Dilapidation has never looked this beautiful. Not even Crysis 3’s post-apocalyptic urban decay can stir up the feelings of loss and melancholy that Metro: Last Light’s network of underground tunnels and above-ground wastelands conjure. In Last Light, 4A Games delivers an artistic masterclass on how browns and greys should be used to build atmosphere, but what really makes the game’s crumbling Moscow stand apart are the incidental details that tell its story. You’ll see skeletons embracing in abandoned stairwells, traffic lights used in place of dancefloor lighting, and the remnants of children’s toys lying abandoned near where their owners fell. The world 4A Games has created has more than enough heart to match its brawn.
It’s a template set out by the game’s 2010 predecessor, Metro 2033, which was an ambitious attempt to reconcile a gritty story with firstperson gunplay and stealth, rather than simply interleave them. 4A Games nearly succeeded, delivering a game that was more firstperson adventure than FPS. It may have been let down by rickety shooting mechanics and a less-than-friendly user interface, but what it lacked in polish it more than made up for in ambience. Three years and a switch of publisher later, 4A has attempted to work that polish into Last Light without sacrificing any of the elements it got right the first time around.
Foremost among its improvements is the way Last Light handles stealth. Making a mistake in 2033 instantly alerted every enemy to your position, and whether you were hidden safely from sight wasn’t always clearly telegraphed. It was a frustratingly obtuse system, even if it did evoke plenty of tension. In Last Light, a blue lozenge on returning protagonist Artyom’s always-visible watch lets you know when you’re in shadow, and a stab of strings serves as a reminder of the danger when you venture from the gloom. While this solution feels more binary, and occasionally relies on patrolling enemies developing temporary glaucoma, it remains readable at all times and makes you feel deadly.
Enemies can be distracted in a number of ways, too, such as making a noise, turning out the lights, or creating a fire by shooting at an oil lamp. But while you can toy with them, they also have the tools to swing things in their favour. Flashlights will force you out of hiding places, and your foes will sometimes tip over scenery to create temporary cover. One preferred method of ours was to methodically extinguish every light source in any given area, then go on the hunt with retrievable throwing knives, preserving our meagre supply of ammo and keeping noise to a minimum. After all, even silenced weapons will give you away if you’re too close to a guard when you use them.
Better still, enemies are no longer psychic and will actively, and indefinitely, search for you if alerted by the body of a comrade, or a stray shot bouncing off their helmet. You can, of course, go in all guns blazing and make use of the wealth of destructible cover to reload rather than hide, but you’ll face additional – and more heavily armoured – firepower if the alarm is triggered.
No matter how much noise you make, though, it’s always possible to hide again, and even sneak past the remainder of the forces left searching for you. And it’s a thrill when you hear soldiers talking to each other as they close in on the position of your most recent muzzle flash, safe in the knowledge that you’re already moving on – or about to slit their throats.
As a result, each room feels like a self-contained puzzle that can be tackled in a variety of ways. Play ebbs and flows between different states without ever jarring you out of the moment, encouraging experimentation. Importantly, Last Light’s tunnels never feel like a procession of shooting galleries – unlike many of its peers. Sure, it doesn’t offer a shooting experience that matches the heft of more traditional FPSes, and stealth is almost always the best option, but things have improved a lot since Artyom’s last trip across the Metro. While guns still feel weak, a well-aimed headshot is enough to drop almost any enemy. Weapons here are meant to be unreliable, too, having been cobbled together from leftover parts. They often fire ball bearings or low-grade bullets, and will jam or run out of pressure when pushed too hard. Military-grade bullets can be used as well if you need them, but they double as currency for trading in shops. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Last Light’s firearms don’t feel overpowered, but your willingness to accept this as an immersive detail, rather than a gameplay failing, will rely greatly on your investment in the fiction.