You may wish to read my post about Metro 2033 first. As always, you may click om images to view larger versions.
Long time readers may recall that I quite liked Metro 2033. The sequel, Metro: Last Light, released back in 2013, beating my post about the original game by a few months. But, since my PC at the time was already struggling with Metro 2033 in places, I decided to hold off on playing the newer game until I’d upgraded. Then I spent literal years putting off that upgrade. Now I’ve finally built a new PC, so I can at long last play Metro: Last Light after its sequel, the critically lauded Metro Exodus, has already been available for a year and a half. Maybe I’ll manage to play that one this decade. For now, I was happy to return to the highly evocative post-apolcalyptic Moscow Metro, to see if I could keep humanity alive a little longer. I’ve tried to keep this post as spoiler-free as possible, but there are inevitably some very light spoilers for the events of Metro 2033 below.
I should point out that in 2014 remastered versions of both Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light appeared, with “Redux” appended to their names. These were developed mainly for the new (at the time) Playstation 4 and Xbox One consoles, but they appeared for PC as well. Since the improvements for Last Light were more minor in comparison to Metro 2033, I decided to just play my copy of the original release rather than shell out for the upgrade.
Metro: Last Light picks up where the first game left off, but it assumes that the “bad” ending is what actually happened. I wasn’t too bothered by this, since the “good” ending is difficult to get on one’s first playthrough of the original game (I only managed it on my second try, with the help of a guide), and because the “bad” ending offers more fertile ground for a new story. A quick recap: nuclear armageddon has happened, and the few survivors in Moscow are eking out an existence in the city’s Metro stations, which were designed to serve as fallout shelters during the Cold War. Although twenty years have passed since the bombs fell, the air on the surface is still toxic, and the ruins of the city are infested with dangerous mutant creatures. So people stay underground. Naturally, the new “station states” started fighting with each other, and with the mutants who call the dark tunnels home. In the first game, protagonist Artyom is enlisted to investigate a new threat: the “Dark Ones”, towering mutants who can fill people’s minds with horrifying visions. After criss-crossing the Metro, he dealt with the Dark Ones through SPOILERS.
While Metro 2033 was based on the novel of the same name, Last Light deviates from the story as it developed in further novels. But author Dmitry Glukhovsky was still heavily involved in the development of Last Light, writing the main story outline and much of the dialogue. So it’s an officially endorsed alternate story line. We join Artyom a year later, now riddled with guilt over what he has done. The rest of the Metro consider him a hero, however, and he was even offered a position in the Rangers, an elite group of politically neutral soldiers who perform peacekeeping duties throughout the Metro. Of course, the fact that Artyom helped discover D6, a pre-war underground military base, may have had something to do with that. That’s where the game opens, and immediately shows that it can set a scene just as impeccably as its predecessor.
The Rangers have adopted D6 as their center of operations, and the base now looks wonderfully lived-in. Artyom’s tiny room houses his guitar and treasured cassette player, and its walls are plastered with posters and old photographs. Walking through the halls, I saw other rangers crammed into the tight spaces of the base, and glimpsed the little places they made their own. One ranger donned headphones for some precious alone time, air-drumming to the music. Others crowded into the makeshift mess hall, sharing gossip and tall tales. Some hailed Artyom as he walked by, and it was clear that many did not feel Artyom had truly earned his appointment in the Rangers. Later, I caught sight of rangers training, getting patched up in the medical area, and even working to open some of the still-sealed doors in the base. I basked in the cacophony as I worked my way towards Miller, the commander of the Rangers, to discuss some news: another Dark One has been spotted.
Miller orders Artyom to find the Dark One and kill it, but he doesn’t trust the rookie to handle it all on his own. He also assigns a sniper to the mission: his daughter Anna. For all the countless Rangers I’d seen on my way through D6, Anna was the only woman. And as she bristled over having to babysit the inexperienced Artyom on the mission, I had a sinking realization: Anna was to be Artyom’s love interest. There was no other reason that this development team would put a woman in the game.
To be clear, there are other women in the game, as there are in Metro 2033. But Anna is the only woman in either game who has a gun. The others tend to appear only in the peaceful, residential areas that Artyom visits between his dangerous expeditions, and they are almost universally portrayed as victims. At best, they are exhausted mothers or wives, trying to make the best of the harsh life of the Metro. More often, they recount tales of horrible abuse under the brutal regimes that run many of the stations (the perpetrators are always men, of course). At worst, they are brazenly objectified. At one point in Last Light, Artyom is able to watch a stage performance in one of the stations featuring a group of burlesque dancers. Afterwards, he inexplicably must head through the women’s dressing room to reach his destination, leaving players free to ogle the half-dressed women. Later in the game, Artyom must visit a brothel, and he is literally forced into a private booth with a lap dancer. Players can leave after this happens, but they can also pay for a lap dance, in which case they get to watch a painstakingly rendered topless woman perform a meticulously animated sexy dance, for as long as they wish. I wonder how many artists on the development team worked on that scene.
Where is Anna during all of this, you might ask? Well, story events conveniently separate Anna and Artyom for most of the game. Which only makes their romance even more awkward, contrived, and problematic. If they had spent time together throughout the game, there would be opportunities for character development on both sides and perhaps make for a more believable relationship. Instead, Artyom and Anna meet only a few times, often in the wake of traumatic events, and I was unconvinced by their feelings for each other.
This is a shame, because there are a lot of things that Metro: Last Light does really well. I already mentioned the wonderfully evocative environmental design in the opening section, and this never lets up. Every station Artyom visits feels just as alive. The art team worked wonders, not just with the appearance of these places, but in staging them such that players will stumble into the best views of their own accord as they wander. Sound is wonderful too, with the cries of merchants hawking their wares in markets mixing with music from street musicians and the bustle of workers lugging supplies around. The less inhabited locations are fantastic too, with even the most remote tunnel adorned with rubble and detritus, and maybe some supplies left by a less fortunate traveler. The Metro is always a compelling place to explore. I raved about this in the first game as well, but Last Light brings upgrades to the proprietary 4A Engine and increased visual fidelity to bear on the artists’ beautiful designs, making its environments even more compelling.
Trips to the surface make a return from Metro 2033 as well. They were highlights of that game, seeing Artyom don a gas mask to explore the frozen wasteland of the city above, gawping at incredible vistas of ruined Moscow, while scrounging for spare mask filters and looking out for mutant attacks. In Last Light, these sections are even more breathtaking. The nuclear winter is finally over, the snow has melted, and green vegetation now curls around the rubble outside. The extra level of detail in these surface locales is amazing, and I just wanted to stop and survey the landscape whenever I had a chance to go topside. Which happens more often in Last Light too, including some extended treks that span several levels. And while many of these are still linear jaunts, a few offer more open spaces than those in Metro 2033, letting players wander and explore however they choose. The melting snow means parts of the city have become swampy ruins, with new dangers lurking in the water, managing to feel distinct from the icy wastes of Metro 2033 without sacrificing the tension and feeling of exposure under the open sky.
Generally, the level design in Last Light feels more confident. Metro 2033 had some awkward moments, but was elevated by its overall atmosphere and standout sections. Last Light is more consistently good, and better paced. Artyom still has to follow another character on occasion, but he’s left to his own devices more often, and even when working with a partner he has more to do on his own to help. The team at 4A Games also realized their error in cutting away to third-person perspective for cutscenes in the first game, doubling down on using first-person all the time in Last Light. Control is still wrested away from the player on occasion, to have Artyom take a tumble, or fend off a mutant that’s pounced on him (often accompanied by a quick time event, regrettably, although these are less egregious than before). But even these moments retain a first-person viewpoint, carefully constructed so players can determine what is happening even if Artyom is flying through the air. The excellent sense of Artyom’s body returns and is used here to make these segments work. We hear Artyom’s grunts of pain as he falls, see Artyom’s hands as he pushes himself off the ground, are treated to his carefully gauged glances around as he gets his — and therefor our — bearings, before control is returned to the player.
At times, however, Last Light feels a little too streamlined. The high difficulty of Metro 2033 caught me by surprise, but I found Last Light to be much easier, even when starting on the harder difficulty setting. Sure, as a veteran of the first game I already had an idea of what to expect, but I still breezed through more readily than I anticipated. This is partly because stealth is easier. Artyom’s visibility to enemies is simplified, now a binary “visible” or “invisible” rather than a spectrum. That means Artyom can remain hidden even when he should be pretty easy to spot. When my eyesight was so much better than my enemies’, it made my stealthy exploits feel a little cheap. Their hearing seems to be impaired as well. The makeshift alarms made from cans on string make a return from Metro 2033, but even after bumping them I never seemed to draw attention to myself. Moving silently and invisibly was easy, and I rarely felt I was in danger of being spotted. To top it all off, enemies can now be knocked out or silently dispatched from behind. As far as I can tell, either option is functionally identical, but since there are often rewards for avoiding kills (more on that later) I opted for knockouts. These are farcial. Artyom taps an enemy on the shoulder, the enemy turns around in confusion, and then Artyom punches him in the face. Somehow, none of the enemies cry out when this happens, even if they’re on alert for intruders. Somehow, the process makes no noise and fails to alert nearby guards unless they directly see it. Somehow, enemies are knocked out in one punch, every single time, without fail.
The throwing knives which were so vital in Metro 2033 return, but I never had to use them. Only once, near the end of the game, was I unable to neutralize all my (human) foes by knocking them out from behind, and in that case I could just sneak past the rest without incident. Even the mutant beasts can often be stealthily evaded, or dealt with in others ways — one of the new types of mutants is fended off with light, rather than bullets. All of which means that there are surprisingly few opportunities to use Last Light’s excellent arsenal. Well, I guess players could choose to go in guns blazing, but that just doesn’t feel like the right approach. This isn’t to say that sneaking isn’t fun; I definitely enjoyed scoping out an area, and formulating a plan for taking out each guard in turn. But I missed using the scrappy, homemade weapons for which the series is known.
These weapons are largely the same as they were in Metro 2033, with a few additions. But that’s OK, because they were already great. A major difference, however, is how weapon modifications like scopes or extended clips are handled. In Metro 2033, modified weapons had to be found in one’s explorations, often leading to agonizing decisions about which weapons to keep (players can only carry three at a time). In Last Light, weapon modifications can be bought from merchants and installed on the guns Artyom is already carrying. While this makes more sense, it also makes it easy to stick to the same loadout for most of the game, and some of the joy of finding new weapons is lost. I favored the hand-pumped, air-powered, ball-bearing-firing Tixhar, which is surprisingly effective for silent sniping, and simply added scopes and better pressurizing systems as I went. When I needed to engage in close combat, I carried some form of assault rifle and shotgun in my other two slots. This served me for the entire game, and I missed having to scrounge around the ruins for that perfect gun.
Despite this, I enjoyed my trek through to the conclusion. Metro: Last Light’s story is nothing remarkable, but it’s paced well, and this time I was able to obtain the “good” ending on my first try. Of course, I knew how the system for getting different endings works, since it’s the same one used in the first game, so that helped. But I think it’s easier to achieve this time around, even for new players. Explore thoroughly, be nice, and try not to kill too many people and you should have no problem finding it. I was also pleased to find that it’s the canonical ending.
So, I’d reached the better of the two endings, on the highest difficulty setting, on my first try. But I still decided to play through a second time. I had a few reasons. First, I wanted to find some of Artyom’s journal entries that I’d missed. These are collectibles strewn across the various levels, offering some extra insight into the story as Artyom mulls over recent events. Unlike everything else in the game, they don’t really make sense as actual items in the world; Artyom wouldn’t be finding his own journal lying around. But they encourage exploration and I was miffed that I’d missed a few. Second, I wanted to try out some different weapons, rather than just sticking to the same guns all the time. Lastly, I was worried that I’d missed a lot of dialogue since I played Last Light in Russian.
I had English subtitles, of course, but like Metro 2033, only the major dialogue is subtitled. Most incidental conversations are not, and it seems that the limited knowledge of Russian I once had from my college studies is truly fading. In Metro 2033 I was able to follow the gist of these side chats, but this time I was lucky to recognize a mere word or two. Having played through with English voices, however, I can confirm that Russian is the way to go. I did get to hear a few scene-setting details by going through in English, but only the major cast have convincing accents. The rest are a bit cringe-worthy. The Russian voices, by contrast, are generally good, except for the children who are clearly voiced by adults (a problem for the English cast as well). And while the extra details were nice, the writing isn’t anything exceptional. The Russian voices just feel like a better fit, even if it meant I didn’t understand everything. I recommend trying them out.
But, I did enjoy being a little more experimental on my second playthrough. This time I decided to eschew shotguns, since their low ammo capacity kept getting me in trouble the first time around, on the few occasions when I was swarmed by mutants. Instead, I favored pistols in the early game, particularly a heavily modified one I stumbled upon in a well-hidden cache. For longer range combat, I went for bona fide sniper rifles instead of my trusty Tixhar. Many of these are new to Last Light, I believe, and they provided some of the excellent, thunderous reports that I so enjoyed in Metro 2033. Pistols and sniper rifles also use their own ammo types, which brought back some of the ammo scrounging I liked so much in the first game. I also decided not to buy things from merchants, so I could find weapons with better modifications out in the world. When pistol ammo started to dry up later in the game, I swapped out my pistol for a pre-war AK-47, and decided to actually load it with my military-grade ammunition.
Pre-war, military-grade ammo is used as currency in the Metro, so usually Rangers and other explorers load cheaper, “dirty” ammo that’s manufactured in the stations into their guns. But military-grade bullets are much more effective, and since they act as currency, there’s no limit to how many Artyom can carry. With little need to buy anything in the shops — in fact, I could sell shotgun shells and other ammo I didn’t need to get even more military-grade rounds — I always had plenty, and if any mutants made it past my sniper rifle, I made short work of them with my AK. This was incredibly satisfying to use, but I still wanted to try out some other weapons, and I had a third slot available. I opted for the Helsing, a pneumatic, revolving weapon that fires metal bolts which can be retrieved and re-used. I love the idea of the Helsing, an efficient and silent weapon that has the wonderful cobbled-together feel of the scrappy Metro survivors. but in practice it was hard to use. It’s not as accurate at long range as the sniper rifles I carried, and its slow rate of fire makes it hard to use in closer quarters. I still hung onto it out of fondness, but I tended to fall back on my trusty AK most of the time.
There’s enough to like about Metro: Last Light that it’s worth playing in spite of its shortcomings. Its portrayal of women is its most egregious fault, but its writing is a bit wanting in general. More significantly, the streamlined design made it feel less like a uniquely Russian game, and more like a game made for the international market. That’s understandable, as 4A Games were building on their hit with Metro 2033, and indeed have since made one of the biggest games worldwide with last year’s Metro Exodus. But it does mean some of the charm of the original is gone. In its place, however, is a well crafted adventure with even more beautiful desolation than before, that avoids design pitfalls that occasionally plagued its predecessor. The immersive world of the post-nuclear Moscow Metro is expertly realized once again, and I enjoyed my travels through it. I’m interested to see what the team did with Metro Exodus, in which the survivors finally emerge from the tunnels to try to make a life on the surface again.
I should mention that in two places in Last Light I encountered some lockups, which I managed to get past just by restarting many times until I got lucky and they didn’t happen. I also had to manually set the field of view in a text file, like I did for the first game, following this guide. Hopefully these issues are fixed in the Redux versions, which are the obvious picks for new players. If you want to try the Exodus games yourself, they’re now on GOG in Redux form, along with Metro Exodus and its DLC packs. They’re also available on Steam, and for Xbox One, Playstation 4, and Nintendo Switch. While the games aren’t perfect, the strange world of the Metro is a fascinating place to visit. Just make sure you play it in Russian.