STAFF REVIEW of Metro: Last Light (Xbox 360)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013.
by Khari Taylor

Metro: Last Light Box art Metro 2033 was one of the few games of 2010 that bravely bucked the FPS conventions of the day. Developed by Ukrainian developer 4A Games, the game itself was based on a series of books by Dmitry Glukhovsky, and featured a dark and dreary, post-apocalyptic setting that made even the first Gears of War game look like Disneyland. It didn’t include multiplayer or co-op, and it didn’t even feature a heads-up-display, opting instead to fully immerse the players in the story while challenging both their senses and their ability to multitask while under fire. The game was met with wide critical acclaim upon release and while flawed, was lauded for its strong story and compelling atmosphere. Now in 2013, having survived the apocalyptic fall of THQ and now in the hands of publisher Deep Silver, 4A Games have finally emerged once again from the development underground with Metro 2033’s long-awaited sequel; Metro: Last Light. How does their latest offering stand up in the harsh light of day?

Metro: Last Light's story seemingly picks up only months after the conclusion of Metro 2033, which saw the game's protagonist, Artyom, annihilate an entire race of humanoid surface-dwelling mutants, the Dark Ones, in a lethal missile strike. In the end, it was a hollow victory, as the surface of Moscow still remains hopelessly irradiated and infested with other dangerous mutant creatures, while what is left of Russia's humanity survives underground in the habitable areas of the Metro subway system, fighting amongst one another for resources. For his recent "heroic" actions culminating with the strike against the Dark Ones, Artyom has been promoted from his previous role as a lowly foot soldier to a newly-minted member of The Order, the military faction which controls Polis (one of the "station cities" of the Metro), as well as the recently discovered, top-secret military installation D6, which is said to hold a doomsday weapon of significant power. Naturally, other rival factions, such as the communist Reds and the Nazis want this weapon, as well as control of the entire Metro for themselves, and thus a civil war is brewing that threatens to wipe out every living human soul. Meanwhile, The Order has discovered that a lone Dark One has been spotted on the surface, and Artyom, whom for some reason shares a psychic connection to the Dark Ones, may be the key to understanding their motives, weaponizing them, or simply eliminating them once and for all. As a result, Artyom is drawn back into the centre of conflict once again as he is sent out to destroy the Dark One, but haunted by the nightmares of the genocide he caused, will he be able to do what is necessary when the time comes, and more importantly, are the Dark Ones truly enemies of The Order and humanity?

The controls of Metro: Last Light will be largely familiar to just about anyone who plays modern first-person shooters, as they are almost copied directly out of the Call of Duty playbook, right down to clicking the Left Stick (LS) to sprint and using the Left Trigger (LT) to aim down one's iron sights for most weapons. Just like in Metro 2033 however, the traditional heads-up-display has all but been completely eliminated, requiring players to pay closer attention to visual and audio cues in order to ascertain the status of their weapons, equipment and health. In the case of weapons, each firearm has visually crafted to have its own distinct, makeshift look so that observant players can tell which weapon they are holding just by looking at its shape (although the various attachments that can be purchased and affixed to them potentially makes this harder). Likewise, the weapon chambers are almost always exposed and/or accompanied by a built-in, old-school digital counter, so players can always tell when they are down to their last few rounds. Reloading is performed by the X button while pressing Y quickly cycles between the three weapons Atryom can carry. A long Y press will bring up the weapons menu, where players can directly select the weapon they want to use, as well as switch between standard “dirty” ammo and military grade ammo, the latter being more powerful (capable of even setting some mutant creatures ablaze) but also of such high value in the world of Metro that it serves as the game's currency, and is necessary for just about every transaction in the game, from purchasing upgrades and munitions at weapon shops to paying for a strong drink or a lap dance in a Venice Station brothel. So, while frustrating, it is probably for the best that guns do not automatically switch over to high-grade ammo when their dirty ammo has depleted - the player must manually switch over to military grade ammo and vice-versa via the weapons menu, forcing a lengthy reload action as Artyom swaps out one type of ammo for another. The process is extremely satisfying to watch and listen to when there are no enemies around, as Artyom clicks and slaps the cartridges of ammo in and out to loud effect with the deftness of an experienced soldier, but this can be a nightmare when in the heat of battle, particularly when facing down a boss creature. Also adding to the tension is that entering the weapons menu slows time down temporarily but does not freeze it, so players must still make their selections quickly if they do not wish to take on excessive damage.

Metro: Last Light’s trademark emphasis on player immersion is further enforced with the equipment menu (accessed via the LB button), which does not pause action at all. It is here where Artyom can equip his gas mask (a must for surviving the poisoned air when traveling on the surface world of Moscow) and change filters when they run out; turn his flashlight on and off or recharge it and other equipment with a portable hydraulic charger that must be manually pumped by hand; inject himself with a stim pack for immediate health regeneration in tight spots; or when carrying an sniper rifle, crank up the hydraulic pump of the rifle to increase the velocity and lethality of his headshots. In particular, these deliberate and often time- consuming pump-actions force the player to use caution, good judgment and strategy as to how and when to perform them, and it is here where Metro: Last Light clearly favors the stealthier player who conserves his ammo, always keeps her flashlight adequately charged, and sneaks about via the shadows in near-silence in order to pick off enemies up close with her combat knife or from afar with a muffled sniper rifle. Loud, careless run-and-gunners on the other hand will face swarms of enemies that converge on their position, forcing frequent scavenging for additional ammo from bodies while under fire and a heavy reliance on stim packs, as time for health regeneration in firefights is scarce.

Metro 2033 was a beautifully atmospheric game for 2010 and Metro: Last Light proves to be no different in 2013, sporting 4A game's improved, in-house game engine. The lighting effects and character detail are very impressive on the Xbox 360, and while they are likely much more jaw- dropping on the PC, players experiencing the game on console will hardly be left wanting. It’s about as pretty as a dark, post-apocalyptic game can get on current gen-consoles. The audio is just as impressive if not more so, and is actually at its best when facing the game's various mutant creatures. I can personally attest to this after surviving a harrowing run through a catacomb filled with giant spider beasts that could only be killed after shining my flashlight on them for a brief period of time to burn-off their hard exterior shell, Alan Wake-style. The sounds of these ravenous, multi-legged creatures screeching and skittering about in the walls and along the ceilings, underpinned by a chilling score by returning Metro composer Alexey Omelchuk had me frantically pumping up the battery of my flashlight whenever there was a free moment, just so I could avoid having to fend for myself in complete darkness for even a second.

While it is possible to play the game completely in Russian with English subtitles, the English-language voice cast of Metro: Last Light does an excellent job of embodying the characters, driving home the dark tone of the game and giving dramatic weight to the many stories that NPCs share with Artyom about their personal losses as well as the state of depravity and chaos that humanity as a whole has fallen into since nuclear war forced them underground. For example, the vulnerability of women and the ever-present threat of rape in this new society is a subject that comes up often in overheard conversations, and the game does not shy away from the reality in gameplay either, as there is at least one opportunity in the game if not more where the player can veer off his or her path and intervene in an otherwise imminent assault against a female refugee, or ignore the distant cries for help and walk on by. While other recent games (such as Far Cry 3) have presented players the same choice, the implied brutality in a near- lawless, post-World War III Russia that has seen the return of militant Nazism and Communism makes the prospect all the more disturbing. Nonetheless, players keen on experiencing a great story along with their shooters will relish and embrace these difficult moments.

Regretfully, much like its prequel Metro 2033, Metro: Last Light's stubborn insistence on an almost non-existent HUD occasionally throws the baby out with the bathwater, and when combined with a number of odd game design decisions and somewhat faulty A.I., these problems serve to confound, disappoint and frustrate players, often taking them out of the experience when they should be the most engaged and/or having the most fun. For example, early on in the game I found myself stuck and going around in circles in a boiler room level for over 20 minutes, long after I had silently dispatched every enemy soldier, scavenged every bit of ammo and flipped the necessary switch in order to exit the level, simply because there was no clear visual or audio cue to indicate where I was supposed to go next. Admittedly, most other games have a heavy-handed way of avoiding this problem at the sacrifice of immersion, such as briefly seizing control of the camera to direct the player's attention towards a key point of interest or bringing up an optional "look" cue that achieves the same effect at the press of a button (e.g. Gears of War), so it's understandable that 4A Games felt this would have cramped the game's HUD-less style. However, a solution that could have prevented this issue from happening without breaking the immersion would have been to give Artyom a voice during gameplay. It's puzzling why 4A chose to attempt to channel Half-Life's Gordon Freeman and make Artyom silent during the game, given that he narrates the story both in the beginning of the game as well as the diary monologues between cutscenes. Not only does it make interactions with other characters throughout the game awkward (NPCs will speak directly to Artyom and then carry on as if he has nodded, spoken and or agreed with them even though there's no indication to the player that any such action has taken place), but it also begs the question: How hard would it have been to have Artyom say in his thick Russian accent, "Sounds like the ventilation fan just stopped, I'd better check it out"?

This same problem joined forces with other issues in a later mission to convince me that outings on the surface, which require a gasmask and an adequate supply of filters to survive, are decidedly less enjoyable than those within the underground confines of the Metro. The mission, which required Atryom to make his way across the surface of Moscow to a church to meet with fellow members of The Order, presented several problems due to the game's poor lack of direction. First, in order to get to side of town where the church was located, I first had to locate fuel to power a winch to pull a ferry raft to my side of the river, and the most likely locations suggested to me by my superior officer Miller (before he abandoned me on the surface) was a crashed plane or a tanker truck. However, I was not told in what direction to head to find the winch, nor could I clearly tell which way I should head to find the plane wreck or the tanker, as their locations were obscured by other building debris. Red flags, apparently planted by other members of the Order seemed to indicate general paths to take, but unfortunately I was too busy fending off amphibious and airborne mutants with limited ammo to be certain which way they were leading me, so in the end I found myself stumbling upon the supplies and locations I needed to find just by random coincidence as I fought for my life. Then, thanks to all the time I wasted running around aimlessly and falling into deep swamp puddles, I ran low on filters. Then it started getting dark, and that's when I realized that not only had I still not found the church, I didn't even know what the church looked like. Before I knew it, I was once again running around in a panic, juggling gun combat with charging my flashlight and IR goggles as well as monitoring my last two remaining filters at the same time, only to arrive at the end of the level to face a huge boss with only 60 seconds of air left and a random smattering of dirty ammo, a handful of military grade bullets for my SMG, three claymore mines and one lone incendiary grenade. To say I died fast and often would be an understatement, and a couple of those times even saw me defeat the boss by the skin of my teeth, only to die immediately afterward from suffocation. To think how much time, ammunition and filters I might have saved if Artyom had spoken up during that mission and said "That looks like the tail of a plane over there behind that building" or "That looks like the round spires of the church in the distance, I'm getting close”.

Finally, while passable in straight-up firefights, the enemy human A.I. in Metro Last Light on "Normal" difficulty completely falls on its face in aspects of stealth despite the fact that the game's emphasis on realistic light and shadow, stealth kills and ammo conservation would suggest that a much more complex stealth mechanic lies underneath. Instead, Metro: Last Light commits stealth game "faux pas" in the dozens, making one wonder how such atrocities can still exist in an industry where franchises like Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell set the gold standard over a console generation ago. For example, Artyom is able to loot bodies, but is inexplicably unable to drag them to a less conspicuous place, forcing players to kill enemies in shadow and carelessly leave them there. Stranger still, enemies will walk right next to the the poorly-concealed body and not notice it, even though the player can still clearly see the body from a greater distance away (making one wonder if they would even react if the body were left in plain sight). If an enemy glimpses Artyom for a moment, he will investigate, but will hardly be troubled by a light being shot out above his head with a silenced bullet, or consider a throwing knife clattering against the wall only inches from his head as more than "strange". Shutting down an entire fuse box will prompt a lone soldier to investigate, but the rest of the soldiers in the room will continue on as nothing has happened, and there is no way to audibly distract a soldier away from a point of interest other than exposing one's self visibly (because Artyom has apparently never heard of whistling, and guards don't consider throwing knives hitting objects worth investigating). Players can pass through a room full of soldiers without killing a single enemy, then engage in a full blown firefight in the next room connected to the first by an open door, and the soldiers in the other room won't come running, even if an alarm was set off, and so on. It's truly a shame that for all of 4A Games' insistence on immersing the player in the world of Metro: Last Light, that such a significant portion of the game where such immersion could and should have been at its best shows the most cracks -- the fun of stealth only holds up as long as the player believes that he or she is "outwitting" the A.I., but once it becomes clear that the A.I. is literally blind to many of the player's actions, much of the challenge and enjoyment quickly seeps out of the experience. Of course, there is a possibility that playing the game on "Hardcore" or the pre-order-exclusive "Ranger" difficulty DLC might unlock improved A.I., but this review is based on the experience that the majority of players will have when first playing the game.

Overall, Metro: Last Light sticks to the formula that Metro 2033 was built on, offering a mature, engaging narrative and a solid shooter experience that fans of the previous game as well as those who appreciate unique single-player first- person adventures such as Half Life, Condemned and Bioshock are bound to enjoy, despite the occasional lack of proper guidance. However, if you are looking for an A.I. that lives up to the game’s visuals and promises of competent stealth gameplay, enjoying Metro Last: Light will require a significant lowering of expectations. That aside, it is still an experience not to be missed.

Overall: 7.9 / 10
Gameplay: 7.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.5 / 10
Sound: 8.5 / 10


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