Licensed games have long been considered the bottom of the barrel by many gamers. Whether they’re based on films, television shows, comic books, or even advertising mascots, they carry with them the stigma of lazy plots, shoddy mechanics, frustratingly unfair difficulty, and an overall lack of effort from developers looking to cash in quickly on a popular franchise. They’ve been present in almost every console generation, starting on the Atari with abysmal titles like the notoriously awfulE.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, came into greater prominence during the console war between Nintendo and Sega with reviled tie-ins such as Back to the Future, Lawnmower Man, Home Improvement and the many atrocious games released by LJN, and continues into the current decade with Aliens: Colonial Marines and the Burger King budget games serving as further evidence of what can happen when developers simply don’t care about their product. But this problem isn’t ubiquitous in the industry. Studios dedicated to making a good game have made several stellar titles based on already existing properties: Capcom’s Disney games in the 8- and 16-bit eras, the Batman: Arkham series, and Telltale’s episodic adaptations of The Walking Deadand Sam & Max, just to name a few. One of the surprisingly well-received licensed titles of the last console generation was Ukrainian developer 4A Games’ Metro 2033, an adaptation of the eponymous post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. In spite of a few bugs and erratic AI, it was praised for its engaging story and atmosphere. 4A began development on a sequel, Metro: Last Light, shortly after finishing work on the first game, which was published by Deep Silver after they acquired the IP rights from the now defunct THQ. Rather than being a direct adaptation of Metro 2034, the second novel in Glukhovsky’s series, the developers chose to take the story in their own direction, continuing to follow Artyom in his exploits. It was a smart decision as the final game turned out to be even greater than its predecessor.

A year has passed since Artyom wiped out the Dark Ones and discovered the massive D6 station, rumored to hold an immense cache of weapons and supplies. Seen as a hero of the Metro, the Spartan Order of Rangers have welcomed him into their ranks in honor of his feats, charging with keeping peace in the tunnels as well as defending the base from rival factions. Though he’s hailed for his bravery, Artyom is haunted by the act that made him so respected. He’s the only one who knows that the Dark Ones were not the hostile monsters everyone saw them to be, that they only sought a peaceful coexistence, but he slaughtered them all before there was a chance to bring the races together. Then the Rangers hear of rumors that a Dark One survived, still wandering the deadly surface above. Artyom is ordered to kill the creature, though he is hesitant about driving this species to extinction. Further complicating matters, when he locates the mutant, he discovers that it’s only a child. The young Dark One attempts to telepathically communicate with Artyom, though the psychic link puts too much strain on his mind and causes him to black out, leaving both him and the creature defenseless when they’re captured by soldiers belonging to the neo-Nazi Reich. After escaping his imprisonment with the assistance of a Red soldier, Pavel, he begins his long trek back to D6, only to uncover a deadly conspiracy that threatens the entire Metro. When he learns the Dark One escaped from the Reich, Artyom realizes his goals are clear: not only must he save the residents of the Metro from mass slaughter, he must rescue the Dark One to atone for his act of genocide and possibly bring peace to the underground civilization.

As I said in the introduction, I felt the decision to focus the sequel on Artyom rather than the plot of the second novel was a good approach, though not without some drawbacks. An adaptation ofMetro 2034 would have provided a chance to experience the game world with a new cast, to see a different faction struggling to survive in this ravaged wasteland rather than revisiting characters and locations we’re already familiar with. Last Light, however, is a rare instance where familiarity benefits the story rather than simply being used to lazily retread an old plot, as we can observe the how the Metro has evolved over the course of a year. Viewing this altered society through Artyom’s eyes creates a stronger investment since you’re controlling the person responsible for the changes.

Continuing from one of Metro 2033’s two endings where Artyom launched the strike against the Dark Ones, aside from being faithful to the ending of the novel, further strengthens this connection. Though many sequels now allow you to over data from the previous game to alter the plot and create a sense that your past decisions had a strong impact on the world, if the ending where Artyom attempted to make peace with the Dark Ones had been factored into Last Light’s continuity, it would take away one of the strongest aspects; his quest for redemption. The story would be weaker were it not for his personal struggles with his guilt. I will concede that some acknowledgment of the peaceful resolution ending would have been helpful in establishing some connection to those who earned that resolution, if only to say that it was a false memory Artyom created in an attempt to forget about his act of mass murder. While the plot is structured similarly to the first game (Artyom is on a mission to wipe out the Dark Ones while becoming embroiled in the agendas of friendly and hostile factions), it’s been changed in several ways to keep it from coming off like a carbon copy of the original, most notably with the major threat coming from a human source rather than a perceived paranormal danger, as well as delving further into Artyom’s past to learn more about his link to the Dark Ones.

Last Light continues the Metro series’ excellence in creating an atmosphere that truly draws you in. There’s an almost constant feeling of suspense throughout the game as you’re always left with a sense of vulnerability; that danger could strike at any moment. Level design enhances this tension with two opposing styles that both achieve the same purpose. The dark, narrow tunnels and isolated bunkers of the Metro create an intense claustrophobia, a fear that something, either an enemy soldier or a ravenous mutant, is lurking in the shadows ready to attack at a moment’s notice, but if you turn on your flashlight you risk becoming a more visible target, and you don’t know if you’ll be able to escape in time. Venturing out onto the ruined surface world gives you more space to move around, but monsters have the same advantage. The creatures could attack from any direction, rising up from the water or swooping down from above to tear into your flesh. It’s one component of many that creates a true sense of horror more effective than the majority of big-budget titles that sell themselves as belonging to that genre.

Grotesque monsters aren’t the only terrifying aspect of Last Light – the game ventures into deep psychological horror as well. Artyom frequently experiences disturbing visions that twist reality into a hellish nightmare. Among his hallucinations are a dream where he guns down Dark Ones only for them to turn into allies before they fall, flashbacks to the final moments of peoples’ lives and their despair before the bombs fall, and shades of the dead or dying that quickly after you witness their pain and hear their cries of anguish. The ghosts, specters unable to crossover after they were vaporized by the nuclear explosion, are a very frightening phenomenon. Most of them are stuck repeating their last few seconds alive in an eternal loop, while others known as Damned Souls, which manifest as disembodied arms rising up from the earth, will desperately grab at anyone who wanders through their domain in an effort to drag them into the abyss in an effort to end their eternal isolation. One of the most harrowing moments is when you must carefully navigate a corridor of Damned Souls that have sprung up around you, a swift death awaiting if you get too close to the phantom limbs.

There’s a strong human element that also contributes to the sense of terror. Several survivors in the Metro have resorted to savage, brutal methods as a way of survival. The Reich mercilessly executes anyone suspected of carrying a genetic mutation that could taint their “genetic purity”, the depths of their butchery described by those who witnessed or survived such atrocities. Merchants and travelers wandering through unfamiliar tunnels are constantly wary that they could be ambushed by bandits who won’t hesitate to rob, rape and murder them. Sometimes you overhear people talking about horrifying encounters they or friends had, going into enough detail to instill enough fear of these unknown evils that you’re petrified at the thought of seeing them yourself. In the latter half of the game when a plague begins to ravage the settlements, the tone shifts to one of despair. We see quarantined families with little time left, the parents desperately hoping to keep their children from knowing the truth of what will happen so that they won’t die in fear. Artyom discovers information that makes him think all of his efforts were futile, that he’s done nothing to help the people of the Metro. In spite of this, there is still a glimmer of hope to be seen. We see people who have accepted their lives underground, trying to make the most of a horrible situation. They have close friendships and loving families that bring light into their lives. For all the filth and evil that pollutes the tunnels, there is still some good, and it drives you to keep pushing forward in your journey no matter what stands in your way simply so you can preserve this stability, these last remnants of happiness in an overwhelmingly bleak world.

For all of Last Light’s success in world-building and atmosphere, it unfortunately falls flat with character development. Artyom is not a compelling protagonist since he is a mostly silent character. He never has any discussions with other characters, which makes him seem distant from the events around him, like he’s more of an observer than an active participant. His thoughts and feelings are conveyed through text documents that need to be found while exploring. The only times we hear his voice are at the start of each chapter as he offers a brief summary of his current situation, but the voice actor (I can’t provide his name because unfortunately the roles were not listed in the credits) speaks every line in the same half-weary, half-contemplative monotone. I’m honestly getting tired of silent protagonists in games. I understand it’s meant to provide a blank slate for the player to project him/herself onto, but I’d prefer a character with an actual personality like Booker DeWitt, Commander Shepard or Terra Branford.

None of his allies are particularly interesting either as they’re mostly all one-note characters (all of whom speak with affected Russian accents that aren’t very convincing): Khan is a warrior poet who pontificates on the nature of humanity and the supernatural, mostly offering pseudo-philosophical statements that come off as pretentious, Colonel Miller is a stubborn, hardheaded soldier who hates whenever his decisions are questioned, even if they’re poorly thought out, and his daughter Anna has one of the worst characterizations. While she’s introduced as an expert sniper with a sarcastic, dismissive demeanor, we never see her military expertise in action as Artyom is quickly separated from her early on. When she reappears it’s as a prisoner of the Reds so she can serve as a damsel in distress to be rescued, a far cry from the skilled soldier she’s been described as. After that, her only purpose is to become a spontaneous love interest for Artyom, once again quickly forgotten after a romp in the sack. It’s one example of a rather troubling representation of women in the game. Aside from a very small number of doctors, practically every female character is either a homemaker, entertainer, or prostitute. I don’t think this was intentional misogyny, rather a way to show how humanity has become less progressive in terms of gender politics after the downfall of society. Even if that was the intention, though, it wasn’t well thought out, making it appear awkward and uncomfortable at points.

The antagonists have a bit more depth to them. Pavel, the Red soldier who helps Artyom escape from the Reich prison, presents himself as a genuine friend to his new ally, sharing jokes and referring to the both of them as Musketeers as they travel back to the Red Line. Along the way, though, he shows that he is a true devotee to Communist philosophy, often suggesting that Artyom join their group, even if it means resorting to drastic measures to gain a new member. It makes you wonder if Pavel truly considered Artyom a friend during their trek, or if he was simply manipulating him to draw him over to his side. Red General Moskvin is incredibly brutal in his tactics, but his extreme methods are motivated by alcoholism, depression, and paranoia. His second in command, intelligence head Korbut, is the one who actually holds the power, manipulating Moskvin by playing on his fears to advance his own agenda of gaining power over the entire Metro. The young Dark One that Artyom attempts to save is probably the most interesting of the characters. While it has impressive powers, it is still fairly naïve due to its age. It can’t comprehend how the humans lived before the war or their need to resort to violence so frequently. Thankfully, the Dark One isn’t used for a cynical commentary on how humanity is more monstrous than the beasts that roam the wasteland; instead it is used for an analysis on the nature of good and evil, when it may be necessary to kill if those who are murdered threaten the lives of others. It doesn’t even hate Artyom for wiping out its species, having read his memories and understanding that at the time, Artyom felt he was doing the right thing. This is how you use a non-human character to examine humanity from an outside perspective without appearing pretentious or misanthropic.

Moral choice elements also return from the first game, and as in 2033, it’s not implemented that well. Most of the obvious decisions boil down to the standard concepts of purely virtuous or purely malicious – will you murder a surrendering enemy or allow them to leave unharmed? Do you take the time to free prisoners or put your own safety as the top priority, leaving them to their fate? Will you be charitable and offer military grade bullets to needy beggars or horde them all for yourself? There aren’t really any situations where the outcome is ambiguous or where your actions have unintended consequences. Some of the actions that contribute to your morality are completely arbitrary, like venturing into a specific area, reading documents, waiting to overhear a full conversation, or even taking the time to play an instrument. They encourage a further exploration of the world, but in context they do nothing for the morality system. Also, there were several moments where an opportunity for a moral choice could have been used, such as attempting to stop thugs from pressuring a merchant into giving them his goods for free, but they were simply set-pieces that couldn’t be interacted with. It’s a missed opportunity, though it does add some depth to the overall mood by demonstrating that while Artyom is lionized as a great warrior and hero, there are times where he’s powerless to fight the evils he encounters

There are two things the morality system does well, though. First, your actions are not tied to a visual metric. Whatever you choose to do is not represented by a bar or scale that records how many “good points” or “evil points” you accumulate as a result of what you do. Instead this ranking is represented with subtle visual and audio cues. When you gain a moral point, the screen will momentarily take on a blue tint and you’ll hear subtle whispers. Losing a moral point causes the screen to slightly darken with more ominous, menacing sounds heard. Without a constantly present way to quantify your actions, you don’t have a clear path on what to do to achieve your desired ending; you have to act as you see fit and await the end result. Secondly, several actions where you could gain moral points are on a pre-set time limit. Certain events such as trying to save a woman from being raped by bandits or helping an ally escape from a monstrous arachnid must be accomplished before the aggressors do too much damage. If you to act quickly enough, the victim will die and the moral point lost (unless you reload from a prior checkpoint). Without exploiting this, though, it adds a greater sense of urgency to your quest. The amount of moral points you accumulate determines which of two endings you’ll receive, and Last Light is another case where I find the “bad” ending is more better because of how provides a more satisfying, if darker resolution to Artyom’s personal quest for redemption.

Gameplay is basically unchanged from Metro 2033, but it’s been refined in several areas. Controls on the Xbox 360 version are significantly improved, with a more convenient mapping of items and weapons. Med kits, the pump for pneumatic weapons, and the electrical charger are assigned to the directional pad, while the gas mask, filters, flashlight and night vision goggles are mapped to the buttons. Weapons can be swapped out by tapping the Y button, and holding it allows you to switch ammunition. The action slows down when you use this option so you’re not under too much pressure. Guns can now be customized by purchasing attachments like silencers, greater magazines, scopes to improve ironsights aiming, sniping, even infrared sights that make it easier to locate and pick off enemies in dark areas. Even without enhanced sight, the reticle alone still allows for easy targeting. Secondary hand-held weapon options bring back throwing knives for silent kills from a distance, along with upgraded explosive ordnance for heavier fights. Aside from standard fragmentation grenades, you have incendiary grenades which can do significant collateral damage in enclosed areas as well hold some mutant animals at bay due to their fear of the fire, and claymore mines that can be laid as traps to wipe out soldiers or beasts rushing towards you, but they need to be used judiciously due to their limited supply.

Combat against stronger enemies provides a nice contrast to the more lackluster boss fights in other shooters since many of them don’t have easily identified weak spots, forcing you to think strategically in order to target their vulnerable areas. For example, enemy soldiers equipped with flamethrowers can be taken out with a bullet through the fuel tank, causing them and any of their nearby allies to burst into flame. A mutant bear with an easily damaged backside will rarely expose it unless you manage to stun it with explosives or let several Watchmen distract it to get behind the beast. Not all of these fights are well executed though. A fight against a Rhino falls back on the overused tactic of tricking it into rushing into a wall, leaving it temporarily dazed so you have a few free seconds to shoot at it. Near the end of the game, you’re required to take out a tank before it obliterates the Rangers with its mortar fire. To do this you first need to immobilize the tank by taking out its wheels and coupling rod before firing on the hatch, which are all highlighted in red to indicate they need to be hit. It’s a bit of a cop-out considering earlier fights didn’t make the target spots so obvious, but hitting these areas is still challenging since you only have a short time limit to succeed before getting killed by the constant heavy fire and it can be difficult to get a bead on the coupling rod while the tank’s moving, so expect to die in this section a few times.

The HUD has also been altered to accommodate players who want to play at a lower difficulty. In the first game there were hardly any interface icons, and those that were present were usually too light to see. It succeeded in creating a more realistic, immersive atmosphere, but made interacting with objects a bit tricky for casual players. The feature remains on the hardest difficulties, but on the normal or easy setting the displays are much clearer, making it easier to determine what direction you’re being attacked from, plus what ammunition you’re picking up and if it’s regular or military grade. On that note, I recommend holding onto all military bullets for buying weapons, upgrades and items instead of as ammunition, as even the toughest enemies and monsters can be taken down with well-placed shots or explosives. The watch was also made easier to read with an LED counter that indicated how much air remained before you needed to change filters rather than the simple colored meter in the first game. Even subtle changes like removing the need to use both shoulder triggers to fire from a shotgun made the experience flow more smoothly. Higher difficulty options are available for players who want a greater challenge like that from the first game, so there’s no need to worry about the entire experience having been simplified for more casual gamers.

The greatest improvements are in the stealth mechanics. In the first game, you could only quietly take out an enemy soldier from a distance or by getting close enough to stab them, which put you at a greater risk of being discovered if you weren’t quick enough since your intended victim would be quick to alert others to your presence. Now you have the option to directly sneak up behind a target and silently kill them (either by slitting their throat or stabbing them) or knock them unconscious with a button prompt. If necessary, you can lure targets to your area by switching off or breaking a light, or by walking on some debris or broken glass to make light noise that gets their attention. This requires careful execution since moving too quickly or causing too much of a din will make them aware that someone else is with them. That brings me to the one problem I had with the stealth takedown mechanic – it’s difficult to determine whether the level of noise you create, either by moving or attacking, will alert your enemies or not. In some cases it’s easy to figure out; if two or more soldiers are close to one another when you kill one (either by attacking from behind or with a throwing knife), they’ll know someone is there, but in other situations you can be approaching from the back, moving relatively slowly, and they’ll know you’re about to attack even though you were trying to be as silent as possible. In most situations there is a brief grace period after making the kill before a nearby soldier hears a comrade’s last breath, providing an opportunity to take them out before they raise the alarm, though you have to be very quick to pull this off. It’s a system that takes a while to get the hang of.

Thankfully it’s much easier to gauge your level of visibility, again because of a watch upgrade. The traffic-light setup from the previous game has been abandoned for a large blue light that changes intensity based on how exposed you are, which makes it easier to determine when you’re safe and when you need to find a hiding spot. Even if you’re spotted, a chord plays to indicate the danger you’re in; if it’s low, you have an opportunity to hide, if more prolonged at a higher pitch, you’ve been seen and need to be prepared to fight. My advice for handling these situations is to stock up on throwing knives, which are great for long-distance quiet kills and can be recovered from the corpses. Moving targets do require a bit more planning since if you’re not accurate with your toss, the knife could miss, bang off a wall or crate, and signal your presence. It’s also best to try and map as much of the area as you can while unseen to identify objects that you can use to your advantage like fuse boxes or sewer grates, and to identify any alarm systems that could give your position away. Overall it’s a very well executed stealth system that emphasizes careful, methodical analysis of your surroundings to make it through alive, enhanced by the inability to see through walls or cover in order to see enemy movement while hiding (a system that’s become common in stealth games which, while helpful, eliminates some of the challenge). The only feature I felt could have improved things would have been the ability to move corpses or unconscious bodies to other areas, like in Thief, so that other soldiers wouldn’t readily see them and go on alert.

Regretfully, Last Light has its share of technical flaws. Some of them are relatively benign, such as armor plating blown off a mutant shellfish floating in the air, or a character you have to escort getting stuck in the corner of a wall only to instantly reappear in front of you after you’ve moved on. There are several game-breaking glitches, however. Three times in the latter half of the story campaign the frame rate would slow down drastically, freezing for five second intervals before starting back up at an unbelievably slow rate until it completely froze and forced me to restart my Xbox. During one chapter I was killed by enemy fire and when I reloaded from the last checkpoint, my character was stuck in place, only able to twitch around whenever I tried to move. Since this happened in an area filled with toxic gases, I died very quickly. This happened every time I loaded from that checkpoint, and after two more attempts I had to start from the beginning of the chapter. I’m not saying this will happen to everyone, but expect to run into bugs like these or others that I didn’t encounter. Another issue is the missing “Ranger Mode”, an option to play at the highest difficulty with an almost non-existent HUD, stronger enemies, and unique weapons and ammunition. It was initially planned to be included with the full game, but was instead released as paid/pre-order downloadable content, leading to backlash from fans of the series. While this was a dumb move, it wasn’t the developer’s fault. Blame rests with THQ, which made the decision to withhold Ranger Mode as DLC. After Deep Silver purchased the IP following THQ’s bankruptcy, they didn’t have a chance to fix the matter before release. While I didn’t play in this mode, it’s still disappointing to those who wanted a much greater challenge.

The visuals perfectly compliment the ambience. While it does rely heavily on the standard dark grays that have become endemic to first-person shooters, this is a situation where that aesthetic fits. The world after the apocalypse is a bleak, harsh place, and the drab colors reflect not only that, but the hardened, resigned attitudes of the people trying to survive in it. Lighting adds an extra dimension with tunnels enveloped in blackness except for small streams of sunlight breaking through cracks in the surface, shadowy bases with only the bare amount of illumination from lanterns or candles, and sharp distortions when Artyom has a hallucination. The designs of the mutants are especially grotesque: hairless, covered in tumors and hardened growths that serve as armor, and glowing eyes. The massive bat-like creatures called Demons have undergone a significant change in appearance, appearing more reptilian than mammalian, which I felt made them more intimidating. Other slight visual touches, such as the visor on your gas mask cracking or having water droplets bead on the glass, further enhance the immersion. Scripted moments in the Metro settlements are set to background music that employs traditional Russian instruments like balalaikas, creating a more relaxed scene to show how the residents have tried to make their new homes acceptable. The surface and deep tunnels have very little music except for occasional deep chords when a paranormal event happens to punctuate the more frightening aspects. Most of the time, the only sounds you hear are the howling winds, dripping water, and the snarls of monsters in the distance.

Metro: Last Light is far from perfect. Weak characterization, occasional glitches, bad gender politics and a flawed morality system keep it from being as great as it could have been. But it’s saved by proper pacing, impressive stealth, an intelligent, mature plot, and a world that truly draws you in. It truly stands out when compared to the more generic, bland FPS titles that glut the market. I look forward to seeing what 4A will do for their follow-up and what new direction they’ll take the story in. I do hope, however, that the third installment will offer some new gameplay features to keep the series from becoming stale and repetitive, but I’m optimistic that we’ll see some strong changes.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.