Metro: Last Light – Review
It’s been a great year for stunningly-realised worlds in gaming so far. First was Tomb Raider’s island of mystery, Yamatai, then came along BioShock Infinite’s city in the clouds, Columbia, and now we have Metro: Last light’s dilapidated network of underground tunnels residing under a post-apocalyptic Moscow, a salvation and a curse for the city’s survivors of a nuclear holocaust, dripping with as much atmosphere as they are radioactive goo. Make no mistake; this is not a quirky retro-futuristic take on post-apocalyptic antics a la Fallout, as anyone who played Metro 2033 can attest. Instead, the Metro games, based on the popular series of books by Dmitry Glukhovsky, opts for something a bit more edgier and horror themed, because if the oppressive and unrelenting bleakness of the dark and dank tunnels doesn’t send a shiver down your spine then the Metro’s resident mutants will. Before ripping it out of course.
The world of Metro may not be as rich, expansive or even imaginative as Bethesda’s RPGs but it’s equally fleshed-out, just as captivating, and vault dwellers will get a kick out of exploring this more technically-accomplished nuclear-ravaged wasteland. It’s not an open-world, but the sense of exploration is always there, the loading screens between levels showing just how far you’ve come via a dotted line running through a map of the Metro. You may not find secret vaults hidden on your travels, but stray off the obvious path and you’ll find areas (and with them, danger) ripe for pilfering that you’d have otherwise missed. Life is hard in the Metro, so any spare supplies you’re lucky to come across, be it gas mask filters, ammo, or health-replenishing syringes, can be the difference between life and death.
Helping to fill the current survival-horror void is an element of resource management you wouldn’t normally be accustomed to in an FPS. Things are less problematic on the two lowest difficulties but, even then, you can start running dangerously low on bullets if you’re not careful. There’s a double-edged sword at play here though, because bullets are also the singular form of currency in the Metro’s few-but-distinct hub-like stations. Luckily it’s only military-grade types of ammo that merchants are interested in, but when you’ve just shot your last standard bullet and you’ve got a pack of ravenous mutants closing in you’ve got no other choice than switching to your more expensive rounds. The notion of risk versus reward is constantly gnawing at your mind: do you stray down a side path in the hope of finding more goodies or will you end up wasting more than you gain?
Venturing topside places even more weight on your shoulders, because not only do you still have to bear in mind your ammo count but also how many more minutes of clean air your gas mask can provide. Neglect to abide to the health and safety regulations of a post-apocalyptic Moscow in 2034 and you’ll be dead in seconds. If you’re going outside, you need a gas mask and enough filters to ensure you’ll make it back underground alive. The climes are less hostile than they were a year ago – the sun is starting to break through the clouds and the ice beginning to melt – but you can’t afford to dawdle up here.
Then again, there’s a chance you may find something useful if you spend one extra minute exploring that shack in your peripheral vision. Handily, lead character Artyom’s watch is always visible on-screen, forever counting down the seconds of breathable air you have left, and just in case you aren’t taking any notice (or you need glasses) it’ll bleep when you’re down to your last sixty seconds, signifying that it’s time to replace your filter. Take too much of a beating, though, and your mask’s visor will begin to crack and eventually break, so it’s always in your best interests to occasionally wander off in search of a long-dormant corpse who won’t be needing their gas mask any time soon.
It all adds up to the same constant creeping sense of dread that 4A conjured so effortlessly in the last game, and if there’s ever an opportunity to immerse you deeper, you can bet your last bullet that they’ve taken it. This is a game where you can manually wipe the viscous gloop that’s spurted over your gas mask with a tap of LB for crying out loud (innovation of the year!) and the way they use sound and visuals is rarely anything short of masterful. Praise also has to go to the very world 4A have built. It may all be doom and gloom but with graphics like these it’s the best doom and gloom you’ll find and, as previously stated, the Metro is incredibly fleshed out and truly believable as a lived in place. Each station has a personality of its own. The seedy and fittingly-named Venice is a flooded station only accessible by boat, while the similarly-aptly-named Theatre, located underneath Moscow’s historic Bolshoi Theatre, is a bustling settlement home to the (end of the) world-famous performances the locals put on, one of which you’re more than welcome to watch. There’s even an Achievement/Trophy for your time.
4A’s world building is unquestionable. Their story, on the other hand, isn’t quite on the same level. Contrary to logical assumption, Metro: Last Light does not follow the events of the book Metro 2034. Instead, it is an entirely original story, written in-house at 4A and overseen by Metro author Dmitry Glukhovsky, which continues from the “bad” ending of Metro 2033, where Artyom uses a missile strike to wipe out the Dark Ones, a race of spooky sentient beings believed to have been born out of nuclear war. But, as it turns out, one may have survived, and maybe, just maybe, the Dark Ones aren’t as bad as their creepy appearance would connote.
It’s not a bad story, and it takes some unexpected and even silly turns at times, but overall it’s fundamentally forgettable fluff. The best stories, the ones you’ll finish the game remembering, are the ones you decipher from the environment, another reminder of how much effort 4A have put in to building the Metro universe.
4A have also taken Metro 2033’s primary criticisms to heart. Returning players will be glad to hear that the shooting mechanics have been substantially beefed up while the laws of stealth are made much clearer and fairer. There’s definitely a greater emphasis on action than before, with some riveting set-pieces interspersed throughout, but the difference here is that it doesn’t feel wonky. On the contrary, Last Light can proudly stand up as a best-in-class shooter. Each weapon has weight and feels unique, and whether you’re fighting against the Metro’s less-kind denizens or flesh-hungry mutants it never feels unfulfilling to pull the trigger. Where Last Light stumbles, however, is in a handful of miscalculated and uninventive boss battles – there’s nothing worse than a big nasty bullet-sponge to halt your progress. This is the year 2013, is it not?
Also ill-advised is a segment nearer the game’s end where 4A fill area after area with bad guys. Up until this point you’ve probably been keeping to the nail-biting stealth route wherever possible, but here it starts to turn into a repetitive slog so much that you’ll deliberately open fire just to get it over with quicker. Otherwise, stealth is top-notch. A blue light on Artyom’s omnipresent watch will indicate when he’s visible, while a musical cue will signify when someone’s looking his way. Guards are less temperamental to suspecting when you’re nearby, sometimes edging on the borders of blindness, but at least it’s consistent across the board, avoiding the erratic clumsiness of its predecessor and the recent Crysis 3.
There’ll be an air of familiarity to anyone who’s played Far Cry 3 when you’re lurking in the darkness, eyeing up your next target and contemplating your approach: do you skulk behind them and slit their throat (gut-wrenching sound effect included), fling a knife in the back of their skull, or listen to your inner saint and knock them out instead, because, unlike Jason Brody, Artyom always has a choice on all-but-one occasion to spare or take a life. Slipping by undetected through the small-scale sandboxes is always preferable; the ability to unscrew light bulbs and blow out candles proving to be an invaluable asset (shooting lights out can be prone to attracting unwanted attention). Having to choose between subdue or kill would also hint at a morality system, and sure enough there are two endings to see depending on the choices you’ve made. But the criteria you need to meet for the better of the two isn’t always what you might expect, and unless you research it prior to playing you may not even know of its existence.
Last Light’s few shortcomings are unfortunate, because if receiving the worst ending didn’t feel so unfair, if the bosses and other select scenes were reworked, and if the story could match some of the incidental storytelling, then it would be elevated beyond its less than perfect status. But since when has “less than perfect” been a bad thing? As it stands this is still a creative and technical marvel, cramming in more than its restrictive setting would initially suggest and boasting mechanics far beyond its predecessor it positively blows Metro 2033 out of the irradiated water. Anyone expecting just another sub-par FPS in a superb setting will be in for a pleasant surprise. Anyone under the impression that this is yet another run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic shooter is deeply mistaken.Pros
- Utterly immersive with a magnificently-realised world
- A tighter shooter and more consistent stealth game than its predecessor
- Atmospheric sound and visual design
- Grim and grime have never looked prettier
- Pace-sapping boss battles
- Weak story
- Muddled morality system
It’s recently come out that Ukrainian developer 4A Games had to make Metro: Last Light in conditions not too dissimilar to those you’ll find in the game, and with only a fraction of the funds that your typical triple-A game would normally have behind them. That’s astonishing! That they’ve created something that looks and plays better than most of the games that have come out over the past six months, and under such gruelling circumstances as well, is testament to the skill and determination of the developer house. There are blemishes, of course, but Last Light is a better shooter and stealther than Crysis 3, a more atmospheric horror than Dead Space 3, and conceals a world just as engrossing as BioShock Infinite’s. Simply put, it’s the second-most-essential shooter of 2013 thus far.
Last five articles by Tim
- The Survival of Horror
- Best of 2013: Why Far Cry 2 is Better Than Far Cry 3
- Best of 2013: The Game’s Bond… James Bond – A History of 007 in Games
- Dead Men Forever