Creeping down a dank dimly lit corridor, you look down and notice that the walls are lined with the dead. Desolate hallways strewn with decaying corpses entombed in thick cobwebs provide an eery visual metaphor for the gloom of life in the Russian metro system following the nuclear apocalypse.
Like Metro 2033, Last Light’s structural integrity depends on its thick morose atmosphere. The game has you spending the majority of your time sneaking through levels, managing resources, or gunning down mutants and people alike, but these sections are fat and bone. The flavor is provided by slow depressing crawls through the somber squalor of the stations of the metro – crude facsimiles of civilization where the dejected survivors of a nuclear apocalypse now call home. The palette of the game may lean towards monochrome, but these sections evoke all of the color Last Light has to offer. Denizens discuss their hopes, their fears, the mundane, the fascinating. You’re being subjected to expository dialogue in an organic way, and all the while the heavy tone of the game is being reinforced.
Also just like in the last game, there is a moral choice system that feeds into whether you receive the good or bad ending. What makes this system remarkable is that it doesn’t frame your actions as moral choices in an obvious way. What will or won’t net you karmic brownie points is often left ambiguous. Sometimes an action as simple as strumming a guitar to provide a calming semblance of civilization to those around you is enough to count as a moral choice, where sometimes it’s far more obvious what will result in pushing you towards the bad ending – how many people you kill obviously factors in heavily. This system is a good example for games to follow because it frames your actions not as conscious means to an end, but instead allows the player to progress organically, without worrying about how best to manage their karma points to receive a specific outcome.
Last Light also succeeds in areas where 2033 fumbled. For starters, characters are now better fleshed out. Artyom, following the canonical bad ending of the 2033, is now plagued with guilt over his choice to carry out a nuclear strike against the dark ones. He learns of the survival of one remaining dark one, a child, and is tasked with finishing what he started, but he is conflicted. The dark ones are no villains, but their differences from the humans represent a threat that results in a war of extermination. Artyom was chosen as their ambassador to attempt to broker peace, but instead was complicit in carrying out genocide against them.
As he catches up to the young dark one it becomes apparent to Artyom that the war he concluded in scorching nuclear fire left the dark one alone, much like how a devastating nuclear war left Artyom alone 20 years prior. This parallel underpins a narrative that posits that it’s intrinsic to human nature to have history repeat itself, even if the consequences mean calamity.
In several ways the recurring themes of destitution, gloom, desperation, and harsh utilitarianism are reinforced by the gameplay. A gas mask must be worn at all times to protect Artyom from the irradiated fallout. Filters must be scavenged to keep the mask functioning lest Artyom suffocate. A hand-cranked dynamo must be used to charge Artyom’s headlight.
As with 2033 you have two main types of ammunition: common dirty ammo and scarce military grade rounds (MGRs from here on). MGRs pack a significantly greater punch allowing you to more effectively dispatch enemies, but they also double as currency. Between their scarcity and value, the decision of whether or not to use them creates an interesting element of resource management.
Or at least it would if the game didn’t undermine their value. As currency, MGRs can only be used to purchase large quantities of weaker dirty ammo or new guns and customizations for those guns. But ammunition is plentiful, even when playing on the highest difficulty (paid DLC ranger mode not withstanding). There’s never a need to buy ammo. Guns can be freely picked up from enemy corpses, some even with sights, silencers, and extended barrels. MGRs become inconsequential if you play non-lethally as medkits and gas mask filters aren’t available for purchase, and even if they were there are plenty to be found in each level where they’re needed.
Thorough exploration is no longer crucial to your survival. This is not only a complaint about the challenge of the game or me expressing disappointment over the slight shift in genre away from being survival-oriented. The scarcity of resources wasn’t just a mechanical convention. It played a major role in selling me on the desperate and meager lifestyle necessitated by the cruel metro. It weakened my absorption in the world.
The kinesthetics of firing your weapons is still satisfying enough. Guns give adequate feedback through their recoil and enemies forcefully reel back when shot. Combined with environments that are more open than your average corridor shooter, combat can be approached with tactics in mind. Flying enemies proved harder to track than humans or other mutants, absorbed even more bullets, but they presented no real danger. They would often just circle me placidly. The mutated spiders were, mechanically, the most interesting enemies in the game as they took advantage of your reliance on keeping your headlamp charged. In order to expose these enemies’ weaknesses, they first needed to be exposed to a bright beam of light for long enough. Their AI causes them to scurry when exposed to light, and attack whenever your back is turned, forcing you to chase them down and lure them back by exposing yourself.
When playing the game in stealth I actually found the levels more restrictive than when I was run-and-gunning. While having to find ways to destroy or disable light sources is an interesting mechanic in theory, the optimal path through a level was often so obvious that it didn’t take any planning. It was always clear what route to follow and how to keep yourself concealed.
To add to this, enemy AI patterns lack the complexity necessary to make solving a room challenging. Guards always wander off in different directions with their backs turned to one another making it easy to bypass all of them or take them down one by one without the need to plan out your actions. Rarely do you have to lure guards away from one another in order to not raise an alert, and when you do the solution is usually something obvious like turning off the circuit breaker right in front of you to force a guard to walk over and inspect it. The deficiencies in Last Light’s stealth gameplay are compounded by the ludicrously powerful throwing knife Artyom gets within the game’s opening hour. The throwing knife is capable of silently one-hit killing any human enemy, its range is tremendous, and your supply is self-replenishing since you can grab them off the corpses of the enemies they strike down.
Enemies are now less lethal, more vulnerable to gunfire, and less reactive to the noise Artyom makes while skulking in the shadows. But while its combat is, at times, regressive, its ability to fluidly move between moments of creeping dread, to bombastic action where an army of flamethrower wielding soldiers advance on you to the soundtrack of a cacophony of explosions, to slow-paced sepulchral walks through a makeshift quarantine zone is impressive.
These impressive sequences make the game’s weaker moments all the more contemptible by comparison. Preceding your trek through an area afflicted by pestilence is a terribly out of place sex scene which occurs just after two characters find out that they may have been infected with an unknown lethal pathogen.
At one point an NPC who I was traveling with was supposed to activate an elevator at the other end of a hallway, but he glitched out and forced me to restart the checkpoint in order to get him to move. The game also froze at the very end just as the final achievement popped up.
I love the metro and Last light is, in most ways, a radical improvement over the already solid 2033, but it still leaves something to be desired. By no means is it bad. It tells a remarkable story with a resonant and powerful narrative about xenophobia, divisiveness, and our penchant for repeating the mistakes documented by history. Its atmosphere, setting, and tone are gripping, and the gameplay is packed with moments that are radiant. As things stand now it still proves to be one of the best games of the year, but its excellence is too often undermined by its flaws for these weaknesses to be ignored as inoffensive gripes, and they drag the game down well beneath its potential.