The world of the post-apocalypse is one that video games have tried to sell for as long as anyone can remember. Many games have their own twists and ideas about how it will happen, and Metro: Last Light tries to make things more interesting with a new setting, lore, and monsters. However, this is the only part of the game that feels like a true effort, as the rest of the game tries its best to ruin whatever fun you could be having or eliminate the tension surrounding these events. Through its bare-bones mechanics, uneven AI, clunky character animation, and deceptive level design, Metro: Last Light is more a disappointment than an intriguing game.
Set one year after the events of Metro: 2033, the story follows Artyom, the boy-turned-soldier from the previous game, after calling a missile strike on a race of mutant creatures known as the Dark Ones (which was the canonical ending of the multiple ones played in the other game) and becoming a Ranger, one of the game’s various factions vying for control of the remaining Russian population hidden underground after a nuclear holocaust. Word has gotten out that a single surviving Dark One has survived the missile strike, and it’s up to Artyom to find this creature and return him to the Ranger outpost. However, following his capture by the Nazis, Artyom must also escape from their grasp and make it out of the brutal underground tunnels alive while also looking for the last Dark One and its secrets.
Right away, the game’s presentation and atmosphere can be felt and admired. Russia has been reduced to a smoldering pile of radioactive waste, with collapsed buildings and infected wildlife roaming free on the surface, while the underground has become both a safe haven and an indefinite prison for most. You really get the sense that this world is dying, and that people are just hanging on by the thinnest threads of hope. It effectively sells this world, and really got me going “wow” a few times. The art design is a unique one, seeing as how the game’s color scheme is mostly gray. Yet the artists made sure that the environments look like something out of a Goth panting, at once beautiful and uncomfortable. Considering the graphics aren’t exactly top of the line—as evidenced by the constant pop-in and often blurry textures—this helped significantly.
The other times, however, I was saying that word out of annoyance. As soon as you’re introduced to the characters of the game, it all starts to rapidly decay. Looking at a human walk in this game is like watching one of those Japanese robots. It’s awkward and makes it look even more uncanny than it should,. What further detracts from the immersion is the stilted voice acting. Now, I haven’t heard too many Russian accents to know whether or not the ones here are good or bad, but as voice acting in general goes, this is as average as you can get. No one performance feels like a winning effort and the accents can get ridiculous when they lay it on too thick, like the villain of a Saturday morning cartoon.
Made worse is the characterization of the NPCs you come into contact with. Not one of them is memorable apart from a Red Line (communist) member named Pavel, whose cheerful disposition kept me from attempting suicide through boredom throughout the adventure while he was my companion. Your main character remains silent throughout the entire game apart from the loading screens that throw exposition at you. It feels a bit jarring, seeing as how he has all this insight into the events surrounding you, yet can’t be bothered to speak his mind whenever bad things happen. If you make a character talk in any part of the game, it might just be better to allow them full conversation options, or hell, even a full script rather than simply being an avatar for your actions. The women of the game get the worst of it, as they fall into one of two categories: naked or about to be naked. Not one of the female characters is given a personality apart from the hard-ass Anna, who really doesn’t have much going for her other than that. If you’re going to sell us on a world, at least give us interesting characters to talk to and identify with.
Not that the gameplay helps sell it any better. You control with standard first-person shooter controls, with an emphasis on item usage rather than refined and smooth mechanics. You can carry pistols, shotguns, assault rifles with you, but the game adds the survival horror element of limiting how much ammo you can obtain. On lower difficulties, this isn’t an issue. Raise it to hard mode, and you can see what they were trying to do with that mechanic, even if you can still find plenty of ammo to clear rooms of soldiers or monsters. But ammo is also used for currency, so this feels like a wasted effort. You could have had the choice of either spending ammo on upgrades or using them on bad guys, but this felt arbitrary, as the upgrades didn’t exactly make the guns better. They were just kind of there to make the gun do different things, but I didn’t notice anything drastic.
One thing I heard other players talk about was how much weight the guns had or how responsive they were. Well, it’s an illusion. Every gun uses stock sound effects made for bad films with their volume turned up high, and they felt no heavier or more responsive than any other FPS game out there. It felt like any other shooter, and that didn’t help. The sound mixing for this game overall is terrible. If it’s not certain areas not having a single sound effect, it’s also the audio cues not coming in at the right time, resulting in a death that could’ve been easily avoided had you known what to expect.
Underground, you’ll fight through corridors that have a room here or there for you to explore and scrounge supplies in. Soldiers will often try to block your path, and here’s where things get even more frustrating. You can either go all-guns-blazing, or stealth your way through the room. Half the time, soldiers are competent enough to shoot at you whenever your head pokes out of cover into their field of view. Other times, even when you’re right in front of them, if you’re hidden in a semi-shadowy area, good luck getting them to so much as twitch. Sometimes they’ll even keep shooting at a wall well after you’ve left that area to stab them in the back or pump a few rounds into their empty skulls. It was a gamble to see which group of guards would end up being either a tense shooting gallery or a simple case of taking pity on their brain-dead actions and putting out of their misery.
There are also segments where you can go to the radiated surface above to bypass the more dangerous sections of the underground. You’ll need a gas mask and a steady supply of oxygen in order to stay up there, but again, there was never any issue finding spare canisters of air, so the sense of danger quickly disappears. Up above is where you’ll fight various creatures, either like packs of mutated wolves, birds, or things even more terrifying. They have the most unpredictable AI patterns, so these guys were the ones I actually broke a sweat over fighting.
It seems like you can explore these large-looking areas in a limited scope, but even that’s deceiving, as moments that happen for the sake of the plot push you along a set path, never once letting you venture on your own for longer than you needed to for supplies. In fact, that seems to happen a lot in this game. You just get pushed along the path the story wishes for you to go, and it never feels like you have a stake in anything. You’re given these moments where you’re supposed to either identify with or despise a certain character, or even have a set up to where you’re meant to join a faction for a second or two, but you get thrust into another section without a chance to react. This is due to the rushed pacing of the plot and the fact that your character still can’t say a single word. You could find more convincing story moments in a fan fiction of a terrible anime than in this horribly told story.
Speaking of the story, apparently there's more than one ending. I always ended up getting what's supposedly the "bad" ending, and I could never figure out why. Turns out there's a hidden karma system in place that gives you negative points for killing every non-hostile mutant. That's funny, I thought. Aren't games supposed to let you in on this sort of thing? If I would've known I could play the game as a savior instead of a total dick, I wouldn't have the mind to shoot every last mutant that looked at me funny. What's the point of a karma system if the player doesn't have any sort of feedback on it until the very end? It doesn't make any sense!
For the most part, Metro: Last Light is at least trying to tell a compelling story and play as a competent. But ultimately, it fails in many ways. With AI that’s suspect, a story that goes everywhere and nowhere all at once, deceptive level design, and unmemorable moments or characters, this game left me very much disappointed, considering the hype that went into it. If atmosphere and unique settings are the only thing post-apocalyptic games have going for them, then their purpose as a game is defeated. I can’t recommend this game on a mechanics basis, but for those who can suffer through it and find any redemption in the mood and setting and even the story—though I can’t imagine the latter being any good—then by all means play it. Otherwise, you’re better off leaving this one in the bargain bin.