Last night I returned home from PAX AUS 2014. Long story short, it wasn't perfect, but it was quite possibly the best weekend I've had this year. It was a lot of fun. If you'd like to continue reading, the long story is just below.
Buckle up. This is gonna be...
That's it. I promise. There will be no further Russian jokes or puns from here on out; Metro just doesn't support buffoonery at the expense of the motherland. Based on the book by Dmitry Glukhovsky, Metro 2033 introduced players to life after the bomb(s) where what remains of mankind survives underground and just can't catch a break. If radiation, horrifying mutants, and general shittiness of life don't bring you down, maybe the communists and nazis can. Hardened men fight in tunnels with hand-crafted firearms among other deadly weaponry, but you might still trip and impale yourself on the wreckage, or at the very least get a nasty bout of tetanus from the fall.
Metro: Last Light revisits Artyom, retains much of what made the first game great and introduces a cast of new characters. Have I mentioned that it looks absolutely jaw-dropping? I can't stress it enough, but that otherworldly fidelity has a major impact on gameplay too. I played this on PC and cranked my settings up, but even on lower settings textures, models, and effects impress. Despite minor complaints and moments of awkwardly forced titillation that nearly wreck its somber and engrossing atmosphere, Last Light proves exhilarating, haunting, and one of the best-looking games ever.
In 2033, Artyom discovered the Metro, nuke-proof subways and tunnels under Moscow that house different factions, competing ideals, and guns, lots of guns. Even Neo would be impressed with the amount of weaponry and ammunition underground. All trade is conducted in military-grade bullets which makes me wonder what the average comrade had in their pockets as they fled radioactive blasts. You can use these rounds, but then you won't have cash for traders on your journey. Each of your three weapons can use different ammunition, different attachments, and kind of become completely different firearms after modification. I started using a pistol with a stock and extended barrel exclusively to snipe, but later attached a laser sight for hip-fire accuracy. All that customization can make guns feel overpowered, but thanks to ammo rationing, you aren't able to rely on them forever.
As Artyom ventures out in search of what many consider to be a weapon (but what he knows to be mankind's last hope), you'll run into all manner of enemies. There are mutated monsters both on the surface and underground, in addition to a ton of bandits, rapists, murders, soldiers, nazis, and thugs. You can't trust anyone, and that makes for quite a few truly surprising twists and turns in Last Light's narrative. For the first few hours, I couldn't put my finger on what caused me to become so invested in the narrative and world, but then I hitched a ride on an oddly familiar hot-rod rail car.
I revved the engine and took off, spotting doors and opportunities to explore off-track. I equipped my shotgun and departed, igniting my bullet-shaped lighter to burn spiderwebs in my way. The little bastards scurried up out of sight as webs sparked and hissed in combustion. I heard bigger monsters scurrying around and caught them fleeing my flashlight. These mutant spiders could be burned by light, until they flipped over allowing me to deal massive damage to their undersides, just like ancient crabs. It was silly, but the flaking skin, satisfying ring of spent ammunition, and blood splatter on my gas mask sold the moment. I took a second to wipe my mask, but in that moment my obscured vision left me open to attack.
Thinking I had dealt with each monster, I tried to find the loot at the end of the tunnel and scurried around with my compass out. Like Dead Space, information normally seen on your HUD is accessed from your equipment. Your light will only fend off those spiders if you've cranked out enough juice, but I'd run out in the previous encounter. When the next monster screeched and attacked from behind, I physically jumped like I had in Ravenholm.
I couldn't help but count the ways 4A has learned from Gordon Freeman's adventures. Satisfying weapons, intelligent and varied enemies, an intense atmosphere, an (almost) silent protagonist, endearing and talkative NPC partners who guide you and cheer you on, crouch-jumping—the list goes on. 4A smartly fills the vacuum Half-Life 3's absence (lol) has created. While Metro: Last Light certainly draws from Half-Life, it also carves a clear path away from City 17 in favor of clearly defined stealth mechanics.
If you'd like to be Comrade Guns Blazing, please do, but shadows and tactical equipment make the silent type way more attractive. Crouching and sticking to shadow allows you to evade opposing forces, knock them out, or outright murder them. Stealth can be used against both mutant and man, and ultimately makes environments and encounters that much more engrossing. Relying on sound and clinging to darkness make for Metro's best gameplay moments, but throwing an incendiary grenade or frantically spraying monsters is cool too.
I'm genuinely surprised at how drawn in I was by the time I reached Venice, but not the Venice you'd think. Venice in the Metro is a town built in a sewer, all barges and boats. A big twist had me rushing forward to find out what came next and that's when I entered the brothel. As immature and lusty as my encounter with the stripper was, all I felt was disappointment. There were other women in the Metro. One female soldier had gone out on mission with me in an opening sequence and the townsfolk featured women and children among the unshaven and aggressive males. The acknowledgment of rape in a post-apocalyptic society is frank in Last Light too, but Venice felt embarrassing and crude, like a naked-women doodle on a men's stall.
I'd also like never to fight an arena boss in a shooter ever again. I wasted every round I had on one boss before finally turning to expensive explosives, but it felt like I couldn't defeat the mutant without going full-Rambo (you never go full-Rambo in a post-apocalyptic game). I had hoped shooters had moved beyond bosses like this in favor of very challenging waves of enemies.
Regardless, I'd rather still venture to the surface and face off against these mutant bosses given the chance. Exploring the fog, navigating around toxic waters, and slogging over the terrain with your gas mask on are truly impressive. Moisture collecting on your mask or labored breathing after a sprint through the radioactive marsh make the experience worth upgrading your graphics and sound for. I started to check my watch obsessively to ensure my gas mask kept providing clean air, to flip my lighter nervously on and off. Even if you removed the story, guns, and monsters and all you had left was getting your mask dirty, only to wipe it clean again… I'd still buy that game.
My complaints amount to less than 10% of Metro: Last Light's content, but in such an transportive world with such amazing visual effects and sound, the experience is colored by your emotions. I was Artyom and my loyalty was to the truth, not that harlot. What was supposed to turn me on, turned me off. The stereotypical gamer out there will supposedly love that cheesecake distraction, but it totally diverges from the game's best elements. I mean, everything else in Metro looks real and alive and those just look fake.
If you can get past that, you'll find a satisfying and engaging shooter, full of incredible visual moments, dynamic fights, and a well-written and acted script. The rest of the world is lost to Moscow, and Moscow is lost to the rest of the world. The people are dirty and sick and dying. They're killing each other and being eaten by radioactive monsters horrifying in scope and nature. Even after seeing the effects of nuclear fallout, they want to launch missiles and shoot each other. There are even nazis, but I'd still fight for it, like Artyom.
Code provided by publisher. Review based on PC version. Also available on Xbox 360, PS3.
Metro: Last Light
Incredible detail and effects
Wiping your mask
Varied weapons and tactical enemies
Balancing conservative stealth play and all-out offense