Discussion Review: Metro: Last Light

Review written by Matt Litten & Tim Mack.

MetroLastLight

Tim: A cult hit with PC and Xbox 360 gamers and generally well received by gaming press, Metro 2033 mixed first-person shooting with a daring economy of bullets as currency, set in a dangerous underground post-nuclear Russia. Three years later 4A has returned with a sequel to Metro 2033, Metro: Last Light, bringing a refined weapons mechanic while retaining the rich, dark post-apocalyptic setting and continuing the story of Artyom. This time around, Last Light has been developed for PC, 360 and PS3, and Matt and I are here to discuss our experiences (mine on PC and Matt on PS3).

Last Light recaps events from Metro 2033 through minimal conversations (allowing gamers to draw their own conclusions and assumptions) and through cutscenes which are inserted into the action by way of flashbacks or visions. The first thing that impressed me with Last Light was how much ambience the game projects. Starting out in an underground bunker, groups of people are seen huddled around chatting in their own circles and as Artyom walks past various conversations across a wide spectrum of gossip, fear and an attitude of resignation to the fact that human life will forever be destined to live underground in squalor and filth can be overheard.

Initially, Artyom is tasked with finding and killing the last of the Dark Ones, mysterious beings who thrive in the radioactive wasteland on the surface. Traveling to the surface requires a breathing mask that uses a filter which degrades over time. This degradation means gamers need to keep an eye out for any spare filters while avoiding/combating mutated nature (giant rat-wolf creatures, huge demon bats, and more) and looking for the last of the Dark Ones. Through a turn of events both the Dark One and Artyom are captured by Nazis Reich, a re-imagined socialist power interested in eradicating any humans that aren’t “pure” by way of radiation or mutation. With the help of Pavel, a Communist Red soldier also captured by the Reich, Artyom escapes and learns of new evil plans by the Reich and is compelled to warn his own Order while continuing to search for the remaining Dark One.

At times the plot feels a bit overly convoluted for my tastes and I think part of it stems from the fact that there isn’t enough distinction between factions. Part of this could be explained away though by the fact that all humans are the same when compared to the Dark Ones or the mutated creatures on the surface. 4A does a remarkable job of twisting what is right and just throughout the entire game. Siding with one faction only to realize that their intentions aren’t any better than any of the others makes for interesting plot.

What worked for me the most is the great mix of the level design and combat. Having the option to go full guns blazing or quietly sneaking around and picking off enemies one at a time is a lot of fun. Exploring each area to discover new ways to approach pockets of enemies reminded me of playing Batman: Arkham Asylum. Once the enemy discovered my presence, it was a hoot to hear the panic and bravado. Learning each new area and figuring out the best way to approach each encounter makes the game feel very different each step of the way. Shooting out lights and stealth killing enemies never got old. Seeking out filters for breathing while racing across radioactive wastes always felt urgent and if one misstep was made, dealing with the consequences was never over the top.

While Last Light mostly is a linear game from loading screen to loading screen, there were times when I felt lost and couldn’t determine which direction I was supposed to go, particularly on the surface, where one section of marshland looked just like the last. Even with not so subtle red flags stuck in the ground to mark safe passage, I found myself getting lost or turned around, wasting precious filters.

Last Light allows up to three weapons to be carried at any one time, along with flares, grenades, mines and throwing knives. Switching out between a machine gun, shot gun and hand gun also gives a nice balance of urgency depending on the type and number of enemies during any given encounter. Adding to the thrill of combat is the option to customize each weapon with mods, including night vision scopes, silencers, laser sights and more. Metro 2033 was challenging because of the scarcity of “real” ammo and less reliable ammo, but I never found myself needing to switch over to “real” bullets until a boss battle toward the end. Granted I only played through the game on normal. Only one encounter late in the game did I feel it necessary to switch to military grade ammo, and even then the mutated bear boss creature was a truly horrific challenge to take down.

The game was surprising in how many mini boss encounters there where. Each time I thought I was close to the end I would run up against a bigger and badder boss than the last. Part of me likes the progression that Last Light offers, but it also seems like so many cool ideas for encounters were initially designed, that 4A tried to cram in as many as possible.

Matt: Sadly, I still haven’t gotten around to playing Metro 2033 yet, a missed opportunity that’s been hard to rectify given the lack of a PS3 version and how limited the Xbox 360 version’s retail availability seems to be these days on US shores. (I did get a Steam copy with a recent Humble Bundle deal, but I haven’t tried it yet and my current hardware probably won’t run it effectively any way.)

From what I understand, Last Light picks up from one of two possible endings to 2033, with Artyom, the chosen one protagonist of this post-apocalyptic drama, having called in an air strike to eradicate the Dark Ones. However a single Dark One—and a child at that—has survived the blast and Artyom is sent out on a mission with a Ranger sniper named Anna to kill the little Dark One.

Fortunately for newcomers, Last Light does a good job of recalling Artyom’s past transgressions without making you feel like you’ve missed too much having not played the first game. Without getting into any specifics, the story has its lulls and unexplained plot threads–in particular a sudden romance that awkwardly develops out of the blue later in the game. But overall the narrative is truly gripping stuff, with the star of the show actually being the collective world of the Metro rather than any single character. Although he isn’t completely mute, Artyom is a silent cipher much like Mr. Gordon Freeman, so while it may be hard to become emotionally invested in his personal story, it’s his relationship to the Dark Ones and his ability to see visions of pre-apocalypse Moscow that make the narrative so profound.

I only wish the hidden morality system wasn’t so, well, hidden. Certain actions taken throughout the game will trigger a flash on the screen and behind the scenes the result of these actions will determine which of two possible endings you will get. Some of these choices are plain as day, with opportunities arising to kill certain characters, or forgive them. Others are less obvious, but feel natural within the context of the story. For example there is a part in the dead city where a flying demon is guarding its baby on a rooftop nest. Thinking only of the potential danger, I shot and killed the demon from a distance, assuming that it would attack once I got closer and it spotted me. But when I killed it, the little Dark One almost scolded me, saying that the demon was only protecting its young and could simply have been avoided without more needless killing. Subtle choices and consequences like that add to the immersion, however I don’t like it when I’m simply walking through a certain hidden area or snooping in on a conversation and the screen flashes that something karmic has happened within the game world. Playing through the campaign twice now, trying different choices both times but still receiving the same ending, has only elevated my confusion and disappointment—especially since from what I’ve read I still haven’t seen the “good” ending.

Ambiance is the heart and soul of the Metro experience. Last Light’s harsh atmosphere hammers you over the head with a sense of dread and depression at every turn, and yet strangely there always seems to be this faint glimmer of hope propelling you to continue Artyom’s journey through Moscow’s underground network of tunnels and catacombs and the occasional jaunt to the surface. Much like BioShock’s Rapture or Half-Life 2’s City 17, the world of Metro feels like a real place cut from a believable alternate history book. As you guide Artyom ever further down the rail lines, you will discover new districts of the Metro, each consisting of a distinct sense of culture and class. As the game begins, you’re in sort of a Ranger barracks area with other soldiers sitting in their rooms, carrying on what has become regular life underground, whether it’s quietly writing letters, playing board games or gathering around to play the guitar for friends. Eventually you will reach the Theater, where, if you choose to, you can sit down for a variety talent show of music, comedy and acrobatic acts. Other areas allow you to watch strip shows or even sit down for a personal strip tease, get drunk and pass out at the local bar, or shoot rats in a shooting gallery. Things get much grimmer by the time you reach the City of Dead, a creepy ghost town locale that calls forth memories of Half-Life 2’s Ravenholm.

Similar to the story and world development, it’s the little details that make Last Light’s gameplay shine. Typically when games try to be too realistic by adding in elements like degrading gear and perpetual environment hazards, they can become more tedious than enjoyable. Not so, here. Small touches like having to wipe the gas mask clear of fog build up or mud and blood splatters, recharge your battery pack to keep flashlight and night vision goggles functioning at full power, and regularly change out gas mask filters to keep Artyom from sucking in radioactive particles, only increases the sense of urgency and makes you feel more attached to the world, and more aware of its dangers. Give credit to the interface design for keeping these elements from becoming overbearing. Quick button presses and hotkeys make all of these things effortless. It’s also nice how usual HUD clutter is reduced to in-game indicators, such as Artyom’s watch doubling as a gas mask filter monitor and a visibility indicator, and how instead of having to open a separate menu, mission objectives and a compass are provided on a journal which Artyom holds out in front of him in real time (and in dark places it may be necessary to pull out a lighter with the other hand to see the journal). Audio cues help as well, like how Artyom’s breathing will gradually grow louder and more strained as his gas mask wears down.

Tim: It’s funny you mentioned the particular scene with the demon protecting its baby. Up until that moment, I really had no idea that the game had a morality system and felt completely chastised for shooting the mother simply trying to protect its litter. I felt like a complete animal after hearing the Little Dark One’s tone. But the flying demons are tough enemies, and so I felt I had no other option but to then finish off the creature sitting defenseless in the nest. Only after those two actions did I really grasp the fact that I should have been much more selective in my actions through the course of the game (or at least during the moments when the Dark One was following me). I let Pavel live. The other Red (whose name has slipped my memory) I killed after battling him and finding him defeated and begging for mercy. I’m curious to know just how much the game requires leniency in order to have the Dark One save the day in the end. Personally, I enjoyed the ending I played, seeing wave after wave of Reich forces get decimated as they tried to storm the last bunker was cathartic.

Any game that handles unreliable narration well gets a big gold star from me. Last Light mixes a bit of narration in as Artyom is haunted by his past actions as well as creepy visions of lives burned into the environment. As much as I hated being in the radiated wild of the surface, there were just as many outright freaky moments of seeing a shadow standing in a room, turning the field of view and realizing that the shadow wasn’t mine, but rather someone else. Hearing whispers echoing through the room as I moved Artyom through the shadow and wondering if some greater evil was about to pounce upon me was one of the best sensations I have ever experienced in gaming. I went from, “Did I just see what I think I did?” to, “Oh shit, I just saw a family watching the nuclear blast from their living room window and now I can hear a child still crying for his parents!”

Metro: Last Light is a game that should not be missed. Even if you haven’t played through Metro 2033, the game provides a great amount of backstory to fill in the gaps. As Matt mentions, the game world as a whole is the story and all of the little details provide a rich and varied view of life after such massive destruction. Gunplay feels good and combat is balanced with exploration with a perfection that many other first-person shooters could learn from. Overall, I think 4A did a fantastic job of melding a rich, story-driven world with the dark ruin of a former super power. Very rarely do I find myself sympathizing with so many of the bystanders and the plight they face in any shooter. The commitment to the minor details is what brings the richness of the Metro world to life and truly fleshes out a sad, yet fascinating world.

Tim-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Immersive world
+ Great mix of combat and exploration
+ Unique gunplay for each weapon type
+ Well balanced for stealth or outright guns-blazing combat

Cons:
- Morality system doesn’t give any good indication of what is right or wrong
- Lack of clear direction in certain levels

Matt: The pacing between story, exploration and action is right on the money, mostly because the level design is so well balanced between linear corridor shooting in the dark Metro tunnels, more open-ended surface missions dealing with radioactive mutant creatures, and the encounters with other members of human civilization which provide story-building breaks from the tension and horror of trying to survive whatever the post-apocalyptic environment throws at you. 4A even weaves in a few set-piece shootouts and boss battles to keep you on your toes.

Except for certain moments, missions are open to stealth or running and gunning. Given the limited amount of available supplies in terms of ammo and currency to restock at shops, stealth is typically the smart and easy option. In terms of level design, stealth is a lot of fun as there are always a lot of options as far as eliminating light sources and taking multiple routes to sneak through an environment. Sadly, however, stealth is almost too easy, mainly because the human enemy AI, which proves formidable in combat, follows highly scripted routines and almost seems oblivious to what’s happening around them. You can shoot out lights or kill an enemy in mid-conversation, but other enemies will barely react, if at all. As is typical of many stealth games, enemy soldiers are also the masters of guarding walls and corners or patrolling areas of a level that leave them wide open for an easy stealth kill. For this reason, I actually enjoyed facing the mutant enemies more than the humans. Stealth is still an option, but isn’t so predictable. The mutants are also much more terrifying adversaries, from little spider creatures that need to be weakened first with the flashlight to wolf beasts that attack in packs to flying gargoyle demons that will lift you into the air and slam you into the ground or drop you into a swamp.

I didn’t notice this flaw so much on my first campaign run, but for my second hardcore difficulty playthrough in Ranger Mode, with even more limited ammo supply, the chinks in the stealth design became more apparent as I avoided exchanging gunfire as much as possible and generally found that I had an easier time clearing the game than I did the first time around on an easier difficulty, using less stealth. Ranger Mode is disappointing in general. Removing all HUD elements and reducing supplies does make the game harder. Yes, harder to play mechanically because you have to memorize all the interface hotkeys and when you approach an item, you have to hover over it and mash the button until you pick it up since the prompt which indicates when you are within contextual range to collect something no longer displays. Ranger Mode isn’t more challenging in its difficulty, nor is it any more immersive for removing interface elements that simply make the game more intuitive.

Something else that needs to be pointed out is the game’s lack of technical polish. Performance will likely vary for everyone, and I’m sure the PC version is more stable, but playing on the PS3, I have encountered a number of serious bugs. For starters, the game crashed my system at least five or six times. Yes, that was over two playthroughs and probably upwards of 20 hours of play time, but still, that’s a lot of crashes compared to many other games I’ve played that never freeze even a single time. I’ve also seen enemy character models freeze standing in place stiff as a board rather than dropping to the ground like a sack of potatoes after being killed. And in other instances the controls have locked up, leaving me with no way to move Artyom, and the audio has completely dropped out.

Glitches aside, Last Light is powered by one spectacular graphics engine. Frankly, I’m impressed the game produces the rich level of detail that it does while maintaining such a smooth framerate. The lighting in particular is absolutely stunning, not just for the added sense of depth and place that it provides, but because of how manipulative it is from a gameplay perspective. All sources of light are interactive — light bulbs from lamps can be shot out or unscrewed and fire lanterns and torches can be blown out, which adds to the dynamics of each environment, both in sight and touch.

Metro: Last Light has its design shortcomings and plot holes for sure, but in the grand scheme of things the flaws are heavily outweighed by the overwhelming positives. Few games can match the deep sense of immersion and atmospheric storytelling at work here, which this game also happens to successfully pair with a tense, varied and tightly-paced mix of FPS action, stealth, horror and exploration. Hell, I’m even thrilled that 4A stuck with its focus on creating a story-driven single-player experience without wasting time and energy on a useless multiplayer mode, something you can’t say about the majority of first-person shooter developers. Metro: Last Light definitely ranks high up on this year’s list of must-play games.

Matt-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Immersive world design paints a bleak but plausible alternate reality
+ Tight balance of storytelling and solid, engaging gameplay
+ Little details add realism without sacrificing playability
+ Atmospheric lighting and audio suck you into the Metro’s dark depths
+ No multiplayer mode tacked on just for the sake of having multiplayer

Cons:
- Stealth is often far too easy
- Karma system seems too obscurely defined
- Glitches and crashes mar an otherwise stunning work of audiovisual design

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC and PS3, also available on Xbox 360
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: 4A Games
Release Date: 5/14/2013
Genre: First-person shooter
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review copies provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!