If there ever were a game worthy of the “diamond in the rough” moniker, it’d be Metro 2033. Based off the Russian novel of the same name, 2033 debuted back in 2010 seemingly out of the blue, but quickly turned into a bit of a cult-favorite. Caught off guard at the game’s success, Metro: Last Light has clearly been given a good deal more in the way of funding and support from THQ (and eventually Koch Media), and it shows. Metro: Last Light is a good follow-up to 2033, but it definitely feels changed in ways that aren’t always to its benefit.
Last Light picks up a year after the events of 2033, where a lone Dark One is revealed to have survived the genocide of its race. Artyom, 2033‘s and this game’s protagonist, is sent to get rid of it, but gets wrapped up in a series of unexpected detours along the way.
On the whole, Last Light‘s narrative is a bit more traditional this time around. Where the majority of 2033 was content to have the player wander through the metro with only a vague goal present, Last Light‘s story is more clearly present. Last Light presents a defined antagonist, for one, and there’s an overall better sense of narrative progression. This focus extends to the gameplay as well; generally speaking, the game has a pretty big divide between human encounters and mutant ones.
Outside of two situations in the whole game, Last Light‘s human battles all present themselves as stealth-focused levels. Fortunately, these are vastly improved from 2033; enemies’ vision cones aren’t absurd, and a well-designed early section does a good job of explaining the newly emphasized light/darkness mechanics. Most light sources can be extinguished, either by manually turning them off, or by breaking them. This leads to a lot of basic, but fun scenarios that have you gradually eliminating every patrolling enemy. On the other hand, the game will also allow you to simply bust through, guns-blazing, and the improved shooting mechanics also allow for a decent time.
Monsters are a different beast altogether (pun intended). These normally have you crawling through some area you’d rather not be, while mutated creatures attempt to surprise and bum-rush you. These areas also work quite well, and particularly on Ranger Mode (of which the relegation to DLC can only be seen as a crass move by Koch Media), have you constantly worrying about your dwindling bullets, filters, and the state of your gas mask. There’s also a new mechanic that allows you to wipe off any blood or debris from your mask, which does wonders for the game’s immersion.
If it sounds like I like Last Light so far, it’s because I do, largely. But in comparison to 2033, the whole thing seems to have become homogenized with AAA shooters in general, sometimes to its detriment. Take for example the overall shooting mechanics. In 2033, shooting things felt bad, but that was part of the point. It helped emphasize the dire circumstances of the metro, and also fed into the whole “all of this killing is bad” message. Last Light‘s shooting feels better, great even, but it tends to distance the player from the actual environment and tone. There’s also a lot of pretty poor “boss fights” scattered throughout Last Light that serve no greater purpose than to make the whole thing feel more “game-y”.
The narrative fares better, but has its own set of issues. Last Light puts more emphasis on its characters than 2033 ever did, and this shift in focus really doesn’t do it many favors. Due to the game’s tendency to put you in isolating circumstances (a good move for the atmosphere), there’s not really enough time to flesh out important characters. When a moment dependent on character development is featured, it generally falls flat, as if a couple of important scenes were missing prior. This makes the last stretch of the game, where the most effective device of the narrative comes into full effect, conclude on a disappointing note that feels like a shallow retread of 2033‘s ground. Incidentally, Last Light also features two sex scenes (one of which is optional) that are by no means offensive, but noticeably tone-deaf in their delivery.
It’s a shame that the narrative struggles in places, because Last Light is largely an extremely well-paced return trip through the metro. 4A Games have succeeded in creating one of the best-looking FPS’s out there, both from a technical and artistic standpoint. Whether it’s a partially submerged section of the metro or a stark vision of a bombed-out Moscow, the art direction is truly stellar at producing a dark, haunting environment. The game is also packed with a lot of cool incidental situations, particularly inside the wonderfully-detailed metro stations. The game never yells at you to look for them, but the observant player will find a lot of homely elements in these places, like a father putting on a shadow puppet show or retrieving a lost teddy bear for a child.
There’s even some new gameplay wrinkles that improve on the foundation of 2033. The weapon customization system, a pretty basic staple of many shooters these days, works very well here by providing a sense of rag-tag assemblage to the weapons. This also helps give the “bullets as currency” system a bit more weight, since there’s more things to actually spend your bullets on.
The experience of Metro 2033 was one of the best I’ve had of this generation. I enjoyed re-experiencing some of that journey, but make no mistake: Last Light is a changed game. Still, it’s far from a failure, and in fact, it’s one of the most memorable, well-paced shooters you’re likely to play this year. But it’s doesn’t quite have that special blend of narrative and gameplay that made 2033 so successful. Metro: Last Light is a return trip worth taking, even as the standards of AAA shooters do it few favors.