What will the world look like after the bombs fall? Can God exist in a place without hope? If man's desire to survive overrides his morality, is the empire he is building worth saving?
These are some of the questions that Metro raised: Last Light. The (happy!) First person shooter is the follow-up from Russian studio 4A Games to its flawed jewel from 2010, Metro 2033. The Metro games are based on the works of the author Dmitry Glukhovsky; The first game was based on his novel of the same name, and although the sequel is not based on any particular work, it continues the plot of the first game directly.
The Metro series is set a few years after nuclear war ruined the surface of the earth and ended civilization as we know it. In Russia, survivors have withdrawn into the subway and restored a desolate half-life in the tunnels under the city. This is the type of game that mentions the very real possibility that God is dead in their opening film.
Like Metro 2033, Last Light tells the story of a soldier named Artyom. The story stands on its own, but it does require some knowledge of the conflict at the heart of the first game. This conflict revolves around the mysterious "dark", freaky-looking humanoid beings who have psychic powers and frighten the human inhabitants of the metro. Last Light assumes that the players reached the "bad end" in Metro 2033 and took the option of forgetting the entire population of the dark. The subsequent discovery of a single surviving Dark One sets the story of Last Light in motion.
What follows is a breathless, fast-paced, and, apart from a handful of moral choices that will affect the outcome of the story, resolutely linear single-player tale in which Artyom touring the hideout of the Fascist Fourth Reich, a connection made by a powerful one Communist Army is occupied and worked its way through all kinds of creepy catacombs, caves and numerous excursions to the surface.
The ups and downs of the narrative have been organized with great care; The story alternates between out-of-combat exploration, stealth, all-encompassing firefights, and terrifying horror battles. In a moment you will find yourself in a factory where troops of well-armed soldiers are confronting, and shortly after you are alone in a swamp, facing off against terrible crab monsters. 4A appears to have taken notes from Half-Life 2 in several places; While there are no puzzles to solve, the pace of the game is often reminiscent of Valve's 2004 masterpiece. The mostly surly story doesn't really stall until the last act, where a series of revelations are stacked so quickly that important plot points are only halfway through and it's easy to lose track of what's going on.
As in Metro 2033, 4A regularly shows an uncanny mastery of the alchemy of the atmosphere. Underground cities are full of misery and exude life, and every place has been designed with a rare level of detail. There's not much to do in most cities other than taking a break to refill your ammo and maybe adjust one of your weapons, but I was regularly distracted listening to traders talk about their recent missions or soldiers gloom Told survival stories.
In the field, you can carry three cannons at once, along with a varied arsenal of throwing knives, grenades, and other survival gear. Weapons come in the usual assortment of assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and pistols with a few variations. Any weapon can be upgraded with silencers, scopes, sights, and stocks, though I've barely found any reason to go beyond my default pistol / shotgun / assault rifle settings.
That said, the guns in Last Light are all assembled with an unusual attention to detail, and each one feels and sounds distinctive and unforgettable. I especially liked my rapid-fire shotgun, which held a revolver-like grenade ring near the stock that Artyom would replace one at a time after firing. And, hooray, Metro 2033's show-stealing "bastard" submachine gun returns, chewing through its side-feed magazine the way my dad eats corn on the cob.
Two of the other most distinctive elements of Metro 2033 are welcome returns in Last Light: the gas mask and bullet-based currency. At many points during the campaign, Artyom has to put on a gas mask, either to survive on the toxic surface or to stay alive in a gas-filled chamber. It's a wonderfully claustrophobic thing, that gas mask – Artyom's watch tells you how much time remains on his current filter, and to keep it from choking, you'll need to change it regularly. As his filter deteriorates, Artyom's breathing becomes increasingly irregular. I often found that even though I knew I had a minute or more to spare, I would change my filter to give the poor guy a break.
Instead of coins or bills, the metro people use military-grade ammunition as currency. These bullets are kept separate from your "everyday" ammunition and can be used to purchase weapon upgrades. However, if you are facing a dangerous enemy and you need more firepower, you can load a clip with money balls and attack to do more damage. Woe to you standing there firing a money clip at an enemy and praying that they will die quickly. You can go broke but you will live.
On the normal difficulty level, I found that I almost never ran out of standard ammunition, but in my limited time on the more difficult level, ammunition was much rarer. Hardcore Metro fans will likely want to play this game on the hardest side first, saving the extra-hardcore "Ranger Mode" for a second playthrough. (I hadn't unlocked Ranger mode on my PC build of the game, so I didn't get a chance to try it out.)
Despite its careful pace and wonderful atmosphere, Last Light certainly has some problems. The enemy's artificial intelligence is a few steps away from where it should be to really have fun. Enemies routinely went unnoticed when I killed their friends nearby, and more than once I came across an alarmed enemy who went into a corner without taking any understandable action.
The animals and beasts you will fight are even less nuanced and usually only attack you in a straight line. Even so, the mutated monsters can make for some fun showdowns, but they can also get tiring. There are some boss fights that are just as unsatisfactory. You've mostly faced huge, charging ball sponges with weak spots, and even a raging animal who needs to be tricked into knocking down a number of pillars in a room. It is in these moments that the trick of the last light is most evident.
While the locations in the game have been designed with great attention to detail, the characters themselves feel half sculpted. You will regularly see wax people talking, slowly turning their immobile faces towards and away from you like animatronic figures. Last Light is real testament to the power of good lighting and eco-friendly design: the graphical fidelity of the world can be remarkably compelling, which is in sharp contrast to how stilted and unconvincing the characters themselves can be.
Children in particular are a little freaked out and their voices are hollow and strange. Not a new problem for a video game, but certainly one that Last Light doesn't solve. If I had gone through each area without stopping, I would not have noticed the seams as often. However, the game encourages players to stop and overhear conversations, which often last for minutes. And so, you'll stand and watch characters stand with only their lips in stock while listening to their (usually quite interesting!) Conversations.
Life on the Metro is not a holiday for the fairer sex, and neither is Metro: Last Light. This is a world full of men and sexual violence, and almost every female character is either a prostitute, a stripper, or a potential rape victim. I'm not suggesting that a post-apocalyptic underground society wouldn't expose this type of barbarism, but the game doesn't handle any of it particularly well.
One of the only exceptions to the prostitute / stripper / victim rule is a female sniper who eventually becomes a love interest in a rash act that culminates in a stilted first-person love scene. (Aside from the frequent loading screens, Artyom never really speaks, so any potential for warmth is instantly torpedoed by its creepy silence.) The scene felt harrowing, as did a previous lap dance of a dead-eyed stripper peeking through mine left fingers in mortification.
Late in the game, a character remarks, "The metro is a living, breathing thing with a heartbeat, a soul, and a mind." Indeed, this place feels alive; sometimes more than the men and women who occupy the tunnels.
In fact, Last Light is often best when no one else is around. The psychic powers of the dark play into a flowing stream of mysticism that makes Last Light's Moscow a more mysterious, spiritual place than your average ruined city. The whispers of the dead will call you, and scenes of horror and beauty will emerge from the past, almost as if the city is still screaming in agony. Those moments are terrifying and easily became my favorite parts of the game.
Now comes the big limitation: technical performance. I played a Last Light PC review provided by the game's publisher, Deep Silver. During the game there is often a feeling that Last Light was not sewn together quite right. Granted, I played a pre-release build, but it crashed multiple times and usually forced a full restart. In one case I ran into a bug where I was dying to reload in front of a door without being able to move or put on my gas mask. I either had to watch Artyom choke over and over or restart the entire chapter and lose 20 minutes of progress. Triggered events are often displayed sloppily or out of sync, directional audio can be nervous, and the game even hit me hard during the credits. An additional technical flaw that is not a bug, but remains annoying: the game only seems to have one memory slot, and when I started a new game on the higher difficulty level it erased all my progress and didn't let me load any later chapters. A single memory slot in a PC game? What on earth?
Last Light's PC performance issues may be more problematic. I was having some pretty intense issues running the game on an AMD Radeon 6870 (with 8GB of RAM and an i5 3.4GHz processor) and found it was running on my other PC that was running an Nvidia GeForce 660Ti (with 8 GB), RAM and an i5 2.8 GHz) ran much smoother. Even so, I couldn't get a machine to run the game well on my TV via HDMI. Both games seemed to get stuck at 24 to 30 frames per second regardless of the settings or resolutions I chose. The only way I could get it working at a high frame rate was to connect it to my PC monitor via DVI.
Late last week, PR advised reviewers to turn off PhysX on AMD cards, which improves performance, but the game still feels a lot less optimized for AMD machines. (Last Light has the endorsement and branding of Nvidia, the company that makes GeForce cards, but not AMD.) On an AMD 6870, it would generally run at high to very high settings and stay at 40-60 FPS, but often it dived into the lower regions below 20 FPS. However, on my GeForce card, the same settings were run in a 45-60 FPS sweet spot for much of the game and only occasionally dropped to 30.
I don't have a console copy of Last Light, but Chris in the New York office tested the 360 version and reported that it worked for the most part even though it crashed on him once. And not to freak out, Kotaku editor Luke Plunkett played the game on an AMD 6950 and it fried its card after about 15 minutes of gameplay. His graphics card is now unusable. His card was broken all weekend and he just got it working again. Did the game cause this or something else? There are too many variables to tell for sure. At least I haven't seen anyone report anything like this.
I don't feel like I have enough information to say anything in particular about the game's PC performance. So I'll keep an eye on the forums as soon as the game is out and there is a larger sample of players. But what I can definitely say is that while Last Light worked fine on my GeForce-based PC, this game has a few more technical issues than it should.
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I emailed Deep Silver PR about Last Light's performance issues, although I still don't have any official word on a patch or planned fixes. I also reached out to AMD to ask if they would be releasing new drivers. I will update as soon as I know more. If you can bear to wait, I would recommend stopping Last Light for now if you're using an AMD graphics card as hopefully the game will be more playable in the near future. And hey, there is already a Last Light optimized beta driver for GeForce cards that I haven't tested that Nvidia claims will further improve performance.
Despite these technical irritations, I enjoyed most of the time with Metro: Last Light. (Oh, the power of a well-crafted atmosphere!) It's a game of strong, nightmarish beauty, and while it borrows generously from many other games – including STALKER, Half-Life 2, Far Cry 2, and its own predecessor – Last Light still manages to forge a weighty, worthy identity of its own.