The tube, the underground, subway or metro. Call it what you will, but there’s a lot to be said for subterranean train systems and their vital contribution to inner city transport networks. Saying that, I think that anyone that has habitually used one would agree that they are a means to an end; a necessary evil. We need it, but we don’t really like it. It smells, it’s dusty and it’s full of rats.
Spare a thought, then, for the citizens of post-apocalyptic Moscow who, when the bombs went off retreated into the city’s metro system and made it their home. It is a bleak and dismal place that they share with die-hard communists, fascist neo-Nazis and irradiated mutants.
Metro: Last Light is the sequel to Metro 2033, the first-person shooter based on the book by Dmitry Glukhovsky. Players, once again, take on the role of the tunnel dwelling Artyom, now promoted to a ranger as a result of his bitter-sweet victory at the end of the last game. Interestingly, whilst Metro: Last Light is a sequel to the game based on the Metro: 2033 book, it is not an adaptation of the book’s sequel, Metro 2034.
It’s been several years since the events of Metro 2033. News that a lone Dark One has survived the events of the last game sees the young ranger sent on a mission to the surface. Along with the sassy sniper, Anna, Artyom locates the Dark One; who is just a child- the last of his people.
This first trip into the wasteland right at the beginning of the game necessitates the use of a gas mask as protection from the poisonous atmosphere. This (re)introduces us to one of the most ingenious survival horror game mechanics I’ve ever experienced.
As players of the first game will already know, the scarcity of the replacement gas mask filters makes the already stressful trips to the surface doubly so. With every rustle in the grass, distant wail and movement in the corner of your eye districting you from the most direct path, it is easy to find yourself lost with no filters, gasping for air, before passing out and getting sent back to the loading menu.
Too many unnecessary excursions will find you without enough air to even continue from the last checkpoint, necessitating in a rather harsh restart from the beginning of the chapter; a proper bit of old-school game punishment. My advice is to pick up any gas mask filters that you may find- you’ll need them.
Whilst purely visual, as you wander the surface your mask gets dirty, requiring you to wipe it; a tiny detail that adds to the game’s immersion. It is also possible to get the mask damaged, take too many hits and the screen starts to look stressed, then cracked and finally it is rupture- rendering it useless. You’ll need to find a new one quickly or its curtains for you.
After fighting his way through packs of the wolf-like mutants, Artyom finally closes in on the Dark One. As he approaches the creature he is overcome by visions and passes out. Drifting in and out of consciousness, Artyom and the Dark One are captured by the Nazis of the self-styled Fourth Reich.
For all the mutants and frightful creatures that inhabit the post-apocalyptic world of Metro: Last light, it is the humans that present the most danger for Artyom. Imprisoned in the Nazi gulag, Artyom’s escape is aided by Pavel, a communist from the Red Line, the socialist enclave at war with the Fourth Reich. This introduction sets the scene for a journey that will see Artyom, titillated, double-crossed and bear witness to the most wretched side of humanity as the metro factions fight for survival and supremacy in their subterranean nightmare world.
Most of the game occurs underground, in the dark tunnels and chambers of the former Moscow metro system. The developers have truly perfected the use of light and dark to promote a stealthy approach to combat with hostile metro factions.
I’m not the greatest fan of stealth gameplay, but I found the predatory cat and mouse gameplay, as I took out the enemy one-by-one, a lot of fun. Also, any game whereby I can switch off or shoot out lights instantly gains my respect. I found it easy to get caught up in the moment, toying with the enemy as I took down wandering soldiers using throwing knives or melee attacks without alerting their comrades.
Sneaking about is all very cleaver, but step out of the shadows or fire off an unsilenced weapon and the jig’s up; enemy soldiers will call for reinforcements and actively hunt you. Artyom has a flashlight for lighting up dark corridors but of course this is of no use when the enemy is about, which can often result in you blindly blundering around in pitch black to avoid the enemy.
A few times I found myself literally bumping into my foes the dark. The result was a surprisingly muted response that allowed me to casually knife them before they sounded the alarm. Despite this apparent fault, on the whole, the artificial intelligence is fairly good; but don’t expect the bad guys to do anything too surprising.
On the harder difficulty settings there seemed little improvement to the game’s AI, with the additional challenge being provided by making bullets more lethal. Those wanting a more hard-core experience are going to have to have pre-ordered the game or shell out an additional US$4.99 for the ranger mode- which adds to more difficulty levels to the game. Premium DLC difficulty levels, whatever next?
The game’s challenge doesn’t hinge on the enemy’s intelligence. Last Light uses the other tactics to throw you off guard, most of which are psychological. I’ve already mentioned the gas masks that are required outside and add an extra level of player stress. In the claustrophobic labyrinth of Moscow’s ruined metro system things can lurk around every corner. There are noises, some distant and some far too close for comfort.
Several times I was confronted by doors in need of power, the fuse box inconveniently located along a foreboding web-strewn corridor. These are places that in the real world, even if your life depended on it, you would never venture into. In these tunnels mutant attacks come without warning, resulting in confusion and disorientation. I survived many of these these monstrous ambushes by what I can only put down to blind luck. Metro: Last Light is one of the scariest video games I’ve ever played; several times leaving me physically rattled following an encounter.
For what is essentially a grim survival horror game there are many, rather excellent, set pieces; some of which could put the likes of the Call of Duty games to shame. For those of you concerned that Last Light is only about sneaking around or skulking along tunnels, fear not. The game will have you involved in a train-to-train shoot out, send you on a metro rollercoaster ride, take you flying with demons and get you to play bullfighter with a mutant the size of a rhino.
The stand out star of the game, however, is its amazing setting. The game environments are dark, dismal affairs; a bleak portrayal of a broken world. At the same time there is a twisted, sombre beauty about it. I stood in ewe as I watched pastel sunlight eerily illuminate the ruined towers of a fallen city.
The game utilises a visual story-telling style that may not appeal to everyone. The rather stressful action zones are punctuated by safe areas, usually metro stations that are now operating as rag-tag communities. Here Artyom has the chance to restock his guns and ammo via vendors. The stations are a stark contrast to the frantic pace of the hostiles areas; appearing rather slow in comparison. As Artyom ambles slowly though these shattered remnants of society, some players are going to get frustrated, eager to get back into the action.
The level of detail the Last Light affords the player has allowed the developers to impart a rich world that tells a story in itself. It is as if these little enclaves of society are alive. Children play, adults talk and people go on about their business; as if there been doing so for ages before you arrived and will continue to after you’ve left. All around you things are going on. Even in areas that are out of reach, something is happening, telling a story without words. To rush through these incredibly realised areas would be to miss out on so much that the developers want you to see.
The animation and character models in the game are, for the most part, astounding; on two particular occasions they were jaw-dropingly so. In a sequence that sees Artyom attend a cabaret show, one of the performances features a trained mutant creature jumping between stools, similar to lions at a circus. The movement of the creature has to be the most organic piece of animation I’ve ever seen in a game.
On another occasion, Andrew the blacksmith reveals an invention of his from beneath a sheet, which treated me to an unparalleled display of PhysX-powered cloth dynamics. Geeky? Well yes; but the cloth slides from the machine in such a realistic manner that for a moment you’ll think you are watching a movie.
The flip side to all this incredible attention to detail is that when the visuals do take a stumble it looks really awful. A few of the background characters have hideous facial features. One of the cabaret dancers, otherwise very provocatively dressed, had such a contorted face that I just had to stop and stare.
Metro: Last Light is an adult affair, full of blood and guts. But, just in case there is any doubt, the developers have seen fit to include an optional lap dance sequence. By parting with some of your hard-earned military-grade bullets – which is the currency in Last Light – you can watch a nudie lady with a bizarre facial expression gyrate in front of you. The whole sequence is very awkward, especially if your wife catches you. You can have more than one go, though, if you’ve the bullets to spare. Lady bits make questionable appearances at other times during the game as well, if you’re looking hard enough.
Technically it is a game that is very hard to fault. Whilst a bit more optimised than its predecessor Metro: 2033, Last light is still a rather demanding PC game, realistically requiring reasonably spec’ed machine to get the best out of it. The game was reviewed on an i7 3820 with 16 GB of RAM and a GTX680 GPU running 64-bit Windows 7. With this set-up I was able to run the game with very-high settings and DirectX11 tessellation with only the occasional slow-down.
I’ve seen the game running on an Xbox 360, but as lovely as the console’s visuals were, they pale in comparison to those of its PC brethren. Last Light takes full advantage of the latest graphical technology yielded by Direct X 11. In real terms this means realistic rounded edges, some superb lighting and crisp textures. Considering the dingy environments in the game, it still manages to be one of the best-looking games that I’ve played recently.
I found Metro: Last Light to be surprisingly good, excellent, in fact. Whilst the game drew me right into its grimy world, I wasn’t sure that the bleak and quite frankly depressing scenario would be able to hold my attention in the long term; but it did. Last Light has a peculiar elegance about it, carefully pacing the player, feeding them with measured doses of suspense, action and plot.
Sure, the slow story areas may grate for action fans and some of the peripheral details leave something to be desired, but this is all minor stuff, the sort of stuff that won’t stay with you. Artyom’s tale as he journeys through the decaying Moscow metro will stay with you long after the game is over.
Looking back at my whole Metro: Last Light experience, there is no doubt in my mind that it is a gaming masterpiece. If the setting appeals to you in any way, you own it to yourself to play this game. Metro: Last Light is out now on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows PC.