Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Metro: Last Light review

When the echoes of the past have you in their grip, clawing your way out seems to be the only option. Shadows that are illuminated by lighting bolts don't just seem to move, they do move. Ghostly images of past lives litter the world and you sense, if not outright feel, their chilled hands clinging to you in search of warmth. These are just a few of the haunting examples you will stumble across in Metro: Last Light. Even though it's a direct sequel of Metro 2033, Last Light stands as it's own game.

The story follows Artyom, the soldier you played as in Metro 2033. There is no real introduction page to the story. The game merely assumes you have a fair bit of knowledge of the prior game's storyline and goes from there. The conflict with the "Dark Ones", mysterious psychic humanoids, reached a tipping point in the past title. Regardless of your decision in 2033, the game follows the bad ending choice. Artyom bombs the Dark Ones' nest, tossing them into oblivion. Apparently he didn't do a good enough job, as a Dark One survived, which sets the story of Last Light in gear.
You return to a post-nuclear fallout Moscow. With lethal amounts of radiation still present on the surface, the surviving groups of humans have to reside deep inside the Metro lines. They are not exactly safe by any means, but it does offer more protection than anywhere else. There are almost no areas of the game where you are without enemies. The obvious giant mutant rats and winged demons (think extremely large bats with added shudder inducing features) can't really be overlooked, but even worse enemies lurk in the dark.

What happens when you add insects, spiders, and scorpions to a pool of radioactive sludge? My worst freaking nightmare.

Even these murderous beasts do not hold a lighter to the true enemies. People live in fear of each other, for when the world goes dark, mankind is among the worst horrors in a land of mutated beasts. Before you really even get too deep into the game you are captured and then thrust into the hands of Russian Nazis. They are like regular Nazis, they are just Russian. What follows is a heart pounding escape from a Nazi Metro fortress. You get mingled in with a brother-in-arms, who affectionately refers to your duo as the "Two Musketeers". Unfortunately he gets captured again, leading you to focus on rescuing him, since you both need each other to get out.

The gameplay can be rough at times, with a sloppy AI, occasional invisible barriers, and a lighting system that really doesn't make sense when sneaking around. The game does excel however, in tossing multiple kinds of gameplay at you. There are even amounts of stealth action, fire fights, standard linear explorations, and panic inducing monster battles and they all shift and meld together with ease. If you prefer a stealthy approach, those are provided in spades. If you prefer balls-to-the-wall action, just shoot one of the guys during the stealth areas and you'll get your wish.

Where the game really shines is in the atmosphere. The change from radioactive surface where every open space could mean your death to the tight, enclosed pits of the dark underbelly which also could mean your death, Last Light rarely fails to disappoint the feelings you would expect to encounter in those situations. It's a game where running for your life really feels like running for your life. Pitch black corridors filled with webs are ominous and you know exactly whats waiting, but that power box won't fix itself so inside you plunge with your trusty flashlight. One of the first experiences on the surface involves moving through a wrecked plane, where your nerves will be seriously rattled.

The sights and sounds are beautifully done, especially in regards to the weapons. The detail on the guns is great and the unique sound and feel of them really ramp up the immersion factor. Watching the ammo counter tick down while at the same time seeing your magazine sliding out of the side of the old fashioned SMG adds to the game's feel of future/past combination. At times the game feels like the 2030's and at times like the 1930's.

The biggest detraction is the characters themselves. The voice acting is fine, but it lacks much of what we would call emotion. The biggest outburst of emotion I ever came across in the game was someone just repeatedly saying "Shit! Shit shit shit shit shit!" The conversations and stories are quite interesting, and a lot of times entertaining, but the waxy expressions and dead eyes turn even the most intense situation into a bit of a joke. It's very difficult to focus on how scary this interrogation is supposed to feel when the guy looks like he is on autopilot. It's almost enough to make you beg for them to just keep hitting you. Even the point where a stripper is giving you a lap dance (hey it's a futuristic hell hole with nothing but murderous beasts outside, let the guy have a bit of fun) seems forced and the vacant expression on her face is far removed from the fake ecstatic expression you normally see at the gentleman's club. Even that big box of ammo you just gave her doesn't bring a smile to those mannequin features. On that note lies another problem. Women in the game are portrayed in 3 main categories. Strippers, prostitutes, and potential rape victims. These are really the only interactive female characters you see. There are a few background roles of a metro cook, or a nagging wife, but even the can-can dancers are in it for the show. The only truly worthwhile women roles are found in cut scenes or the sniper you work with in the beginning who, unsurprisingly, eventually becomes a love interest which inevitably ends up with a poor first-person lovemaking scene.

The game really feels at it's best during those solitary moments when you just explore the irradiated world. The entire area is bathed in psychic energy from the Dark Ones, as vision after vision transforms the world we see, into the world which was. These visions are both truly unsettling and completely mystifying. You begin to wish for more than the game can give you. Are those shades hovering nearby wistfully remembering the beauty of what once had been, or are they crying out for what has been lost to them?

While the game does a fantastic job of building up the suspense, the ending fails to deliver that really big punch. Some questions are answered but the bigger mystery of the game is left unsolved. Both karma influenced endings of the game feel a little empty after investing yourself that far into the story and, while they are still well done, ultimately it feels as if 4A Games missed a great opportunity to finish strong.

While there are some things 4A could have done better, the game is a good amount of fun. If you're looking for an intensely atmospheric setting with a lot of mystery, this is the game for you.

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