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Metro: Last Light refuses to let you go (review)

I was running out of time and ammo. Mutated wolves, freakish crustaceans, and a flying demon were relentlessly hunting me through the swampland. According to my watch, I only had 15 seconds left of breathable air in the gas mask. I had two choices: either let the wildlife eviscerate me from head to toe or suffocate to death from the surface’s radioactive atmosphere.

Welcome to the harsh world of Metro: Last Light.

Developer 4A Games returns to post-apocalyptic Moscow in this sequel to Metro 2033 (out May 14 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC). The studio based its first-person shooter series on the Metro books written by author Dmitry Glukhovsky. Just a few months ago, the future of Metro: Last Light was uncertain when original publisher THQ closed down due to bankruptcy, but Deep Silver (publisher of the zombie-slaying Dead Island games) picked up the publishing rights for $5.8 million during the THQ auction a few weeks later.

The interruption doesn’t seem to have affected Metro: Last Light in any meaningful way. 4A Games crafted a rich, beautiful world fraught with danger, political conspiracies, and supernatural forces.

Metro: Last Light 2

What You’ll Like

The unshakeable sense of dread

Twenty years after nuclear missiles scorched the planet (an event stemming from World War III), Moscow is a wasteland. All sorts of monstrosities have risen from the ashes and claimed the Russian city as their turf while other creatures chose to go underground where the remaining survivors try to live a normal life. Death looms at almost every corner.

This is clear when you first step foot on the surface. Between the pockets of intense radiation and the wildlife that slithers, swims, flies, or runs across the landscape, I was always nervous when Last Light took me back above ground. Part of that anxiety comes from a sort of tactile connection that develops during the non-shooting portions of gameplay: the act (and squeaking sound) of wiping your gas mask to remove any blood or goo obscuring your vision, repeatedly charging your electrical equipment by rapidly clicking the mouse, or flicking on your lighter in places where your flashlight just doesn’t work.

As the elite Ranger known as Artyom, you’re not some avatar in a virtual shooting gallery. You’re an active participant, a citizen of the Metro. A survivor. And once you feel like you’re actually a part of the fiction, the threats amplify tenfold. The hostility isn’t limited to the world of the living, either. Remnants of the dead — those who died from the blasts — appear in the form of ghostly apparitions and disembodied voices whispering to you in the darkness. Last Light isn’t a pure survival-horror game, but the creepy elements it uses are enough to make you paranoid.

The people

The tension can feel overwhelming at times, so a series of Metro stations that people have transformed into towns serve as much-needed breaks. They’re more than just trading posts, however. You feel as if real people have lived in these places for years. You learn this from the numerous conversations happening all around you. Some folks are refugees escaping the tyrannical rule of the Nazis or the Communists (at the end of the world, it seems divergent political ideologies are stronger than ever). Others are humble merchants who will gladly take your pristine pre-apocalypse bullets — Metro’s form of currency, which you can also use as ammo — in exchange for their wares. And some are just thieves, looking to scam the next poor bastard who walks their way.

Even your enemies, if unaware of your presence in the shadows, tell fascinating stories. One group I snuck up behind were sharing superstitious tales, like the story of The Tunnel Keeper, a mysterious Pied Piper of the Metro who commands its followers to travel into the dark tunnels. They’re never heard from again.

These conversations are shining beacons of life (or whatever’s left of it) in the otherwise bleak future that Last Light depicts. You can see the weariness on the survivors’ faces. But, somehow, they’ve found a way to go on with their lives after the bombs had dropped. I found this oddly comforting.

Post-apocalyptic beauty

Metro: Last Light looks stunning. If you have the means to, you should definitely play this on a PC. Even my ancient machine, which is slightly above the minimum requirements, was able to run one of the most visually striking games I’ve ever seen. The developers sculpted a gorgeous painting out of the charred and broken buildings, bridges, and streets of post-fallout Moscow. The same is true for the labyrinthine tunnels and city states of the Metro system where gas lamps illuminate the dank walls and filthy homes of its tenants in gritty detail.

It makes me jealous for those who are able to run Last Light at its “optimum” settings, which require, among other things, a $1,000 Nvidia graphics card. If you fall into that camp, pat yourself on the back. You’re in for one hell of a visual treat.

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What You Won’t Like

Getting pulled out of the experience

4A Games created such an engrossing world that it’s difficult to overlook the few cracks beneath the façade. For instance, human enemies aren’t very smart. They’ll often run right past you in the shadows, even if they just spotted you only moments earlier during your attack. If they know you’re nearby, they’ll all perform the same animation loop of constantly popping in and out of cover, craning their necks to look for you. They appeared less like people and more like programmed robots.

This makes the difficulty (at least on the normal setting) a bit inconsistent as well. While fighting on the surface is harrowing since you have to scavenge for gas mask filters to get more air, facing enemies underground is rather easy. Except for the last fight, I never ran out of medical kits. I had a steady supply of ammo from looting my fallen foes. And I didn’t need to worry about money: I wasn’t swimming in prewar bullets, but I wasn’t struggling to find them.

Other little things became annoying over time, like soldiers clipping through walls or floating in the air after I’d killed them. But nothing tore me out of the game more than when I saw the many advertisements for Glukhovsky’s Metro books. The first few times the title does this are fine, but then you start seeing the ads in all the stations you visit. Last Light already does a good job of advertising the Metro universe on its own, so breaking the fourth wall just to remind the player that a new book is coming only harms the experience.

Predictable story

As strong as the writing is for the background conversations, the main story is confusing, and, at the end, predictable. Perhaps it was because I didn’t finish Metro 2033, but I couldn’t remember the names of the major factions and important characters. I was always asking myself  “Who’s that again,” or “Why did he/she do that?” Some crucial plot elements (like character motivations) reside only in Artyom’s personal diaries, but you have to look for the documents in each mission. These pages help a lot in terms of understanding the Metro, but hiding important story details within them is frustrating, especially if you don’t find them all.

Unfortunately, Metro: Last Light is also the victim of the Chosen One plot device where fate decides that the protagonist is the one and only savior of the world — one of the characters even says this aloud. Can we just ban this cliché from video games, please?

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Conclusion

Despite Metro: Last Light’s fairly conclusive ending, I felt like my work wasn’t done. I kept wondering about the other stations and the people living there. What are their stories and how can I help them? How did the mutants evolve so quickly? And what’s going on with all those ghosts? Technical issues might have marred my experience, but Glukhovsky and 4A Games built such a captivating world, and I didn’t want to leave. I might just have to read those books after all.

Score: 83/100

Metro: Last Light releases May 14, 2013 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. The publisher provided GamesBeat with the PC version for the purpose of this review.

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