Metro: Last Light is deceptive. When you begin, you’re seduced into the believing you’re about to play a typical shooter. That’s a lie. To play Last Light in such a way is to experience the weakest possible vision 4A Games has imagined. That isn’t to say the game comes up short. Rather, it is elevated by atmosphere over gun play, authenticity that is at once sad and frightening, and the familiar yet wonderful sense that you are a stalker of shadows. But there is danger in the dark. The world of Last Light is one where the brave die alongside the bold every day. In this post-apocalyptic tale, one can’t help but to think that if the meek are to inherit the earth, they might be better off waiting for the next apocalypse.
Based on the best selling novel, Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky, Last Light picks up just after the events of the first game. Though it’s not necessary to have prior experience, it does alleviate much of the confusion surrounding the initial events. Story layers upon story to weave a rich tapestry. A nuclear war lays waste to humanity and only those taking refuge in the Russian and Ukrainian metro systems survive. Separated from one another, sects form and become independent states giving rise to the Soviet Reds and the Fourth Reich. A mysterious bunker is discovered promising supplies and munitions – salvation and power to the one controlling it. The genocide of the slightly-human slightly-monstrous Dark Ones lingers in recent memory and mutated beasts haunt the land above, still irradiated an uninhabitable.
Last Light is part science fiction, part political thriller, and part horror movie. Prior knowledge isn’t required but it is recommended.
The presentation of this reality is stunning. 4A Games spent what must be thousands of hours attending to detail. Traveling through bunkers means sinking into that reality: seeing the rough grit on each surface, too many bodies packed into too small of spaces, ramshackle merchants, utilities, and animal pens under harsh fluorescent or neon lights. The areas in between these complexes are industrial and rusted. Lichen textures shadowed surfaces and too many spiders hang for the arachnophobic. The world of Last Light feels so true, so possible that it teeters between fascinating and sad. Thankfully, fascinating wins out.
By the end, I wanted more than what was on offer. It is slightly macabre to revel in the what-ifs of human squalor but the mysteriousness of the setting compels me. Even the cultural foreignness of Last Light is a draw. 4A Games being a Ukrainian studio is, I believe, what allows this to happen. Last Light is a cultural offering and, as such, is something to be related to and not compared against. The importance of that distinction can’t be overstated. The same game, in this humble reviewer’s opinion, would have been impossible to create so successfully by a non-Ukrainian team.
Just as the settings appear in service to the metro system, the gameplay acts in service to the settings. It wouldn’t make sense to go in guns blazing in every situation – well, outside of video game sense – not when faced with dozens of enemies and too-little ammunition. Last Light is best played subtly, sneaking through shadows, unscrewing light bulbs, and dispatching enemies with the quiet care of an assassin. Yet it doesn’t demand that of you. You may go quiet or go loud depending on your taste, but careless shooting is likely to see you overwhelmed. There is a delightful satisfaction in sneaking by an enemy whose only real purpose is to spot you. There are times, however, when sneaking doesn’t satisfy the moral outrage of seeing cruelty play out before your eyes. There are times when you want to go loud if only to give a single character his just deserts.
I should clarify that Metro: Last Light is not a complete stealth game either. Levels tend to be smaller than Deus Ex: Human Revolution and have fewer options to choose from. It hints at the theme, just as it hints at survival horror in the lonely, spider infested tunnels or bleakly beautiful over-world. Put another way, Last Light does its best to mask its linearity. Hinting is great, but the game has a story to tell and wants you to experience it just as designed.
Even though I would have liked the game to be more open, it was still a lot of fun making my way through it. The little touches brought the experience home: being able to wipe blood, dirt, and water from my gas mask and changing its air filter; charging my flashlight; pumping up my pneumatic rifle. Traveling those linear paths often meant seeing well crafted sets with lots to explore. Scavenging is a big part of the game and can make the difference between surviving a fight or choking to death because you missed an air filter. With a world so richly detailed, it was nice having a mechanic encouraging me to slow down and take notice. There are also collectable notes where your character writes his thoughts, providing more insights into the unfolding story events.
Technically, the game performs very, very well. On our review rig, it played at an acceptable 45FPS on the highest settings and 1080p resolution. It is a visual marvel with wonderful lighting, noticeable tessellation, and atmospheric effects such as hanging mist and water vapor. The audio work is also quite good, though the stereo mix felt almost too directional at times making voice over difficult to hear over much distance.
My main gripes with Last Light come in three domains with the first two being linked: AI and balance. AI isn’t spectacular. Enemy lines of sight vary from too perceptive to not perceptive enough. Most times it’s not a problem but certain scenarios make this stand out and break the immersion the game tries so hard to create. Animal AI is especially bad and seems based on attacking, retreating, and attacking again. I have no hard evidence, but damage also seems inconsistent against mutant dogs especially.
Another issue is the spotty, poorly explained controls. I tried to play the game with both a controller and mouse and keyboard and the latter is unequivocally better. Movement and aiming with the controller felt sluggish and rigid. Raising the sensitivity didn’t help much because of large dead zones programmed into the control sticks. Using a mouse and keyboard wholly eliminated this but raised a whole different issue: the game doesn’t explain how to perform every function in its controls menu! It took me far too long to figure out how to charge my flashlight (hold ‘F’) or pump my rifle (hold ‘R’) than it should have when the controller layout is so intuitively designed.
Metro: Last Light is a game for many different types of players. Shooter fans will feel right at home and stealth fans will feel empowered from the get-go. Survival horror fans willing to take breaks and enjoy the storytelling elements should also find something to enjoy here. There is a quality of being spread thin that troubles me, however; an imbalance that’s hard to put my finger on. It is, perhaps, that the game doesn’t go deep enough into any one area and so tries to cater to too many audiences. Still, what’s on offer is a high quality, post-apocalyptic drama, one that asks its player to think and consider what they see. It offers multiple paths through a vision of a future both mesmerizing and terrifying. And for that, it is a recommended purchase.