Metro: Last Light Review
Visually lavish and dripping with atmosphere, Last Light is a marked improvement on its predecessor despite retaining a few of its shortcomings
If you played 2010's promising but rough Metro 2033, you know that the series has the potential to become something really special. The blend of well crafted post-apocalyptic environments, diegetic HUD elements and frantic firefights didn't quite come together as well as they could have in the first Metro game, but it was easy to see the potential the series had to become one of the most unique and compelling shooter franchises around. With Metro: Last Light, the developers have bolstered the previously uneven game play and further improved on the setting and narrative aspects, resulting in a significantly improved sequel that almost completely lives up to the series' lofty potential. While a few problems remain such as minor pacing issues and buggy human artificial intelligence, Last Light is a compelling and engrossing experience that fans of post-apocalyptic settings and immersive first person games will relish from beginning to end.
Trips above surface are vivid and memorable
Last Light continues the story form 2033, with the city of the Dark Ones being destroyed and tensions escalating between the fascist Reich and communist Redline. At the beginning of Last Light, you learn that a single Dark One survived the bombing and set out to finish the job, once again playing as the Sparta ranger Artyom. While on the surface chasing the remaining Dark One, you are taken prisoner by a Nazi patrol, and escape from captivity with the help of Pavel, a Redline Communist who proves to be one of the most interesting characters of the series. Pavel serves as your companion for a time, with a series of excellent stealth focused levels making for a very strong start to your journey. The story goes in some strange and interesting directions as it progresses, and you will need to be open to supernatural goings on in order to suspend your disbelief and make sense of it all. Visions and ghosts from the pre-war era make a return in some segments, and even weirder things start happening related to the Dark Ones later in the game.
It is appropriate that there is a good chunk of stealth gameplay so early on because this is the area that has seen the most improvement in Last Light. While Metro 2033 had stealth, it was a clumsy trial-and-error affair, with enemy patrols going from standby to full alert mode the moment they caught a glimpse of you. This has been greatly improved in Last Light, with a bevy of small adjustments coming together to make stealth a much more viable option. As with its predecessor, a small light on your watch will come on when you are visible to enemies, although it now accurately indicates whether or not you will be spotted. You can now perform takedowns from behind instead of having to rely on your unwieldy knife. Throwing knifes make a return from 2033, along with the addition of silenced variations of many weapons that can be used to eliminate foes unnoticed. Once again almost every light source can be manipulated; you can walk up to bulbs and lamps to turn them off, or shoot them out. Kerosene lamps are common, and if you shoot them, they will burst into flames catching nearby objects on fire. This will draw attention to the area, something that can cause you to be seen, or it can be used as a distraction.
Escaping from a Nazi prison is an early game highlight
There is still one elephant in the room when it comes to stealth however, and it takes the form of enemy artificial intelligence. When you have gone unnoticed and the enemies are going about their pre-scripted business, everything is fine, and when they are fully alerted to your presence, they will take cover and try to flush you out with grenades. However there is an incredibly awkward middle ground when the enemies see a light get shot out or find a dead body. Sometimes they will behave in reasonable ways, patrolling the area and yelling to other humans to start looking for a potential intruder. However all too frequently the AI will break, with enemies running into walls, getting stuck in corners, walking through closed doors and generally ruining the immersion that the game does such a good job of propagating. These moments of AI bugginess are jarring since everything otherwise feels so well crafted. The stealth segments are still hugely enjoyable thanks to the well designed levels and much improved gunplay, but it's a shame more care wasn't put into ironing out bugs in the AI.
If you are not a big fan of stealth and would rather engage in out-and-out firefights, there are no situations where you are strictly required to sneak past enemies. Open combat with human opponents has also seen improvements, mostly in the form of an expanded arsenal and much tighter gunplay. Great weapon sounds and enemies which react well to being shot make firefights really intense; enemies will take cover and throw grenades, communicating with each other about your position. In many sequences that could otherwise be completed with stealth, getting into a firefight will result in an alarm and reinforcements of often heavily armored soldiers that can take a good deal of damage before going down. Normal soldiers usually go down pretty fast, even on the hardest difficulty, although Artyom can take quite a beating before he finally drops, reducing the overall difficulty of human encounters compared to 2033.
Beware the Communist with the Hitler 'stache
Last Light retains military grade ammunition as its main form of currency, and it can be spent at friendly metro stations throughout the game on weapon upgrades and normal ammunition. While you can still load your currency into your guns if you get desperate, I rarely had trouble finding enough ammunition, and only needed to load the precious military grade rounds into my weapons on one occasion. Resource scarcity is never really an issue for that matter, with ammo, medical kits and gas-mask filters existing in relative abundance for the duration of the game. There are a handful of situations in the second half of the journey where limited ammunition is a factor, but these are few and far between, something of a disappointment given the tension these moments bring to the table.
If you aren't dealing with levels filled with human opponents, there is a good chance you are fighting mutants. Steps have been made to improve the variety of these beasts, with the standout addition being giant spiders which are heavily armored on the top. These spiders are sensitive to light, and if you shine your flashlight on them they will eventually flip over exposing their soft bellies. There are some really tense moments where you have spiders coming in from multiple angles and you are forced to try and shine your light on them the entire time, all the while desperately scrambling to keep the flashlight batteries charged. Other new mutants are less interesting but still exciting to fight, such as 'shrimps' which spew acid at you and a praying-mantis like monster with heavily armored front limbs it uses to protect itself. These usually make appearances during your many trips to the surface, which are far more frequent and memorable than they were in 2033.
Life has begun to return to Moscow in the form of shrubs and grasses, and nuclear winter is giving way to spring as severe thunderstorms sweep through the region. The air is startlingly clear as the sun pokes through the clouds, and strong gusts of wind blow water and mud onto your gas mask visor. Many of these surface trips offer a good deal of breathing room and exploration, although these areas are fraught with peril as sinkholes and mutants seem to lie around every corner. You still need to find and swap out filters and masks if you want to stay alive, but so many of them are lying around I never really felt worried about running out. While it might seem like this ruins a chance for tension, it is probably for the best because it would be a shame to have to rush through such visually striking and compelling segments of the game in search for a fresh mask or filter. Tension is still present on these surface segments as you need to watch every step lest you fall into a deep pool of water, and when trying fight multiple monsters on small patches of land some pretty hairy situations can arise.
Something tells me it doesn't want to hug
While many of these segments involve fighting at least some of the new mutant types, too frequently the game falls into an all-too-familiar rhythm of throwing waves of the standard bullet-sponge Watchmen mutants in your direction. There are several sequences in the middle of the game where you need to wait for a ferry to cross a lake or an elevator to descend while you fight off wave after wave of these mutants, and these are easily the weakest sections of the game. The gunplay is much less satisfying when fighting the Watchmen as they take a lot of bullets to go down and do not react well to being shot. Fortunately they only comprise a relatively short amount of the game's substantial 10-12 hour running time, and for every one of these tedious shooting galleries there are several more incredibly memorable moments. Later in the game there are even a few segments where you have the option to bypass mutants altogether if you are tired of fighting.
While the mutant-heavy levels in the middle of the game might easily be classified as filler, even these segments remain compelling thanks to excellent use of sound. Mutants can be heard calling to each other, roaring and scuttling around in all directions. Often you will hear the beasts long before you see them, creating a slowly growing sense of dread as you progress further into the levels. Sound is used cleverly throughout the game, with detailed weapon effects adding to the intensity of firefights and loud gusts of wind that give you chills as you venture onto the surface. Music is relatively low key throughout the game, with moody pieces enhancing the superb atmosphere. The English speaking voice actors do an adequate if not occasionally hammy job of delivering lines with a thick Russian accent, although if you prefer you can play the game with the original Russian voices and rely on subtitles. This might not be the best idea however since you would likely miss out on the huge amounts of frequently interesting and important incidental dialogue you encounter while traveling through the numerous and varied metro stations.
Metro stations are teeming with people and conversations
Metro 2033 was in some regards one of the most visually impressive games around when it came out in 2010, and Last Light lives up to this legacy of cutting edge visuals. Interior areas look similar to 2033 with incredibly crisp and detailed textures, excellent lighting and particle effects and soft, smooth shadows. The biggest improvements have occurred above ground, where the previously drab landscape has been transformed by absolutely stunning lighting and weather effects. I was repeatedly blown away by how vivid and hauntingly beautiful the ruins of Moscow are in Metro Last Light, as clouds gather and disperse and rain drops land on your visor. Unsurprisingly, the astonishing visuals come at a price, as Last Light is a very demanding game. My PC exceeded the recommended requirements, but still experienced significant frame rate drops during graphically intensive moments. Lowering the settings results in significant performance increases and the game still looks very good, although those with powerful gaming PC's will be glad they can run it on with everything turned up.
Metro Last Light is a great sequel that builds on the strengths of the original by making significant improvements to gameplay and storytelling. While there are no modes apart from the central campaign, its high quality, varied play styles and multiple endings incentivize a second playthrough, resulting in adequate value for the asking price. It is a shame that enemy artificial intelligence is inconsistent and supplies are so abundant, undermining the need to carefully explore and conserve ammunition. Despite these shortcomings and some minor pacing issues, Last Light has so many memorable moments and compelling sequences that it is easy to forgive these relatively minor flaws. Those brave enough to venture back into post-apocalyptic Moscow are in for a spectacular albeit grim ride.