down the hallway full of dead bodies, just to be added to the pile. It is not the worst AI that you will ever experience in a first-person shooter, but it is definitely a disappointment when compared to the detail that went into constructing this world.
+ Impressive attention to detail - Disappointing AI
+ Beautifully crafted world - Tension never quite reaches scary
+ Level design allows for choice in play style - Flat finish
All in all, Metro: Last Light might be the perfect game to start off the summer season. While it has its issues, I feel this is the type of game that will be perfect for a game library while gamers are begging for a company to give them something during the summer doldrums. It is not a title that will appeal to all gamers; it is a slow, methodical grind that wants you to experience this world as much as just plow through obstacles. If you are a fan of story leading gameplay, then you will enjoy your venture into 2030’s Moscow. For all the nits I picked going through this game, I truly enjoyed playing through this world and I wholeheartedly recommend it.