Metro: Last Light review: suffocatingly satisfying

It's been more than three years since Metro 2033 launched, so developer 4A Games has had quite a bit of time to polish and tweak its follow-up, Metro: Last Light. The result is a shooter full of chilling atmosphere and hair-curling intensity, but plagued with niggling head-scratching moments and glitches that keep it from being brilliant. The sequel returns you to post-apocalyptic Moscow where nuclear winter and radiation still keep everyone underground in the world's largest fallout shelter, the city's subway system. The player returns as Artyom, the hero of the original game who is still on the trail of the mutant, but sentient Dark Ones. The political drama is ramped up significantly this time, with a story that shows that man has learned little from almost being wiped off the face of the planet once. The player must sort through the intrigue, while asking the cliched question of who is the greater monster in a world of man and mutant. focalbox That's not to say the story is bad. However, it's sad to see that in the end, the story of Last Light can be summed up by gaming's biggest trope; it's all about thwarting world--er, Metro--domination. Playing through the original isn't required to understand what's going on as well, as the events at the end of Metro 2033 are recapped in the first several minutes of Last Light. While the characters won't be picking up any Oscars, the real star here is the world itself. The depiction of life in this post-nuclear setting is probably as intense as your imagination could make it. The various underground factions have cobbled together life from scrap and what is left of the outside world. Vehicles, armor and even weapons are pieced together from spare parts that are fascinating to look at, incredibly effective and, more importantly, believable in a Mad Max sort of way. The underground of Last Light definitely has an ingenious homemade character all its own, but it pales in comparison to the harsh and deadly radioactive world outside. If you aren't being stalked and hunted my mutants, you are constantly scavenging for air filters for your gas mask to avoid succumbing to the elements. There were numerous times my filter timer was ticking down as I desperately hunted for a new one while trying to complete my mission. I would hear growls and snarls of mutants, making me spin to see if I was being chased down. A few times, the footsteps of larger beasts would throw my concentration off as I spent more time making sure I wasn't going to be attacked than remembering to find a filter or hit my next checkpoint. On more than one occasion, I ran out of air and had to start again from the last autosave spot. And while filters are scarce, ammo can be just as limited. It multiplies the intensity factor immensely when you empty your last few round into a beast, only to see more racing toward you in the distance. Making a serpentine path through outside debris while quickly throwing open boxes praying for a filter, more bullets or makeshift bombs left my pulse and heart racing, and more than once I had to use my knife to dispatch beasts as my health dropped perilously low. It isn't at all unusual to go into your next mission with less than a minute on your filter and a need to hunt for supplies before starting to thoroughly explore the level. Expect this to be even more difficult in Hardcore mode (although if you want Ranger mode, you'll need to grab the DLC ).

The outside world is harsh and unforgiving. Bring lots of filters.

The mission design is equal parts intricate and infuriating. For the most part, the game guides you from point A to point B to point C, with a decent amount of room to explore in between. There are also quite a few quick-time events mixed in. But three missions in particular--two underground and one above ground, and each basically timed because of the need for gas mask filters--had me scratching my head as to where to go and how to exit the level. Two I eventually figured out after dying numerous times from suffocation, but the third forced me to contact the developer for a solution. I don't mind admitting if I'm a bit dense when I can't solve a puzzle, but this time, the answer was so obscure, I'm not sure I would have gotten it before quitting the game in frustration. In a nutshell: switch tracks, but back your car up off the rail switch so you can activate it. You'll know it when you get to it. The game always had a way of keeping me engaged. I found myself occasionally reloading back to a previous save just to try new tactics, explore different areas or, just see how covert I could be and not raise an alarm. Once I had beaten the game, it was even more enjoyable going back through it once I knew the quickest path to get through the levels. Being able to save air on the outside gave me a bit more time to explore the vast outside openness of the game and the deadly beauty 4A Games has created. It also allowed me to find a few Easter eggs in the process. The AI for the mutants is simplistic, with their sole driving purpose to see you as their next meal. Unfortunately, the human AI can be as brilliant as it is spotty. The game gives you an option to stealth through missions or go in guns blazing, although the latter isn't advisable because of the perpetual shortage of ammo. So eliminating enemies as they separate themselves off on patrol is the tried-and-true method of getting through each level, or trying to bypass them altogether. There were times I would flip some circuit breakers to shut off lights and the AI would notice, and go flip them back on, while other times I'd shut them down only to have the AI go on with business as usual in the dark. I'd blow out a lantern or unscrew a light bulb to gain more shadow, and not a word was said or patrol route broken. And while I understand that stealth is a forte of my character, the fact that I could be undetected while crouched in front of an enemy staring right at me--and so close that I could tie his shoelaces if the game let me--tended to be a bit laughable. In combat, the enemies would be smart enough to start hunting for me if they noticed a fallen comrade or spotted me briskly passing through a lighted area. They would change tactics as their numbers dwindled and even call for backup. They would even turn on their helmet lamps to scan dark areas as they hunted for me. And then, in sharp contrast, there would be a few times where I would take out one member of a pair as they were talking, fully expecting to have to fight the second one, only to have him keep talking as if his fallen buddy was still there. A replay of that spot, however, had the second soldier firing on me as soon as his comrade was down.

The underground has a Mad Max feel of makeshift vehicles, armor and weapons.

The previously mentioned quick-time events require no interaction for the most part. If your weapon is out, the QTE is over. However, there was one spot in the game where you can move and interact in the scene, but there is no prompt to do so. Doing nothing will not cause you to die, but could have story implications. Luckily, I was paying attention to the dialogue after the event, and reloaded an autosave to successfully interact for a different outcome. There were a few other technical problems as well. Clipping issues and faulty movement animations occasionally disrupted my immersion in the game enough to marvel that a game so graphically polished could provide such comic relief. There were also a few lockups at key moments in the game that were far from humorous. Metro: Last Light is an incredibly ambitious and stimulating game. It is obvious 4A Games put a lot of love and effort into its crafting, as evidenced by the fully scripted seven-act vaudeville-style show near the middle of the game that few players will take the time to watch and enjoy as they breeze through to the next checkpoint. Despite some of the teeth-gnashing technical and design issues, this foray into futuristic Moscow does a breathtaking job of evoking enough intensity and sheer terror to make you overlook the flaws. [6]
This Metro: Last Light review was based on a pre-release PC version of the game on Steam provided by the publisher. The game was tested on a system featuring an Intel i7 2600 3.4 GHz quad core CPU, 64-bit Windows 7 OS, 16 GB RAM, and an nVidia GeForce GTX 660. All graphics options were set to "high." The game will also be available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 when it comes out on Tuesday.