Metro 2033 is a crushing strain. Introducing the burned-out surface wasteland and ramshackle underground colonies of Dimitry Glukhovsky’s post-apocalyptic novel of the same name, you could easily sense its despair. For a video game the result felt remarkable in 2010. It was a shooter with a stiflingly oppressive atmosphere and a rarity in a crowded genre, mostly ignoring convention with an emphasis on atmosphere over set pieces and methodical stealth over a typical action tone.
Developer: 4A Games
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release date: May 14
What made 2033 memorable was its lack of explanation. You might encounter ghosts in an irradiated tunnel, their purpose unknown and unexplained. Characters often seemed to speak in riddles, the psychological effect heightened when playing the game in its native Russian with subtitles. It’s been said that 2033’s obscure narrative was a coming-of-age story for Artyom, the young protagonist who grew up in the metro, but real character appeal was in its flawed, dreamlike world.
Late in Metro: Last Light, Artyom abruptly has a brief sexual encounter with his former partner, a woman who accompanied him on a single mission at the beginning of the game.
“I want to feel alive again, Artyom,” says his former partner, who has until this point enjoyed all of ten minutes of strictly-professional screen time, the strap of her tank top lazily exposing one nipple. “Touch me.”
It’s a pointlessly shoehorned facepalm of a moment that says a lot of about the shift in Last Light’s storytelling. That the game is very clearly labeled as being based on Glukhovsky’s 2033 rather than the author’s written follow-up Metro 2034 is probably telling, and you have to wonder what interpretative bits were massaged or expanded to more easily invent a broader experience.
"The production values for Last Light are much higher than the somewhat quaint predecessor 2033, particularly with shadows and lighting."
Right away this creates some problems. Last Light is a sequel, whether it’s based on 2033 or not, picking up a year or so after the original game ended. And yet it isn’t. Rather than going the usual route of a second entry, 4A appears more concerned with merely optimizing what was already there.
Essentially every aspect from 2033 is expectantly present here: equipping a gas mask to visit the contaminated surface (and monitoring your air intake), the metro’s bullet-based economy, the warring Communist and fascist political factions fighting for influence, prowling mutant monsters, thick atmosphere and stealth. Even the option to play in Russian is intact.
There are some noticeable tweaks. The production values for Last Light are much higher than the somewhat quaint predecessor 2033, particularly with shadows and lighting. Managing Artyom’s weapons and equipment has also been somewhat streamlined—he now wears a digital readout watch rather than an old-school analog one that tracks how much oxygen your air filter can process, for one—alongside tighter gun-play and cursorily improved enemy AI.
Still, there’s not much noticeable design progression. Weapons are now a little closer to Call of Duty, though you’re traversing similar environments and mostly killing enemies you killed in 2033. New ideas, like using your flashlight to burn light-sensitive arachnids, are undercooked. Sequels should add to their universes through gameplay or storytelling, like BioShock or Half-Life’s. By comparison, Last Light usually can’t escape feeling like a retread.
What’s worse is that by only presenting what’s ostensibly a just variation on 2033, the game frequently seems like it’s going through the motions. We already know how bleak and suffocating the world can be, so sense of wonder and fascination over simply being there is severely diminished. It’s replaced by the odd set piece that doesn’t exactly fit, and, sadly, a forgettable, run-of-the-mill narrative that’s as digestible as it is prone to over-explanation.
That said, Last Light isn’t exactly a dumb game, and if you go in looking for more 2033 proper you’ll find at least find fleeting glimpses of it. For example, there were times I found myself engaged by a tense game of hide-and-seek against heavily-armored enemies, their headlamps wonderfully playing across the floor and bouncing off barriers as I skulked in the shadows. The enhanced on-rails vehicular sections are a nice touch, too.
Despite the intermittently low-grade visuals and texture work—the console port tends to look like it was left to die when measured up against the gloss of the almost-next-gen PC version—light is probably the most impressive thing here. Quiet moments like passing under an illuminated white disc from a ceiling lamp in an industrial drainage facility may not have an impact on the game-play itself, but the clear artistry really makes me wish Last Light felt less disappointingly disingenuous.
Whether this re-iteration possibly depicts Glukhovsky’s nuclear winter Russia more accurately or not doesn’t really matter. If 4A or former publisher THQ (or whoever) envisioned Last Light solely as a more stereotyped re-imagining of Metro, they likely succeeded. But in doing so they’ve also more or less lost sight what made the original game so special, the difference between a worthwhile game and what’s generally just another unremarkable shooter. Is that really a worthwhile trade-off?
Nyet, tovarich. Probably not.