Nobody likes their daily commute into work. Those stale dead eyes, contemptuous glances, and less chance of getting a seat than a beggar on a transcontinental Indian railway. The metro is a pain in the ass in any major city (aside from, apparently, North Korea), but nothing compares to the headache of mutant rats, Neo-Nazi’s, insane Communist sects, and ‘Dark Ones’. Damn, someone took the last copy of the newspaper. Artyom is once again thrust upon the subterranean slums, charged with protecting humanity from itself for a second time. This time, however, he is joined by a friend.
4A Games’ triumphant return is unmarred by the destabilization of THQ. Whilst Last Light was repeatedly delayed, it seems to have paid off. 2033 was a horribly optimized game, but the titles proprietary engine, the 4A Engine, seems now most certainly up to scratch with rival engine CryEngine 3. Visually, Metro Last Light is incredibly similar to Crysis 3, but since this is a game built for PC through and through, it’s notably prettier, smoother, and with a little more nuance and charm. Running at a constant 60 frames per second on the highest settings (minus SSAA) with a GTX680 and AMD 8150, 4A Games have done a stellar job at pushing the most out of current high end technology. I suspect those around the 660TI or 7970 mark will have a visually exciting and relatively smooth experience. I’d love to see more European games pick up the use of this engine, especially over Dead Island‘s Chrome Engine.
It isn’t just fidelity that carries Metro: Last Light. This first person shooter possibly has more intimate detail than any I’ve ever played before. NPC’s react organically, and dynamically – scratching their noses as they speak to you, hopping over rails onto a passing boat. A man walks down the hallways of a bar, twitching, nervously unhinged. People drink, enjoy strip dances, organize, and even pace up and down within plastic walls, awaiting the results of their radiation blood tests. You have fascists bullying patrons in neutral grounds, whilst management juggle the violence of the under-city with the economy and needs of the men. This is a living breathing world, but don’t get me wrong, it is a linear living, breathing world.
Last Light retains much the same dynamic, bartering for weapons, addons, and ammunition with the games currency: military grade bullets. Like in 2033, you can either choose to use your military grade ammo, or save it up to purchase goods in the hubs. This gives you a lot of choice, since you can either rely on picking up enemy weapons, or weapons from fallen soldiers, and use military grade ammo for the entire game, or you can stick to three of your favorite weapons, use home made ammo, and the military grade stuff to upgrade your armory. Personally, I saved my military grade ammo for bartering, although I didn’t find buying ammo was much use this time around. It tends to disappear quite quickly, with plenty of it spread around the map – although, it seems, never when I needed it most, during one of the many large monster fights.
Weapons are meaty, powerful, and sensibly varied. There aren’t really any gimmick weapons, and each one has their place. Generally for every weapon type, there are two options. For instance, you start off with a ‘grease-gun’ style SMG, later finding an updated P90, which can be upgraded with scopes and silencers. Silencers are incredibly useful, because you can, if you wish, play 80% of Last Light stealthily. You’ll remember from 2033 you’re able to avoid combat situations by sticking to the shadows, but 4A have made more of an effort to make that a central theme this time around. Levels are winding and designed to give players choice. You can crawl around, blowing out lights, and melee your way through human enemies by either knocking them out, or cutting their throats.
This isn’t a game where if you’re spotted, you’ll want to restart, because NPC’s reactions to you feel so organic and natural. If you’re spotted, like a Hollywood movie, you feel as though you’re expected to react to the new situation. When I blundered, I tried to crawl around, using the silencer to hide my exact location. The AI is so advanced that it allows you to, whilst detected, avoid enemies all ganging up and running towards you, with clever use of shadows and the silencer. You can flank and wind your way around a whole room of enemies, popping headshots as you go along, without them finding where you are, even if you’ve been spotted. The whole thing felt, at times, very James Bond, which surprised me enormously. Animation, AI, lighting, and scripting were so cleverly designed that fighting felt completely organic.
It’s incredibly difficult to try to create immersive mechanics without coming across as gimmicky. Take Far Cry 2‘s map over Far Cry 3‘s, for example. In Far Cry 2, your character looks down to his lap at a physical paper map. In the third, however, you get an on-screen cumbersome UI that completely takes you out of immersion. Last Light excels at this, guiding the player with a very limited HUD by way of a lighter whose flame flickers in the direction of your objective. If you’re not holding a weapon, you can look down to your compass or map. Other notable immersive mechanics are the inclusion, once again, of the gas masks – a love it or hate it feature of 2033. Yes, they can still break, but personally I was always a fan of that shattered glass affair. There are plenty of replacements all over the map.
Other features include Artyom’s wiping away blood, gloop, water, or condensation off the front of his mask by hitting the ‘G’ key. It serves no other purpose other to complement other immersive factors. I’m not usually one to harp on about immersion, but for some strange reason I found myself ducking, swooping, or dodging blows physically as I sat here in my seat. I haven’t done that since physically leaning my body as a kid in driving games.
This time, you spend around equal time above ground as you do under it. The foliage and overall polish of the Moscow city-scape has been much improved. There’s less of an exploratory S.T.A.L.K.E.R vibe though, this time, but narrative reasons are abundant. Artyom is forced above ground only when there is a dead end in the metro, although, in this game, it is much safer within the protected tunnels of the city’s transport system. I don’t believe Last Light has any filler in the sense that BioShock Infinite or Call of Duty does, but the weakest parts of the game are definitely traversing the marshlands above ground, where enemies lack variety. In some cases, you’re fighting off hordes of enemies you’d see underground. That said, there are narrative reasons for Artoyem’s topside adventures, and they’re definitely a lot more enjoyable than in the series first installment.
It’s true that Last Light is a linear game. It’s a very linear game. It’s literally on rails – pun absolutely intended. But this is a game with incredible art and story direction. The writing is superb, and the narrative is high-brow, intelligent, and thought provoking. There really is a real world down here, and you might not be able to see all of it, but everything you do so is sublimely beautiful. 4A Games show you just enough to carry the whole thing off, so while I don’t necessarily feel in control of my own fate, I do feel as though I’m being guided by incredibly competent hands.
For instance, there are parts in the game where you can exercise your moral decision making. Given a fast rail-car, and being chased by mutated enemies, do you stop off at hidden locations when you hear the screams of women to investigate? When told that refugees face abuse, and implied rape, do you go off the beaten track to kill or knock out their attackers? Your decisions – although I don’t know to what degree – will decide your fate, through one of two endings in the game. There’s no way to know exactly what the right decision is at any moment, but I tried to spare as many people as possible – even key figures – however I still ended up with the “normal/bad ending”. That didn’t matter too much, though, because your moral duty is carried by memories of the prior game, where Artoym destroyed The Dark Ones.
Much of the game is spent alone, but for the latter half, you have a companion – although I won’t ruin it for you. In some ways, this companion acts as Last Light‘s Elizabeth, helping you in combat situations in various ways. The whole theme of Last Light is one, in some ways, of introspection. Various clashing ideologies reside within Moscow’s tunnels, and at this stage in the story, people aren’t happy merely surviving. They want power. Following three main groups of survivors, the Fascists, the Communists, and the people of Polis, Artoym must secretly use his companion in order to prevent the Fascists from subverting the peace process, and releasing a gas on the people of the tunnels.
The political themes are approached incredibly intelligently, with lines such as “sure, there are no rich men, but there are no beggars either” from the side of the Communists, and the writers play into the old cliche’s, and even criticize past political powers themselves. Acts of evil from all sides are excused by the idea that an act is for the good of their own people. There are themes of betrayal, political undernourishment, and the loss of life and family after the nuclear aftermath. In many places, you watch this unfold through the aforementioned set-pieces, listening to conversation as you wonder past.
Metro Last Light is wonderful to me because it is a very humble story with a very high budget. This isn’t a game where 100 things explode around you every second – although it has its moments – it’s actually very nuanced. It’s intelligent, high-brow, and very subtle. If you want, you can sneak your way through the game, spending more time in the towns and cities, overhearing richly detailed conversations. If that’s not your thing, you can blast your way through the game Call of Duty style, at risk of a slightly more damaging ending.
I can’t help but express how Last Light is a supremely well made game. It’s a classic example of sensible iteration, rather than blowing all your money on hitting the biggest possible sales targets. This is an intimate, atmospheric experience that won’t be suited to the tastes of everyone, but those who do appreciate it for what it is will be more than happy having spent the full retail price, and their time, on it. Last Light improves upon Metro 2033 in every way I can think of, and it even manages to make ‘more of the same’ an exciting and welcome adventure, rather than samey and accustomed. It is quite simply a brilliantly produced title that deserves all your attention.
As a side note, you currently can’t play the game with Russian audio and English subtitles, if that’s something you wanted to do.