There is but one path in Metro: Last Light and it leads ever onward. But rather than bland corridors and mindless set-pieces, the path here takes you on a trip through post-apocalyptic Moscow, as well as the tunnels below it. More than just a pretty backdrop, this is a meticulously crafted world rendered in stunning graphics. The result is an immersive setting that defies its linear trappings to create a real sense of place. Emerging onto the surface for the first time, you can’t help but feel like you’re really there among the radioactive ruins of civilization. Meanwhile, dark and claustrophobic tunnels stir feelings of dread and unease as you hear the echoes made by its inhuman inhabitants. Beautiful is certainly not the word to describe the bleak and depressing world 4A Games has created, but its visual design and atmosphere are undeniably stunning.
While the setting is well-crafted, the narrative that it houses doesn’t feel as strong. Beginning with a hunt for a surviving Dark One, a member of a mutant race thought to have been eradicated by returning protagonist Artyom, the plot later shifts its focus onto the human factions that reside in the eponymous Metro, and chronicles Artyom’s journey to warn them of a communist plot. It’s not bad by any means, but when it comes down to it you get the sense that it’s essentially a single “go from point A to point B” mission stretched out across 8 to 10 hours. Neither are the characters particularly memorable, save for the chatty Pavel. Artyom himself is a reserved chap, whose voice can only be heard in the voice-overs present in loading screens. While not a huge fan of silent protagonists, I didn’t mind his silence all that much; in general it suits the game well.
The gameplay makes for a better experience than the plot. The setting makes even simply walking around a delightful activity, but combat is not forgotten as you encounter enemies both man and mutant. Against humans, the guns blazing option is always present but I find stealth the more enticing option (delivering silenced headshots to helmeted enemies is a deliciously satisfying sound that isn’t matched by body shots or unsilenced gunfire). Darkness is your main weapon here, hiding you from enemies with such efficiency you may be tempted to label it overpowered. Some areas are well-illuminated however, forcing you to disable their sources by flipping switches and blowing out lamps. Removing them from afar is not always a good idea, as guards may be alerted by the sound of shattering light bulbs while shooting lamps will result in a rapidly spreading blaze of fire that not only reveals you but restricts your escape options.
Facing human opposition from the shadows is, aside from the atmosphere, the best part of the game. It’s certainly more fun than simply gunning down everyone in sight. Stalking and dispatching whole squads of foes as they tried to hunt me down is a satisfying experience, and the smug sense of efficiency you get is perhaps befitting of Artyom’s status as a ranger. Even if things don’t go as well as planned, which certainly happened to me on a few occasions, I still enjoyed the tense experience of trying to stay alive and hidden. The AI you face is generally capable; in dark areas they will shine their flashlights around while conversing with each other. Get spotted and they will call out your location. Okay, maybe “he’s over here!” isn’t the best description of one’s location, but still. On the whole, they execute their duties well enough to exhibit a palpable, if faint, sense of realism. While the hardcore enthusiast may disagree, they generally provide satisfying opposition, even if death feels more a result of personal carelessness than sheer enemy intelligence.
Initially, your arsenal of silent weapons is limited to throwing knives and melee takedowns. Later on, you may chance upon a silenced gun lying by the corpse of its owner. If you don’t, you can always purchase silencers from merchants, along with other upgrades and weapons. Weapons can be loaded with ammunition both crappy and military-grade,the latter doubling as the currency of Last Light’s world. The point is to present a dilemma for the player in deciding which of the two to use in battle, but I never found the efficiency of the standard ammo wanting enough to consider shooting what is literally money at the enemy on normal difficulty.
Your visibility to enemies is conveyed through a wristwatch that also doubles as a timer for your gas mask’s filters. This is meant to minimize the game’s HUD as much as possible in order to cement the immersiveness; indeed, should you choose to disable the crosshair the screen will be virtually free of traditional HUD elements, with ammo counters appearing only when reloading or scavenging for supplies.
Essential for navigating the radioactive surface, gas masks play as big a part in the game’s immersion. Bullet impacts will form cracks on the visor – apparent when taking a gas mask from someone you shot in the face – while diminishing filters will cause your breath to fog your vision. Meanwhile, mud and blood will splatter onto your visor, necessitating a quick wipe every now and then.
This visual assault happens most often in scraps against the mutants. Fast and relentless, mutants both mammal and insectoid provide a far different challenge and experience than their human counterparts. Patience and planning is replaced by frantic shooting and backpedalling, and your enemies now trade intelligence for speed and numbers.The scoped and silenced assault rifle you so gleefully used to headshot oblivious humans just a while ago will more likely than not be switched in favor of a loud and devastating shotgun. Light is also your ally now in some cases: one type of mutant requires you to shine your flashlight at them,causing them to flip on their backs and expose their soft underbelly.
While suitably tense, these moments can feel a tad overwhelming at times. This is most apparent in the boss battles; their bullet-sponge nature and your limited supply of gas filters make fighting them an unpleasant slog. I found this to an especially big problem in one boss battle, since the previous level had exhausted most of my gas filters and I found little to none of them on my way to the boss. I ended up replaying the previous level (which is rather open and non-linear), memorizing my objectives’ locations as best as I could so I wouldn’t get lost and waste precious gas filters that would be needed both on this level and the next.
The audio aspect of Last Light is generally very good, and on some occasions rises to the heights of its visual counterpart. One memorable stealthy venture through mutant-infested tunnels had me on edge whenever I heard the sound of rustling footsteps. Even more impressive were the fierce rain and howling winds during a storm; so authentic were the sound effects that I actually looked out the window a few times to see if it was raining outside.
Less authentic however is the voice-acting. Never fully convincing, the Russian accents are tolerable at best. At worst, as in the case of one character, the voice-acting was so awful I literally winced.
Last Light’s flaws are noticeable, but they don’t overshadow the game’s strengths. Sigh-inducing boss battles are ultimately outnumbered by great stealth sections, and the few instances of grating voice-acting that tear at the atmosphere and immersion are easily offset by the superbly-realized setting. It’s not the messiah of linear game design, but the path Last Light presents you is one well worth taking.