Metro: Last Light Review
Some of the most fascinating first person shooters getting made are coming out of places like Eastern Europe and Russia. For most fans of this particular gritty style of action game, it started in 2007 with STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl. Ukrainian developer 4A Games brought their own take on things with Metro 2033, a tight, polished game with a linear structure and a firm grip on a fairly rigid storyline. It also spent much of its running time in the vast underground beneath Moscow, as the story's nuclear holocaust has irradiated the surface and created fearsome mutants. Now, 4A Games has us reprising the role of Artyom, the ranger with a special gift, for the sequel that is now officially diverting from the novels on which the Metro game franchise was originally based.
Last Light gives you the kind of solid action down in the Moscow underground that Metro fans expected, but the developers have also made some welcome additions: many levels can be done optionally with full stealth, allowing you to use light to sneak past enemies, and there's also a greater focus on story with even better cutscenes and a bigger, crazier plot than the first game. In some ways, Metro: Last Light is a ghost story, and Artyom gets the front row seat to some really interesting and unique pieces of it.
It's easy to think of Last Light as a survival horror game, especially considering it's got lots of the genre's hallmarks: limited ammo and resources, a spooky and supernatural atmosphere, and some rather twisted level and enemy designs. But I hesitate to really call it a survival horror game, because of the number of gunfights with human opponents you get into as well as the developers' careful build-up of a creepy atmosphere over making cynical attempts to deliver cheap thrills through scripted sequences. And in fact, some of the nastiest fights with Moscow's mutated freaks actually happen right out in the open on the surface in broad daylight, where the player must be mindful of the time remaining on Artyom's gas masks and fight off hordes of some of the nastiest and most terrifying enemies. By contrast, the fights against the less-scary human enemies are often the ones that happen in tight, enclosed spaces.
Last Light makes things interesting by featuring weapons that were built post-war out of parts left around, and this manages to add a lot of interesting flavor to how they're used and configured. Sure, the guns still follow FPS conventions of SMG, pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, and more, but it's the new weapons as well as the ways to configure your existing guns that make the difference and give players the sense that the inhabitants of the Metro are forging a new life rather than trying to cling onto the old one. You'll also see this in the small, huddled pockets of peaceful life down in the underground, and the banter between characters in both cinematic areas of the game as well as the action-packed ones - it all works to tie the game's atmosphere together in a way that winds up being very appealing, right from the start. Sure, there are a few holes the developers didn't patch up, like the enemy AI can be a bit iffy sometimes as well as how Artyom's use of light and dark can make the sections you choose to do stealthily a bit easy, but in general I quite liked Last Light's AI and enemy encounters.
It helps that 4A Games have built a very cohesive atmosphere through the use of high-res textures, excellent light and shadow effects, and solid (if not completely amazing) level design that comes together to make up something just a little better than its component parts can add up to. And on PC, Last Light can take advantage of a powerful PC with its advanced effects and supersampling antialiasing - throw in the really demanding stuff like three-monitor gaming and such, and we've got a game that can take even a GeForce Titan to task. (For what it's worth, I played the game on a mid-range GeForce 660Ti, and I was able to reach 60fps with fairly high settings at 1080p.) This game is definitely more demanding than most and if you have any doubts, you should definitely check the system requirements before buying, but the game's not some kind of horsepower-hungry behemoth that eats resources for no benefit to the player.
There is one other peculiarity with Metro: Last Light that's a returning bit of weirdness from the genre's roots, and that is how Artyom almost seems like a ghost himself. The history of first-person games where you cannot see yourself and have no voice goes back many, many years, but as games get better and better-looking and deliver more engaging stories, it becomes so much more glaringly obvious that developers are doing weird things to try and immerse the player into their games. Artyom casts a shadow, but you cannot see his body or legs when you look down, nor does he have a voice other than during loading screens - which comes off as really strange considering how many one-sided conversations there are, where he awkwardly winds up silently standing there. This is one of those cases where the developers want players to believe they are "becoming" Artyom and they feel that this is the best way to do that, but I'm not sure that the mute and invisible protagonist convention is worth sticking with anymore.
Unfortunately, it seems like 4A Games and Deep Silver have fallen into a retailer incentive trap and their inability to figure out a solution - especially for digital download on PC where it's not even necessary - is leaving a few of the series' most hardcore fans feeling left out. Basically, there's a hardcore mode separate from the difficulty called Ranger Mode. It disables the HUD, makes resources even more scarce, and plays with enemies and damage to make things tougher. Sadly, Deep Silver saw fit to make this a pre-order incentive that will cost you $5 to access on day one if you don't pre-order - yep, even on Steam, where the "retailer" doesn't even care whether people pre-order or not. Considering that the game's official site calls this the "way the game was meant to be played" and it was included without charge in the first game, it's tough to blow off this issue. There's more I want to say, but it kind of goes beyond the scope of a review of the game itself; suffice it to say that the score you see at the bottom of this review was negatively affected by this Ranger Mode fiasco.
But the game's still going to get a good score, because this issue does not ruin Metro: Last Light at all. It's still a fantastic game that follows in the footsteps of great Russian-style FPS games before it, and the added polish, fantastic visuals, and supernatural story elements help keep things fresh. The Ranger Mode thing really burns me, but despite that, calling Last Light anything less than excellent game simply because of that, to me, ignores the developers' years worth of commendable effort in making a game that plays big but still feels a little bit indie. And as we move into the next generation of consoles and publishers continue pushing out games that are so expensive to make that they're a failure when they sell "only" 5 million copies, games like Last Light are going to be more important than ever. Once in a while, I talk about how a game should serve as an example for other developers to aspire to, and I'm going to go ahead and call this game one of them. It's not because of its amazing gameplay or awe-inspiring visuals - Last Light isn't quite that good - but it's rare for studios nowadays to make games with expensive-feeling production values without pandering to the lowest common denominator of gamer. If that's a concern you've been having about recent games, then I recommend you give Last Light a shot.
Just be ready to spend $5 if you want to play the game in its toughest mode, since you won't be able to pre-order it and get it for free by the time you read this review.
Disclaimer: This review is based on pre-release code provided by the publisher over Steam.