Metro: Last Light marks the triumphant return of Ukrainian developer 4A Games who introduced us to the barren landscape and dark tunnels of post apocalyptic Moscow in Metro 2033. Almost three years on, and having endured deplorable working conditions and publisher changeovers, 4A Games have delivered a sequel that looks, and plays, far better than the original, but is missing some of the “heart” that made the original such a memorable experience.
At their cores, both the Metro games are first person shooters with a focus on deep storytelling, with linear gameplay that mainly sees you following a critical path similar to Call of Duty. Metro: Last Light takes place one year after the events of Metro 2033 where you, as the young soldier Artyom, launched nuclear missiles on Moscow in order to save your home station from the mysterious “Dark Ones”.
You are now an official Ranger of the Spartan Order, one of the three main military factions in the Metro, and are on a mission to retrieve the single surviving member of the “Dark Ones” – a child. The story sinks its hooks into you almost instantly, and by the end you will have experienced friendship, betrayal, sheer horror, and even regret. That’s something that most movies can only strive to deliver, but its to 4A Games’ credit that they have delivered a gripping narrative through the medium of games.
The campaign will see you cross paths with the rival factions, an early level set in a Fourth Reich fascist prison sets up the stealth gameplay, while you race against time to uncover a Communist plot that threatens to destroy what remains of humanity. Most of the characters, both new and returning, are well developed with distinct character models – a marked improvement over the almost “cookie cutter” models in the first game. Miller, Khan, and Ulman are welcoming sights with Khan sporting a sick goatee and a ponytail. The reason these characters are so memorable is that their sections in Metro 2033 showcased the strength of the game’s dialogue, and instilled a sense of camaraderie that is seldom seen in story-based games. Sadly, these moments are sorely missed in Metro: Last Light and, save for a late game sequence with Khan, are fleeting. One character that showed potential was Miller’s daughter Anna. She is introduced as the Order’s best sniper, but just as quickly disappears from the plot until later on where she becomes more or less a damsel in distress. That, and the ill conceived love making scene undermine what had the potential to develop a strong female character – something that BioShock Infinite did so well.
The best element of the game’s narrative are the sections where Artyom is travelling with the young Dark One. Specific events in Artyom’s past are revealed that add a sense of tragedy to the events of the first game, and genuinely make you feel remorseful. As you make your way through the ruins of Moscow’s suburbia, you catch glimpse (a la Singularity) of life before the disaster. It’s in these quiet moments that you realise just how weak humanity is; we pride ourselves on our technological prowess, but when it all crumbles we are nothing more than just helpless animals scrounging for survival in the sewers of our own society. Furthermore, the entries from Artyom’s diary scattered throughout the levels (however out of place) relay some more information of the world – often hinting at significant things not discussed in the narrative proper.
Metro: Last Light provides you with the option to play with Russian dialogue turned on and I wholeheartedly recommend it. Not only is the voice acting better in its native tongue, but it really adds to the sense of immersion when you hear the hustle and bustle (which are not subtitled) of denizens going about their business in the many marketplaces and settlements. This is also another area where having varied character models helped sell the lived in atmosphere since you are peering into the lives of people, not NPCs.
The game’s ending is the weakest part of the narrative. Even after more than ten hours of gameplay, it seemed abrupt and unearned; a far cry from the beautiful ending of Metro 2033, both in the way it was represented, and in the way it was crafted. Just like in the previous game, certain actions can unlock the ‘Enlightened’ ending that serves as the best possible ending, but the criticism applies to both since they occur at the same point in time.
The first thing you will notice when you begin the story is just how good everything looks; textures are nice and sharp, faces are detailed, and the revamped colour palette and lighting really sell the shanty towns that humanity calls home. While BioShock Infinite’s Columbia was depicted as a “utopia” with its eternal sunshine and saturated colours, Metro: Last Light reminds us that humanity is at its end and that this world no longer belongs to us. The frozen Winter featured in Metro 2033 has given way to Spring, introducing a variety of new (and hostile) plants and creatures to deal with, and new ways of combatting them. However, sometimes certain enemies require a lot more bullets than they should in order to go down which is annoying considering how scarce ammo can be.
Alas, like in Irrational Game’s latest effort, the distinct lack of a lower body is a constant frustrating reminder that this is still a game. Come on guys, it’s been five years since Mirror’s Edge released so this is no longer acceptable!
By far the most improved aspect is in the way it plays; the shooting mechanics (which was not as much of a problem in the first game as others claim) are much more streamlined and are responsive in a way similar to Call of Duty. Aiming down the sight takes less time, and now there is a visible marker to confirm hits on enemies that help you save bullets – crucial to surviving on harder difficulties. Stealth gameplay is a more viable option, often allowing you to clear an area without drawing attention and even avoiding entire conflicts altogether. A panel on your watch illuminates whenever you are visible to enemies, but the fact that you can be crouching down right next to an enemy without them noticing you is breaks the conceit of stealth. This may be different when playing on Hard or “Ranger” difficulties, but since most players (myself included) would be playing on Normal it is an oversight.
What made the original such a harrowing experience was the sheer dread you felt whenever you were left to explore certain areas, whether above ground or below, on your own. The buildup of tension when walking through sections with little to no action, and the consequent sense that something bad was about to happen was used many times to great effect. While there are certain sections in Metro: Last Light, one involving giant spider/scorpion mutants no less, that had me run faster than a Formula 1 car, these segments were not as impactful as those in Metro 2033. In fact, even the fear of suffocating due to the lack of air filters was not as much of a concern since you would find one on almost every corpse you came across. Metro 2033 players take note: you no longer have to manually check the remaining filter time on your watch as it is now almost always visible. Moreover, having to wipe blood and dirt off of your gas mask’s visor, while an interesting addition, does little to make traversing these areas any more urgent. What did, however, were the constant attacks from enemies that gave you almost no time to check the direction of your current objective (which you can only check by manually holding up your journal, leaving you vulnerable to attack). This was more annoying than anything since the game doesn’t always make it apparent that particular objects can be manipulated at first glance, and in one particular section didn’t make it clear that you were to interact with the object again to trigger a scripted sequence.
4A Games’ are masters when it comes to sound design, and Last Light is their latest masterpiece. Whether it is the increasing frequency of your breathing as you run low on clean air, or the distinct stinger when you are about to be spotted, the game’s audio cues do a lot to dictate the pace of your actions. The aforementioned creature sounds will make you have your gun’s sights at the ready, while hearing distressed voices in a side passage will encourage to take a detour in order to investigate, and hopefully help whoever is in trouble. If you took away the sound from this game, it would have been less than half as frightening, and certainly half as memorable.
The final area of marked improvement is the performance of the game due to the updated 4A Engine. Where the original would average, on my Nvidia GeForce GTX 670 system, between 30 – 40 fps on “Very High” with DirectX 11 turned on, I rarely had the framerate dip below 60 even on almost maximum settings. It is easy to see that 4A Games took on external feedback and worked on optimising and improving the performance of their beautiful engine.
Metro: Last Light delivers on the promise shown in Metro 2033 by improving its combat, reinvigorating its visuals, and expanding the lore of the universe. While it borrows the atmosphere, and excellent sound design, from its predecessor, it lacks the memorable sequences that made the original a fan favourite.
Header: 4A Games