Despite its relative infancy, the Metro franchise has done an incredible job of endearing itself to the hardcore, game-playing masses. Despite myriad technical and mechanical problems in Metro 2033, players lapped up its unique setting and mechanical eccentricities.
Metro 2033 established itself as a unique narrative and gameplay experience, a highlight in THQ’s slow push towards creating games primarily for the hardcore player. Metro: Last Light seemed like the natural evolution of this, as though THQ was puffing its chest out proudly, arguing its support for unique, hardcore franchises that could never see the light of day with another publisher.
Unfortunately, THQ was squeezed out of the market before Metro: Last Light was completed. Luckily for fans, Deep Silver swept up the game and saw it across the line. The final product, whilst still plagued by some of the mechanical oversights of its predecessor is a triumph of style and atmosphere, and bizarrely, easily one of the best horror experiences on consoles.
Metro: Last Light is a direct sequel to its 2010 predecessor, Metro 2033. Picking up soon after the conclusion of 2033, players once again take on the role of Artyom, who is tasked with hunting down and executing the last of the Dark Ones, mutated humanoid creatures that exist on the ruined surface of the Earth following the breakout of nuclear war in our present. The scraps of humanity that survived the cataclysm are forced to live in the abandoned metro tunnels of Moscow, and hideous creatures have taken control of the upper lands, impervious to the highly radioactive environment.
Just as it was in 2033, the setting is a haunting place to explore. The aboveground sequences are breathtakingly beautiful, completely desolate and destroyed at the same time. In order to survive on the surface, Artyom must wear a gas mask, and his heavy breathing is a constant in the incredibly claustrophobic soundscape, one at odds with the visual expanse. The result is that playing above ground feels alien and wrong, as though something could go wrong at every moment. It excellently captures the hardships and meagre existence of these few surviving humans.
That sense of claustrophobia redoubles underground. The Metro seems to be nothing more than snaky tunnels filled with spiders and mutated monsters that connect low-lit, cluttered rooms full of Nazis and communists. The tunnels themselves are nightmarish at times. Spiders skitter across the walls just in the corner of view, whilst the slow rising and falling of the mutated, fleshy egg sacs is incredibly unsettling. In order not to be overwhelmed by monstrous attackers, the player is forced to slowly inch their way across these nightmare chambers towards their goal, drawing out the total time spent in the hellish hollows to uncomfortable extremes. When it is executed well, Metro: Last Light can be a masterful example of horror in modern videogames.
4A Games has clearly invested a large amount of time improving the core systems found in Metro 2033, most noticeably the shooting. Firing weapons in 2033 was unsatisfying. The guns felt flimsy and adversaries swarming the player felt too strong. This was compounded by the unique ammo-as-currency system, whereby the best ammunition in the game also functioned as the primary trading currency. Weapons could be fired with alternative, cheaper ammunition, but this felt underpowered and somewhat superfluous. In Last Light, the regular, non-currency ammunition feels much more powerful, able to take down monster and man alike with a sense of regularity. The special, currency-based ammunition feels far more powerful as a result.
The game isn’t without flaws, and questionable design decisions lead to more than a little head scratching. Despite the campaign running for a substantial 15 hours, the mission design is bizarre. The sheer linearity of the experience is oppressing, as though there’s no player agency in the experience. Even in populated places such as small shantytowns, non-playable characters line the streets, ensuring the player can only move towards the next checkpoint. It can be maddening, as Metro’s level design is so powerful, yet the player is constantly boxed into a small corridor.
Furthermore, combat against human enemies is laughable. When choosing to eliminate enemies by stealth, players can choose to execute, or use a non-lethal punch to the jaw and knock them out. It’s simple, effective stealth gameplay, however the lack of intelligence in the AI means that there is almost no challenge. Soldiers will frequently walk right over fallen comrades without blinking an eye, whilst Artyom hides in a nearby corner waiting to get the drop on the next. Taking out a person involved in a conversation with another soldier elicits no response – a man can be in the middle of a sentence and be smothered, and the other won’t become suspicious. It is hugely disappointing, and it removes any tension from these moments.
Whilst human enemies are painfully easy to outsmart and defeat, other creatures can be frustratingly difficult to kill. If the monsters appear to take a few too many bullets, boss fights are truly exercises in frustration.
These creatures barely react to getting shot and do not indicate the presence of weak points or damage well enough to be reliable, leading to the player simply dumping all their ammo into the monster at once. Last Light attempts to encourage the player to use their currency ammunition instead to do more damage, but as the creatures fail to react in a legible way, it’s a money sink.
Despite the continued brilliance of the world design and the intelligent evolution of the series’ mechanics, the core combat is so broken in parts that the challenge is lost altogether. Last Light did not have the benefit of a huge development team backed by a financially well-lubricated publisher. It feels smaller, more focused. It’s easy to see where attention and resources were poured into, and where they were neglected. Even the story can feel out of place and poorly paced, as though it were put to the wayside in lieu of creating the wonderful, horrifying world of the destroyed metro.