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Quick! What was the best aspect of Metro 2033? Its game over screen? Wrong, Timmy. Go sit in the corner. The correct answer is its atmosphere. Even if the game was a little undercooked and unfocused in places, its bleak and grimy feel was so consistent and meticulous as to be utterly absorbing. What helped this was gameplay that was rough in a good way, contributing to a sense of tension and survival that you don’t see in many shooters.

As with any sequel to a surprisingly successful cult classic, Metro: Last Light is in a difficult position. It needs to honor the elements that made its predecessor so effective, in this case the survivalist feel and atmosphere, while also pushing its concept forward and building upon the previous game’s untapped potential. Now that it’s out, is it enlightening, or should you tie it to the metro tracks?

Right out the gate, Metro: Last Light’s story is an improvement over Metro 2033’s. Why? Because it’s actually about something this time. Whereas 2033 didn’t really have a core overarching theme and only pulled the moral doubt motif out of its ass at the last minute, Last Light takes that loosely applied theme and dedicates itself to it. The result is a game that is focused on exploring the nature of evil and guilt.

Specifically, the game proposes that amidst the radiation, rats and mutants of the nuclear apocalypse, perhaps it’s the humans that are the real monsters. Are we unavoidably and irredeemably evil, or is their potential for good in us? In that case, using Metro 2033’s standard ending as canon, where protagonist Artyom ended up nuking the Dark Ones’ city, was a smart choice because it reinforces this theme.

After it’s revealed that a lone Dark One child survived the blast, Artyom and his friends must fight against the Metro’s ruthless military factions in order to seek it out. After all, it may just be the last of its kind…. a last light, if you will. The writing here can be certainly be blunt and heavy-handed at times, playing a bit like District 9 as written by fervently anti-war hippies (me). However, it nevertheless succeeds at being thought-provoking and emotionally involving in ways 2033 only scratched the surface of. Scheming, brutal and self-serving, Last Light’s cynical depiction of humanity is thoroughly detestable but also tragically believable. As a showcase of the nasty and depraved things people will do to survive in this world, Last Light is extremely effective.

It helps that Last Light’s characters are significantly more developed. Although Metro 2033’s cast was likable and quirky enough, none of them were fleshed out with legitimate goals and flaws, not to mention a connection to any overriding theme. This has been remedied to great effect here. Miller now takes the role of a paranoid and jaded general burdened by expectation and responsibility, while Khan is a rebellious outcast due to his unusually gentle approach to matters. There’s a skeptical love interest for Artyom named Anna (whose romance buildup admittedly feels a bit rushed) and a refreshingly down-to-Earth surprise villain. Even Artyom himself is given immediate sympathy and motivation via an extremely resonant opening.

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Thematically, Last Light is a lot more focused and daring than 2033, and character flaws and motivations are much more fleshed out.

In other words, Last Light’s narrative starts out very strong. Imagine a balloon, fully puffed up with fresh air. And then, an hour in, PPPPPPFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFBBBBBBBBBTTTTTTT. The balloon deflates. The plot begins to lose focus and, much like the first game, we’re back to taking what is essentially a loosely connected guided tour of the metro world. “And on your right, you’ll see a society of boatsmen in a Venice-inspired city. Isn’t that cool? Coming up, a stop at the Nazi faction’s HQ.”

This lack of focus really grinds the plot to a halt early on. It’s hours before you reunite with most of the characters introduced in the solid opening, and by then a bit of the urgency is lost. Things certainly pick up after a while and speed along very nicely during the final third of the campaign, but it’s hard not to see the plot as padded or directionless in a few instances.

It’s unfortunate that this sightseeing mentality sometimes bleeds into the gameplay. Much like 2033, Last Light can be a very directed experience at times, which is a polite way of saying that it holds your hand as if it were trying to impress you on a date. The game has an unhealthy habit of occasionally pairing you up with an ally, who is never in any hurry while they walk down a confining hallway to open doors for you while chirping exposition or philosophy (or both). Even when it’s not doing that, there are a handful of rigidly scripted sequences which all but beg for comparisons to the likes of Call of Duty. One sequence in particular, which has a knocked out Artyom seeing heroically posed soldiers defending him in between vision blackouts, is just laughable in its ‘me too’ approach.

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The game is at its best when you’re allowed to freely explore the world at your own pace. When things get more scripted and hand-holdy, the game loses some of its identity and immersiveness.

The game is much better when it gives you breathing room to explore rather than being a bargain basement Call of Duty. Thankfully, this is the case most of the time. Initially, levels feel a bit like disconnected rooms housing enemies, but it’s not long before a more organic flow is achieved. Last Light’s environments, be they underground or on the irradiated surface, cleverly disguise their straightforwardness. Better yet is when the line between freedom and the developers’ intentions are blurred, making things downright overwhelming. “I just found some ammo. Was I supposed to find it? Actually, am I supposed to be in this swamp at all? Woah! A winged demon just grabbed me! Is he gonna put me down? Is this a scripted event? What’s happening?!” It’s beautifully tense and unnerving.

Speaking of beautiful, those visuals! Much like 2033, Last Light’s best asset is its atmosphere. Morning light blankets the landscape in its crude glow. Blood and dirt spatter onto your gasmask, which must be wiped away. Rats scurry about. Lamps flicker. Water drips. It’s just gorgeous, ok? The sound design is equally immersive, even if the English voice acting is spotty. It can sound cheesy/stiff/melodramatic at times. The dialogue is well written though, and it’s impossible to fully botch a fake Russian accent, so it’s easy to overlook. Eventually, I got sucked into the finely realized world of the Metro and was fully invested in its issues and obstacles. The cities in particular feel bustling and dense.

In that case, why can’t I interact with them more? Sure, you can do a few things, like toss a beggar some currency or have an awkward lap dance, but for the most part they feel like museum exhibits that you’re supposed to glide past and watch. At one point, gang members extorted someone for fuel and I had no option to intervene despite my desire to. I’m going to cut 4A Games a bit of slack knowing the budget constraints and working conditions they were under, but I can’t help but point out a missed opportunity when I see one.

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Stealth has seen the most advancements, but like the rest of the game, it’s been made easier than it should be.

Gunplay feels almost identical to Metro 2033 and still retains a satisfyingly rough, weighty feel. The stealth seems to be where the most tweaking has been done. This is seen most easily in the enemy AI, which is considerably more reasonable but also considerably dumber. As long as you shoot out or turn off lights, you can practically waltz past them even when they’re facing you. You can also perform takedowns, of both the lethal and non-lethal variety, but riddle me this; if non-lethal ‘knock outs’ are just as easy and quick to perform as lethal ones, then what’s the point of even having a lethal takedown feature at all? Especially when sparing enemies’ lives contributes to your morality.

In fact, let’s talk about the moral choice system as a whole. In Metro: Last Light, there doesn’t seem to be ‘good’ and ‘evil’ pathways so much as there are ‘standard’ and ‘go the extra mile to do good’ pathways. Once again there are two endings, and although the alternate one is better, feeling a lot more fulfilling and giving more insight into what happens afterwards, even the standard one gives a nice sense of closure. That being said, a lot of the secondary tasks you need to do to get the alternate ending feel vague and arbitrary. In addition to not killing human enemies, you need to explore the world and trigger certain events, as pointless as some seem. I still like this approach to morality a little better than the equal ground, ‘black and white’ moral system most games use, even if it’s not quite the grey choice system I think more games should strive for.

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Once again, atmosphere is Metro’s crown jewel. The game looks gorgeous, sounds authentic and is consistently steeped in detail and polish.

If Metro: Last Light itself could be seen as a metaphorical Metro tunnel, then the absolute nadir, the place where all the mould and poop are flushed down into and gather up, would have to be the boss fights. Every once in a while, Last Light will throw a horridly out of place bullet sponge of a boss at you and expect you to tediously hammer away at them. They’re not tense, they’re not clever and they certainly don’t serve to immerse. If anything they took me out of the experience, ejecting any sense of discovery and uncertainty the game had been building up and flying in the face of any pretense for survivalist gameplay.

Finally, the game is just too easy. I played on normal, and before long I amassed enough bullets to supply an insurgency. Enemies don’t exhibit astounding AI and go down in just a burst or two of fire, and if you have the sense to go for headshots, you might as well stop looking for ammo altogether. Military grade ammo once again doubles as both bullets and currency, but the game’s rarely difficult enough for you to benefit from firing them, and there’s not even that much to buy with them. All the weapons you’ll ever need can be picked up off enemies or found in the environment, so you’ll probably only buy a few cheap attachments. Near the end of the game, I actually reached full capacity for air filters and had to start leaving some behind. That’s right, I HAD TO LEAVE BEHIND AIR FILTERS.

Basically, if you’re a seasoned gamer and don’t get the chance to play Ranger Mode in all its separated $5 glory, then I at least recommend bumping up the difficulty to hardcore. It’s kind of fascinating that despite not being difficult, Metro: Last Light is still so effective at manufacturing tension. Once again, you can thank the all-encompassing atmosphere for that, as well as the various things you have to micromanage such as battery power, filter swapping, etc. During its respectable 10 hour campaign, Metro: Last Light very rarely left me feeling bored or unengaged.

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Despite a few hiccups, Metro: Last Light is an emotional, well paced and absorbing experience, and easily one of the best games of the year so far.

Final Thoughts

Metro: Last Light doesn’t always play to its strengths, and it doesn’t break as much new ground for its franchise as some have come to expect from the greatest game sequels. Nevertheless, it’s a tense and chillingly atmospheric shooter that isn’t afraid to expose the uglier side of humanity. If you can get past the easiness, the out of place boss fights and an occasional tendency to devolve into a sightseeing tour, you’ll be treated to an emotionally resonant story that takes you to exciting new places in the Metro universe. I certainly hope this isn’t the last we see of this promising series, because there’s many more tales to tell and dark corners to explore within this paradoxically bleak yet inviting world.

 (Reviewed on Xbox 360. Game was purchased/rented by reviewer.)