Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Review: Metro: Last Light (PC)

Growing up at the tail end of the Cold War like I did, Soviet Russia was this weird other place that part of me wanted to visit, if only to say that I'd been there and liked what I had in America better.

Russian culture, as far as I could discern from pre-Revolution through post-glastnost, was weird but not that weird.  And being part of the last Cold War generation, as much as I wondered how America might change after a nuclear war, I was equally curious how Russia might change.  I seem to have found one possible scenario in Metro: Last Light, and it's a decidedly Russian experience.  Which is to say, weird but not that weird.

The game picks up after the end of Metro 2033, where our protagonist Artyom had just nuked the enigmatic and presumed dangerous “Dark Ones.”  Turns out he probably shouldn't have done that.  They might have been giant self-cloaking freaks, but they weren't necessarily hostile.  And the only guy who could communicate with them dropped the nuclear hammer on their colony.

There is a survivor, one last Dark One, and Artyom's job is to put it down.  Of course, it's not easy to do that when he has Neo-Nazis on one side and resurgent Communists on the other, both of whom want the Dark One for their own purposes.  Throw in treacherous acquaintances, mutant wildlife, the omnipresent threat of fatal radiation poisoning, and the likelihood of being shot at dawn by your friends, and little things like a war that could wipe out all life in the sheltered Metro tunnels seems almost quaint.

I give full props to 4A Games for putting together a kickass game engine and making the most of it.  Metro: Last Light is a feast for the eyes, and the art team made sure that the portions are very generous.  Everything has a decidedly worn, lived-in feel to it; the sort of thing you'd expect from people who have to salvage, repair, refurbish, and otherwise live without a modern day supply chain to get through the day. The exterior environments have a hauntingly realistic cast to them, like somebody took the air of desolation around Chernobyl and dropped it smack into the middle of Moscow.  Particle and fluid effects look excellent.  The character models have a decidedly Slavic cast to them, which is precisely what I'd expect.  Weapon models have a feel of authenticity to them, even if they seem a little funky from a real world perspective.

If there are any complaints, it's small stuff.  First, there were a couple little instances of texture cracking here and there, usually when trying to hide against certain props in rooms, nothing that completely killed the suspension of disbelief.  The second was occasional model stuttering, particularly when you have your handy trench lighter out and burning.  Again, it was a minor annoyance, though it did take me out of the game more than the texture cracking.

There's a rich and very Russian sound palette happening in Metro: Last Light.  From the balalaikas and guitars that you can (sorta) play as you wander about to the score, it strikes the right balance of familiar and exotic.  Sound effects are very well done.  A special note there is the somewhat disconcerting effort put into the breathing sounds while wearing a gas mask.  That little extra touch creeped me right the hell out.

There's a lot of voice acting in the game, and some might argue that I should play through with a Russian language track and English subtitles.  I'm not that much of a masochist.  That said, the cast did an overall good job.  Whether native Russian speakers delivering their lines in English or just good voice actors with decent accents, they captured the feel of real Russians.  A couple of times, I'd swear I've talked to folks who sounded exactly like certain actors when it comes to tone and cadence.  I will say that the stereo effects didn't seem quite right, particularly on dialogue, where voices fell off sharply when you turned your head away.

When it comes to gameplay and the intangibles, there's quite a bit that the game does right.  The actual run-and-gun is crisp and responsive.  I never felt like I was being bogged down unless there was a genuine environmental impediment on the screen, like the never-to-be-sufficiently-burned-away cobwebs.  However, there were some levels where I felt decidedly rushed, particularly when I knew there were collectibles and NPC characters were racing ahead of me.

The weapon system is nifty, particularly with the customization options, though I think I would have liked the option to strip enhancements off of enemy guns and carry them around for later use.  There were certain weapons which I kept hold of for a long time because I liked the combination of add-ons they had, but couldn't get the enhancements I thought would make them more effective.

The currency of “clean” bullets is a neat little mechanic, but there were a couple of spots where the game seemed to switch over to them without really being obvious about it, particularly in some of the more intense shootouts.  Compounding the problem is that looting bodies is sometimes not always the easiest thing.  Some corpses you have to be standing right over, others you need to be five feet from their toes before you get the prompt.

My biggest complaint with the gameplay would be that the levels are entirely too linear.  Even when you have a big room that you can cross by sneaking and sniping, it felt very forced at times.  Sooner or later, no matter how many inept guards I knocked out, I knew it was going to come down to hot lead.  A little more variety and some alternate paths would have been nice to have.

There are a couple of controversies attached to the game.

One of them, I'm right there with a lot of the early reviews.  The “Ranger Mode” DLC is bullshit.  Paying $5 to unlock a difficulty mode labeled as “the definitive Metro experience” is just so unspeakably ridiculous, I have to wonder what the hell the developers were thinking.  Seriously, guys, ochen nyekulturnee.

The other controversy which some reviews have brought up is the marked lack of female characters in the game, and the rather objectified examples that do appear.  I can see their point, but at the same time, I can't
entirely agree with it.  Yes, the jiggle physics on the dancing girls at the Theater is right up there with the SoulCalibur and DOA series.  I will concede that point unreservedly.  However, whether by accident or design, 4A Games has created a scenario where the usual gender politics of contemporary or near-future settings gets tossed out the window.  Looking at the game world on its own terms, and admittedly having not read the novel that inspired the games, you can't help but be struck by the tremendous gender imbalance.  Whether it's the Spartan headquarters in Polis, the Communist “paradise” of Theater, or the industrialized hellholes of Reich, there is a dearth of women.  And in a survival-oriented society such as what has arisen in the tunnels of the Metro, that cannot be a good thing for the future of the species.

However uncomfortable it might make us, the lack of women suggests that humans will go extinct in Russia within a short amount of time.  Much like the Krogan in Mass Effect, the ratio of males to females who are both capable of procreating has a direct impact on how a society behaves, and what we consider essential liberties today could just as easily be blown away by the imperatives of perpetuating the species tomorrow.  For all we know, Artyom's shadow, Anna, isn't going out as a Ranger because of talent, but possibly because she cannot contribute to rebuilding the population by bearing children, and is thus expendable.  If the background scenario was accidental, it's probably one of the neatest accidents in gaming in a while.  If it's intentional, it's one of the most daring visions of the future since The Handmaid's Tale.

Metro: Last Light is, at the end of it all, a solid game.  Maybe not a transcendent gaming experience, but a distinctive one with a flavor that we're not used to.  It has a similar weight to it that was previously found in the Fallout series, albeit whimsical in different spots.  The DLC issue makes it hard to recommend this one right away, but if you just have to grab it, you'll find a setting that only seems a little weird but familiar enough to let you get on with playing.

- Axel Cushing

The Good:
- Excellently built and implemented graphics engine
- Solid voice cast
- Good weapon customization options
- Solid run-and-gun during combat

The Bad:
- Highly linear level designs
- Shameful money grab for DLC

Score: 8.0 / 10