When Metro 2033 came out a few years ago, it wasn't as big a seller as any of the Call of Duty games – which is a shame, because it was far more atmospheric. It relied more on the pure grittiness of survival – especially with Ranger Mode turned on – than most first-person shooters ever will, and that's one of the things that made it stand out from the pack.
When THQ announced the sequel, Metro: Last Light, I was even more intrigued, especially since it would be following the first game's conclusive journey of shaken soldier Artyom. But then the sequel hit the backburner in the midst of the publisher's bankruptcy turmoil, and I began to wonder if it would ever see a release. But Deep Silver wisely snagged the project and its developer, 4A Games, and today, here we are, trying to survive in nuclear-ravaged Russia all over again.
The game once again puts you in the shoes of Artyom, who serves with the neutral Rangers squad in the midst of Russia's nuclear attack. The game pits him against all sorts of opposition, whether it's mutated animals in the mood for a snack or the much-worse human factions — like a Nazi faction — that won't hesitate to kill him. He does have allies, but they're few and far between, and they can't really help his stressful condition following events in the first game. Now they haunt him.
Like the first game, Last Light is all about emotional storytelling and involvement. There are occasional hiccups, like characters that are too cartoon-like for their own good – or those that simply won't shut up in contrast to the ever-silent Artyom.
However, the game as a whole embraces this harrowing world convincingly, making you feel dread in even the smallest things. For instance, walking through a prison level, we walked into the sunlight (after we were warned not to), and chemical canisters dropped. Not only did Artyom die from the mistake, but we could hear fellow prisoners cry out in dread over the error. (At least we learned our lesson for the next time through.)
The gameplay really comes together, too. As before, you can choose to conserve your ammo (which acts as currency in the game) and use cheaply made bullets or melee strikes to get the point across, or you can plow enemies with the premium stuff and make life a little easier. The choice is yours. You can also choose how you play through the game, whether you want to be all sneaky-like or, if you've got the bullets to do so, just say "screw it" and plow through a Reich squad. Sneaky is obviously preferred in order to avoid tripping alarms, but even then, it introduces a sense of "all or nothing" that's hard to shake. Sometimes the AI behavior can be a little weird – like an enemy who stands right in front of you on occasion, doing very little – but overall, it's quite good.
Your supplies also play a big part in Last Light, as you'll use a flashlight to look around dark hallways, along with a charger to keep it from fading out on you. You'll also need to use a gas mask on the surface, changing filters to avoid succumbing completely to the toxic environment and even and wiping the visor on occasion. They're smaller items, but quite important when it comes to getting somewhere. However, we can't help but question the extreme flammability of cobwebs. They just light up and go "poof." Ah well, it's a neat effect anyway.
4A Games has gone all out in the visual department with Last Light. The harrowing world of Russia really opens up and looks utterly fantastic despite the chaos. The underground stuff looks just as good, whether you're working your way through a tunnel dripping with ooze or fighting your way through the inner workings of the Reich, narrowly making a jump between platforms. Some of the animations are a bit iffy – especially on a couple of your comrades – but as a whole, 4A has really done remarkable stuff with its engine here. You can't help but wonder what would happen if it were applied to other shooter types.
The sound also goes a really long way in immersing you in the environment. The music is atmospheric in all the right places, while, at the same time, not overstaying its welcome by droning the same melodies over and over. The voiceovers are a mixture of awesome and annoying, depending on who's talking. Artyom's recaps of events are perfectly portrayed, while some of the others sound like they're phoning in their accents. It doesn't throw you off completely, but you can tell the difference. Finally, the sound effects are quite good, with the makeshift weapons having just the right pitch and creature noises sending shivers down your spine, especially in a pitch-black cavern. Damn spiders.
I have one minor complaint with Last Light, though. The Ranger Mode, which essentially cranks up the difficulty to a more realistic setting and turns off the heads-up display (so you really are on your own), has to be unlocked through a download code, instead of being included on the disc. Now, the code comes automatically with the Limited Edition of the game, so you can probably get it on day one, but this is one of those instances where it just should've been thrown in. It really heightens the terror you feel within the game, with less ammunition, tougher enemies and the frantic feeling that you could get lost on the surface at any moment – and with only one gas mask. We do hate suffocation…
Metro: Last Light isn't for everyone. If you didn't care for 2033, this game probably won't change your mind. However, it provides an atmospheric approach to first-person shooters that you just don't see that often, so it's worth experiencing just for that difference. The gameplay feels just right, the presentation nails it for the most part, and Ranger Mode – well, let's just say it's one of those things you want to go for if you ever feel the need to be tested.
It's been a hell of a journey, but at last, we get to see the Light.
[Reviewed on PlayStation 3]