Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Metro Last Light

The Title Screen

Metro: Last Light is a first-person shooter developed by 4A Games, released in 2013 for PC/Mac, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360. The sequel to Metro 2033, it features a singleplayer campaign based on the world established by the Metro book series by Dmitry Glukhovsky.

Disclaimer : Standard first-person shooter violence, occasional strong language and some nudity/sex. There are some minor horror elements but done atmospherically, rather than trying to terrify the player.

The First Thing
After tackling the extremely low FPS by turning Nvidia Physx off (I do not use Nvidia), I was impressed by just how well Last Light runs. I have frequently heard how Last Light is considered to be one of the best looking games ever developed so I was expecting a degraded experience on my three year old machine. But on 'high' settings it still looks really good and had a smooth 60FPS nearly throughout. The extremely tight level design probably helps but I was still impressed. Fantastic optimisation work by the folks at 4A Games.

Plot & Devices
Metro 2033 had two possible endings: a 'good' one where Artyom realises the Dark Ones (psychic, scary-looking creatures) are friendly and a 'bad' one where he destroys them all. Last Light continues on from the 'bad' ending.

A year has passed since the events of Metro 2033. The surface of Earth is still uninhabitable from the nuclear war and the survivors are living underground in the Russian metro network. Artyom (you) has officially joined the Rangers who are now occupying D6; a large military depot with supplies. However, news of D6 is spreading and creating unrest within the two rival metro factions: the Reich and the Red Line. On top of this, a surviving Dark One has been sighted recently. Still conflicted about his role in their demise, Artyom is sent to track and kill it.

The surface

Last Light is a story driven experience which is reflected in its gameplay. The author of the Metro books, Dmitry Glukhovsky, helped write the story and plans to released a more complete version as the novel "Metro 2035". Listening to the fully-voiced cavalcade of characters progresses the story and atmosphere although Artyom himself is a silent protagonist - except during the loading screens where he narrates a quick summary of events. Apart from the intro and outro sequences, there are no out-of-engine cinematics. As a character Artyom is fleshed out further through collectible 'notes' scattered throughout the game; offering insight into his thoughts on the current situation.

Like Metro 2033 there is a hidden moral system that decides which cutscene to display at the end. Influenced by a mix of subtle and obvious choices, it has no impact on gameplay or events.

The Game
Set in the first-person perspective, Last Light feels divided into three gameplay types: sight-seeing, underground combat and the surface. Sight-seeing usually involves exploring a new settlement or story area. The player walks around listening to characters talk and trading the bullet-currency for ammunition and guns in the shops. Effort has been made to disguise the linearity of these moments, but there is still clearly only one path to take. Sight-seeing serves as a respite from the action and helps establish the atmosphere of the situation.

Stealth gameplay (blue light = visible)

Combat takes place either against humans or monsters. There is a focus on stealth gameplay against humans, with Artyom's watch serving as a visibility indicator. Players have the option of bypassing entirely, knocking out or killing enemies. Lights can be disabled to provide cover and enemy detection will sound an alarm. There is a slight pause between being seen and alarm which allows the player to scurry back to the shadows if quick enough. The stealth-detection capabilities of the AI is not especially complex, but most of the time they will react with alarm to gunshot and body discovery.

Otherwise, combat is handled in standard FPS fashion. Artyom can carry three weapons and use a melee attack. There are many different weapon types with their own ammunition and each is modifiable at vendors. Throwing knives, grenades, fire-grenades and mines can be assigned to the 'thrown weapon' slot. Artyom's health regenerates, but there are syringes to bring health to full for emergencies. Enemies have hit-box detection and headshots cause additional damage. Human enemies will take cover and use basic combat tactics, whereas monsters will attempt to rush the player. Tactics are still required for monsters, such as the use of light against spiders. Additional ammo and bullet-currency can be looted from dead humans.

Do you really wish to see what is waiting for you in the darkness?

Artyom has two sources of light available to him for the darkness: a re-chargeable flashlight and a lighter. Both can be used simultaneously but the flashlight must be charged-up manually for its brightest output. Using light will alert hostiles so a trade-off is often required between seeing and being seen. A gas mask must be used when encountering tainted air on the surface or in the tunnels. Artyom's watch displays a five minute timer that ticks down till the current air filter expires. At this point the player must replace the air filter or start choking to death. Gas mask sections will provide enough filters, but often needing a modicum of exploration to find. Should it get too damaged the gas mask can be replaced with another if found.

From the voiced characters to the monsters and guns, Last Light features high quality sound effects.  Music is atmospheric and a short musical cue indicates the process of being detected in stealth. Graphically the game has exceptionally high fidelity, the lighting effects in particular are outstanding. Last Light is artistically split between the confined, dark tunnels and the open, ruined surface. With highly customisable options, flawless mouse and keyboard controls (control pad is supported) it is an excellent PC game. I encountered only one serious bug but it was not game breaking. Clocking in at nine hours play time, the campaign is a decent length for a modern FPS.

Wrap Up & Negatives
Two big negatives coloured my time with Last Light: linearity and plot completion. About three-quarters way through the campaign the story shifted from its political focus of survivors fighting over limited available resources, to a fantastical, meta-physical tale of redemption. I realise this will sound a weak criticism, but it really felt it was 'trying to be clever'. The completely abstract sequence involving a river (you'll know when you get to it) killed any interest I had in finishing the story. Also, the short levels and little inter-connectivity result in Artyom being 'captured' or 'knocked out' too often. All in all I felt detached and uninterested in the story by the end.

The exceptionally beautiful but linear and non-interactive world

Last Light is also oppressively linear. At all times it is quite clear there is only one path to take (except sometimes on the surface). This takes something away from a world that otherwise is quite believable. I realise that atmosphere and pacing can benefit from extreme linearity, but for large parts of the game I felt quite unconnected from the actions of my character. Exploration and resources scavenging could fit quite naturally within the theme of Last Light, but are disappointingly not offered.

Binary 'good' and 'bad' endings feel outdated when compared to games like The Walking Dead. I was irritated to find out after I completed Last Light that I received the 'bad' ending. I felt I had failed in some way. Furthermore it did not feel appropriate since I'm mostly morally positive in games. With research I discovered the system is fairly arbitrary and inconsistent. Killing some humans results in negative points, but not others. Giving money to beggars is 'good' but paying a stripper is 'bad'. This is why binary moral choice systems are inherently flawed. They assume decisions are only either 'good' or 'bad', which is incorrect.

When all is said and done, Last Light is basically all right. Despite the problems it excels at enough to make playing worthwhile. The world it creates is phenomenally atmospheric and highly believable, filled with genuine characters and real emotion. True, it mostly takes place in dark and gloomy tunnels but it is a beautiful game none the less. Though I would have preferred more of the visually astounding (and less linear) surface gameplay.

Some will love Last Light and some will only feel 'so-so'. Others might be too scared to even see it through to the end, but I reckon most players will enjoy the visuals, atmospheric levels and story-telling (even if it gets a little out of hand towards the end).

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