Metro: Last Light is a game about shooting people in the dark who usually don’t shoot back. It’s also the sequel to popular computer-thawing shooter Metro 2033. With first-person shooters struggling to escape the grip of big words like homogenisation, can 4A Games provide a walk through hell to remember?
As a part-time warmonger and long-time slayer of men, orcs and assorted other bastards I don’t make a habit of protesting the abundance of ammunition in videogame worlds. Far be it from me to question the logic that dictates every pocket, backpack and refrigerator be home to another carton of assault rifle ammo or family pack of hand grenades. But damn if the shortage of bullets in Metro: Last Light isn’t one of its crowning glories. Here’s a first-person shooter with a real survival proclivity; one that demands you husband resources; consider carefully whether to spend your capital or bung it into a pistol; and whether to roll into battle for fear of expending more ammunition than you’ll recoup (never much) or just skulk by like a wimp.
(Before we march on there’s an elephant in the room and it ought to be addressed. Metro: Last Light capital-letters MUST be played on a difficulty setting that’s served up as premium DLC. This ranks as about the biggest dick move since Kate let go of Leo. It’s reprehensible but, unfortunately, without forking over the four quid you’ll miss out on playing the game the way it was so clearly intended to be played. On the standard difficulties, Last Light just isn’t the same game: ammo is plentiful, the HUD ruinous, the sense of dread and jeopardy greatly diminished.)
Last Light furthers the story of tight-lipped soldier Artyom who, at the arse-end of Metro 2033, dropped five tonnes of atom bomb on a race of alien creatures known only as the Dark Ones. We reconvene with Artyom a year on, where it’s come to light the Dark Ones were instrumental in saving humankind from itself. Bugger.
So it falls to Artyom to again skulk through the skeletal remains of Moscow in a bid to unearth the last surviving Dark One.
Certainly, despite drawing heavily from novelist Dmitry Glukhovsky’s popular series of science-fiction stories, Last Light’s explicit tale of warring political cliques, aliens and paranormal mumbo-jumbo is not its forte. Long passages slip by whereby the story is placed on hold, only for an entire level to be then dedicated to offloading huge quantities of information, usually in the form of a Half Life-style cutscene (the game’s chief mode of narrative delivery).
Like Metro 2033 though, Last Light’s strengths lie not in the explicit but in the implicit. The symbolic, tumbledown metros are shot through with dread, sombreness and an exquisite sense of what the apocalypse might actually look like. So much of that rich atmosphere is wrought from judicious use of 4A’s best-in-class lighting, but also the developer’s knack for pouring over every minor detail whether that’s the skeletal skyline of Moscow, the bowels of a putrescent passenger plane or a spurt of mutant blood ejaculated across your gasmask that requires a manual wipe (one of the Last Light’s master strokes). The result is a meticulously elaborate world – one you’ll fancy rummaging through at your own pace.
And though post-apocalyptic, it’s not a static world nor one caught in the iron grip of misery, but one in convalescence. No need to panic, there are bleak moments throughout, but some seedy luxuries have crept back into Last Light’s makeshift settlements and it makes for a compelling place to slit throats and plunder corpses.
Despite that ravishing world, Last Light lacks a human ingredient. The story is fundamentally one we’ve heard countless times over and is more caught up in the macro than the micro. You’re here to save mankind, not anyone you actually care for. The metros offer ample space for a human drama (and 4A’s latest trailer would suggest you’re buying into one), but you’re really not. Indeed, the only thing we learn of Artyom by the end of Last Light is he’s a killer, and he’s a big admirer of boobies.
Still, if explicit story isn’t Last Light’s ticket into the hall of fame then perhaps it’s astronomically improved gunplay is.
Last Light is essentially a stealth game you can treat as a thick-headed shooter and 4A do a semi-decent job of allowing the player to dictate the pace of things. Tire of pussyfooting about, go guns blazing. Tire of rampant violence, opt for no-casualties. Tire of pacificism, go on knowing there’s another throat waiting to be unzipped around the next corner. It’s not all killing, either, with moments of quiet and modest exploration scattered throughout.
Of course, if you’ve any class at all you’ll play it cloak-and-daggers. Not that Last Light isn’t a capable shooter, it absolutely is, but skulking through the tunnels without a HUD for comfort, with barely a sliver of light but for what drools reluctantly from a beaten lighter and with all manner of brutes squabbling in the darkness is a special kind of brilliant rarely enjoyed within the genre.
Weapons are punchy too, more so than in most shooters. The shotguns, for instance, come adorned with silencers and quad-barrel attachments (presumably for when death isn’t punishment enough) while you’re able to tinker with sniper rifles and revolvers to increase their own combat value. The jerry-rigged weaponry delights not only on a functional level but also aesthetically (the whole game is about as close as we’ve yet come to next-gen, particularly on PC), and comes perilously close to undermining the satisfaction that comes from playing stealthily.
For many, though, that satisfaction will be lessened by the game’s AI. Whereas Metro 2033’s enemy soldiers were perhaps a little too adept at snuffing you out, Last Light’s are about as Machiavellian as a bucket of sick. Certainly, you can’t come away feeling too smart about your hide and seek skills. You’ll see guards saunter into the darkness time and again (acting as an all-too obvious cue for Artyom to inch in close with a knife) and learn quickly that they have a knack for overlooking anything wrapped in shadows, including Artyom himself. Early on you’ll find yourself playing it safe, but by the mid-point you’ll no doubt be taking advantange.
The systems of stealth aren’t realistic, then, but do afford the player a certain power and sooner that than be compelled to circumvent the stealth out of bother and arrive to battle in the mindest of an apocalyptic super-soldier.
While the soldier AI is pardonable on account of the welcome sense of power, you can’t excuse the many encounters with Last Light’s mutated monstrosities. These battles stand in sharp contrast to fights with human enemies; the tensions of the stealth sections forfeited and replaced with leaden shootouts against enemies no more intelligent than those seen in DOOM or Wolfenstein. They charge and hit. You strafe and shoot. Skirmishes with the punchy types aren’t only uniformly miserable, but misjudged entirely, and the result is a game that at times feels like it’s suffering from a full blown identity crisis.
Last Light’s boss fights, too, are appalling; channelling the worst of two decade’s worth of cheerless boss encounters. During one you’ll guide a storming boss into ramshackle pillars, bringing the roof down in the process; during another you’ll aim for the glowing red weak spots. Checkpoints are miserly, often arriving before and not after cutscenes. A cluster of levels during the middle so good they’d make Valve stand and salute are bookended by plodding sections in the company of AI partners who hold all the keys to all the doors. Bewildering then, that these stints are most abundant during the closing chapters, diminishing Last Light’s final act to an inharmonious stop-start spree of wild-eyed shootouts followed by spun-out listening exams.
In short, 4A’s sequel would benefit greatly from being a bit leaner: the end levels concerned almost exclusively with plodding exposition stand at odds with the game prior – where the player has decent, if never intimidating, control over the pacing – and what combat exists is padded out with large groups of rivals outfitted in near-impregnable armour. It would also profit from being a little more bohemian. Its moments of panache are all locked up in what separates 4A’s effort from the troop of homologous shooters. Its pitfalls all born from its dogged attempts to comply.
This shotgun approach is Last Light’s downfall; the dissonance between the two faces of 4A’s sequel a little too keenly felt. But take nothing away from the 80% of Last Light that dazzles. Few are the games that can vie with Last Light’s dizzying vision of the apocalypse, and few the shooters that can rival its punchy gunfights.