Post-apocalyptic fiction is very commonplace today, available on every bookshelf, DVD collection and every video game console imaginable. Post-nuclear exchange stories are easily the most visible of the entire genre, especially so since our species discovered a way to extinguish us within the span of just half an hour. For the majority of these titles, however, the exposure most people experience comes from a Western point of view with creations like The Day After, Jericho, Alas Babylon and more giving us a capitalist nation perspective after the world has ended. Thankfully, we have more Eastern fiction breaking into the marketplace today than ever before with experiences like Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro series bringing us a Russian perspective.
Two years ago a team of Ukranian developers formed by former employees of GSC Games World (STALKER series) released Metro 2033, based on the novel Glukhovsky published in Russia in 2005. Glukhovsky went on to publish a sequel, Metro 2034, four years later but the plot and direction didn’t fit the pacing and nature required for a video game. With 2033’s success as a sleeper hit, 4A Games and Glukhovsky teamed back up for Metro Last Light but, in an age in which single player games are far from the norm, does this next entry in the saga of life in Moscow after the bomb have the stuff to prove to publishers that a single player shooter doesn’t need multiplayer to be great?
Metro Last Light
Developer: 4A Games
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release Date: May 14th, 2013 (PC, 360, PS3)
Turmoil Below the Surface
Twenty years after a nuclear holocaust engulfed the planet, the last known survivors in Moscow, isolated from the rest of the world, hide in the tunnels of the former city’s metro. In the two decades since, after the survivors realized that the government wasn’t going to return for them, a power struggle between a fascist division, a neo-Soviet communist movement and the various independent metro stations has whittled down the remaining members of humanity from two hundred thousand to barely a quarter of that. To keep the war for power from expanding to the entire metro and to combat the growing threat of mutants born of the lethal surface radioactivity, the Sparta Rangers act as an independent faction, doing their best to instill peace and try to save our species.
In Metro 2033, players took on the role of Artyom, a child at the time of the nuclear fire who came of age in the cold concrete confines of the metro system. Artyom journeyed throughout the metro to deliver a message to the leader of the Rangers and stop the Dark Ones, a new mutant threat that looked powerful enough to wipe us off the face of the Earth. With his help, the Rangers discovered a legendary command and control bunker from the pre-war era known as D6 and were able to destroy the Dark Ones in a massive missile strike. Only as the missiles began their flight did Artyom learn the truth however: the Dark Ones had been trying to reach out to humanity in hope of peace and he could do nothing as he watch the bombardment destroy their hive.
One year later, the events of that cold day on the irradiated surface still haunt him. Artyom’s connection to the Dark Ones and his role as a Ranger conflict him within and it is only when Khan, a friend who helped guide him through parts of the metro a year prior, approaches him with the news that he saw a surviving child of the Dark Ones does he begin to feel that this last one just might be his chance to redeem himself for the sins he committed the previous year. His journey will be just as hard as his first though: war is brewing in the metro as the legend of D6 has all but been confirmed by the other factions and it is clear that the one to take the bunker will control the entire metro system.
Artyom’s second video game story is, in many ways, an extension of what 4A Games attempted to do in 2010. You will find yourself exploring new sections of the metro while trying to mitigate the threat that the Reich and Red factions pose on the safety and security of the remaining stations. You will venture onto the surface and explore the ruins of Moscow. You’ll interact with old comrades and new enemies alike. What you won’t do is really explore a lot of new narrative ground.
In the twelve or so hours that you will put into your first run through Metro Last Light you will take note that, while some of the new elements really offer some interesting propositions as to character interaction and potential plotlines, a few don’t really deliver as promised. Several plot twists that appear in the later parts of the game don’t exactly pay off that well and either were quite transparent from the beginning or are simply resolved in a quick and confusing manner. In fact, the only unique plot element I found myself really enjoying was a late game companion character that, while I won’t detail specifically due to it being a spoiler, offered quite a unique take on the conflict within the metro. Beyond that, however, I found myself wanting a deeper take on the metro universe and while I received that in some aspects by the end of the game, there were so many more that weren’t even approached. We never get to take a look at Hanza, one of the major factions in the metro, the Children of the Underground are not even mentioned and we never get to see Artyom return to previously explored territory like Exhibition Station, Artyom’s home, a year after he left. For me, there’s a lot that could have been explored and while I enjoyed the story 4A brought to the table, I wish it hadn’t been so direct and allowed me the chance to learn more about the universe.
Of Tunnels and Horrors
If there is something that can certainly be said about Metro 2033 it is that the gameplay was a love-it-or-hate-it one as its complexity was very polarizing. The game’s stealth system could be confusing at times and the combat was a bit more balanced in favor of the enemies. 4A Games seems to have heard these complaints and have addressed them properly.
The game’s emphasis on stealth seems to have remained unchanged thankfully but the mechanics have seen some refinement. Players can turn out or destroy most of the light sources found in the game and your watch has a light indicator to tell you just when you are hidden or exposed. In addition, a music cue plays upon being glanced at by an enemy but a player that quickly move out of sight will reward the cautious by having the enemy ignore what they saw. This system also extends to the mutants this time around as some areas that are overrun with them can be snuck through if the player is careful.
One of the more frustrating parts of Metro 2033 was the fact that stealth, at times, could be a bit of a crapshoot with human enemies. This is probably the most improved aspect of Last Light as the AI seems to have been all but completely rewritten. In a manner quite reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid 2, the enemy will investigate tripped alarms, strange noises and potential sightings of the player without going into a full alert mode, allowing the player some leniency. Once fully spotted the enemy will warn his teammates and they will attack you in force. In addition, tougher enemies will enter the area wearing heavier armor and potentially more deadly weapons. If they lose track of you however they will enter a state of heightened alert, actively patrolling for you. The system works very well and is easily one of the major new additions to the series.
In addition to new human AI, 4A has added in new mutant threats to be wary of. 2033 sadly limited most encounters to ones featuring Nosalises and Watchmen, huge mole and wolf/rat-like mutants respectively, and Last Light offers new additions to the arsenal. Spiders, giant arachnids that are burned by exposure to light, replace the Lurkers as the principle hit-and-run foe and their environments are just as creepy as the sound of them crawling through the walls is. Shrimps appear in water-focused environments and usually only attack when the player either gets too close or causes loud noises. Last Light also sees the addition of mutant boss battles which are quite intense encounters. While some of the previous species from Metro 2033 do not make an appearance, the roster this time around seems much more varied and offers some unique challenges to overcome.
One disappointing aspect that doesn’t seem to have been particularly updated is the weapon variety. Though you won’t see any new weapons added to the arsenal (the fact that the Volt Driver isn’t in the game was a bit upsetting) the game now features a customization system to make up for this. Whereas the previous game forced players to either locate or purchase upgraded weapons, this new title allows you to purchase sight, barrel and various other enhancements to your current weapon selection. It’s a much needed new feature and definitely allows the player the ability to specialize far better than you could before but, given the narrative and gameplay possibilities that could have opened up by the game’s stronger emphasis on D6, one would have hoped to see a larger variety of weapons.
What amounts to being the best parts of Last Light’s gameplay are the ones that just haven’t changed. The game retains the bullet currency system from the previous game and keeps the dynamic of forcing the player to choose between killing enemies easier and having cash to spend later quite engaging. The ghosts of the metro continue to offer a creepy, pace-changing moments throughout the game, adding wonderfully atmosphere at much needed moments. The game’s “morality” system is intact, offering moments both big and small that determine the outcome of the story.
The highlight of these elements, however, has to be the game’s emphasis on exploration. While the Metro series is definitely a linear one in design, many areas offer branching paths as well as nook and crannies to explore that could yield much-desired items and equipment for the player. Finding Ranger and bandit stashes in the dead city at the risk of setting off deadly traps is great and exploring Spider-infested side areas that may hold enhanced weapons or military-grade ammunition definitely offers the player plenty of incentive to explore. Heck, several moments in the game either encourage or discourage doing so by trying into the “morality” system. I can think of no less than six major instances throughout the experience that I either didn’t investigate or did based on the implications of that decision. This definitely adds to the replay value and makes a second or even third playthrough all the more enticing.
One final note I feel must be emphasized is is that this is, without a doubt, a mature title. Though the game is a particularly violent one, the mature nature of the title comes more from the pornographic content featured in a particular portion of the game. In one optional scene the player can pay a stripper five bullets for a topless lap dance and given the attention to detail put into both the animations and the graphical quality of the character model it is quite clear that this wasn't a spur of the moment thing. This is the kind of scene that clearly caters to the male demographic and so I must warn even the most leniant parents that Metro Last Light is something you do not buy for your 10 year old. Although, I have to wonder just how that mo-cap session worked and how long it lasted...
The Soul of the Metro
4A Games chose to create their own engine and Metro 2033’s first use of it was a very nice freshman effort. Last Light features a refined graphics palate with a much better lighting system than before. The game features a much stronger particle effects system which is a very nice touch. The makeshift nature of almost everything you saw in 2033 is repeated to a very enjoyable degree, putting even more emphasis on just how desperate the world of the metro actually is. Faces seem to be the only item left almost untouched save for a few specific character models.
Probably the best part of the visual design is the updated environments and the variety thereof. Tunnels infested by spiders are incredibly creepy and many of the flooded sections of the metro feature some nicely done water. Visits to the surface are the clear winner here, however, as the environments melting snow has yielded greener environments and swampland, making for a nice change of pace from the greys and browns seen in the metro. There’s a lot to love here.
As much as the graphics system has been refined, the sound design has remained unchanged. Though this may seem to be a mark against Last Light it is actually a strong compliment as the previous title was easily one of the best I’ve heard in years. Everything from the wind flowing through the tunnels, to the scratching noises and growls of Spiders and Nosalises to even the weapons fire is sweet, sweet nectar for any audiophile out there. Even the voicework is well done though, I implore you, consider playing entirely in Russian. Believe me, a HUD-less, Russian-voiced playthrough is the way to go.
One final note I think the reader should be aware of is the PC version’s inclusion of several bonuses. The final product comes with a free PDF copy of Metro 2033’s novel in case you find yourself wanting to learn more about author Dmitry Glukhovsky’s expanding universe. In addition, the game features a rather nice benchmarking tool for those wanting to put their system to the test. They are small items, sure, but they’re definitely nice additions.
The Last Light of Hope
Metro 2033 was a sleeper hit for THQ three years ago and the dedicated team at 4A Games certainly deserve to be praised for their hard work on the game. With Last Light however we have an even more wonderful experience to take in. While the story doesn’t deliver in some departments, the overall experience is rather fantastic. If anything, the best description I can offer is that Last Light is a gameplay refinement on 2033 that offers a continued story in a universe ripe with potential. It proves that a shooter doesn’t need to have multiplayer to survive and I’m very, very glad that a publisher like Deep Silver would be willing to rescue a title like Last Light from the debacle that was THQ’s downfall.
The transition year for two generations of consoles always yields a crop of very impressive titles and if you were forced to choose only one title to end a generation on, amongst greats like Bioshock Infinite and plentypotentiaries such as The Last of Us, you’d be a fool not to consider Metro Last Light.
80-89%: Great - Only very minor issues get in the way of greatness.