The Metro series has become a surprise success story over the last few years, pushing strong production values, an interesting and moody world as well as an atmosphere that evokes a sense of sadness rarely seen in modern games. Metro 2033, 2010's sleeper hit, managed to set the framework for an interesting game but failed to incorporate any sort of meaningful interaction to the experience. Last Light, set one year after the events of 2033, manages to impress with various mechanical improvements to the gameplay. But what really makes Last Light stand out against the crowd is how atmospheric the game is. Last Light is a testament to narrative craftsmanship through world-building and should be played for that reason alone.
In the Metro universe we only see the people of Moscow that managed to make it to the underground metro where they began to live out their lives in a new world after humanity decided to destroy itself. The atmosphere is absolutely amazing, and Metro, despite it's post-apocalyptic nature, manages to stand out against other games in the genre because it pushes for sorrow. These people are only twenty years into the apocalypse. They can still remember their old lives and that sense of despair highlights how important telling a story through the game world truly is to the overall experience.
Last Light tells a basic but interesting story. Depending on how you played Metro 2033 you may have been able to make what seemed like an important choice about whether the Dark Ones live or die. 4A Games have decided to tell a story that ignores that choice overall and immediately opts for the worst-case scenario. In Last Light a single Dark One has been spotted and your mission is strictly search and destroy. The game's narrative holds up until about two-thirds of the way through. You reach a level where one of the game's characters mentions finding a river that can show you visions and grant wishes and it was at this moment where I clocked out, put my hands in the air and walked away from the story. The game literally jumps the shark, and everything was going so smoothly before that. It all had a nice build up, even a romance had blossomed; admittedly it was obvious it would from the first level, but it was appreciated and nicely done. 4A Games had done everything so well and then it immediately got stupid. In the final third of the game the stealth and combat scenarios are exciting, the atmosphere is just as rich as before in the game, if not moreso, but the narrative was just terrible.
Despite the game's narrative failing, the mechanical improvements in combat and level design are very noticeable. The Metro games are split between the underground sections and the radiated surface areas above the metro. Metro 2033 was primarily set underground and felt very much on-rails even in the sections that weren't underground. The levels were designed like an amusement park ride but the atmosphere and story were enough to keep you invested. Admittedly, some old problems from Metro 2033 do occassionally pop up in level design, such as how clearly open paths may sometimes be unexplorable. Minor bumps may block your progress unless the developers intended for you to go over it. It isn't as glaring an issue as it was in 2033, but there are times when it is noticeable and can break the immersion of the game very easily.
Last Light manages to have more areas above ground and the design can feel very liberating and free compared to the dark tunnels underground. You can explore the surface and take part in some of the game's most exciting sections. One level, set in the catacombs of a destroyed church, stands as the game's highlight showcasing an appropriate intensity and urgency for the situation through the narrative (when it was good) and the game's mechanics. Even underground you will come across sections that allow you to explore different ways to get the jump on your enemies. Last Light also features great variety in its ideas and gameplay. Whether it's sneaking through a concentration camp underground, dealing with enemies where you have to shine light on them to push them back, or running with a mad panic through the surface when your gas mask breaks after a nasty tumble. There are even vehicle sections, although they are on rails since you only use the car underground.
The act of shooting is improved over Metro 2033, although it isn't as satisfying as something like FEAR or Halo. However firing your weapons feels responsive and with a better sense of weight than Metro 2033's floaty gunplay. One of the major issues with Last Light is the enemy AI. Find a good chokepoint or hiding spot and in general everything will hastily rush at you. This may be excusable for the monsters, but not so for the human enemies. Last Light is split between two very different halves. Playing underground and going against human enemies will often lead you to play stealthily, destroying lights, silently knocking out or killing enemies with your knives and generally trying to get the jump on them.
Above ground, Last Light becomes a different beast altogether. You can't breathe on the surface of the Earth any longer and so you take your gas mask and some filters. Each filter has a time limit and swapping out filters should give you about five minutes of time to breathe. You need to complete your objectives before you run out of filters or if you get beat up enough by monsters to where your mask breaks. The hectic search for a new mask remains one of the most delightfully stressful events I had to endure in Last Light. On the surface, mutated beasts rule the land and the only thing they see when you arrive is fresh meat.
4A's engine is impressive and the graphics in Last Light are very beautiful, both below and above ground. Character models are nicely animated and detailed and the monster designs are very gruesome and disgusting. Running through the underground to see people trying to make a life for themselves is as satisfying as fighting for your survival in a destroyed Moscow. But moreso than the visuals, Last Light's audio design is simply something else. The sense of tension that builds in the dark when you have no idea what's around the corner can be felt through your speakers. The silence of the lonely dark broken by the growl of something absolutely savage waiting to pounce on you never failed to get me to pump my flashlight to its maximum brightness. The heavily accented voices will also grow on you and give the game a sense of place, but the sound design work in Last Light not only adds to the atmosphere, but is crucial to building the world at large and giving it it's identity.
If you enjoy single-player shooters, Metro: Last Light is a fantastic option. While the narrative fails to hold up during the final third of the game, the atmosphere, overwhelming sense of sadness and mechanical improvements make the stand out in a major way. Any fan of Metro 2033 will absolutely adore Last Light and fans of shooters in general will find an exceptionally well-crafted shooter. While there are times where Last Light can literally be on-rails and feature poor AI, the overall experience is a positive one. When at its best Last Light gives even BioShock Infinite a run for its money, and in some cases even outclasses 2013's biggest shooter.