Metro 2033 was an unpolished gem; a journey through claustrophobic tunnels punctuated by bleak forays into Moscow’s post-apocalyptic surface. For all its bugs and questionable optimisation, it stood out with its punishing difficulty and novel mechanics, and it existed as an interesting companion to Dmitry Glukhovsky’s book of the same name.
With Metro: Last Light, 4A Games has addressed many of the concerns and criticisms over the first game, crafting a polished title that stands alone, having nothing whatsoever to do with Glukhovsky’s sequel, Metro 2034. It’s a confident piece of digital fiction, creating a believable world out of the Russian capital’s underground, and it is undoubtedly an impressive first-person shooter.
Amid the improvements and increased ambition, Last Light is a very different experience from its predecessor, however. It has more mass market appeal, and unrelenting horror and tension is now a little less common — though certainly still present — than explosive fire fights and over-the-top action. It’s a less subtle and nuanced journey, becoming more bombastic and epic.
It’s different, and to some this will be disappointing. I am not one of those people.
Despite the short length of time separating Metro 2033 and Last Light, Artyom, the series’ protagonist, is a changed man. Once a vulnerable survivalist, he is now the hero of the metro and a veteran gunslinger. This creates a tonally different experience in the sequel, placing Artyom in a position of power and dominance.
No longer must he scurry around the dilapidated tunnels of the metro system, avoiding confrontation. He can leap into the fray, shredding his enemies with round after round, rarely worrying about being shot. The armour of the Spartan Order, the elite unit of rangers and peacekeepers he now belongs to, is made of sturdy stuff, and he soaks up damage like a superhuman.
Where run and gun tactics would have sent Artyom to an early grave in Metro 2033, such reckless assaults are now far more commonplace. The fear of running out of ammunition has likewise been greatly diminished, as dead enemies contain a plethora of extra ammunition, secondary weapons — like throwing knives and grenades — and new guns. This all contributes to Last Light being more of an action game than a survival game. These are far from complaints, however, as the aforementioned action is superb. Fire-fights are intense, fast-paced affairs, with muzzle flashes lighting up the dark corridors and tunnels, fire and smoke smothering confined areas, and the shouts and screams of fearful, dying men ringing in one’s ears.
The guns themselves could not be described as realistic, with the recoil being toned down significantly, but they are still weighty, punchy weapons. The myriad attachments and augmentations that can be added to Artyom’s arsenal can completely change a gun, and in the case of handguns, even change the weapon class. Silencers are especially important, as stealth remains an integral facet, despite the shift in focus to greater action.
Instead of being a path to survival, stealth is now a deadly tool. The light meter on Artyom’s wrist acts very much like the one on Thief‘s HUD, quickly revealing when players are invisible, and the ranger initiate is transformed into an efficient assassin. The entire metro is draped in shadows, but gas lamps, enemies torches and fires pepper areas, making the stealthy route something that needs to be planned out.
It is strange that this more explosive sequel has made the slow and stealthy approach so much more compelling than its predecessor. Slinking from shadow to shadow, silently slitting throats, throwing knives, and expanding the darkness by shooting out lights feels like it’s the way Last Light is meant to be played, even if the option for more direct conflict is faster and certainly a legitimate way to play through the title.
The metro itself is given new life in Last Light, and now feels like a far more believable location — in the same way it does in the source material — than it did in 2033. Though the game clocks in at around eight hours, it feels far longer thanks to the exposition, professional voice acting and expanded lore. The Reich, Reds and Hansa are all explored to a greater degree, and walking around the various stations, from the gaudy Theatre, to grotty, crime-infested Venice, players get a glimpse of the lives of the metro’s depressed denizens. Personal tragedies, moments of triumph and simple banter all play out, with Artyom watching as a silent observer.
Each station is bursting with character, somehow making the grey and brown palette colourful and vibrant. And between these areas, players must traverse the exotic, alien network of tunnels, maintenance corridors, natural cave systems and underground rivers filled with horrors both tangible and psychological. The feral, ape-like norsalis from the first game return, but they are joined by even more foul beasties, like the gigantic spider-like creatures that resemble face-huggers — that must be dispatched by shining light on them first — or the aquatic, ferocious “shrimp” that prey on fishermen. It’s a disgusting menagerie.
It is the surface world that’s Last Light‘s real triumph, however. It’s both a visual delight — showcasing the sumptuous graphical fidelity and art direction that cannot fail to impress — and masterfully designed, with hidden threats making every step potentially fatal. Filters are strewn all over the place, giving players more time to explore the devastated landscape, no longer having to constantly worry about running out of breath. Yet the timer persists, and there’s still the threat of running out of air — it’s merely balanced to allow one to appreciate the large, open areas a bit more.
The beasts of the surface are even deadlier than their subterranean cousins, and fleeing or hiding is as valid a tactic as engaging one of these monsters, but it is the detritus and shadows of humanity that truly make this apocalyptic world so harrowing. All the talk of moving back above ground seems laughable when one sees how inhuman it has become. It is here where the faded survival aspect comes back into play, and it’s the closest the game comes to being like 2033.
Some first-person shooters suffer a dissonance created by not making players really feel like they are looking through the eyes of the protagonist, but Last Light manages to deftly avoid this, in great part thanks to the iconic gas mask. Blood and dirt can become smeared all over the glass, obscuring one’s vision and add to the claustrophobia, but with a quick press of a button, Artyom can wipe it away. Such a small feature kept me utterly immersed, and it never reaches the point where it becomes a hassle.
Falling over or being struck by a foe will damage the mask, creating a spider-web of vision-impairing cracks on the glass visor. Much like the grime, this thrusts players into the game, giving one a real sense that they are seeing things through Artyom’s eyes. Likewise, it avoids becoming a frustrating feature rather than a novel one, as replacement masks are easy to find.
While ostensibly still a mute protagonist, Artyom is fleshed out considerably. He provides introductions to new areas, building the lore, but mainly revealing his worries and doubts, and scattered throughout the game are scraps of paper that he can use to jot down a journal. There was a hint of internal conflict in the original game, with Artyom being torn between his obvious connection to the Dark Ones, and the apparent need to destroy them, but his stronger “voice” in Last Light makes it a lot clearer.
His mission to find and eradicate the last Dark One, the soul survivor of his attack at the end of the first game, becomes an internal battle between his desire to do right by the Spartan Order, and his need to wash the blood from his hands. Contained within is a greater discussion on the morality of war and the darker parts of human nature. This is further emphasised through the escalating conflict between the factions of the metro, most notably the Communist Reds and the fascist Reich.
The narrative is surprisingly strong, augmented by the rich lore weaved by 4A Games and Dmitry Glukhovsky. It’s tragic and dismal, appropriate given the setting, but it’s also an unexpectedly personal tale filled with betrayal, doubt and a smattering of self-loathing — quite the achievement when the protagonist rarely utters a word.
4A Games has taken quite the risk with Metro: Last Light. It should be commended by fulfilling its promise to provide a more polished, stable experience (I encountered a grand total of two bugs, and no crashes), but the drastic shift from survival to action will certainly upset some fans of the original. That challenging experience still exists within the Ranger Mode, but this is only available to those who preordered or purchased the special edition version of the game, thus I won’t judge it based on that. Instead, I experienced the game as most people will, on normal difficulty, and it’s something of a breeze, to be honest.
Still, it’s a high calibre first-person shooter, and I enjoyed my time in the metro just a tiny bit more this time around. Would I have preferred more risk and desperation? Of course. And will I be replaying it with Ranger Mode? Inevitably. But, for now, I’m more than content with my journey through Moscow’s underground. Like its older sibling, it stands out from other examples of the genre, and I think there’s something to be said for its avoidance of the familiar and 4A’s attempt to craft something new, again.