Developers: 4A Games
Publishers: Deep Silver
Metro: Last Light is a game that presents a simple question at its core: what happens when survival trumps morality? 4A Games' follow-up to their compelling-but-clunky 2010 diamond in the rough, Metro 2033, is another first-person shooter based on the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky's imagining, but with a number of nice little refinements to help pack even more of an atmospheric punch than last time.
It's a bleak title, make no mistake, in fact so much so that the tangible depression and desperation hanging in the air feels like the most fleshed-out character in the entire piece. Much like Rapture was the star of Bioshock, the Metro games's greatest strength is the manner in which it locates you as a player in the moral swap of humanity's dying days.
There are little examples of humans losing their humanity everywhere, none of which force you to watch, or even discover. You nearly always have the option to turn your back and walk away, and should you step in, more often than not you'll find your heroics met with a complete lack of sentimentality and gratitude. There's a particularly uncomfortable potential rape scene that you might stumble upon should you stray from the beaten track at one point, and swift justice nets you nothing but hysterical tears.
Women don't get the best deal in Last Light.
Stay and listen and the downtrodden members of this diseased society you find infesting the Metro's lines will deliver soliloquies filled with polemic. You'll catch snippets of conversation should you take the time to eavesdrop that might make you pause and think. The factionalism below the surface is rife with propaganda, and you'll encounter the Communists of the Red Line as well as the Nazi-wannabes of the Fourth Reich in your travels as the silent Artyom -- now a Ranger in the Spartan Order.
Taking one of the endings from Metro 2033 as the starting point -- the one where you nuke the mysterious Dark Ones off of the face of the Earth -- Last Light begins with the sighting of a survivor, thoug this particular Dark One is little ore than a baby. It manages to escape, however, and Artyom is charged with tracking it down, not to mention trying to prevent all of the Metro's ideologically conflicted factions from exterminating mankind.
The story is pretty convoluted, and making sense of everything might perhaps be a little tricky for those who've not played the first game and are unfamiliar with the setting. Worse yet, exposition pretty much happens via collectible written notes that are littered about the various levels of the game. Given that you can wander off at times during key story moments, it can be easy to lose track of who's who and what's going on if you aren't rigorous in rooting out Artyom's journal entries.
The game's setting bleeds into every aspect of the action. Weapons and items all have a makeshift feel to them, with the excellently named Bastard SMG making a pleasant return, complete with a horizontal magazine that chomps its way through bullet casings like a shredder of death. There are pneumatic devices that need pumping to operate, but require the player to find a balance between power an accuracy. You'll flick open a lighter to burn away cobwebs in the tunnels, and power your flashight by mashing away at a manually charged battery kit. The giant spiderbugs that scuttle about in the dark can only be harmed with direct light, so you're constantly swapping between equipment to ensure you're always prepared.
The surface (and pockets of the labyrinthine world underneath) is highly irradiated, so once again Artyom's gas mask becomes an integral part of play, not to mention checking your watch to determine how long the filters you're carrying can hold out. As Artyom begins to run out of clean air, the mask will mist up with condensation and perspiration (there's a dedicated button to clear your view of grit and grime), and his breathing will become increasingly ragged. You'll swap to a fresh filter just to stop the coughing.
It's clear that 4A have taken a few cues from Valve, noting that the key to any degree of fantastic world-building is immersion: no talking, no moving away from first-person view, and Last Light retains the antipathy for a detailed HUD that its predecessor possessed. Ammo shortage is less of a concern this time around, but you'll still have to keep an eye on the visual indicators on your weapon rather than an array of permanent numbers and loadout figures on your HUD.
Last Light is less of a survival horror experience than Metro 2033 was due to that last point. You can't play it like a balls-out run-and-gun shooter, but ammunition and supplies are relatively plentiful if you're thorough. Artyom can carry three weapons at any one time, and there are points along the way where you can trade in military-grade ammunition for supplies and upgrades. If you fall in love with one weapon in particular and want to customise two versions of the same gun in different ways, you totally can.
Instead of scrounging, there's more of an emphasis on stealth. In most of the areas you'll come across, killing can be avoided completely when it comes to human enemies. Again, your visibility is distilled down to a basic indicator on your watch: if it's blue, you're in view. If it's not, you're hard to spot. Artyom's timepiece also helpfully beeps when you're down to your last minute of clean air if the mask is on.
Let's be clear, Metro: Last Light is no Splinter Cell, and its rudimentary stealth systems are aided by some hilariously bad AI, but it makes for some fun games of cat-and-mouse with the enemies you'll face. Every little slightly open area you'll encounter will have at least one or two secondary paths through, making use of the vertical more often than not, and presenting players with options for moving forward. The gunplay in Last Light has been tightened up significantly in the past couple of years, but you won't want to be caught in the open if you can help it. Artyom is no bullet-sponge, and alerted guards will call for backup, bringing on armed response units with hefty protection and laser sights.
Back to that AI for a moment. You see, as engrossing an experience as Last Light is, there are a few little technical blips that let it down. Aside from clipping through the occasional solid object, and a few glitches and framerate issues we discovered using AMD cards (Last Light displays its Nvidia PhysX badge proudly, though given the dodgy physics and graphical anomalies we're not sure why), the biggest issue we have with Last Light is the behaviour of its guards.
There are flashes of fantastic cohesion, such as when you pique the curiosity of a nearby guard, and he shouts for help as he sees his downed companion. But the concealing properties of the shadows are incredibly overpowered. It's fun watching guards run about like headless chickens, but they're not terribly thorough when it comes to ferreting you out. The light and dark features are great, particularly when you factor in the makeshift lanterns, and silently turning out the lights to get the jump on your foes makes you feel like a shadowy one-man army. You're Batman, but Russian and with gadgets held together by tape and rust.
But guards will blithely ignore the fact that a chum of theirs dropped dead six feet away if they're staring in the other direction. Many will simply refuse to patrol and sit waiting for you to stab them in the back. There were a number of scenarios where all we had to do was wait for the exposition conversations to end, and then pick everyone off one by one. The mutants are even worse. There's simply no intelligence here whatsoever: they'll charge at you constantly until either you or they die. Finally, the boss battles: they make Deus Ex:Human Revolution's look like masterpieces.
It's a shame really because Last Light is exemplary of the sort of thing shooter fans who want more than yearly iterations of "Oscar-Mike" warfare titles are craving. 4A have once again made a game that takes full advantage of the immersive qualities of the first-person perspective, at times even more efficiently than Metro 2033. It's brutal, thought-provoking, shocking at times, and compellingly atmospheric. But the concessions made to make it slightly more of a recognisable shooter in terms of gameplay mechanics has perhaps removed some of the urgency, and there are some things (lap dances, an awful sex scene, those horrible boss battles, COD-esque setpieces) that break the tension a little. The Metro is not quite as fresh as it was three years ago, and that's to be expected.
Of course, that's compared to its predecessor. Compared to the rest of the FPS market, it's pretty much a must-buy.
- Tight gunplay
- We love stealth options
- Outstanding atmosphere and compelling setting
- Story is well-paced and thought-provoking
- Some of the setpieces are awesome...
- ... Some are awful
- As are the boss fights
- Inconsistent AI leaves much to be desired
- The actual plot gets progressively worse
- Some tech issues on PC
The Short Version: Metro: Last Light is both a game that surpasses and yet falls short of its predecessor. More technically competent in a number of areas, the chilling, tense atmosphere of Glukhovsky's world has been fantastically realised yet again, and there's so much to love in a world so impressively detailed and evocatively bleak. However, Last Light is very much the Dead Space 2 to 4A's original: bigger, bolder, and brasher, but also slightly less essential.