Metro: Last Light can sometimes come off like a ride at Disney World or Disneyland. You ride through lushly decorated scenery as animatronic humanoids sing, dance in place, or deliver the Gettysburg Address to a captive audience. In Metro's case, you sometimes jump out of the car to shoot mutants and bad people.
That's not to say that Last Light is painfully linear. It is and it isn't. Everything meets up at one of two endings, which depend on the player's actions throughout the game, and it's up to you to take on the enemy or find creative ways to avoid them.
The game takes place about a year after the "bad" ending of the original game, Metro 2033, so if you got the good ending, scrap those memories. You still play as Artyom, a young man born shortly before the nuclear apocalypse wiped out the world in 2013. In Moscow, hundreds of thousands fled to the underground metro system, which was built to double as bomb shelters during the Cold War. Over the years, each station developed its own identity. Now, in 2033, you have Communist Reds in one station, Fourth Reich Nazis in another, and a number of individual stations that stay out of the way of the larger organizations. From the hundreds of thousands that made it into the Metro, only tens of thousands survive, and no one knows if there are any survivors outside of the city.
Artyom belongs to the Order located at Sparta station, whose duty is to protect the Metro from all threats, human or not. Most people know who they are and respect what they do. In the Order's eyes, everyone is worth saving because humanity can only survive by helping one another. They do so with bullets and politics — sometimes both.
In the last game, Artyom had fired a nuke at the home of the mysterious "Dark Ones," mutant humanoids that can hide in plain sight and demonstrated incredible psychic powers. In the "bad" ending, he let the missile blow them up. Now a decorated hero of the Order, he's tasked with killing the last of the Dark Ones. It seems that one managed to survive and was recently sighted, so he must deal with it since he seems immune to their powers.
Then there's the matter of the D6 bunker that was found in the last game. It turned out to be a massive storage depot of supplies that the Order is keen to share with the rest of the Metro. However, word has also leaked out about it, and a number of factions are quietly gathering to wrest it from the Spartans. Not everyone believes that they'll share, and Artyom soon finds himself in the middle of that situation, too.
Occasionally, Artyom's journey takes him into the radioactive ruins of Moscow, which are now ruled by mutant horrors and twisted vegetation. The last game had only touched on what the world above was like. This time, 4A Games has created a relentlessly sobering tableau of the apocalypse, with decaying bones serving as the mortar of shattered buildings.
Between the mutants and blast-'em-up action, both the setting and the narrative probe the futility of nuclear war, the struggle of humanity to work together rather than apart, and the depths to which the species can sink — and perhaps find redemption. Artyom's thoughts, which are spoken between the major chapters of the game, underline a character whose sometimes depressing delivery eventually bares his hopes for the future as he tries to live to see the next day.
Metro 2033's stations offered the briefest taste of underground life, acting more as temporary stops for the player to restock guns, buy new ones, or purchase life-saving mask filters. Now, as Metro's rails lead the player to each one, they are massive spaces filled with people and conversations that can go on for minutes, though it's sometimes worth listening for a few clues for the next area.
The player can freely explore the underground before continuing with the story. It's an entirely optional piece that is an important part of Last Light's goal of being more than a shooter. It's a story, too, and moments like these ask players to savor the atmosphere in the same way that they did in Valve's Half-Life when entering Black Mesa for the first time. I simply listened to complaints, conversations, guitar playing, and even a theater show that I could have walked away from, but curiosity got the best of me. The fact that 4A Games actually went to these lengths to flesh out the world easily brings Last Light to the same level as other atmospheric first-person shooters, like Valve's Half-Life series and Ken Levine's BioShock franchise.
Guards, soldiers, and other human enemies exhibit some character and complain about orders, boast about a hidden gun (which you can steal if you're patient enough to follow from the shadows), and talk about exercise, listening to music, and smoking. They'll answer intercoms, fix routine things, and go about their business. Knock out a guard somewhere, and after a few minutes, his friend might wonder where he went and go looking for him.
Stealth plays an even bigger part in the gameplay, as Artyom can decide whether to kill his victims from behind or knock them out. This is how I played most of the game against the human enemies and some of the mutants, but there are times when a gunfight is simply unavoidable. As long as you keep Artyom safely inside the shadows, he's practically invisible. Enemies can either be a little too oblivious to his presence as an underground ninja or a little too sensitive when he knocks out someone on the floor above them. It's still amazingly satisfying to figure out the best way through a level. In Last Light, stealth is almost a necessity to save ammo for when you really need it. Enemies call in reinforcements and aren't walking around with pockets of the stuff.
Artyom can modify his guns with a number of options, such as sights and mods that can improve handling or firepower. All of this costs military-grade bullets, which pass for cash in Metro's world because they're more important. The regular bullets, which Artyom uses, are Metro-made knockoffs of a lesser quality. At the same time, you can use the military-grade bullets to inflict devastating damage against enemies — though you'd be effectively burning through your cash.
When it comes to combat, Metro is decidedly old-school aside from the regenerating health system. There's no cover system, circle-strafing and a keen eye are almost required, and against certain monsters, ammo can sometimes evaporate quickly. Fortunately, checkpoints are relatively frequent, and restoring one is incredibly quick. As for difficulty, the game wildly swings between manageable encounters to sudden death. Sometimes you squeak by, but other times, you may face monsters that are better dealt with by running away from them, especially if the environment is out to get you.
Artyom can carry a variety of explosives, including throwing knives for silent kills — or when you've popped your last round. It's often harrowing to battle against hordes of beasts as a wooden elevator slowly descends or through a raging gunfight as you make your way through enemy lines. You may need to crawl through a web-infested hole-in-the-wall with very large spiders that you can flip and burn with you’re the rechargeable flashlight, which you must recharge yourself with a handheld generator.
There are no merchants wandering the tunnels, nor do human soldiers drop buckets of ammo. You can't walk back to the last station, either, since you're on that steel track toward the next objective and station. Artyom is driven ahead, and it's up to you to make sure he has everything he needs.
At one point, he manages to get his hands on a track "car," and there are doorways leading from the main tunnel that he can explore or ignore. It's completely up to the player whether or not they take a chance on finding supplies or phantoms — or worse. At moments like this, I wish I was playing another S.T.A.L.K.E.R. — an open-world sandbox game that was set around Chernobyl — but set in Metro's world. As it is, the car only goes in one direction: toward the next destination.
Even with the minimum PC requirements, Last Light's world is stunning. I can only guess how much better it looks on more powerful hardware. It also has a few technical issues that mar the experience, such as how changing the resolution can sometimes screw up your desktop icons by cramping them together. That's what happened to me, anyway.
Unskippable cinematics often rendered nothing more than a blank screen or a frozen, flickering snapshot of what came before while the audio plays in the background. In-game cuts often follow these empty pauses and then play out just fine. It's frustratingly jarring given Metro's artistically chilling world, only to be left in the dark about what was intended to happen. I "heard" the ending, but I couldn't see any of it. There's always YouTube, I guess. The "good" ending that I'd earned topped off the whole journey with a well-deserved finish.
Last Light felt a bit more forgiving, though that might be good for some. Even with its emphasis on survival and scavenging for bullets like the first game, the pressure to do so is far more relaxed this time around. The world is fantastic, the underlying narrative compelling, and there are a few challenging moments of gunplay. Survival-wise, though, bullets and filters don't seem as scarce as I remembered them from the last game, though that may have to do with stealth being my preferred gameplay method.
I guess I should have played the game on its Ranger difficulty, but the problem is that the review copy I unlocked didn't have it. If you've pre-ordered the game, you'll get it automatically. Everyone else is out of luck until publisher Deep Silver decides to make it available somehow. Though 4A had explained that it was a decision made by THQ and was too far along to change it at this point, it's still sad that the addition of a difficulty level was a pre-order incentive.
Metro: Last Light is proudly steeped in the best traditions of other storied FPS giants while still evoking the kind of philosophical underpinnings from the Metal Gear Solid and BioShock series. Last Light's ravaged underworld also feels amazingly alive, as if it's a place to be experienced rather than simply played through like any other shooter. It's both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness in rewarding careful exploration over blazing speed. At the same time, this is the world that Artyom lives in, a place that kills the careless without remorse. Perhaps by forcing players to think like one of the last members of humanity, Last Light's war-weary world is still trying to make its point heard.
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