A popular sub-genre of video games in recent years deals with the subject matter of the apocalypse. Be it zombie, nuclear, or otherwise, the concept of survival amongst the rubble is narratively rich and has yielded some impressive games. One property to come out of this is the Metro series, based on a series of novels which take place in the labyrinth of Moscow’s underground metro system in the years after a nuclear holocaust. The premise here is that as the bombs fell, survivors migrated to the fortified tunnels to escape the deadly radiation and … other things on the surface, while subway stations became makeshift towns.
2010′s Metro: 2033 was a very capable and atmospheric first-person shooter that was equal parts impressive and maddening for its detailed characters and setting and for its uneven gameplay, respectively. With their follow-up, developer 4A Games took the basic mechanics of its predecessor and set out to refine its rough edges. Now that Metro: Last Light has been released, the question is whether it successfully implements those changes and improves on the first game’s foundation.
Metro: Last Light continues the story of series protagonist Artyom. He is now an elite Ranger and embarks on a quest to seek out a Dark One; a mysterious being thought to have been eradicated at the conclusion of the previous game. After getting captured early on a scouting mission, his trip home leads him through strongholds for Neo-Nazis and Communists, tunnels featuring horrifically mutated creatures, and of course the irradiated surface of Moscow as he uncovers a conspiracy that threatens to destroy this underground society.
The basic structure of this game’s story is to travel from a settlement through tunnels and across the surface in order to get the next safe spot. Metro: Last Light is exceptionally well-paced in that it constantly alternates between action sequences and quiet moments of exploration, never letting either of them go on too long. While the action set pieces are as riveting and well-directed as any AAA game out there, it’s when you reach a populated area that this game really stands out. These zones provide context to what you are doing, reminding you that your mission is about more than simply tunnel crawling. Spending time interacting with and observing characters here reveals alternately a sliver of hope that humanity is finding a way to live amongst the worst possible conditions, along with the realization that this is a world where happy endings are in dangerously short supply.
The clever ways of conveying feedback without having to resort to a HUD is one of the signature features of Metro: Last Light. Your watch shows your visibility as well as the viability of your gas mask filter (an item you will squeal with delight at finding), your gas mask cracks and fogs up as wear-and-tear builds, and your flashlight power level can be seen and recharged manually. Proficiency at inventory management is essential to success in this world. At first it feels daunting and stressful having to keep track of these various elements, but once you are on your way it becomes second nature and actually enhances the overall experience of having to survive on spoils of victory and discarded items. On the default difficulty, ammunition and supplies are not terribly scarce, but there are definitely moments when you need to decide whether to fight or flee based on what it will cost in terms of supplies.
One of the takeaways from Metro: 2033 back when it was released was that it had a few sections that were frustratingly difficult even on the easiest setting. This is something that has been fixed in Metro: Last Light. Combat has been balanced to provide a much more forgiving experience in terms of enemy strength as well as consequences for being discovered. Make no mistake, this game is no cakewalk by any means and the higher difficulties (not to mention the Ranger Mode DLC — so I’m told) will kick your ass from Sokolnicheskaya all the way to Filyovskaya. It is however clear that 4A has learned something in the last couple of years about how to balance challenge with fun.
In addition to the improvements to this game’s combat, stealth has been refined so it’s actually a viable gameplay option throughout. An indicator on your watch tells you whether you are hidden in shadows, and you can execute a melee takedown not dissimilar to that of Far Cry 3. Staying in the shadows and being careful can make playing stealthily (and possibly non-lethally) every bit as fun as going in guns blazing.
The previous game was notable for being graphically impressive, if a bit of a system hog. In my playthrough of this one however, I ran into no frame rate issues on the highest setting (I run a GTX 555 – decent card, but not top-of-the-line). Metro: Last Light is one of those games that looks amazing as long as you don’t focus too much on the minutae. What this means is that the environments are stunningly rendered and character models are as well done as anything out there, but faces don’t have the same degree of detail. Along with that, characters clipping into the backgrounds is an occasional occurrence.
With Metro: 2033, 4A Games created an excellent — yet flawed in some critical ways — adaptation of Dmitry Glukhovsky’s novel. It was certainly one of those games that made you think, “I can’t wait to see how they follow it up.” Metro: Last Light tells a gripping and touching story about forgiveness and trust that is outstanding even without the caveat of ‘for a video game’. What really pushes it over the top however is its gameplay; pulling together shooting, stealth, and survival tactics into a seamless package. Metro: Last Light is an unforgettably immersive, tense, and well-paced shooter the likes of which I’ve not seen since Half-Life 2. Yeah, it’s that good.
[+Incredibly atmospheric] [+Greatly improved balance] [+Reasonable specs and great looking] [+Outstanding combat] [+Adaptable to play-styles] [-Minor clipping]