Metro 2033 is a game so good, Destructoid reviewed it a year and a half after its release, finally giving it a scored assessment after the original reviewer made it to chapter three and gave up. The claustrophobic Ukrainian shooter, fueled by an engrossing story and highly effective horror elements, was truly one of the great story-led shooters of its generation.
Despite its dedicated fans, 2033 was nonetheless subject to a number of recurring criticisms, and these criticisms are all addressed in Metro: Last Light. The sequel is a humble game in many ways, going out of its way to improve upon everything laid forth in the original.
The result is a rewarding and visually beautiful shooter, but one that goes so far in the refinement process that it risks missing the entire point of Metro 2033. Indeed, while Last Light is quality in many ways, it may disappoint those looking for more of what 4A Games offered last time.
Metro: Last Light (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Developer: 4A Games
Publisher: Deep Silver
Released: May 14, 2013 (NA) / May 17, 2013 (EU)
Rig: Intel i7-3770K @3.50 GHz, with 8GB of RAM, GeForce Titan GPU
Metro: Last Light thrusts players once more into the boots of Artyom, one of humanity's last survivors in the underground Metro tunnels of Russia. The narrative sees our hero dealing with the consequences of wiping out the surface-dwelling sentient creatures known as Dark Ones with a missile strike, while also working to suss out a plot involving three of the Metro's major factions: Polis, The Reds, and The Reich.
Last Light goes deeper into the culture of the Metro than before, and indeed some of the game's best moments are those scenes of civilization between dangerous territories -- densely populated towns and settlements packed with completely ancillary surrounding characters with huge amounts of dialog that inattentive players could easily miss. The world feels more alive and considerably deeper than that of 2033. It's a world where there's just as much to be gained from simply wandering around or sitting down than rushing into the combat sequences.
Though much of the game is thematically similar to the last, changes have been made to balance, A.I., and difficulty to create a very different experience. Where before, enemies almost always had the advantage over Artyom and stealth was a necessity, now there is plentiful ammunition and more powerful weaponry to the point where sneaking around is simply an option as opposed to a vital survival tactic.
With a lot more ammo, weaker enemies, and boosted damage resistance on Artyom's side, combat can be a lot less frustrating, but also far less challenging. Weapon kickback has been reduced, while regular ammo is no longer weak enough to make spending "military grade" bullets tempting. Indeed, most sections can be completed more quickly by simply running in with an assault rifle and slaughtering the opposition.
It's quicker to run and gun, but it's not necessarily more fun. Stealth might not be so crucial now, but it's still the most enjoyable way to play. Blowing out lamps and shooting lights to create a nocturnal killing field is as fun as ever, and slowly picking through the darkness, flinging knives at opponents, or sneaking up behind them for a one-hit blow can be both empowering and tense. Darkness does a far better job of concealing Artyom, and those enemies with lamps or night vision goggles are clearly defined, allowing for a better command of the combat zone.
However, Last Light has again gone a little too far in its overhaul. Stealth, like combat, now gives Artyom a distinct advantage over his enemies. Throwing knives and silenced pistols are powerful to the point of being damn near game breakers, turning Artyom into something resembling a deadly CIA operative as opposed to a vulnerable and embattled survivalist. Enemies barely react when a light is shot out over their heads, and darkness renders you so invisible that you can sneak around practically under somebody's nose. These changes make for a game that is far more welcoming to newcomers but completely tosses all the survival horror ideas out the window.
For those wanting a more familiar Metro 2033 experience, there is Ranger Mode, which reduces available ammunition, takes away the HUD, and generally makes things far more oppressive. Unfortunately, despite being labeled by 4A as "the way Metro was meant to be played," Ranger Mode is only available as a pre-order bonus or a piece of extra paid-for content. As such, it has not been reviewed here, as it is not part of the default experience. If you find yourself unwilling or unable to access Ranger Mode, your best bet is to up the difficulty level. It won't be the same, but it'll at least be a bit tougher.
Although Last Light is a wholly different type of game, it's not necessarily bad. Indeed, with a far more interesting story, a gorgeous atmosphere, and a few moments of genuine terror, Last Light has a lot to offer. By far, those chapters taking place on the post-nuclear surface world are not only highlights of this game, they also provide some of the best action-horror sequences seen in games for a long time.
The surface areas of Metro 2033 were interesting but often irritating sections, where the lack of ammo could be a truly damnable thing and enemies were more annoying than intimidating. Last Light's less claustrophobic environments are, by contrast, absolutely terrifying. Despite many of them taking place in daylight (or the grey misery that constitutes daylight in Metro's world) and featuring large, open arenas, surface sections are littered with debris, monsters lurking in grass or water, and haunting sounds. Several areas are also infused with ghosts of the past, inflicting flashbacks on Artyom that one could only describe as downright harrowing.
This is where Last Light truly shines -- not in the underground tunnels that made Metro 2033 what it was, but in the blasted wasteland populated by harsh acid rain, mutated animals, and disturbing echoes of the past. Once again, some of the terror is undermined by the fact that filters for Artyom's gas mask are far more plentiful, but the intimidating atmosphere is such that it works wonders in demolishing any sense of safety or complacence. Here is where I got a lot of that old feeling back, that creeping sensation of vulnerability and fear.
Another early highlight is a chapter involving spider-like beasts that hate the light. Making their home in dark and abandoned sections of the Metro, these creatures must be driven back with Artyom's flashlight and have a nasty habit of sneaking up from behind. Once again, these sections exploit the player's paranoia and feelings of exposure with a level of devilish expertise.
It should also be said that, while Metro 2033 fans might not have wanted it to be so useful, the combat is pretty damn good. Enemy movements are sensible this time, and while they're easier to take out, cutting down twisted Nazi and Communist descendants rarely fails to satisfy. There's also a terrific sense of variety in a game that could so easily have just gone through the regular motions. Those moments of wonderful downtime, intense combat sequences, sections of travel by boat or rail car -- the game's structure and sense of pacing are worthy of praise.
Hammering home the game's crucially intense atmosphere is a commitment to gorgeous graphics. Running at high settings on my PC, this is a game so good-looking it easily gives Crytek's efforts a run for their money, with some utterly lovely lighting effects and bustling, densely populated areas full of motion and eye-catching scenery. The graphics would mean nothing without solid design backing it up, however, and this is where Last Light truly capitalizes on the technology powering it.
Few games can pull off grey and brown in a way that manages to feel unique, especially in a generation famously scorned for such color schemes, but this is one of those releases that make a harsh, bleak world look fresh and even stunning. Chapters taking place during heavy surface world rainstorms are particularly pulchritudinous, and simply take one's breath away, despite taking place in a world so depressing and blighted.
And of course, the soundtrack is a fitting accompaniment, as baleful as it is beauteous, while the voice talent, naturally running thick with Russian accents, is top-notch stuff. The sound design is married perfectly to the visuals, creating a rare example of total cohesion in aesthetic that you don't see done so well in many other games.
Despite looking and sounding beautiful, a few grievous bugs threaten to tarnish otherwise polished package. At various points, Artyom will be accompanied by an ally who is required to open certain doors and lead the way. At one point, I had to restart an entire chapter because a checkpoint saved after one of these allies decided to stop moving. He was needed to lead me to a door and trigger an event, but he wouldn't do so no matter how many times I reloaded the checkpoint. Fortunately, individual chapters aren't especially long, but it was still quite inconvenient.
My PC copy was also subject to a number of crashes, including one in the very final battle of the game. Overall, I crashed to the desktop three times during the course of the eight-hour adventure -- not an unplayable number of times, but enough to merit a stern mention.
Metro: Last Light is a disappointment in several respects. That simply has to be said. Its design painstakingly addresses criticisms of Metro 2033 to such an overzealous degree that it actually undoes many of the things 2033 was praised for. The fact you have to pre-order or pay to access a game closer to the original's heart is also damn near inexcusable, and again I emphasize that I will not review a mode that has been tacked on in such a fashion.
However -- and it's a big however -- Last Light is also a fine game on its own, and if we're to judge it without the shadow of 2033 looming overhead, we can say it's a game packed with structurally sound combat, a rewardingly fluid narrative, and an atmosphere that runs the gamut from intriguing to chilling.
As a default experience, Metro: Last Light is a good game that forgets why Metro 2033 was a great one.