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Metro: Last Light (PC) artwork

Metro: Last Light (PC) review

"With every journey to the surface, the Moscow skyline is presented as something awe-inspiring yet imposing, and yet it is only ever seen through the cracked visor of a gas mask – a visor that you must frequently, manually wipe clean of dirt and blood. Should you get too absorbed, the clock on your filter quite literally reminds you that your time spent up here is limited – that for as dank and gloomy as Moscow's subway system is, that's where humanity belongs now."

Metro: Last Light asset

Someone once told me that he felt "atmospheric" was a buzzword used by critics to make games sound better than they are. There's some truth to that, but I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing. Atmosphere can be a make-or-break factor in modern titles, and a strong immersion level can turn a deeply flawed game into one that's nevertheless worth playing. Case in point: Metro 2033 was a clunky invisible wall extravaganza, and it was also kind of wonderful. Beneath its unpolished exterior was a first-person shooter that matched bleak imagery with uplifting statements about human nature. Through convincing world-building, it reminded us that while the end of the world will likely bring out the worst in humanity, it will also likely bring out the best in the most unexpected places. It was an ugly game with beautiful things to say.

The obvious fear with a slicked-up, big-budget sequel like Metro: Last Light, then, is that it will be a beautiful game with very little to say. That's sort of true. Unlike its predecessor, Last Light doesn't appear to be based on any preexisting literary material, and its plot is a straightforward and relatively forgettable dash from one nondescript objective to the next. The marketing has made the sequel out to be streamlined and set piece-heavy – the game even has a train level, for crying out loud! I don't equate success with being a sellout, but the sad truth of this industry is that many developers don't know how to handle a sudden influx of resources, and often respond to the unexpected popularity of a franchise by forsaking what made it popular in the first place. I suspect that many diehards will regard this follow-up as beautiful but empty.

But it is a beautiful game, and my goodness is it atmospheric! The long treks through the metro tunnels beneath Moscow and the occasional trips to the haunting, post-apocalyptic cityscape above ground show us nothing we haven't seen before, but it's almost certainly never been portrayed with such a degree of detail, such spectacular lighting effects and such a keen eye for composition. With every journey to the surface, the Moscow skyline is presented as something awe-inspiring yet imposing, and yet it is only ever seen through the cracked visor of a gas mask – a visor that you must frequently, manually wipe clean of dirt and blood. Should you get too absorbed, the clock on your filter quite literally reminds you that your time spent up here is limited – that for as dank and gloomy as Moscow's subway system is, that's where humanity belongs now.

Metro: Last Light asset

So Last Light, despite running on the same engine as its predecessor and having many of the same wonky physics issues, certainly trumps the original game in the looks department. That's its first achievement. Its second is the way it demonstrates that you can take most of the profoundness out of Metro 2033 and still be left with a game that doesn't quite feel like anything else on the market, one that channels first-person shooting, stealth and survival horror in such a way that no single element feels outweighed.

For one thing, the combat itself, barring a few AI quirks here and there, is totally serviceable to the point that you could play Last Light end-to-end as a straightforward FPS and never suspect that it could be approached any other way. The catch is that while the shooting is intuitive, the game also lets its survival horror influence seep through the cracks in a number of key areas, such as ammo conservation and excessive screen-shaking. It's possible to back yourself into a situation in which you can't win despite not being dead yet, and it makes sense. Returning protagonist Artyom isn't a supersoldier. He overcomes obstacles less through power and more through quick thinking. In a jam, you can always use military-grade bullets to get out of sticky situations, but military-grade rounds are also the metro's currency, so you're effectively wasting money every time you fire them. If all else fails, you can just sidestep combat entirely.

I'd be lying if I said that the stealth always makes perfect sense, as many of the "dark" areas are still pretty well-lit, and guards are often pretty oblivious to sounds that they should be able to hear. Critically, though, the stealth always follows its own rules and, perhaps more importantly, blends almost seamlessly with the gunplay. This is something that even the recent Tomb Raider reboot, which excelled in nearly every other area, bungled a bit, because if just one guard in that game spotted you, every enemy in the vicinity was instantly and completely aware of your location until they were all dead. In Last Light, it's perfectly possible to engage hostile forces in open combat and then slip back into darkness, even landing a few kills on soldiers who are still firing in the general direction of where they last saw you. There's no point in juggling genres like this if the game still feels distinctly as though it's meant to be played one particular way, and Last Light never quite does.

Metro: Last Light asset

It's a scary game, too – more so than nearly any other big-budget horror release of the last few years, mainly because it doesn't trip over itself trying to startle us with loud noises and sudden orchestral jolts. This is where all of that emphasis on atmosphere really pays off, as many of Last Light's biggest scares happen in broad daylight with no musical accompaniment. The mutants themselves now make the most terrifying bellowing sound you can imagine, but it's usually heard at a distance, which makes the many moments in which a big, scary monster isn't about to pounce on you from behind just as unnerving as the occasional instances in which one actually is.

And now that 4A Games have established the "new world, new rules" approach to supernatural happenings in post-apocalyptic Moscow, they hold nothing back when it comes to psychological horror. There's a sequence early in the game in which Artyom and his companion are exploring the wreckage of an airliner when they're suddenly overcome with hallucinations depicting the crash from the perspective of the people in it just as the nuclear bombs hit the city. The scene poses no physical threat to the player but will be remembered, at least by me, as one of the most chilling moments of this generation.

Last Light does actually digress into tiring design tropes more often than I may be letting on, as there are at least three or four sequences in which you must hold off waves off monsters while waiting for an elevator or ferry to rescue you, and just as many in which you're stuck on a vehicle with a predetermined path and forced to gun down mutants that are latching on. But for every one trite design decision like that, you get several segments like the aforementioned plane wreck scene that are masterfully crafted. The set pieces are surprisingly intense, the scenery is more varied than we've come to expect from an oppressively bleak game like this, and the frequent divergences to explore the more wondrous aspects of the metro are eye-opening.

And, as with the previous game, it's all meticulously paced. Rarely is an idea repeated, and while Last Light is an action-oriented game, 4A Games understood that the world they've created is still intriguing enough that they can afford to slow things down to a walking pace every now and then. We want to admire the absurd level of detail poured into the metro's underground shanty towns. We want to listen in on conversations that didn't need to be there. In that sense, Last Light astutely recaptures the spirit of the original in many critical ways, which makes it all the more disappointing that it misses the mark in one key area.

Metro: Last Light asset

See, one of the things that made Metro 2033's conclusion so fascinating was that you had to actually read between the lines. An alternate ending did reveal the truth – that the Dark Ones you believed to be evil actually intended to establish peaceful contact – but I'd wager that most players never saw that particular side of the story. Instead, they nuked an entire race of beings that they saw very little of and knew almost nothing about, and they had to puzzle out on their own that there's really something deeply, deeply wrong with that. Two years before Spec Ops: The Line had us committing war atrocities, 4A Games gave us the opportunity to mass murder an entire civilization of people simply for being scary-looking, and they sneakily juxtaposed it against images of ugly extremism. Sure, the Nazis are executing people for having less-than-ideal proportions, but is Artyom really any better?

If it seems a bit cheap that I'm blatantly spelling out a message that players were meant to sort out on their own, it's doubly cheap that Last Light does the same thing within its first few minutes, when a character plainly states that the Dark Ones were misunderstood and meant us no harm before being silenced by an antagonistic commander who insists that the Dark Ones are evil and must be destroyed, no questions asked.

That's the area where Last Light truly fumbles: not only does it spoil its predecessor's subtlety a bit, but it refuses to truly say anything of its own, either through lack of grace in the storytelling department or an inability, due to a problematic development cycle, to follow through on its own themes. Artyom's mission to save the remaining Dark One (a child who has every reason to hate the man) delves into the heavy topic of atonement for one's grave sins, but it's underexplored, and the entire subplot is abruptly dropped at the last second to make way for an overly action-heavy final mission wherein Artyom quite literally overcomes his chief conflict by pushing a button. Cue central plot thread being resolved via ugly CGI sequence; cut to awkward flash-forward in which the aftermath is explained via hasty narration.

Match the disappointing finale with a couple of other narrative missteps – like how the only prominent female character turns out to be little more than a damsel-in-distress-slash-sex-object – and Last Light never quite hits its predecessor's highs. It's the better game from a mechanical standpoint, but it feels like a sequel for a sequel's sake, without the sense of purpose that made Metro 2033 so memorable.

Metro: Last Light asset

That's only a comparative issue, though, and it's hardly damning if I mark a game down simply for not being as thought-provoking as one of the most fascinating games of the last several years. And while I don't believe that a game like Last Light should be applauded simply for existing, it's remarkable that a sequel can feel this unjustified and still preserve so much of what made its cult hit of a predecessor so special in the first place. I tip my hat to 4A Games for not including a multiplayer mode in an effort to focus exclusively on a tight solo experience. It's telling that in the same year that the Dead Space franchise crossed the point of no return into full-blown action, Last Light is not only the scarier and more absorbing game, but also the superior shooter. It's too interesting not to recommend.

Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (May 13, 2013)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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