Metro: Last Light picks up where post-apocalyptic prequel Metro 2033 left off. There were two possible endings at the end of the first game, and the sequel follows the narrative as written by Dmitry Glukhovsky - that is to say that things ended badly, with returning hero Artyom nuking the hell out of the mysterious race of surface dwelling radiation-munching mutants, the Dark Ones.
On the basis of his actions in 2033, Arytom is enlisted by the Rangers; a group of elite soldiers based in one of the many underground sanctuaries situated beneath the haggard shell of what was once Moscow. At the beginning of the game he is visited by Khan, who tells him of a remaining Dark One spotted on the surface, and since Artyom is the one and only human who can communicate with the species (all others lose consciousness and go mad), Khan wants him to go and try and talk to the mutant, and find out what its intentions are.
For the first hour or so, Metro: Last Light holds us very tightly by the hand. It kicks off with a tour through the Ranger's base, which is a narrative delivery system that is revisited several times throughout the campaign. As we walk through the corridors we're given snapshots of different characters lives; little snippets of dialogue that paint a convincing picture of life underground. At times it feels like were watching an interactive novel, not playing a game.
Even when it becomes more action orientated, it's still a very scripted experience. Entirely linear, and with little in the way of player autonomy (save for perhaps the decision to knock out unsuspecting guards, or slit their throats). You're told exactly where to go, what to do, and how to do it. During these early events the scene is well and truly set, with focus placed firmly on the tussle for power between the fascist Reich, and the communist Red Line. The Rangers sit somewhere in the middle, and they control D6, a weapons facility that the other factions covet.
After his tour through the base, Artyom is sent on his mission. Locate and kill the last remaining Dark One. Much to Kahn's distaste our protagonist is assigned a sniper to accompany him as he ventures to the surface in order to finish what he started when he launched the devastating attack on the mutants at the end of the first game. And so starts a series of events that takes us to the surface, back underground, through tunnels, across rivers, and into the darkest depths of the metro system.
Any concerns prompted by the game's opening hour soon dissipate. Once the shackles of narrative are loosened, Last Light reveals exactly what kind of game it is: a very good one. Before long we're introduced to stealth mechanics, blistering gunplay, and more darkness than you can shake a stick it.
It's incredibly atmospheric stuff. The story, delivered in fractured English, is wonderfully told by the characters we encounter, via narration, and through the scenes we see. Last Light delivers a deep and compelling story, it's unflinching and ventures into darker and more meaningful areas than the majority of its peers dare to tread. There's extreme politics, questions of morality, as well as a plethora of individual stories and scenes that range from harrowing and macabre to delightful.
But story is only going to get you so far, and happily the rest of Metro: Last Light shapes up rather nicely. The stealth sections are particularly exciting. There are several areas within the game that offer up the opportunity for players to really express themselves. Environments are filled to the brim with enemy soldiers, with a variety of navigable routes through, and areas of pitch darkness from which to strike.
There's lightbulbs that can be unscrewed individually to plunge specific areas into darkness, or circuit breakers to flick that take down the lights in whole areas. Guards have helmet mounted torches that they're quick to employ in such circumstances, but once the lights are out there's a variety of options in front of the player. You can either attempt to sneak through undetected, or whittle away the number of enemies by stealthily picking them off one by one, or go in guns blazing from a carefully selected vantage point.
Enemy AI isn't the greatest, but there is a noticeable improvement from the first game. During stealthy takedowns guards often utter things in stunned surprised, and that these utterances don't draw the attention of nearby patrols breaks the immersion somewhat. It's possible to conceal yourself if discovered, but sometimes enemies have a sixth sense about where you're hiding, as if the darkness that concealed you completely before is now easier to penetrate than it once was.
Darkness is both friend and foe in Last Light. At times it is a cloak that protects you, giving you sanctuary from gunfire, and time to plan your next move. But sometimes the hunter becomes the hunted, and you're pushed firmly from your comfort zone. Mutated enemies - beasts that roam the underground tunnels - are frequent and varied. Giant mole-like beasts and huge arachnids require a change of tact from traditional opponents.
Fighting against these beasts is not as satisfying, with encounters usually turning into panic-induced bulletfests, but it's a welcome change of pace that breaks up the action and gives the game a different tempo. Fighting the mutants isn't just limited to the tunnels of the metro system. From time to time the game takes us up to the surface into the bleak and blistery Moscovian landscape.
It's hellish, with brutal rain storms, howling winds and treacherous swampland making progress through these unwelcoming environments tricky. Here different beasts roam, including winged demons and mutants that emerge from the swamps in order to feast on your flesh. Air is limited, and we're forced once again into using gas masks and disposable filters in order to survive. This mechanic, coupled with having to constantly wipe debris from your visor (and sometimes replace the mask when it becomes broken) keeps your time on the surface immediate and intense.
There's a multitude of different inputs to remember, and it takes a while to become fluent, but the game's intuitive HUD (or lack of it) makes it stand out of the crowd. The torch, and later the night-vision goggles, require regular charging via a hand-powered battery. There's a compass to direct you, and a timer on your watch to let you know how much longer the filter on your gas mask has left. Everything you need is right there, it's just a matter of accessing the right menu when you need it. The Ranger mode, which like the first game removes the crosshair (among other things) to further increase immersion, was sadly unavailable to sample for this review.
Boss fights, and there are a couple, aren't the highlight here. Artyom's not got enough flexibility in his movement to make them really interesting. They're usually huge beasts that absorb incredible amounts of damage, so often the only option is running away, taking your licks when eventually caught, filling them with bullets when the opportunity arises, and praying you've got enough health packs to get you through. Luckily they're not unsurmountable and each encounter shouldn't require too many retries.
At the end of the day it's Metro: Last Light's story that'll win you over. The various metro stations - hubs that you encounter throughout the campaign - are crammed full of interesting characters. They paint a harrowing portrait of humanity that resonates beyond the near-future post-apocalyptic setting. They're teeming with life, and you can literally spend hours wandering through the tunnels experiencing the lives of the people that live there. Even on the Xbox 360 version we reviewed, they looked fantastic; intricately detailed and full of variety.
While some of the game lets you look but not touch, there's still plenty of action to immerse yourself in. There's different transport options that appear from time to time, and it's in these moments that the game feels particularly like an on-the-rails shooter (at times this is literally so), but we're never forced to endure these sequences for too long. What makes these prescriptive moments, and the more action-orientated sections, enjoyable is the the varied selection of customisable weapons at your disposal. For stealth reasons the pistol will likely be a mainstay for most, and it's a deadly tool in capable hands, and many problems can be solved with either that or the silent and deadly throwing knives. Complimenting the pistol are shotguns, automatic weapons and sniper rifles. You can tweak as you see fit, and build up an arsenal that supports your style of play.
There's plenty to admire in the combat and stealth mechanics, and the darkness that defines much of the game is intoxicating. However, the best parts of the game are experienced, not played. Artyom is, like us, a witness to this world rather than an integral part of it. While he has a fleshed out story, albeit a slightly predictable one, it's the world in which he exists that is the real star of the show. Even in this respect there are niggling problems, with certain areas of maps that look navigable being impossible traverse. For the most part the game's designers funnel us in the right direction without too much trouble, but occasionally the environment reminds us just how linear the experience actually is.
Metro: Last Light talks to us in ways that most games don't dare, and it tackles difficult issues with maturity and flair. The basic mechanics are far from faultless, there's a few glitches, and while it looks great, it's not the best looking game we've ever laid eyes on. The sound effects pile on the immersion, and greatly enhance the atmosphere, and the soundtrack is well paced and compliments the action suitably, though it never really grabbed me by the throat. However, the quality of the story means it's greater than the sum of its parts, and while you could easily pick holes in any one area were you to look too hard, the overall experience is intense, exciting and rewarding.