Reviews

Metro: Last Light – Review

Metro-Last-Light-21 (1)

Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3 and PC
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: 4A
Publisher: Deep Silver
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No
PEGI: 18+

NOTE: This review contains a single swear word. You have been warned.

4A have returned to deliver a sequel to Metro 2033, a groundbreaking FPS/creepfest that garnered a considerable cult following, though never managing to achieve major commercial success, despite deserving it. This time around 4A have made some changes to allow the game to appeal to a broader market, but have those changes been for the best? Join me as I venture forth once again into the creepy darkness of the metro tunnels and…OHMYGODSOMETHINGJUSTMOVEDSHOOTITSHOOTITSHOOTIT!

Metro 2033 was based upon the famous book of the same name, but for the second game 4A chose not to adapt Dmitry Glukhovsky’s literary sequel  because it focused on a completely new cast of characters, abandoning Artyom and his comrades in favor of fresh new faces. Instead 4A chose to go ahead and craft their own unique canon with which to continue their series. As such we once again assume the mantle of Artyom, now a fully fledged ranger, as he discovers that a solitary Dark One survived the missile barrage (only that ending is viewed as canon) at the end of the last game, and so starts another tension-filled trudge through one of the most atmospheric, detailed and bleak game worlds ever created. For Artyom this is a journey of atonement in many ways as he feels a heavy sense of guilt for his near-genocide of the Dark Ones. He has been commanded to destroy this final surviving creature, and yet his own unique connection to them gives him reason to pause and doubt his own motivations. Woven around this main narrative thread is the politics of the various groups that inhabit the metro,  primarily the Neo-Nazis and the Communists, both of whom somehow carried their ideals with them into the dark, dank world of the underground.

You've got about five seconds to admire the view until something tries to eat your face off.

You’ve got about five seconds to admire the view until something tries to eat your face off.

Truth be told the quality of both the writing and main narrative thread is all over the place, bouncing madly from genuinely beautifully written moments with emotional impact and outstanding twists sure to leave you with your jaw on the floor to scenes with clumsy dialogue and ideas  that just didn’t work out as well as I would have liked, though exactly how much of this inconsistency can be put down to translation issues is hard to judge. The opening of the game’s primary  story that focuses on Artyom and the Dark Ones is strong, but then it vanishes for a large of the chunk of the game, only to re-emerge later in powerful fashion before fizzling out once again with a weak final third of the campaign and endings (there’s two available) that will likely leave quite a lot of people feeling a little unsatisfied, something which is becoming horribly common in games these days, although others may quite enjoy it – it’s a hard call to make. Likewise the characters are a little all over the place as well. A man by the name of Pavel that you meet early on easily stands as the most well-written of the bunch with amusing dialogue and a great story-arc which is a highlight of the game, yet there’s not a very satisfying resolution to his part of the tale, either, which left me feeling disappointed, especially as he’s not the only one that gets this treatment. As for the other characters many reviews have talked about them being fully fleshed out and having deep personalities, but frankly I didn’t see that. They tend to stick around for such small amounts of time that there’s barely any chance to get to know them or form a connection, and they’re just not that interesting in the limited time that you do get to spend with them. In particular your love interest is a completely wasted opportunity, and the way the romance is handled feels awkward.

Artyom narrates his own journal entries during loading screens between levels, displaying a clear personality of his own in the process, yet remains stubbornly mute when interacting with other people. Why 4A chose to continue having Artyom be a voiceless  hero honestly baffles me, and left me even feeling a little frustrated as conversations simply don’t sound right when only one person is actually talking. Artyom gets across his feelings about what’s going on well enough during  journal entries, but it still feels like so much more could have been done with him had he been allowed to have a voice when interacting with the world around him, especially in regards to the romantic sub-plot. I sincerely hope that if we see a third Metro game from 4A they’ll have a fully voiced protagonist, someone to carry the metaphorical writing torch.

But while the main narrative is somewhat inconsistent  the real interest lies is within the smaller stories and sub-plots that weave through the game, detailing the life of those that live in the metro and the politics between the various factions. The shady dealings and sinister truths of the Nazi’s and Communists far outshines the supernatural mumbo-jumbo that the main narrative ends up in, making me wish that the writers had instead chosen to focus on those elements. However, I should say that while many of the directions the primary narrative went were not to my taste it does feel like the type of storyline that’s going to split opinions about whether it worked well or not, and there were some astounding moments that came of it, such as haunting walks through ghost filled buildings and tunnels. I may be critical of the plot and its writing, but that’s not to say that I did not enjoy it – it just feels a little rough, and like it could have been much more.

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Moving on from the story much of the rest of the game has seen considerable improvement since the days of Metro 2033. The shooting mechanics for starters have been tightened up, so that while they’re still quite be on par with the top-tier FPS games out there they’re now far more enjoyable. Guns could still do with packing a little more punch, both in terms of sound and feel, but at the same time their current state does fit in with their DIY nature, so I’m more than willing to accept them this as an immersive detail. Your weapons can also be customized at various merchants along the way, allowing you to chuck on scopes, silencers and even aiming lasers to improve performance, though arguably being able to do this does take away somewhat from the sensation that you’re supposed to be just scraping by in the metro, scrounging what weapons you can wherever you can. However, while the controls have been tightened up to create better shooting and the weapons feel better, there’s a major flaw in the form of the game’s often brain-dead AI. The savage beasts that inhabit the world are as brutal and direct as you would expect, but your human foes are pitifully easy to beat in a straight out firefight, leaving themselves vulnerable to easy shots most of the time. It’s simple to just crouch down and  leave them firing at where you were, as well, while you sneak off to the side and proceed to mow them down. There’s just no sense of danger when you’re facing off against human enemies because you feel like a one-man army capable of blazing through hundreds of them.

Likewise I sometimes had a bit of an irritating AI problem fighting the spider/scorpions  as I became locked in a strange cycle where I would turn my flashlight on them and they’d simply scuttle off into a tunnel and then come out of another one, where I would again aim my flashlight at them and they’d scuttle off into the tunnel and come back out of the first one again. It quickly became irritating, and then just sort of strangely funny as we danced this strange dance, the beam of light refusing to be effective quickly enough to stop them scurrying back to their lairs.

These will become the bane of your existence. Fast, terrifying and deadly.

These will become the bane of your existence. Fast, terrifying and deadly.

Stealth is now also a viable option this time around, and is even actively encouraged over simply going in with guns blazing. Artyom now has a handy indicator on his wrist which lets him know when he’s hidden from sight and when he’s not, making sneaking through the shadows feel considerably smoother as you pass by guards mere inches away, unscrew lightbulbs and create distractions. The introduction of lethal and non-lethal take-downs, which hint at the game’s hidden and pointless morality system, also makes stealth feel far slicker than before. By all accounts sneaking  is arguably the more satisfying way to play through large chunks of the game, but once again stupid AI mars the experience. When making your way through the environment  the enemy AI is laughably dumb, failing to notice you when they should clearly see you, completely ignoring the fact that the light by their head just exploded into tiny fragments or that their best buddy died right beside them. Or you might even stumble straight into a guard on alert only to get zero reaction from him, leaving you to happily put a knife through his throat and continue on your merry way like nothing happened. As a result stealthing your way through levels is a piece of cake as the only real way to alert guards to your presence is to start jumping around and screaming at the top of your lungs. If we’re going to get a third Metro game 4A need to invest heavily in their AI if they want to further improve the core gameplay, otherwise no amount of tweaks or changes is going to make a difference. Still, there’s no denying that both stealth and combat have been refined in comparison to the previous game.

But while many of the mechanics have improved considerably since Metro 2033, two of the most distinctive which gave the previous game its unique feeling have been largely lost, the first of which is the claustrophobia inducing gas mask. The world above the Metro is a toxic place, where it’s impossible to survive without a gas mask and a supply of filters so that you can breathe. In Metro 2033 this made journeys to the surface world a tense and terrifying experience as you were constantly on the edge of running out of filters and thus succumbing to the deadly atmosphere. Every time you ventured above ground it was a desperate, tension filled mix of trying to get to your objective as fast as possible while also scouring the ground for more filters, usually while the ever-present thread of mutants had you sweating harder than a fat man in a sauna. In Metro: Last Light, however, this survivalist mechanic has been made nearly pointless as filters are in surplus, easily found strewn around the environment in large quantities. Not once during my entire time with the game did I find myself nearly running out of filters, removing the sense of tension from surface journey’s. In the previous game the continuous hunt for filters could sometimes prove more frustrating than anything else and created a barrier to enjoyment that left some players struggling to find pleasure in the game as simply getting caught on a bit of scenery for  even a split-second could lead to your demise, and yet in their quest to remedy this and open the game to wider audience the developers have gone too far the other way, rendering one of their unique and brilliant gameplay elements almost redundant. I approve of them trying to refine the mechanic to make it just a touch more forgiving, as it annoyed even me at times, and thus make the game more commercially viable, but in their quest to fix it they’ve destroyed it.

The kids in this game have some odd voice acting. They sound hollow and strange. It's frankly kind of creepy.

The kids in this game have some odd voice acting. They sound hollow and strange. It’s frankly kind of creepy.

Likewise the second distinctive mechanic of using military-grade ammunition has also been made almost entirely redundant. In Metro 2033 the idea was that military-grade ammunition was so rare and valued that it was used as currency, allowing you to purchase new gear whenever you found a handy merchant willing to part with his goods. However, standard ammo, the kind that you used in your guns all the time, was also in pretty short supply, meaning  that you’d often run out it, leading you to make a hard choice: do you continue to scrounge for ammo as best as you can, or do you feed your military-grade ammo, which also provides a big damage boost, in to your clips in a bid to survive? This mechanic led to some fantastic moments where you ran out of ammo in the middle of a battle with horrifying mutants and found yourself forced to literally shoot money at them or die a horrible death at the claws of monsters. It was a great mechanic that forced you to conserve your ammo and really make every shot count, bringing a wonderful survival atmosphere into the game. But in Metro: Last Light ammo is much, much easier to find lying around the place, and so military-grade ammo simply becomes nothing more than regular money, the decision whether to use it in a fight lost for some unknown reason. There is still the ever-present possibility of running out of ammunition during particularly hectic fights, and more so during the infrequent but frustrating boss fights, but it’s now only a real danger if you’re downright wasteful of you resources, spraying rounds like a man possessed. Hell, there’s barely even a reason to visit a merchant while playing, because guns and ammo can be found lying all over the place, like some sort of weapon mad Santa has been wandering around the place leaving presents for you.

By essentially negating these two gameplay mechanics Metro: Last Light has lost a considerable chunk of what made the first game feel so truly unique, bringing it closer to being just another FPS in terms of its much of its gameplay, though its pervading sense of tension and atmosphere still place it well outside the sphere of what most FPS games can  ever hope to accomplish with their world building. With ammo, weapons and filters in much larger supply there’s less of a feeling that your surviving in the metro, and more of a sense that your thriving.

The game should have included a solution to my complaint, though, in the form of Ranger Mode, a hardcore mode that removes your HUD and ramps up the difficulty, making ammo, weapons and filters much scarcer. However, in what I’m going to call the most irritating decision made by a company this year, Ranger Mode, which was advertised as the way the game was meant to be played, was cut out of the game to be a pre-order incentive. There’s no other difficulty levels in Last Light for you to select other than default, and if you want to get Ranger Mode you’ll need to cough up some cash. Because Ranger Mode is  a piece of DLC, then, technically it isn’t a part of the core game, and it will NOT be factored into this review, and therefore my complaint regarding the survivalist mechanics being considerably more forgiving stands.

Good grief is this game beautiful or what?

Good grief is this game beautiful or what?

In all honesty, though, both Last Light’s storyline and gameplay take the back seat  in comparison to the game’s greatest strengths: its game world, atmosphere and sense of immersion. Interspersing your trips through the underground tunnels and the shooting action are more reflective moments where you get to stop and explore the metro stations which the remnants of humanity now call home. These are welcome breaks from the always-on-edge action of the rest of the game, a chance for you to stop and soak in the incredible attention to detail. As you stroll through the station people go about their lives, creating the hustle and bustle of life, and you’re free to eavesdrop on their conversations, giving you small glimpses into what life in the metro is like for these people – it’s fascinating stuff and only helps to further cement this world as one of the finest creations in gaming history. These sections are not always kind, though, there’s one haunting example later that I won’t spoil for you, but it’s sure to leave a mark on you. These harsher interludes are almost jarring as you stagger forth from the tunnels expecting reprieve from the horror and death, only to find more of it. Last Light occasionally gives you a flash of hope, a moment of human goodness, but it’s also more than willing to show the bad as well, to show the helplessness, sadness and horror that nuclear war could bring down upon us all. Sadly during these sections you’re still little more than a spectator: metro stations are very linear, though that’s probably the sacrifice that must be made for such an intensely detailed and atmospheric experience, and your interaction with the environment and people is even more limited than it was in the first game. It’s like you’re on a theme park ride, able to look but never touch.

Venture into the metro tunnels and it’s a tension filled creep-fest where there’s always the distinct and unsettling feeling that you’re being watched from the claustrophobic darkness that encloses you. There’s the ever-present fear of the mutant beasts and crawling things that inhabit the tunnels sending chills down your spine. Even dedicated horror games cannot hope to match the sense of tension that Last Light creates, both when underground and above. In particular one section that stands out comes when you must leave the safety of your vehicle to turn the power on to a gate. The corridors and rooms are tight, it’s dark and there’s not even an inch of wall, floor or ceiling that is not covered in sticky webs or horrible egg-sacks which burst into hordes of spiders should you come near. You know they’re there, the horrible scorpion/spider hybrids. You can hear them scuttling around, hear their strange sounds, and yet you cannot see them. You know attack is inevitable, but the game just lets your fear build until finally one bursts forth from a sack. These scuttling bastards are only susceptible to your flashlight as it burns them, making them flip over on to their back and exposing their soft underbellies. Yet it can take valuable seconds for light to effect them, time which they can spend slicing you up. Facing one is horrible, but facing several at one time is one of the scariest things you’ll do in a game as you try to desperately keep track of them, to keep them locked in the beam of light which is your only hope and salvation. It’s not just the sense of tension and horror, though, the metro tunnels have a sense of being as real place thanks to the amount of detail put into them, and the scattered bodies and details that you can find create a rich backstory told solely through visuals. This is a world of death, loss and sadness, and yet also one of haunting beauty.

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Graphically the game is an absolute powerhouse, boasting an absurd level of detail and an utterly gorgeous lighting engine which is used to great effect. The metro tunnels look amazing, but it’s when you clamber out onto the surface where the game really gets to flex its metaphorical muscles with environments that are both a bleak look at a ruined world and at the same time breathtakingly beautiful with vast vistas of destroyed cities. This is the most convincing portrayal of a postapocalyptic world we’ve ever seen in a game, running circles around Fallout’s attempt. Highlights include murky swamps and torrential downpours which had me literally sitting with my mouth hanging open as I took everything in.  Perhaps, I reflected, this is why 4A chose to be more liberal with the filter supply, so that we could simply sit and admire this graphical marvel without suddenly running out of air. I swear to you my words do no justice to how utterly fucking ( I apologise, but I’m a simple Scottish bloke and it needed to be said) amazing this game looks. And that’s on the console version. I’ve no doubt that the PC version running on maxed settings will quite literally melt your eyeballs so that they run down the back of your throat. That few seconds before they turn into liquid would be totally worth it, though.

While the graphical presentation is mighty impressive, though, the sound design is a little hit and miss. The voice acting, for the most part, is good, even if it sounds  little overdone to my Scottish ears, but when it comes to the sound effects the quality is considerably less. Some things sound just fine, but others do  not. Some audio is too quiet, while some scenes seem to be completely lacking in effects or has sound that just don’t quite match up with what you’re seeing. For example at one point you find yourself on a raft being dragged down a small tunnel by a rough and vicious current. Your barge is being  battered against rocks as the torrential water flows and races around you, and yet from an audio standpoint this scene sounds like you’re floating down a gentle river in a Disney ride, creating a jarring contrast between what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing. Weapons sound pretty good, while the opening of a vast metal door rusty with age is strangely silent. It’s a shame that while the graphics do so much to bring this amazing world to life the sound design let’s the side down.

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Some other problems also cropped up during my time with the game. For all of the detail put in to creating the levels the people you meet along the way are stiffly animated with waxen faces and mouths that often don’t even move when the person speaks, which more than once freaked me out a little. A few other graphical hiccups included enemies getting stuck in scenery, their arms, legs and heads sticking through walls. And there were also a few little glitches, although none of them were too bad.

I also want to stop and talk briefly about a seriously out of place scene in this game. Here you are working your way through a metro station called Venice when all of a sudden you’re pulled into an unavoidable and bloody awkward lap-dance from a woman with everything above her waist on display. I’m not against sex or sexual themes in videogames, but this one just feels so out of place and contrived that I’ve got to call it out as being utterly stupid. Come on 4A, what were you thinking? Why is this even here?

And finally I do need to address the fact that there’s a few other changes in Metro: Last Light that were clearly made to appeal to a larger market, but have also taken away some of the game’s unique identity. There’s several completely unnecessary boss battles which aren’t very enjoyable, and there’s also quite a few bombastic set-pieces that feel out of place here and are pretty poorly executed, serving only to make you feel more like a one-man army than a solitary guy fighting hard to survive. And finally there’s quite a bit of time spent in the world in company of AI companions which takes away from that sense of tension and danger that the game creates so incredibly well when you’re on your own. I can understand 4A wanting and needing to make this Metro game appeal to a broader audience, but they need to be careful that they don’t stray too far away from what make the first game so loved.

So, as we come to the end of this review and I attempt to collect my thoughts and then sort them in to a coherent string of words I find myself a lot of conflicting feelings about Metro: Last Light. It gets so much right, creating one of the most engrossing and hauntingly beautiful game worlds we’ve ever seen, yet also makes some grave mistakes along the way. Combat and stealth have been improved  since the first game but still aren’t anything special,  and idiotic AI  lets both aspects down. Meanwhile the story is enjoyable but  is  patchy and didn’t manage to impress me as much as I had hoped. Last Light is a tension-filled, creepy, atmospheric journey that is inconsistent in its execution, but is still undoubtedly a fine game worthy of your time and money. And let us not forget, even if it won’t affect my final score, that 4A created this sequel on a budget the fraction of what most triple-A games are afforded, and yet still managed to build one of the greatest game worlds ever seen.

The Good:
+ The tension created during a lot of the tighter tunnel sections puts most horror films/games to shame.
+ graphically outstanding.
+ Incredibly atmospheric and immersive.
+ Gunplay and stealth notably improved since the first game.

The Bad:
– Terrible AI.
– Some rough writing and dialogue.
– Quality of the story is all over the place.
– Some poor design choices.

The Verdict: 3.5 – Good, bordering on great.
4A have crafted a worthy sequel to Metro 2033 in so many ways, and yet in several others have slipped up.  It’s an inconsistent game, but one that is more than worth paying for simply because of the outstanding world, stunning graphics and its frequent creepy, tense levels.

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