It's been over three years now since 4A Games and THQ released Metro 2033, which I really enjoyed. Now, 4A and Deep Silver are back with the sequel, Metro: Last Light (MLL). Continuing the grim story of Metro 2033, Last Light once again puts the burden of the fate of humanity on Artyom's shoulders. A true sequel, MLL not only picks up very soon after the events of the original game, but it looks and plays very much like it as well.
As with any sequel, you'll get a more complete and fuller experience if you play through Metro 2033 first, but, in the event you haven't or don't want to, the opening cutscene of MLL sets the table for you. In brief, one perfectly normal day turned into apocalypse when the skies turned red, missiles reigned down, and destruction was all around. The only chance to survive the radiation fallout was to go underground, to the metro system. For some twenty years, many thousands of people have managed to eek out a life there, using military grade ammo as currency and making the most of the dire situation they found themselves in. Soon after the devastation, creatures began to attack the humans. Known as The Dark Ones, these violent beings seemed fearless and relentless. Somehow, Artyom, whom the player controls, is able to communicate with these creatures telepathically, something it seems no one else can do. Fast forward to the end of 2033, and Artyom and his comrade Miller have found D6, a treasure-trove of military weaponry and goods. Using the height of a nearby TV tower, hell reigned down on the hive of The Dark Ones, ending their threat, or so it was thought.
With MLL, the game begins with Artyom, now a Ranger, taking orders to check out the hive to try and locate a single Dark One that managed to survive. This simple mission becomes far more complicated when things go wrong and within only a few hours, Artyom begins to unravel details about how the various surviving factions are working to prepare themselves for war. Indeed, not only has humanity nearly destroyed itself already, and are also under constant threat from mutated creatures, but now the Red Line and Nazis and Spartans are all moving towards a civil war. Q (of Star Trek: TNG) would gloat at this example of savagery amongst humanity. Anyway, Artyom's unique ability to communicate with The Dark Ones and his innate skills as a soldier appear to be the last hope to prevent the civil war that may very well wipe out the remaining humans.
Metro 2033 had a strong story, based off of the famous novel of the same name. The story and the environments were a huge positive for 2033, and that remains true for MLL, too. As a huge STALKER fan, Metro is the closest game I have played that replicates that incredible atmosphere. I thought MLL did a nice job of mixing the dark and hopeless underground areas with regular visits topside for lighter, open outdoor areas. Rain and snow effects look excellent on the 4A engine and add to the sense of despair surrounding you. So long as you have enough filters for your gas mask when you're outside, or enough charge on your light underground (neither of which is a major problem), you're likely to find yourself exploring the areas to the edges just to take it in. Besides, there are lots of small secret areas with collectible notes and hidden stashes of ammo to collect as well.
As nice as the environments and story are, though, they aren't without their drawbacks. Level design remains pretty linear, perhaps not too surprising given that you are in pre-made tunnels much of the time. There are no side quests or anything but the objective in front of you, which your handy compass can always guide you to (fortunately this compass is hidden unless you press Select to bring it up). A bigger nuisance for me was the invisible walls. A case in point, there is a part a few hours into the game where you ring a bell and a boat slowly works its way over this radiated goo to pick you up. In the meantime, you're attacked by waves of melee beasts known as Watchmen. What really irked me about this part is that the paths leading into the next area have plenty of visual room for you to get through and walk around the radiated liquid. There was no need to have to call this boat and wait. For as much as Artyom scampers around in vents and climbs up areas with whatever comrade he may be with at the time, it's poor design to have such obviously accessible places cordoned off by invisible walls.
While I'm on the topic of this particular part in the game, I'll segway into another significant problem I had with MLL. The enemy AI. In this particular sequence, I spent about fifteen minutes trying and dying to fight off these beasts. Then, it dawned on me. The gameplay is "such" that I could literally just run around in a big circle for what had to be about two minutes, up and down stairs, and not even fire a shot at these creatures. And so that's what I ended up doing, and I just thought that that was a sort of game-breaking tactic, a hole in the design. Either I should have been penalized for exhausting stamina or the beasts should have been smart enough to know to do something about me running in circles.
AI problems exist for the human enemies you encounter as well. From dudes that seem to get stuck in a loop (taking cover, jumping out of cover, back into cover, etc), to others that brain freeze (they just about stop moving and reacting entirely) during a firefight, I noticed regular lapses in intelligence for the enemy. Their combat tactics are underwhelming overall, and most won't turn off their lights to help keep themselves hidden. This makes firefights altogether less intense than they would be otherwise. That's not to say they aren't still fun and engaging, they are, but they aren't as satisfying as the could have been. You can get yourself into some great firefights where you will be heavily outnumbered if you decide to go guns-blazing instead of using stealth (sticking to shadows and being able to sneak up on someone to knock out or kill them is the extent of it). I appreciated that, in most cases, the stealth route is an option to you.
Friendly AI on the other hand doesn't get in your way, but the amount of chatter some of them (looking at you, Pavel) spew out is exhausting. What makes it far more awkward and less effective is that Artyom doesn't speak. He grunts if you click R3 for a melee attack, but otherwise you have this sort of weird dynamic whereby the AI will ask a question of you and then immediately go on to answer it out loud for themselves. Your character literally does not speak. I can appreciate making Artyom anonymous, no face or voice, but I'd actually prefer he had a real identity and voice. At this point I would also mention that it's a good idea to play with subtitles enabled. The subs are not "graceful" in that they aren't timed with the actual words coming out of the speaker, so you can read three or four sentences ahead of what the character is actually saying. I'm not sure is a good thing, but overall the subs are helpful because you can "hear" the AI even if you can't actually hear them (if you have some distance between you to, like say if you went exploring while the AI sat tight at the progress threshold). Finally, to close up the thoughts on the friendly AI, one clear example of them being props more than sentient AI was just outside the Theater area. I mis-managed my gas mask filters and had only a few seconds remaining. A checkpoint save was dropped in right before I ran out of air, and I died several times in succession because I couldn't trigger a scripted event quick enough to get to clean air, so I suffocated. So, my AI friend at the time never reacted to my mask being off nor to my character coughing to death. I thought I was going to have to start the entire chapter over, but fortunately I just kept putting the mask on and off, which would restart the coughing cycle over again (a bit of design hack).
Other than that mis-management of gas mask filter refills, which was entirely on me for being turned around a few times while exploring, I have not had much of any trouble keeping ammo and currency in comfortable supply. I do restock when the next friendly area is reached by trading in military grade ammo found while on the mission, but for the survival horror seeker, note that being overly conservative with ammo may not be a complication that you have to think about.
So MLL does have some issues, in some very important areas, although they aren't of the game-breaking degree. Yet despite those, it still feels to be a near AAA quality production and one that is enjoyable to experience. The game is easy on the eyes thanks to the technically impressive 4A Engine. I appreciated the detail seen in the environments -- little things like blood, dirt, and flies getting on your mask (and being able to wipe them off by tapping L2), the weather effects, the ability to see item pick-ups in detail on a corpse before you pick them up, and so on. I also liked how on guns I had acquired that were upgraded (or that I paid to have upgraded) to have a nightvision scope, that I could see a small part of the world through the lens while carrying it normally. This view was fluid and changed in real-time and it had this great, old school nightvision look to it. 4A also did some cool creepy things with visual tricks and effects, not unlike what was seen in 2033, but the ghost-like images and flashes in MLL were even more potent. I think about the only knock I'd point out with the graphics is some minor clipping, usually when you and or an enemy are crammed into a tight space, and the HUD. The HUD itself in normal view is great, you see your gun and your watch, which lets you know how visible you are and how many seconds you have remaining in your air filter. However, some immersion is lost with all of the interaction prompts (every dead body can and should be searched) and all of the icons of stuff you pick up. I would have preferred more of this to be hidden to help keep you zoned into the game.
On that note, the audio package does a good job of keeping you captivated. Fitting instrumental music kicks in at times to amplify the intensity or the somberness. Guns sound powerful and the beasts sound intimidating. Voiceovers are well done, but some NPCs just talk too much and it gets annoying. I oft wished I were just alone instead of hearing the NPCs essentially talk to themselves since Artyom does not speak a word. It's like you're Snake Eyes or something, but not as cool. Fortunately, you are alone much of the time which just seems proper for a game like this (i.e., STALKER).
I've spent most of this review harping about things I didn't like, but in the grand scheme, these issues are not anything that kept me from enjoying the game. I just think the experience would have been better had these shortcomings been addressed. MLL has plenty of great things going for it, most of which I have at least touched on here. It's a powerful and engaging FPS experience that that shouldn't be missed.