Thoughts on Metro: Last Light
It’s more than a little flattering that my most-received request for Space-Biff! is for my thoughts on Metro: Last Light from 4A Games and Deep Silver (and formerly THQ, rest in peace). This is probably owing to the synopsis I wrote last year, which you should totally read, if only because it makes me feel beautiful on the inside.
My one hangup in delivering an actual review is that, while I’d love to fall back on a tried-and-true critique like “it’s two steps forward and one step back,” the reality is more that Metro: Last Light is dancing the Charleston, with so many steps, leaps, and bounds in every direction, that in the end I can’t be sure which direction it’s moved at all. Which isn’t to say I don’t have thoughts on the proceedings — I’ve got plenty. And you can read them below, in a format that includes only a few minor spoilers.
1. It’s Smoother. That’s Not Entirely a Good Thing.
In the original Metro 2033, there was a level entitled “Frontline.” In it, our hero, a stranded and lonely Artyom, had to pick his way through a rotten and creaking metro line that happened to be the entrenched position of two hostile forces. It was pitch-black, lit only by the occasional lightning-flash of rifles, the cook-fires of terrified soldiery, and glaring searchlights that brought machinegun death to every dark corner they happened to peer into.
There were two ways through. The first was the obvious method, especially for a game about shooting: load your guns and shoot, murdering your way past fascists and socialists alike. It was a hard method. Your ammunition was filled with diluted powder, so targeted enemies were more likely to lose a chunk of armor or receive a slow death than be killed outright; and while you could load better bullets into your weapons, doing so was a defeat in and of itself, because those high-powered rounds were the very currency of the desperate societies that lined the metro’s gut, and wasting them on combat meant you might not be able to afford vital supplies later on.
So, alternatively, you could sneak past the fighting. This meant you didn’t have to kill anyone or waste any ammunition, but it was even harder than the violent method. You had to listen to the frantic conversations of unwilling soldiers that hinted about a place to which deserters could escape, and then you had to find and travel this rumored route while avoiding commissars’ booby-traps and searchlights. Chances were they’d catch sight of you and cut you down like so many other soldiers who had been found expendable already.
Metro: Last Light has no analogue to this level, and it’s largely in part because Last Light’s systems work so smoothly.
Now, that’s mostly a good thing. Metro 2033 was clunky, from the shooting to the sneaking to the buggy game engine itself, and there were lots of people, myself included, who thought it would benefit from having some of its rougher edges sanded down.
But that clunkiness serviced the game in a couple ways. The predominant emotion evoked by much of Metro 2033’s gameplay, and Frontline exemplifies this, was a sense of nagging uncertainty. Violence was always a shaky proposal — even shooting a person in the head wasn’t a reliable way to take them down unless you were using the best weapons loaded with expensive money-ammunition. Stealth was even more uncertain, as you were never sure exactly how far a soldier’s headlamp cut into the inky darkness, and even if you had a solid guess, chances were you couldn’t take him down without alerting all his friends.
I’m not saying Last Light is made worse for being smoother, because it’s an absolute joy to sneak up behind an enemy and have the option to kill him or to knock him unconscious — and what’s more, to have that option work once you trigger it, unlike the original game’s failed knife-flails at a now-shouting watchman. Many of the game’s advancements, such as a watch that lets you know whether you’re visible to enemies or hidden in the shadows, weapons that can reliably extinguish life, and super-powered silent throwing knives, are also wonderful in practice.
Yet, somehow, the polish and ease-of-use subtracts something that was inherent to the original game. There’s less shattered glass underfoot to give away your ambushes, more myopic opponents who will walk two feet from your position without turning their heads the inch-and-a-half necessary to catch sight of you, and fewer instances of noise traveling through the air to give away that fact that you just rammed a set of spiked knuckles into a sentry’s dumbfounded face. It isn’t just that Last Light easier (though it is that too), it’s that in a world in which nothing is reliable, you are.
Still, it’s a hell of a lot better to play, which strikes me as a fair tradeoff, even if it makes me a little disappointed that there wasn’t the occasional weapons jam to drive home the point that life in the Moscow Metro isn’t always calculable.
2. The Two-Hour Tutorial Is Maddening (and Great).
The original game used two characters, Bourbon and Khan, to teach you the basics of gameplay. “Put on your gas mask or you’ll suffocate,” you learned from Bourbon. Keep your flashlight charged! Scrounge for better weapons and supplies! Use stealth to gain an advantage over those bandits who are hoping to ambush you! Here’s how you survive on the surface! Later, Khan taught you about ghosts and anomalies and spelled out the game’s theme and morality system if you bothered to listen.
Metro: Last Light does the exact same thing with Pavel, who Artyom follows around — don’t rush ahead! — for about two hours. And while I understand the need for someone to explain some of the game’s systems, as a Metro veteran it was absolutely galling at times.
Keep your flashlight charged or the light-sensitive enemies will attack!
Put on your gas mask when outside! And look for supply caches, Artyom!
Nice watch, Artyom! It tells you how much air you have left, and if enemies can see you!
Artyom! Here’s how you wipe grime and blood and rainwater off your mask! Artyom!
While Pavel’s survival tips are certainly helpful, his presence also means that for the first couple hours of your scenic tour of Last Light, this will be your most common sight:
Here he is again:
The reason I’m not willing to call Pavel’s segment bad is that he actually turns out to be the best character in the entire game — or, at the very least, the least plastic. Not only is he witty and charming, but the relationship between him and Artyom, a tale of soldiers from opposing sides who learn mutual respect and interdependence, is downright heartwarming. It’s gripping, human stuff, from tentative beginning to agonizing conclusion, and it’s just one of Last Light’s plethora of human moments. If he would have just let me be the one in charge, I might even like the idea of an entire Metro game that follows the buddy-cop formula of Last Light’s opening act.
Speaking of human moments…
3. This Metro Is More Human.
The bulk of Artyom’s interaction with the inhabitants of civilized metro stations has always been to stop and observe their conversations without contributing anything — bad! Or perhaps, merely dull. Why they decided to only give Artyom a voice during loading screens and journal entries, rather than giving him something to say to his comrades or the myriad civilians he encounters, is beyond me. The shadow of Half-Life 2 may be long, but a silent protagonist is certainly one of its weaker legacies.
However, at least in Last Light, these conversations are pretty good. Long preoccupied with mere survival, society seems to be at last rebuilding itself. Actors put on (miserable) shows. Soldiers comfort a widow, who reacts with outrage and accusations that they didn’t do enough to protect their brother-in-arms. A grandfather shows a group of children a shadow puppet of a bird, only for the youngsters to exclaim, “Is it a demon?” Then they mistake an elephant for a type of tunnel-mutant, then ask “are elephants dangerous?” — because, of course, they’ve heard of neither birds nor elephants. Gangsters hustle merchants, who grumble in corners. Children cry over lost toys. Soldiers fret over rumors. Families worry together, or apart, as circumstances dictate.
You’re still walking forward a few meters and stopping to listen to a conversation, then repeating over and over until it’s time to move onto a new leg of your journey, but at least there’s more substance behind it.
4. This Metro Is Also, Unfortunately, A Lot More Sexist.
This is such a difficult issue that I’ll be devoting an entire article to it sometime in the next day or two. Seriously, I’ve ended up with an extra thousand words on the topic, and this article was never meant to be a long sequence of thoughts. Suffice it to say, whereas the original game’s women were nearly non-existent, Last Light’s are far more troublesome. While most of the points on this list are neither entirely positive nor negative, this one is a glaring black mark on Last Light’s soul.
(EDIT: You can now read those thoughts here.)
5. The Internal Morality Is Significantly Altered.
The theme of the original Metro 2033 wasn’t about black-and-white morality. Rather, it was a refreshingly mature take on ancient issues, arguing for tolerance and open-mindedness even after the world’s end. It asked you to offer your enemy an open hand, when all instinct and training demanded a fist instead. It was so difficult to accomplish, both with a game-player’s expectations and a human being’s assumptions, that very few people even realized that the game had a choice/consequence system at all. The result was that nearly everybody who played Metro 2033 got the bad ending, in which Artyom vaporized all the Dark Ones in a rush of nuclear fire.
Since it was about a general-purpose sort of enlightenment, it roughly equated killing enemy soldiers, who you could avoid if you went out of your way, with accepting a reward from a war widow, which you could do without and which would certainly leave her family impoverished. Likewise, you could go out of your way to accomplish a hidden objective to warn a metro station of an impending attack, though the game required you, the player, to remember that it was a goal at all. Time and time again, Metro 2033’s morality was more about self-sacrifice than about choosing an arbitrarily-designated “right” over “wrong.”
Last Light is a bit more flimsy on the whole “morality” thing. I was relieved to discover there’s still a morality meter, but it’s not as clear what it’s going for. Certainly a theme of redemption, given that the game begins after Artyom has earned the first game’s bad ending — and there are a few little nods to this new, more self-aware Artyom. For instance, you can earn some morality points by not killing a hulking mutant, which is certainly in line with what Artyom should be thinking about his assumptions after mucking up his first adventure so completely. But most of the game’s morality points come from much duller sources. Usually listening to conversations. And although the first game had some of that, nearly all its pertinent decisions were actions, or the calculated absence of an action.
Even worse than the shaky theme is the game’s rushed ending. Where the first game built to its conclusion at a glacial and expectation-defying pace, Last Light just sighs and gets on with it, teleporting you and the relevant characters to the final boss battle. Did I mention there are boss battles? Yeah, they’re bad, as all boss battles are wont to be. Anyway, back to morality: as I was saying, after being rushed to the conclusion, the game’s two endings are nearly-identical, and have scant little to do with the theme of redemption that runs through the game’s few pertinent moral choices.
After such a tremendous journey, the destination feels sort of piddly.
I realize this might sound overwhelmingly negative, but I can assure you that even with a disappointing ending, it’s a journey I wholeheartedly recommend. Last Light is a bit more unfocused than the original, but overall it’s also smoother and prettier and better-formed. I liked it, even if it didn’t leave me as breathless as it did the first time around.
But get it in a sale.