4A's sequel to their widely-enjoyed post-apocalyptic shooter Metro 203 appeared last week, and I've been waving my Geiger counter of critical analysis over its glowing innards. Will Metro: Last Light be remembered as a worthy sequel, or as a the point where 4A's filter finally failed? Here's wot I think.
Metro: Last Light's plot continues on from the explodey climax of 2033. It is, of course, once again based on Dmitry Glukhovsky's bleak future world, where Moscow's denizens have retreated below the surface of the city, fearing the radiation and seemingly supernatural creatures that plague the surface. Slightly psychic protagonist Artyom is rapidly embroiled in new mysteries, and new horrors. The game wastes no time in pitting you against nightmarish creatures and nightmare fascist metro-dwellers. The humans are, of course, as dangerous as the toothy mutants.
Metro: Last Light's game mechanics are the same linear-shooter systems as the original game, relying heavily on guidance from an NPC companion. This time, however, Artyom is a much more powerful combatant, with both base firepower and stealth proving to be formidable tools. The balance has been changed quite significantly, and I think people who found the original game a chore will be well-pleased with this. Those who found the previous game just right, however, might think differently.
Last Light's production is something that will no doubt come under much scrutiny. I have seen a couple of minor scripting bugs, but nothing significant. Slightly worse, perhaps, is the way in which the game largely hangs on NPC chums doing their thing. You can't run ahead, and must wait for them to catch up to the triggers and events.
That said, the NPCs are beautifully conceived and - about half the time - superbly acted. I've been genuinely surprised by the quality of this stuff, and to find myself moved and amused by a rambling faux-Russian sidekick was a surprise.
There was another surprise, too, which was in the sheer thrill of last Light's visual spectacle. Stupidly, I keep imagining that the MAN IN TUNNEL genre of shooter will run out of ways to impress me, but that didn't happen with Last Light. It's exquisite, and even though the post-apocalyptic theme has been done to death over the past decade, it's delivered with such skill here that I ended up finding the game more visually arresting than Bioshock Infinite. That's not something that I expected to say, but it's most definitely the reality.
The highlights of this experience are the trips the surface, where we must don gas-masks to pick through the ruins of Moscow. These scenes are astonishing to look at – impeccably destroyed, faultlessly atmospheric, exquisitely detailed, and filled with threat.
That's not to say the tunnels were any less well-rendered. Picking your way through thick spider-webs (which can be burned away with your lighter) is magnificently creepy, and the basic idea of the game - that you inhabit the Moscow metro with unnatural beasts and ruthless men – never fails to deliver some moment of shadowy horror.
Perhaps the finest fragments of this – although largely non-interactive – are the sequences in which you get to see the life of the metro-dwellers. You walk through their underground world, as in the original, only this time the detail is drenching us, and you get to see far more of their unpleasant and claustrophobic home.
This isn't always passive wandering through non-hostile environments, either. There's an astonishingly tense moment in the Nazi base, which suddenly collapses into a breakneck escape. It's one of the most compelling action sequences I've ever seen in a game, and remarkably simple.
All this stuff is standard for FPS games, of course, and I when reviewing such things I am more likely to be saying stuff about prettiness than not. Metro, though, really understands its own palette, and it also backs up its overall graphical splendor with numerous loving details. Being able to wipe moisture from your gas-mask visor is so trivial, so superficial, but it absolutely speaks to 4A's focus on atmosphere. And I love it.
There are some problems with Last Light, of course, and they come from a number of sources.
PROBLEM ONE: For a game of this visual fidelity to arrive on PC without a full suite of graphics options on release is a genuine shame. You will need to manually adjust some settings in its config files to give yourself a wider FOV (which I should imagine a large number of you will want to do) and the game has to be patched to work correctly on AMD cards. That should work automatically on Steam, of course, but it seems that such things took a back seat, which is surprise when the content of the game is so formidable.
PROBLEM TWO: The “Ranger Mode” which throws in greater difficulty and removes the HUD is a day one DLC. For a difficulty level to be touted like this is pretty insulting, and I am genuinely surprised anyone thought this would be a good way to win gamer favour. It's the worst kind of poorly conceived cash-in.
OPTIONAL PROBLEM THREE: The combat balance of Last Light is so very different to the original Metro that it is going to alienate fans. I don't necessarily have a problem with that because I think both games are entertaining it quite different ways, and there was a lot of unecessary bullet-sponge stuff going on in the original. What Last Light keeps and improves upon is the atmosphere and world, but the combat here is lighter, easier, and faster. Stealth is enormously effective, and generally you never feel too threatened by any of the bads you encounter. Except maybe those light-sensitive spider things, but only because they are so icky.
In fact, thinking about it, I am not sure I died more than a couple of times through the whole game. This may or may not be a problem, depending on what sort of player you are. I genuinely enjoyed Last Light, and was fine with the gunplay being enormously balanced in the player's flavour. I wanted to just blast through it, so that was fine. But if you wanted the same kind of challenge as Metro without having to pay for additional DLC, well then you will be disappointed.
What is a problem is the rubbishness of the big rat-dog mutant. That's really poor. Oh and the boss thing. Yeah, not great. Actually gunplay fails are a fair few points, and once again human opponents are the best. So often true of games.
PROBLEM FOUR: There's a pretty strong failure of taste at a couple of points in the game. Yeah, it's booby ladies again. Haha, they get naked in the shower! Yeah. It's a shame, because early on the tough sniper lady handles that stuff with humour.
NOT A PROBLEM, REALLY: There will no doubt be some folks who will be reticent about another corridor shooter. This game isn't for those folks, because the only thing that will really satisfying them is another STALKER. That's not to say we don't deserve another single player game with the breadth and freedom of the GSC classic, it's just that Last Light manages to play the post-apocalyptic card within the corridor-shooter genre, and make fine work of it.
In conclusion I can only recommend that you pick up Last Light and play when you can afford to. Perhaps don't rush to the digital game shop, but add it to the list. It's a linear shooter that kept me engrossed, and even genuinely thrilled at times. Placed next to Crysis 3 and Bioshock Infinite it seems like an equal, even outmatching those ultra-budget big names in some regards. It lacks their extreme precision and QA-smoothed balance, but nevertheless provides meat. It's very much its own game, and I can only give it credit for its competence in playing with ideas that every shooter tries, and many fail to execute with any originality.