Only McCarthy would disapprove


Three years ago, THQ released a first-person shooter called Metro 2033 to little fanfare. Based on a self-published book of the same name, the game found a niche among those looking for more than the standard military-shooter experience. Players embraced a rich, enthralling story—even if the gameplay itself was flawed and ultimately detracted from the experience.

Back in the present day, that cult status has given 2033’s sequel, Metro: Last Light, a groundswell of buzz. Looking to deliver an even more in-depth experience and to fix the technical problems of the past, developer 4A Games has overcome mid-process publisher problems to deliver a game that picks up on Artyom’s story two years after his initial adventure in post-apocalyptic Moscow. Yes, fans of the novels, I said “Artyom.” Instead of following the storyline of the books—which would carry us right into Metro 2034 and follow Artyom’s friend, Hunter, Metro series author Dmitry Glukhovsky penned an entirely original script that continues Artyom’s tale.

Since Metro 2033 featured multiple endings—one where Artyom destroyed the Dark Ones, (humanoid creatures with charcoal skin and telepathic abilities), and one where he spared them—Glukhovsky and 4A Games looked at gamer tendencies to see how they would proceed. An overwhelming majority of gamers chose to destroy the Dark Ones, so Last Light considers that ending the canonical one.

Artyom’s been plagued with nightmares since the end of the first game, even though many laud him as the hero who saved the Moscow Metro from the insidious Dark Ones. But Artyom knows the truth: He made a terrible mistake when he launched those missiles from the local TV tower. Redemption may be near for Artyom, though, as his good friend and adviser, Khan, says he’s spotted a young Dark One that survived the blast near the Botanical Gardens. If Artyom can save this child, he hopes that he can still save what’s left of his scarred soul. Unfortunately for him, the other factions within the Metro have plans for Artyom—and this young Dark One as well.

As one of those fans of the first Metro, I was blown away by how far Last Light has come compared to its predecessor. If you thought the narrative was intriguing before, now it’s downright intoxicating. The game’s pacing and levels are broken up like chapters of a book—a clear indication of Glukhovsky’s involvement—each introduced by Artyom’s narration, which allows for both simple character development as well as a streamlined setup for the action. And if you want more of Artyom’s inner voice brought to the forefront, the game includes 43 collectible journal entries that flesh out the longer sequences and Artyom’s thinking.

The story’s constantly moving forward, which helps the pacing and narrative tremendously. The game offers few optional missions, and the ones that are included are well hidden within the context of the happenings around you; this way, even if you miss them, you probably won’t realize it.

When you combine how the plot unfolds with the brilliantly designed world of the Metro, you have one of the most immersive, atmospheric experiences you’re likely to get on consoles. I wish some survival-horror games would take a page out of Metro: Last Light’s book when it comes to building tension and atmospheric presence; I couldn’t put my controller down, as I got sucked into Artyom’s sad existence. Yet I was still in awe and aware of Artyom’s insignificance compared to the sprawling mass of Metro tunnels or to the ruins of Moscow’s mightiest monuments on those rare sojourns to the surface, which only sucked me further down the rabbit hole.

The improved graphics definitely help here; many of the creatures, people, weapons, and locations have an intense amount of detail, often so minute that you can actually count how many expended shells are in your six-shooter or watch as the flame of a broken lantern slowly engulfs dried-up cardboard boxes or furniture.

Not all of the creatures are as frightening as the developers intended, however. The Demons and Watchmen from the first game look better than ever, but new monsters that lurk in the water—or are sequence-specific—look like they belong more on a Ray Harryhausen stop-motion stage than they do in a modern game.

The biggest improvement between the two Metro games, however, is clearly in the gameplay. Sure, you’ve still got your typical first-person shooter mechanics, but Last Light also sports an interesting weapon-customization feature. If you’d rather save your military-grade shells (returning as the game’s currency), you can actually make it through most of the game with very few weapon upgrades. I personally picked up only a few along the way and was fine throughout, modifying my pistol so it acted more like a sniper rifle, adding night vision to my assault rifle, and picking up a quad-barreled shotgun along the way that put most any monster down very quickly.

The idea of needing to survive is also still prevalent here. Much like in 2033, keeping an eye on your air supply when in toxic areas, charging your headlamp with a portable generator, and making sure the visor on your gasmask doesn’t crack all add extra tension to several scenarios, where facing off against giant spiders or a Communist patrol are unavoidable.

I realize I keep referring to Last Light as a first-person shooter—and although that’s technically true, that description makes the experience sound more action-oriented than it really is. Sure, you can go through the game guns-a-blazin’, but the true sense of playing in Artyom’s shoes comes when you must play stealthily: trying to time patrol patterns, shooting out ceiling lights with silenced weapons, and making sure dead bodies won’t alert guards. And this leads us into the next major improvement: enemy AI.

Foes will now actively search you out if they suspect you’re near, and they’ll go to great lengths to try to flank you or flush you out with grenades and other tactics. At several points, however, I took advantage of standard stealth strategies to fool the AI and easily overcome drastic numbers disadvantages, meaning that the AI has come far—but not far enough to put Last Light on par with more traditional stealth titles.

The game also makes it more difficult to be stealthy, because it lacks one simple mechanic: dragging away dead bodies. Oftentimes, it wasn’t that I made noise or missed an instant-kill headshot—it was the fact that a guard stumbled upon a corpse strewn across the floor. I’m not expecting Artyom to be like Agent 47 in Hitman, hiding bodies in every container known to man, and I get that his character’s a somewhat-naïve twentysomething, but just let me drag the bodies out of sight!

Despite these flaws—along with the occasional ragdoll-physics glitch and a convoluted user interface for selecting secondary weapons and items—I found Metro: Last Light to be one of the most complete experiences I’ve had from a game in quite some time. The story is all-consuming and made me lose sense of the world around me—and myself—as I poured hours into helping Artyom save the Metro.

Developer: 4A Games • Publisher: Deep Silver • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 05.14.13

If you love a great story and some fun first-person shooter action, Metro: Last Light is sure to please. Only a couple of minor shortcomings hold the experience back, including the much-improved—but still not completely polished—stealth gameplay.

The Good One of the most immersive, atmospheric games you’ll play this year.
The Bad AI and stealth have come a long way—but not far enough. 
The Ugly How much free advertising for Dmitry Glukhovsky’s books you’ll find.
Metro: Last Light is available on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.