Before I launch into the review proper, I’d like to ask that you take the time to read my retrospective on Metro 2033. Whether you’ve played it or not, it will help establish my history with the series going forward.
If you don’t have the time, I’ll paraphrase: Metro 2033 was a completely unexpected surprise, and even though it is flawed, it remains one of the most atmospheric and compelling story-driven games I have ever played. It was a cult hit, but not really enough to warrant a sequel, so I was thrilled when Last Light was announced.
Metro: Last Light is a true tale of survival in its own right: The sequel no one expected, it somehow managed to stay on track even as THQ burned around it. That is no doubt thanks to the efforts of the team at 4A Games, who had a polished product ready for Deep Silver to get on shelves almost immediately after the acquisition. I will also give credit to the marketing team that brought us the live-action trailers; assuming those were funded by THQ that was money they probably didn’t have to spend.
From the marketing, both before and after the property changed hands, it was obvious that this game was going to try and walk the fine line between what made 2033 such a hit (atmosphere, nuance, compelling storytelling) and what the mainstream demands (tighter gunplay, bigger set-pieces, more overt storytelling).
The changes in storytelling are apparent right from the start, with the events of the last game being chronicled for the player in a series of cutscenes narrated by protagonist Artyom. Scenes that took place outside of first-person were rare in 2033, but are more prominent in Last Light. The main plot is also touched upon more frequently; while I don’t want to say it is “spoon-fed,” there are a few characters that might as well have names like Exposition Jones.
A legitimate reason for the shift in tone, main-plot-wise, is that this is no longer the story of a desperate young man groping his way through the tunnels, coming upon the larger world almost by happenstance. Artyom is a full member of the Spartan rangers now, the enigmatic peace-keepers and trailblazers from 2033. After the discovery of the military installation D6, the rangers made it their base, but word of the spoils in contains has spread to factions like the fascist Reich and the communist Red Line. The ensuing tension and possibility of war intertwines with another (spoiler-heavy) plot thread to form the main thrust of the narrative. As such, it makes sense that this story would focus more on the larger issues and intricacies of the world, since Artyom is now privy to them.
Fortunately, the world is still full of little side conversations and small acts of humanity for you to witness and participate in. I actually felt a little overwhelmed by how busy some of the populated stations were, and know for a fact that a missed some little moments here and there. One of the ways these games gauge Artyom’s demeanor – something which impacts the possible endings – is by how often you stop to listen and interact; statistically, fewer things trigger the system this time, but you never know until after the fact. The guys at 4A really outdid themselves scripting and programming all of them, and it would be a shame to rush past it all.
Personally, I didn’t care if I was getting “credit” for it or not, because these little moments are so well written and integrated into the world. Beyond just deepening the atmosphere, some of them also provide useful information about your objectives, or where to locate hidden supplies. My personal favorite was watching an old man make shadow-puppets of animals for children. Most of the time the kids thought he was making creatures like nosalis or demons; when he tried to explain the animals that lived before the war, they either didn’t believe him, or got scared by his descriptions. It was a moment of raw humanity and genuine heartbreak.
Easily the best new populated area is Venice station, which was never visited in 2033. “Venice” is not the actual name of the station, but rather a nickname given to it because all of the tunnels around it are flooded, creating a kind of canal system. This obviously means most of the economy is based on fishing, and the station itself is laid out like a bayou shanty town, with several levels of buildings having been constructed around and above the water. Also of note is Theatre Station, so named because it resides under the famous Bolshoi Theatre. It is the cultural hub of the Metro, and Artyom can actually take in a performance there… though the show isn’t what it used to be.
Due to the story changes, there are also more instances where you will be in tunnels or stations surrounded by human enemies, and it’s up to you whether you want to run-and-gun or stick to the shadows. New to the series is a non-lethal takedown, which allows you to dispatch guards without making Artyom a murderer; if you or an unconscious body gets spotted, though, all bets are off as the alarm klaxons blare and heavily-equipped reinforcements storm the area. A few changes to the formula keep things fresh, such as one station that is burning around you; this limits your hiding places, challenges you to move quickly, and even forces you to give up on certain routes as they become blocked.
That’s not to say there aren’t still plenty of times the player finds themselves alone in an abandoned tunnel, or wandering through the ruins of the city above. Those moments are still present, and still hold ever bit as much tension as they did in 2033. It brings me no shame to admit that I sometimes took a break so that my hands could rest from their white-knuckle grip on my controller. As with any solid genre entry, familiar mutants are intermingled with new monstrosities, such as the aquatic shrimps and the arachnid spider-bugs. Each species also has multiple variations this time around, with standard grunt-types, tougher and smarter officer-types, and even the occasional boss-level behemoth.
Unfortunately, there weren’t as many memorable areas that hinged on the dominance of a certain species: The watchmen hoards roaming the DeadCity; the lost tunnels swarming with lurkers; the minefields of amoebas in D6. Finally, nothing in Last Light comes even remotely close to the experience of the Library, and the terror and tension of trying to keep line-of-sight with the hulking librarians even as they charged at you. Even the boss fights are all variants of the familiar “big baddie in a semi-circular arena” fight, with a slight environmental or mechanic twist throw in.
I know anyone familiar with Metro 2033 will know that one of the main complaints was the gunplay, and is probably waiting for me to talk above whether or not it has improved. The thing is, I never had any issue with the gunplay in 2033; it doesn’t play like a Call of Duty or a Battlefield, but I never got the impression it was supposed to. These aren’t the well-oiled, super-sleek, camo-customized weapons of a twitch shooter; these are well-worn, battle-scarred, hand-me-down tools of survival.
Each gun still feels like it fits well within the world and the game; each one has its own pros and cons, handles differently, and is perfectly suited to at least one combat approach. I think you could probably tell a lot about someone’s Metro experience by asking them what weapons they favored for the majority of the game. Personally, I opted for the following:
- A silenced “bastard” machine gun with and extended stock and an IR scope, perfect for shooting out lights and tracking patrols in the dark.
- An AK with a reflex sight, laser dot and extended magazine for when the quiet approach wasn’t an option against human targets.
- A sawn-off, quadruple-barrel shotgun with both stock attachments for accurately turning charging mutants into little, scattered bits of flesh and bone.
Overall, there are at least a dozen weapons at your disposal, ranging from more refined military hardware, to jury-rigged, gas-powered weapons of necessity, to truly unique items like the helsing. Each weapon is customizable, with slots for barrel, optics, stock, and miscellaneous additions; thankfully, except for on instance after what is essentially the tutorial level, the game doesn’t ever permanently strip you of your hard-earned gear.
While I didn’t think the weapons handled noticeably different from 2033, you are presented with a few more situations where combat is 100% the focus of the area. In addition to the aforementioned boss fights, there are a couple of hold-the-line scenarios as you wait to be able to access the next area, and a few times you find yourself surrounded by enemy troops who are already alerted to your presence. The game’s climax in particular is about as action-packed as you can get, and I’m sure will be seen by some as a total sell-out to the mainstream shooter crowd. Of course, there is an achievement for completing the game without a single human kill, which means the developers are challenging us to avoid the carnage even as their level designs steer us into its path.
I do have issue with some slight changes to the user interface, and the visibility of weapons in the field of view. Several gear items that had a dedicated button in 2033 are now relegated to sub-menus that pop up when a certain button is held; additionally, weapons and gear have been split between two such menus, yet the gear menu still feels crowded. More than once I switched my secondary weapon while trying to replace the filter in my gas-mask or charge my flashlight. I was also disappointed that throwing knives became a secondary weapon, meaning that we no longer get the physical presence of Artyom’s hands when trying to line up shots with them.
There were also changes for the better, especially when it comes to the gas mask and its filters. The system for tracking how much time was left while using the filters was much improved, and the mask as a whole had a more immersive presence while being worn. There’s even a button for wiping water, mud, and gore off of the visor, and I sometimes pressed it for fun just because the attention to detail was that cool. I also loved the ability to use my lighter and gun at the same time, and frequently utilized it as my primary source of illumination; the fact that it burned away cobwebs and could light the occasional torch or lamp was just an added bonus.
All of these things combine to make a game that is a sequel to 2033 in literal terms of continuing the story, a spiritual successor in terms of continuing to craft and refine this universe, and feels almost like a reboot in terms of the approach to the combat experience. The resulting Last Light experience is very reminiscent of its predecessor: It gets the majority of things right most of the time, absolutely nails it all here and there, and despite a few fumbles the whole thing comes together nicely. The atmosphere and ambient storytelling I adored are still present, even if set against a revised backdrop, and I have no doubt that this isn’t my last time taking this particular journey with Artyom.
I don’t know that I can say which game I liked “better”; my preference for one at any given time could probably be attributed to my mood. I think a fitting comparison would be the differences between feeling like watching Alien and watching Aliens. 2033 is a lonely game, one filled equally with quiet moments of reflection, moments of raw terror, and moments of wonder at the world Artyom never knew lay beyond Exhibition station. Last Light is more populated, its reflective moments more observational than introspective, its tension driven more by human machinations, and its potential stakes are higher.
Last Light is very much a game that will give back as much as you put into it, for better or for worse. Artyom must decide whether the dark ones, mutants, and other factions are hostile and a threat, or simply misguided and misunderstood; so must we decide what the Metro can do for us, or will do to us. In the end I can’t help but feel like we are all watching shadow puppets on the wall. What you choose to see in them is up to you.
[amazon_link id=”B0053BSN82″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]I played Metro: Last Light on the XBox 360; it is also available on PC and Playstation 3.[/amazon_link]
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