At a time when difficult appears to be the new cool (yet not the most lucrative) Metro 2033 makers 4A Games, and at the time of inception its now defunct publisher THQ, had some tough choices to make. Metro 2033 was a gem of a game, gorgeous and a bit different in its approach introducing proper survival elements in a post apocalyptic first person shooter based on the famous eastern European novels of the same name. It was fresh and offered the gamer one hell of a challenge, one which many walked away from or simply didn’t bother starting after word got out. So what do you do with the sequel, go the same route and achieve critical acclaim and mediocre sales figures, or do you dumb it down a little citing accessibility in an attempt to reach a wider audience (the Call of Duty crowd) to try to make more money. Big publishers being the way they are these days the latter is the obvious choice and it would appear that is exactly what has happened to Metro: Last Light - the question remains though...is that such a bad thing? Yes and no.
Metro: Last Light places you once again in the more than combat capable shoes of Artyom, the poor guy who not only survived global destruction but also had the misfortune of the being the main character in the first outing. Working his way around the tunnels of the Russian underground or Metro armed with whatever can be cobbled together from scrap, facing all manner of sick twisted humans, mutants and giant winged things to name but a few enemies. The story focuses on a missile strike on sentient creatures known as the Dark Ones, Artyom’s connection with these beings, his mother and along the way a Metro war is thrown into the mix seeing Artyom forced to deal with all the factions from the first game: The Reds, The Reich and Polis - safe to say there is a lot happening narratively and for the most part it all hangs together quite nicely. It isn’t without fault though as there are times particularly in the middle third where the story gets muddled and struggles to decide if it wants to be a horror story, a ghost story or a straight up military adventure. By the end of the adventure though you are suitably rewarded for your troubles with a grand finale backed by solid writing. Some of the best writing doesn’t actually come from the heavily scripted set pieces within the game but more from just ambling around some of the central hubs found within the Metro itself. Eavesdropping is your friend when you enter these small underground towns and the conversations bring life to the metro and the lore that surrounds your adventure - take your time, walk around, listen to the chatter and the story becomes better for it in the long run.
The story is enhanced by the absolutely superb game engine, produced in house by 4A Games. Rivalled only by the CryEngine the 4A engine renders everything in Metro: Last Light superbly, to the point where it’s tough to believe that this level of eye candy is possibly on the ever-aging Xbox 360. Graphically if this is in fact the pinnacle of the old beast and in turn the entry point for the much touted vastly superior next gen then graphics whores rejoice as we are in for a treat. The detail on display is at times jaw dropping, the lighting plays a massive part while underground and during firefights, let’s also not forget when you step outside too. Weather effects particularly can at times make you want to stop and admire when you really should be running for your life.
Fair to say that the presentation as a whole is quite flawless and the team at 4A should be commended not only for their in-house engine but the art direction is also quite unique. The apocalypse has been covered many a time in games but seldom does it seem so real, so bleak and instilling the hopelessness of actually trying to stay alive in such an environment. Character design is way above average, facial expression and lip syncing are excellent and the ghost-like effects presented throughout the game, specifically when interacting with the Dark Ones are well crafted enough to put the willies up you if you are playing with the lights off - heck even the menus look beautiful!
The sound design complements the visual aspects of the game to a really high standard - the creatures that inhabit the game are not to be trifled with and there is a genuine anxiety when you can faintly hear something coming from a way off through your headset (a good headset is always recommended). The voice work is also top drawer although you will likely grow tired of the heavy Russian accents placed on the English dialogue - should you grow weary of this you can easily switch to the native Russian language with English subtitles (arguably better and less annoying). Overall as is with the entire presentation it’s all painstakingly well crafted and a tribute to the development team, it is clear in the execution that their heart and soul was poured into this piece of work.
As a game rather than a piece of art the game suffers slightly, mainly as the original forged such a bold path a few years back. Metro 2033 was lauded for its uncompromising vision of the future and its genuine survival horror aspects - in the original ammo was so scarce that many people hit a brick wall particularly towards the end of the adventure as they were simply outgunned and could not continue. This brought accessibility criticism for the original and whilst somewhat of a cult hit, it never really engaged that critical mass of users - the Call of Duty or Battlefield first person shooter fans.
This time around everything is streamlined and more accessible, which is of course fantastic if you found the first title tough, bad if that is the reason why you loved the first one. Ammunition is plentiful on the normal difficulty and you will rarely call upon a full set of health vials; at this difficulty level the game ceases to really be a survival horror title slipping straight into fairly standard first person shooter territory, albeit with a good ghost story and looking gorgeous throughout. There are scares, bad language, gore, lots of guns, monsters and boobs aplenty but no real sense of danger or survival. This, much like the original is reserved for the DLC based ranger mode, much criticised first time around and likely to again be this time, this is the true scavenger mode, the game completely changes and fits the survival horror bill perfectly.
Gameplay is weighted towards stealth seeing multiple cheevs/trophies for stealth play as well as a non-lethal approach to combat. Minute to minute you are presented with what are effectively connected challenge rooms punctuated with narrative and story in between, all of which remind you of the “multiple ways to approach a group of enemies” as seen in Batman or Deus Ex. Go in guns a blazing though and you are likely to not have enough ammo for later encounters. One of the key things to note when playing through is that human AI is so dreadful that it makes perfect sense to not waste ammo on them - keep your ammo as you sure as hell will need it when faced with the overly aggressive, attack in mass numbers monster scenarios found throughout the game. As a shooter it feels tight, controls well and ticks all the boxes - the balance of human and monster enemy AI isn’t particularly well balanced though which can cause much annoyance during certain levels.
In a way the team appear to have tried to cater for everyone here and it will be interesting to see if that strategy pays dividends in the sales figures. The original found a niche, building up a core fan base though sadly it only shifted just under 500,000 units worldwide - with this iteration they have definitely gone for a wider mass appeal sadly losing some of that originality in the process. Have they sold their souls to the cash devil? Time will tell, for now Metro: Last Light is a solid gorgeous shooter which presents something a little different from the norm, if not as different as the first game in the series.