Metro: Last Light Review21 May 2013  by
Hey, you. Yes, I’m talking directly to you, person who doesn’t read reviews but just looks at the score at the bottom, and I’m addressing you up here because there’s a chance you might actually see it before you scroll all the way down the page. I’ve given Metro: Last Light a 7. I know a lot of you might not think that’s a worthwhile score (although we disagree), I implore you to consider giving this a shot anyway.
According to the highly accurate, specific, and detailed IncGamers scoring system, a 7 means a game is “Good.” And this is true! Metro: Last Light is good. Not great, but good. Despite this, it does so many things so well that there’s going to be a bunch of people out there proclaiming this as the best shooter ever, and I can absolutely see where they’re coming from. There are plenty of elements that don’t quite work, a few issues with pacing, and a number of distressingly rough patches, but it’s got so much pure heart that I found it pretty difficult to care. Objectively, it’s got problems. Subjectively, if you’re into palpable atmosphere and a believable world, those problems won’t matter in the slightest.
Okay: deep breath, then I start the review proper.
Hello! I’ve been playing Metro: Last Light and it’s something pretty bloody special. If you’ve played Metro 2033 then you’ve probably got a got a good idea of what’s going on, but just for you I’ll add that the game takes place after the, um… more destructive ending. If you haven’t played Metro 2033, then here’s the deal: you play a chap named Artyom in a post-apocalyptic future, in which the surface is scorched and irradiated and civilization (in Moscow, at least) has moved into the relative safety of the old Metro tunnels. Stations have taken the place of towns, and plenty of the tunnels are infested with mutants, bandits, and all sorts of other nasties. As for the surface… well, you don’t go up there without a big gun and a gas mask.
Last Light opens with Artyom – now a member of the Rangers, an unaligned organisation that tends towards hunting monsters – tasked with tracking down one very particular monster that has everyone in a bit of a tizzy. Unsurprisingly, everything goes tits up in short order, and Artyom winds up both tracking down this particular beastie and trying to sort out the political machinations of the Nazis and the Communists, which threaten the stability of the Metro community on the whole.
What this all means is that Last Light is a highly linear first-person shooter. Much as the Metro would make for an excellent open-world environment, here you’re just following the path the game wants you to take; the world is divided up into discrete levels, and you proceed through them in order. Sometimes you’re following a partner, as with Every Other FPS Ever Made. Sometimes you’re on your own. There’s the occasional town, and most of the levels do contain a number of sizeable extra areas that you can explore, but this doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a very, very linear game.
Mechanically speaking, it’s… fine. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the basic shooting, but there’s nothing particularly clever, either: find some cover, aim for the head, press the left mouse button. If you’re up against monsters, then you normally replace “find some cover” with “walk backwards or strafe.” Bullets aren’t nearly as scarce as they were in Metro 2033, and I didn’t once have to actually use the military grade ammunition (which doubles as the game’s currency) in combat.
There are some exceptions to this, mind you, and the environment tends to change your gameplan. One battle took place on cracking ice, which meant I not only had to keep moving but had to ensure I didn’t fall into the water when desperately diving out of the way of attacks. As for the exceptions – well, what about the bloody fucking giant bastard spiders, which mercifully only appear two or three times? They’re armoured to the extent that bullets don’t do much if you just shoot their carapace, but their sensitivity to light means that shining a flashlight on them can force them to expose their softer bits. Of course, you need to do this while shining your light at others to keep them away. And making sure your flashlight doesn’t run out of charge. And hoping none of them are scuttling along the ceiling behind you…
It’s also worth noting that you’re encouraged to focus on stealth in most of the sections in which you take on humans, but this tends to make the game pathetically easy. Artyom is basically invisible as long as he’s not standing directly in a beam of light, and you very quickly get access to retrievable throwing knives that can cause instant, silent, one-hit kills from a distance. There are some neat additions to this – power is unstable down in the Metro, so you can shut off a circuit breaker without raising any more alarm than a guard wandering over to fix it – but, again, there’s just no real challenge and thus no real satisfaction to silently murdering a roomful of Nazis.
And… well, it’s a bit formulaic. It is very much a case of “here is a scene with a lot of talking,” followed by “here is a gameplay scene.” There’s a huge amount of background information in the conversations that the NPCs around you have, but if you want to listen to all of this, that tends to mean you’re walking five steps and then stopping for a couple of minutes to listen to a conversation. A lot. All of the information is interesting, but the delivery method quickly gets tiresome.
So yeah, mechanically speaking, Last Light isn’t spectacular. It’s not bad in any real respects, and indeed, there are a few things it does really well – the guns all feel chunky and powerful, and the robust customisation system lets you configure your weapon loadout with all sorts of fun modifications – but, in pure gameplay terms, this is simply a decent shooter with a few gameplay problems.
But all of this is so massively bolstered by the atmosphere that it improves the game tenfold. So much so, in fact, that I’m tempted to put on my wankhat and say that this is less a game and more an experience, maaaaaan.
Here’s the thing: almost every single bit of this game feels spookily real. I don’t just mean it looks pretty (although this is a breathtakingly gorgeous game thanks to some excellent lighting and use of shadows; I took every one of the screenshots you see on this page, so that really is how the game looks) but the attention to incidental detail, the map layouts and the tone and content of conversations… all of this makes Last Light feel like a glimpse into a very real place.
So how does this improve the game? Well, let me put it like this: you know how I said that you’re often following a partner in the early stages of the game? That doesn’t feel like it does in basically every other shooter ever. I don’t have MISSION OBJECTIVE: FOLLOW THIS DUDE in the top-left of the screen and there is no waypoint floating above his head, but the minimalistic HUD is just a small part of it. Mechanically, yes, I’m following one guy because he’s telling me to. But for once, it actually felt like he and I were going through an extremely dangerous, dark, and lonely environment together, and he was taking point. I wasn’t following an AI character because the game told me to, I was covering my lifeline because I didn’t want to die. Pretty much every other boring FPS trope gets the same treatment; from the obligatory rail-shooter bits to the obligatory driving bit.
It’s like that the whole way through. The constant cloying atmosphere – the dread in dark tunnels when you hear something clank in the distance, the relief when you step into a station, the panic when something leaps out at you from above – turns what are fairly rote mechanics into something far more potent. You’re following linear corridors, but there’s no waypoint showing you where to go, and the darkness and tension make the tunnel systems feel sprawling and expansive. Surface exploration is pretty limited due to ruined buildings or deadly water, but again, the lack of waypoints or overt direction makes it feel a lot bigger than it actually is, while smart level design subtly puts you on the right path.
It’s also nice to see a game that actually looks at the little things. Much like Metro 2033, Last Light is really a big, game-sized exploration of its setting and its themes. There is a story here, and it’s not a bad one (it touches on hope, redemption, and bleakness, to name a few themes) but it’s surprising how many of these themes are also captured in the little conversations you have the option of overhearing. There a wonderful moment where you can watch an old man performing shadow puppets for a group of children… only they don’t know any of the animals, because they’re all extinct. There’s a harrowing walk through a plague hospital. Rangers mutter rumours and horror stories amongst themselves while fishermen hawk their wares, and townspeople casually converse about local events as they line up to get food. These aren’t Skyrim‘s NPCs – they’ll never move or wander around unless scripted – but the world still feels a lot more alive than most open world games manage. The phenomenal world-building invites comparisons to genre giants like BioShock Infinite and Half-Life 2, and Last Light can hold its own against them both.
As a game, Last Light doesn’t quite match the tension and fear of Metro 2033; ammunition, air filters, and medkits are never in short supply, so even jaunts to the surface aren’t a race against time before you suffocate. (It’s worth noting that the DLC/pre-order Ranger Mode may change this, but it’s not enabled in my review copy). But, even though it’s merely a decent game, it’s a fantastic experience. If you’re after a solid survival horror/shooter that lives up to Metro 2033 in the gameplay stakes then you may be disappointed, but if you’re after a scary, bleak, hopeful, saddening, horrifying jaunt through a ruined future that’s a lot more believable than Fallout 3 or New Vegas ever managed, then you shouldn’t hesitate to snap this up. This is the sort of game that could be given a 9 as easily as it could a 5, and it’s special and unique enough that I’d seriously recommend it. I might be hard pressed to call it an amazing game, but it delivered such a striking 10 hours that my second playthrough won’t be far off.