For one of the best-looking games ever made it is remarkable how badly Metro: Last Light screenshots. My usual method is to get Fraps to automatically take a shot every ten seconds while I’m playing, and out of around 2000 screenshots captured over seven hours of play there were maybe half a dozen which weren’t a horrible, blurry mess. Modern FPS games are very into their motion blur and depth-of-field effects, of course, so this isn’t a phenomenon that’s strictly confined to Last Light, but it has it worse that just about any other game I’ve played thanks to its unique gameplay conceits.
So Metro Last Light is set in and around the decaying underground environment of the Moscow metro system twenty years after an apocalyptic nuclear war. Anyone reading the words “apocalyptic nuclear war” should realise that in videogame terms this means radiation, mutants and a general Mad Max-style scrabble for survival with rival human factions, and Last Light delivers on all three counts. However, it does differ from the usual videogame approach to this theme (hello Fallout) in how seriously it takes things. The surface is a seriously messed-up wasteland where you can’t survive without a gas mask and an ample supply of filters. Weapons are a curious mix of the scavenged and the cobbled-together, where you rely just as much on pneumatically-powered airguns as you do your antique AK-47. And all around you is this ever-oppressive sense of misery as you pick your way through the ruins of civilization. The ghosts of pre-war Moscow are still present – sometimes literally – and you’re constantly presented with reminders of that fact; sometimes they’re obvious, and sometimes they’re as subtle as the placing of the skeletal corpses dotting the landscape – a family huddled together, say, or a couple surrounded by charred mutant bodies who, on closer inspection, turn out to be holding the spent husk of a petrol bomb between them. Last Light isn’t just a pretty face; with the proper use of visual effects to implement all these little features which incidentally mess up all my screenshots it’s actually one of the most atmospheric games I’ve ever played.
That is, when it’s not too busy trying to ape Call of Duty, anyway.
I liked Metro 2033. I thought it had one of the better tutorial sections in games released in recent years; it paired you up with a succession of companions who would subtly teach you how to survive while moving from place to place together, so that when the game finally cut you loose a third of the way in you didn’t immediately suffocate on the surface or get your face chewed off by a mutant. Importantly, it managed to do this while avoiding having the NPC companions become overbearing or obviously scripting the surrounding environment to funnel the player down a specific non-interactive path, both hallmarks of the Call of Duty series. Unfortunately Last Light – while being significantly more polished compared to 2033 – falls neatly into this dual trap of gating player progress whenever there’s an NPC with them and making them watch virtual puppet shows while they pace up and down restlessly, unable to actually play the damn game. It’s not quite CoD-levels of waiting for a man to come and open the door for you because you don’t have the ability to use the handle yourself, but any time you’re paired up with somebody else there’s too many occasions where you’re stuck waiting for them to finish doing whatever it is they’re doing before the next scripted flag will trigger and the level will move on. The NPCs themselves are incredibly overbearing too, always outright telling the player what they should be doing at any one time while delivering awkward expository dumps to explain why they’re doing it.
This second part did not sit well with me at all thanks to the game’s ongoing narrative. You’re back in the shoes of Artyom, the protagonist from the first game and a man who has killed quite literally hundreds of mutants, monsters and fascists without breaking a sweat, and who strolled through places even the most hardened of Rangers feared to tread like it was walk in the park. There should be nobody who knows the Metro better than him, and the NPCs should have acknowledged this. Instead they treat Artyom – and the player – like an idiot; not only is this incredibly annoying on a personal level but it doesn’t even make any narrative sense. Why are they telling me that bullets are money? Why does everyone refer to me as a rookie all the time? Artyom did not undergo a memory wipe in between games one and two – or at least not as far as I know – and so the only reason I can think of for the developers to take this approach with the learning process is that it’s a formula which matches up with the expectations gamers might have of a more mainstream game like Call of Duty or Battlefield. They’ve compromised on their strengths in order to try to make Metro a game it is most definitely not, and there are far too many segments of the game where this shows heavily.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the level design. 2033 was hardly the most open of games, but it did a reasonable job of camouflaging at least some of its linearity with levels that had some degree of verticality to them and the progression from area to area happened in a more-or-less logical way that preserved the fiction of the environment. Last Light isn’t quite the polar opposite, but it does represent a definite shift towards a more overtly linear approach to level design. Often the levels are quite literally lines, as you travel along the metro from one place to another. There are precious few opportunities to explore when you’re underground, and often the game isn’t even satisfied with this and stuffs you inside – sigh – a succession of vents in order to disguise the fact that the levels don’t actually connect up in any meaningful way. During the first half of the game there’s at least three occasions where you go into a vent so that you can slowly crawl along and watch a succession of cutscenes through the vent covers, and then when you pop out of the vent you’re in a completely different place despite the vent itself being maybe ten metres long. In fact I’m fairly sure that at the start of the game you spend more time in vents than you do in the actual metro. They should have called it Ventro Last Light instead.
Thankfully the painful grip the game maintains on your hand turns out to be just a spectacularly bad start rather than a game-wide affliction, and Last Light does eventually regain enough of its confidence to start playing to its strengths. The last half of the game has you almost always alone and aboveground,which allows for far more openness in the appearance of the levels, if not quite in terms of their actual structure. Ironically the best level in the game by far is the swamp level1; it looks like a large open space but there’s lots of rustling undergrowth and hidden pools you can fall into without warning, and your job is to try to pick a safe route through to your objective. While you’re doing this you can hear all sorts of weird sounds — splashes, slithering noises, guttural howls and even the odd gunshot or two – and then things start hauling themselves out of the water to attack you. You don’t know what they are and you don’t know how to kill them; Last Light has stopped the hand-holding and isn’t giving you any more information, and it is terrifyingly effective. The second half of the level makes it even worse by being set at night-time: you can’t see anything, your breathing is growing increasingly laboured as the filter on your gas mask runs out, and you’re surrounded by monsters that want nothing more than to drag you down into the foetid depths of the swamp.
Mechanically the game is much improved over its predecessor. The awful binary stealth system from the original – where you were perfectly hidden until one enemy saw you, at which point he telepathically transmitted the information to his friends and they all opened up on you with pinpoint accuracy – has been replaced by a more granular system that allows you to keep the enemies guessing and even gives you a pseudo-light gem to let you know when you can be seen and when you’re invisible. The baffling weapon purchase system is also gone; in its place is a startlingly robust weapon customisation that allows you to chop and change components to suit your playstyle. I ended up playing through nearly the entire game with a silenced pistol fitted with an IR scope and a stock that essentially turned it into a midrange carbine because it was amazing for stealth headshots, and the quad-barrel shotgun was equally useful for making particularly tough problems disappear. There are only 10-12 weapons in the game, but because each of them has two or three different configurations it seems like there’s a lot more. It’s a great way to provide the player with variety without overstretching things in terms of design. Gas masks are basically untouched, but that’s okay because gas masks were already perfect anyway. As you gradually use up a filter the inside of the gas mask visor gradually becomes foggy with condensed water vapour; shoot an enemy at close range and you’ll be blinded by the resulting spray of blood, which has to be wiped off; (another of the flashy visual effects screwing up my screenshots) take damage and the visor will crack (although it will never break, which somewhat neuters the tension). The whole time you’re wearing the thing you’re acutely aware of your own breathing, which becomes ever more heavy and laboured as the filter runs down. The game is a little too generous with the filters on Normal, but that’s okay because if it were too miserly it’d be very easy to get stuck in a position where you couldn’t continue because you didn’t have enough filters, since a gas mask is compulsory on the surface and some surface sections can take a very long time indeed.
Looking back at this review it’s clear that Metro Last Light has both benefited and suffered from the developer’s attempts to refine the formula. The levels are cut down dramatically and the Metro feels far less like a living, breathing place this time around, but on the other hand the gunplay and game mechanics are much smoother this time around and make for a much less frustrating experience in general. The big black mark against Last Light is that opening third of the game where it adamantly refuses to let go of your hand; tooling around with NPC companions and learning the ropes was arguably the best part of 2033, but here it’s unarguably the millstone around Last Light’s neck since I did not genuinely start to enjoy the game until about two and a half hours in, when Last Light took the training wheels off and let me strike out on my own. For an FPS that’s six hours long that’s a fairly big deal, and while the last half of the game is certainly good – not exellent, but good enough that the whole is worth playing – I have to say that I kind of regret paying full price for it. In fairness I didn’t pay full price for 2033 and I think that factored into my enjoyment of it a lot, since I was judging it as a budget FPS and was happy to get a merely decent game for my £5. Last Light is the series’ attempt to step up to the big leagues, though, and if it’s going to play at that level it has to be far more consistent that it actually is. As it is I’d rank it at a more or less similar level of quality to its predecessor — some things it does better, and some things it does worse, and it’s definitely worth playing in spite of the flaws, but unless you’re really in the mood for a depressing post-apocalyptic FPS right now you’re better off saving your money until the inevitable discount arrives.
- Swamp levels are number one of my list of terrible game environments, an opinion that I’m in no hurry to revise despite Last Light’s demonstration that it is possible to do it in a way that isn’t total shit. ↩