What happens when humanity crumbles? If Metro’s dystopian look at post-apocalyptia is any indication many people, doing whatever they can to survive, will become assholes. Yet, even within the claustrophobic confines of Moscow’s underground, there remains hope, and a certain civility. [Spoiler for Metro 2033 follows]
Picking up right after Metro 2033’s events (and not Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2034) this original tale continues the grim adventures of humanity’s last light, Artyom. When we last saw Artyom (depending on your choices in Metro 2033) we saw him standing atop the tower, having just unleashed a furious torrent of missiles to expunge terra firma of the Dark Ones; a race of supernatural humanoids capable of existing on Moscow’s noxious radioactive surface, expected by the subterranean dwellers to supplant humanity as the dominant species.
The decision to obliterate the surface is one Artyom instantly regrets, but there’s a chance for redemption from the genocide; there’s a single survivor, and much of Metro: Last Light is centred around Artyom’s quest to find the last living Dark One and, naturally, kill it – but the telepathic McGuffin could prove key to humanity’s survival. Turns out the real threat to life in the bleak subterranean tunnels that make up the Metro comes from within; the various armed factions and local militias bundled up within the networked tunnels seem more intent on killing people than any of the creatures. Caught in a power struggle for control of the subway, the human factions of the Metro; the fascists who control the interchanges, the communists of the Red line and the neutral Spartan Order battle for control of D6 – a hidden base in the Metro that’s purported to contain an incredible power.
In fact, throughout the game your enemies are mostly human, which makes it a good thing that combat is significantly improved over the original game. With tighter controls and improved aiming , it actually feels like a modern day shooter now, instead of just being a compelling narrative wrapped up in the skin of shooter. Stealth too has become a functional mechanic. A light meter on your watch indicates your visibility to enemies, with dynamic music providing audible cues as to whether or not you’re being actively searched for.
To that end, the human AI has been given an overhaul and is vastly improved – but still shy of being smart. Guards will investigate noises as they patrol, and they’re quick to call in for reinforcements, providing good incentive to remain unseen. The monsters that lurk in the subway tunnels and that populate the surface are less nuanced, mostly happy to just swarm at you with melee attacks. There are just a handful of different guns available, cobbled together from odds and ends found lying within the Metro, but the lack of armament hardly matters, with each heavily customisable and bearing its own distinctive, memorable charms. Ammunition (on harder difficulties at least) is scarce, giving Metro: Last Light the air of a survival horror – but it’s desperate and sad, more than it is scary.
And as much as Artyom is the protagonist here, the central character here is the atmospheric Metro itself – putting the game in the company of Half-Life’s City 17, and Bioshock’s Rapture and Columbia. A broken humanity eking out a pitiful survival in Moscow’s metro system, with its gloomy interiors and dark, decrepit corridors providing much of the exposition through environmental storytelling; you’ll find skeletons of families, huddled together. they may be dead, but they died together. You’ll spend much of your time just soaking up the Slavic atmosphere; listening to desperate conversations from other survivors – in between pausing the game to take shots of Vodka so you’ll feel more entrenched within its world.
Unless, you’re female, that is. Metro life doesn’t seem particularly well suited to the fairer sex. It’s a salacious world of misogyny and sexual violence. Nearly every female character is either a prostitute or a stripper with improbable breast physics – or worse, a potential rape victim. The sole exception to that rule is your partnered soldier Anna – but even her mammaries end up exposed.
Backwards portrayal of women aside, it’s in the synergy of all the little things that draw you into the experience, adding layer upon layer of atmosphere. Ubiquitous gasses and irradiation necessitate the use of a wonderfully claustrophobic gas mask above ground – with a requirement to watch how long your filter will last before you’re left gasping your last breaths; Wiping blood, water and gunk from your visor to keep your vision unimpeded; ensuring your mask remains unbroken; Necessary lights and lamps that require regular charging, and even, the familiar bullet economy with handmade, low-impact rounds serving as ammunition and pre-fall military grade rounds serving as currency. It all comes together to flesh out the fiction and build a universe that’s as complete as it is compelling.
It is, however, a decidedly linear, more accessible and driven affair – with that sort of cinematic hand-holding that makes the gameplay slave to the story. There are a few “blink-and-you’ll-miss-them” optional objectives, but that sense of exploration and wonder, particularly above ground, is largely gone, with much of the gut-wrenching drama unfolding before you, instead of by your hand. It’s not nearly as brave or ground-breaking as its predecessor, but it really doesn’t have to be; 4A games has nothing left to prove. It’s superbly paced and well scripted, and though still missing that necessary level of polish, an experience you’ll be remiss to pass on.