The shadows of the past linger. They appear as silhouettes on crumbling walls each time lightning bolts slash across the sky. They haunt you as you journey across annihilated cityscapes once teeming with life and love. Metro: Last Light is an exceptionally well-crafted first-person adventure that fills your mind with the regrets of time gone by, and understands the fear and uncertainty that arise from silence and stillness. The game's predecessor, Metro 2033, established this series' penchant for mystery and supernatural drama, but Last Light is in a class all its own. It's not just another frightening trek through the dark corridors of the metro, but a rhythmic symphony of surging dread and emerging hope.
Last Light returns you to a Moscow devastated by nuclear war. Humanity, hoping to avoid the dangerous radiation and hideous mutants plaguing the surface, has banded together in the underground metro system. Depending on how you played, Metro 2033 might have allowed you to make an important choice at the game's conclusion.Last Light assumes you chose to destroy the creatures known as The Dark Ones, scorching their home with missiles and scouring them from the face of the Earth. But a creature remains, and as returning protagonist Artyom, you must find this remnant of a race thought extinct, this remnant of a decimated species, though it's unclear whether the right decision is to destroy it or to try to communicate with it. Your Ranger allies certainly desire its annihilation, but Artyom's unique connection to the Dark Ones gives him pause and he is nagged by guilt about the devastation he has wrought.
Artyom's dilemma brings a sense of personal struggle to a game fraught with brooding emotion. Metro: Last Light punctuates your adventure with moments of dread and shock, as well as with occult visions that make the past come alive before your very eyes. Supernatural themes intertwine with conflicts between underground factions, the horrors of each element providing two equally macabre sides to a single coin. In the confines of the metro, betrayal is common and trust is a commodity. Here, your greatest enemies are your fellow humans, who are unafraid to cheat and steal if it means gaining favor from the right people. On the brutal surface, the beasts are your primary concern; at any moment, a wailing winged demon might snatch you with its talons, soar into the air, and drop you into the murky water, far from where your horrific flight began.
Yet fear isn't the only emotion Last Light stirs. The final moving hours raise the emotional stakes and test your allegiances by forcing you to confront the consequences of your own choices. Story sequences are absorbing, and typically occur within the game engine and in first-person view, keeping you strongly connected to the events unfolding before you. The most enthralling scenes, however, are those that occur within the context of gameplay. Many interactive sequences--a hypnagogic walk down a blood-red hallway, a survey of an airplane's nightmarish wreckage--relate vital events without removing you from the moment, which makes them hellishly palpable.
There is mirth amid the madness, however. Characters react to each other in authentic ways, responding to one Ranger's pedantic soliloquies with jokes and insults, likely mirroring your own thoughts on the matter. The inhabitants of the underground are colorful and individual. They move about with purpose, speaking at length to each other about war and family, about love and lust. Men gone stir crazy seek the company of prostitutes, and so might you, should you desire a lengthy lap dance. Nudity occurs multiple times, and though it's certainly explicit, it doesn't seem superfluous or exploitative. Rather, Last Light's erotic themes emerge naturally from the despair, and sex in the underground has an air of desperation and urgency. If you prefer tamer pleasures, you may take in a lengthy and detailed variety show, where can-can dancers and an accordion act bring some joy to the melancholy populace. This is life in the metro. And it's an amazing display of narrative craftsmanship.
Exquisite craftsmanship is also on display as you seek the remaining known Dark One on the irradiated surface, and as you avoid the wandering eye of your enemies in the depths beneath. Last Light is not a power shooter. You are not out to murder hundreds of nameless grunts without breaking a sweat, and in fact, the early hours are remarkably light on action. Instead, tension is carefully built in the conversations you have with your comrades, and in the cautious steps you take into the irradiated ruins above the tunnels. You feel the danger. Gnarled trees are twisted into vaguely humanoid shapes, and when you seek refuge from the rain, you hear the drops hammering on the flimsy tin roof above, mimicking the sounds of mutants' skittering claws. Your calling brings you here, but you know it's not a place anyone should be.
A number of creatures menace your journey across the surface. Amphibious freaks move from water to land, threatening you two or three at a time. As you manuever away from their clammy assaults, you must be ever mindful of the squalid pools that surround you, lest you fall in and get dragged to your death by a mutant lurking beneath. Fierce predators pounce towards you, keeping you on the move while you avoid the harsh siren calls of the creatures that cling to nearby walls. You use a number of weapons to fend them off, all of which look and sound appropriately powerful, but none of which turn your adventure into a cakewalk.
Of these great firearms, it's easiest to become enamored with the shotgun. It fires with a loud report and allows you to discharge multiple shells at once, making it a great standby if you're willing to get close to these beasts. But the long reload time can be a killer if you miss a shot, given how creatures can descend upon you and take multiple swipes in a row. Ammo isn't plentiful in the wastes, though you can get your fill from vendors in the metro's safe havens. Yet the military-grade ammo used as currency is scarce, and you're often faced with a choice to grab more ammo, purchase more grenades, or upgrade that meaty revolver you favor. It's best to scavenge for supplies and ammo in every nook and cranny. Otherwise, you can't take for granted that you'll have everything you need to thrive, particularly on the harder difficulty levels, which are satisfyingly harsh.
Even a single breath is a valuable commodity outside of the metro. You must don a gas mask to stay alive, but masks require filters, which have limited life spans. You discover more filters by exploring your environs--but exploration takes time, which means watching your available supply of healthy air slowly diminish. If you don't value each minute, the pace of your mission could suddenly change from slowly methodical to terrifyingly urgent, as you sprint towards your destination, gasping with increased desperation and hoping against hope that you might cling to life. Unfortunately, you could encounter one of Last Light's uncommon but annoying invisible walls during such a circumstance, thinking that you might be able to leap over a small obstacle or follow a narrow path, only to discover how wrong you were.
The air is healthier in the metro, but the dangers are no less real. You still confront misshapen mutants in the tunnels, but the darkness plays an important role. One type of creature recoils from the beam of your flashlight, eventually flipping onto its back and making itself vulnerable to your bullets. Battling several at once results in a rhythmic dance as you use your flashlight to keep your distance between you and the mutants' pincers, firing only when you do the most damage. You often find such critters in the blackest of passages--passages you aren't forced to investigate. Yet the lure of such places can be irresistible. The glow of mushrooms and the possibility of valuable ammo beckon you inwards, as does the chance of rescuing an innocent captive held hostage by the enemy factions that also lurk in the tunnels.
You aren't required to go toe to toe with human opposition. You can use darkness to your advantage, twisting light bulbs and flipping circuit breakers to keep yourself hidden, and then sneaking through bases to avoid combat altogether. You can be silently murderous, sidling up behind a guard and slicing his throat, and then quietly flinging a knife into another's back. Human enemies go about their actions in realistic ways; they follow patterns, of course, but they aren't always so regimented as to seem unnatural. As a result, the stealth is fun and tense, though you can always shoot your way out of a bind if you need to.
Firefights can be tough, depending on where and how you're caught sneaking around. You could find yourself cornered, wishing you had put a silencer on that sniper rifle rather than drawing everyone's attention with a single shot. Your enemies are uniformly aggressive when alerted, though hardly the sharpest tacks in the box. Several might get stuck in place, their weapons' barrels clipping through each other and the wall as they twirl about. Others might run about in nonsensical ways or fail to notice your presence as quickly as you'd expect. Yet given the close confines in which you normally face these soldiers, AI issues aren't great distractions, as you'll often be too busy staying alive to notice the oddities. It's when you get stealthy again that the discrepancies become most obvious.
Metro: Last Light's battles and sneaky sequences are tense delights, but what makes the adventure truly sing are how such scenes flow from one to the next--and how the detours between them make battles more impactful. Last Light frequently disrupts its own pace, going from terror to relief in a heartbeat, and putting you in one atmospheric location after another. At one point, you get a short look into a room before you drop into it from the vent above. The room is full of corpses, but it's the sight of one corpse in particular that fills you with unease: that of a little boy. Last Light doesn't linger here; there is no internal dialogue that tells you that Artyom is driven to anger in that moment. But the visual enrages you nonetheless, making the upcoming action and plot points more than just about warring men, but about the consequences that conflict has on the future of the metro.
The surface brings a tenuous visual warmth, even though though the sunlight is diffused through dreary gray clouds. Out here, one companion in particular brings the harsh exterior an unexpected humanity, while diverse sequences, like one that has you escaping the brash onslaught of the wind, keep the pace from ever becoming too predictable. And even in this wasteland, there's visual variety that keeps Last Light from becoming too overbearing. There's beauty in its indigo skies and battered cityscapes, and even in the sunken, asymmetrical angles of a watcher's face. Battling several such beasts at once without any noticeable frame rate drops requires a beast of a machine, however; owners of ATI video cards in particular will notice that Metro: Last Light, while beautiful, is not beautifully optimized. But even if you're forced to lower the resolution (possible) and turn off advanced physics (almost certain), this ruined world is too grotesquely gorgeous not to appreciate.
Metro: Last Light is not an endless barrage of bullets and beasts. It takes the time to let you breathe in the choking atmosphere and allow the chilling fog to seep into your bones. And when it finally comes time to aim your shotgun at mutated fiends, the payoff is grander for the eerie silence that came before. Last Light is notably superior to its predecessor, merging storytelling, shooting, and sneaking into a remarkable and cohesive whole. And through this harmony of game design comes the caustic dissonance of a world so torn asunder that a single possibility can bring with it endless hope.