May 15, 2013
Trudging through dank, gloomy tunnels, your breath rasping inside your gas mask, concerned about ammo levels and terrified that your rusty rifle might jam during the next encounter; that was the experience that defined Metro 2033, 4A Games’ stunning yet flawed debut.
It was a divisive game built around some deliberate frustrations. The scarcity of bullets and quality of your weaponry may have made some battles a struggle, but then the setting was a post-apocalyptic Moscow defined by poverty and wretchedness, where the surviving population had been forced to find refuge underground. Resources were supposed to be scarce and battles were intended to feel like a slog.
It was precisely because of this marriage of atmosphere, narrative and gameplay that Metro 2033 attracted such ardent fans, people that were willing to overlook the dodgy AI and ill-defined stealth mechanics to enjoy a truly unique experience. 4A Games called it their “flawed masterpiece” and they weren’t wrong.
The prospect of a follow-up was hugely exciting then, an opportunity for a developer capable of greatness to deliver on its early promise. Just a few adjustments here and there and Metro: Last Light could become something special. Unfortunately, however, it seems that the blueprint has been changed too much and some of the original magic has been lost.
Considering the game’s difficult development, you have to wonder how much of this is due to THQ’s influence. As work on the game progressed in 4A’s native Ukraine, Metro: Last Light evolved in importance from a niche project to a supposed publisher saver. This, along with Saints Row IV, Darksiders II and a couple of other titles was intended to turn THQ’s fortunes around.
Unfortunately, however, THQ is now dead and Metro: Last Light has emerged with sub-Call of Duty set-pieces, hand-holding companions, a face-eatingly embarrassing sex scene, awful boss battles and a done-it-all-before sequence where an enemy uses an ally as a human shield and you have to slow-mo shoot them in the head.
Every single one of these things smacks of a title reaching for a wider audience, but it’s to the detriment of the overall experience. It’s not just that these elements don’t have a place in the series, they’re also poorly executed; limp impressions of tighter, slicker, more mainstream offerings. 4A Games has many strengths, but this extraneous fluff plays to none of them.
It’s all the more frustrating when you encounter a section that lives up to the series’ potential. Metro: Last Light, like its predecessor, is a game dripping with details, taking place within a world where children sit with fishing rods by pools of bubbling, toxic water and ask, “Poppa, how do you know we’ll catch a fish and not cancer?” It contributes an atmosphere that when not undermined by its mis-steps, remains utterly engaging.
So when you venture from these hubs of grim survivalism and out into the connecting tunnels and overground wastelands, you feel threatened. Whether it’s the skittering spiders, the hissing giant scorpions, the winged beasts or the rival human factions; everything is out to get you. The difference is that this time you’re far better equipped.
In an effort to appease those that found the gunplay in Metro 2033 unsatisfying, the weapons in Last Light have been given extra clout and the ammo made more bountiful. You’ll still have to rummage through corpses and use supposedly inferior non-military grade bullets, all while keeping half an eye on your stock, but you can now blast away without too many concerns about conservation.
The result of this is two-fold. Combat feels improved, in the traditional sense, with a nice, powerful, yet distinct punch to each of the weapons. Yet combined with some dumb, bombastic set-pieces it contributes to the sense that you’re a superhero, a one man army. It’s even said to you, in awed tones by NPCs. We often get to play that role in console shooters, but part of Metro 2033’s appeal was playing the survivor, covered in mud and sweat and blood.
One area offering a less compromised improvement is stealth. In open areas populated by human enemies, it’s perfectly possible to sneak your way through without being detected and without firing a shot in anger. Each of these sections features a fuse box, which once turned off, allows you to crawl around in the darkness, occasionally jamming the serrated blade of your knife into an enemy neck, should the necessity arise.
Admittedly helped along by some forgiving AI on the standard difficulty, these areas even provide alternative routes in the form of vents and tunnels, making each large hangar and enemy outpost a pleasing playground of possibilities. It’s a nice way of mixing up the largely linear progression found elsewhere, and a marked step up from Metro 2033’s frustratingly half-finished stealth implementation.
Indeed, stealth is now so baked into the game that a number of achievements are offered as rewards for sneaking around levels without killing anyone or raising an alarm. There’s even an achievement for making it through the whole game without killing a human enemy “unless forced,” something that will no doubt prove to be quite tricky. Sprinkled with a couple of creative additions, it’s a strong list overall.
Yet the overriding emotions you’ll feel as the credits roll on Metro: Last Light will be of frustration and disappointment. Wonderfully atmospheric in places, with a brilliantly realised world, fantastically detailed environments, great graphics, solid gunplay and satisfying stealth, the game nevertheless undermines its strengths with some horrible additions.
The Metro series didn’t need Call of Duty-esque companions walking you through levels. It didn’t need horrible, horrible boss fights with no discernible rhyme or reason. It didn’t need sex scenes with characters you don’t care about, nor pointless, embarrassing lap dances. It didn’t need things blowing up in slow motion, or set pieces that detract from the tone of the game. It didn’t need a final battle that is essentially a noisy, utterly dull shooting gallery. Yet that’s exactly what we’ve got.
Capable of brilliance, yet too often guilty of mediocrity, Metro: Last Light is a huge disappointment. We had great expectations for 4A Games’ sophomore release. Instead we’ll have to settle for this compromised vision.
Brilliant. From the drip, drip, drip of those lonely tunnels, to the chatter of the populated hubs and the satisfying click of a clip of ammo slotting into place, Metro: Last Light’s sound design is fantastic.
Regularly beautiful, in a deeply grim and depressing way, Metro: Last Light’s visuals are let down by screen tearing and frame rate issues. Forgivable, yet noticeable enough to mention, it’s an otherwise attractive game.
The sections where you’re alone and fighting your way through enemy outposts or monster-infested tunnels are strong. Stealth is vastly improved. But the companion-led sequences, boss battles and sub-CoD set-pieces are out of place and poorly executed.
Without any other modes to speak of, focus rests entirely on the campaign. Unfortunately, many of the most notable additions are not only poor, but also undermine the quality of everything else. Combined with a patchy storyline and some technical issues (our copy crashed more than once) the overall package is disappointing.
Aside from the rather dull “do this thing 100 times” and progression achievements, there’s a few more interesting points up for grabs. Many of these are stealth-based, including the potentially challenging Shadow Ranger, but there’s also Reunion, offering a a spot of warmth in an otherwise cold world. A decent list.
Metro: Last Light should have been fantastic. Instead, 4A Games has delivered a broader, less interesting, less cohesive title that borrows from elsewhere when it should have built upon its own unique qualities. There’s still plenty to love, but it’s a wasted opportunity.