Metro: Last Light review
There’s a moment in Metro: Last Light when you get a car – a bodged-together, fortified jalopy – and you immediately think of Half-Life 2’s driving sections. Ah, the open road!
The difference is that Last Light’s car runs on train tracks. There’s something about seeing your future snake off with rigid inevitability that makes it a particularly easy metaphor for Last Light’s frustrations: sometimes it feels like an on-rails shooter in every sense.
Those are just lulls, however. Elsewhere it’s a game of gratifyingly kinetic gunplay, intense stealth sequences and a stunning, bleak vision that rivals the imagination of even BioShock Infinite. Its stage-managed linearity cuts both ways, too, enabling Last Light to draw a world of incredible detail, carefully framing sights and scenes of postapocalyptic tragedy and chaos. It describes humanity with a degree of success that few games of any genre achieve, much less shooters.
"It describes humanity with a degree of success that few games of any genre achieve."
Set in the nuclear-shielded Moscow subway system following a devastating global war, Last Light’s story picks up where Metro 2033’s ended. You once again play Artyom, now a newly minted member of the Order – a sort of subterranean Night’s Watch, formed from ex-Spetsnaz soldiers. Two important things have happened: with Artyom’s help the Order has located and taken control of D6, an experimental weapons facility likely to become the envy of the Metro’s other warring factions. Secondly, Artyom has just used the missiles within D6 to commit genocide, obliterating a race of benign mutants who had the poor luck of being 12-foot-tall wormy-mouthed psychic ape-monsters whose mere presence causes men to die in terror and pain. Because of the stigma attached to being a telepathic death beast, not everyone is convinced of their benevolence, and when one is discovered to have survived the holocaust, you’re dispatched to kill it.
What then follows is a nightmare version of Mornington Crescent, taking Artyom on a circuitous round-trip through the desolate tunnels of the Moscow subway system, along underground rivers, into military bunkers and other even darker places. Human existence here is precarious, and even a short trip between pockets of civilisation feels suitably dangerous: dereliction and nuclear destruction have left the tunnels in a bit of a shabby state, while gruesome mutants stalk the black halls and the sad, shattered city above is haunted by things even weirder and more worrisome still.
"Human factions tussle over the scant resources, or vie for Metro-wide domination"
Worst of all, other human factions tussle over the scant resources, or vie for Metro-wide domination. Nazis and Communists have carved out portions of the railway system for themselves, one establishing a Fourth Reich bent on eradicating mutation, and the other the Red Line: a literal line of track that bisects the entire subway system.
It’s an incredibly well-fleshed fiction, and Last Light’s most tremendous success is the way that it communicates this world, visually and narratively. The overall arc of Artyom’s story is, oddly, the least thrilling thing about it – the plot beats are predictable and Artyom himself is a bit of an empty shell. You do get a sidekick every now and again who is worth his weight in dialogue, but even these characters are lightly sketched. However, if nothing else, this story is a conduit for delivering the intoxicating, forbidding Metro itself – and that’s worth the price of admission. The echoing warren of tunnels creates a powerful and oppressive feeling of enclosure and decay: lights sputter and surge, concrete walls crumble or run with water. Groans, mutters, creaks, clanks and drips ripple up and down the long black tunnels. The austere militarism of a nuclear bunker segues into the grimly functional tube network and the art deco opulence of the stations – all now rotting or reclaimed by nature.
Death is everywhere – I can only imagine that the developers, 4A Games, have an entire department dedicated to corpses. There are so many, animal and human, and in so many varied states of exquisitely studied decomposition. It starts to lose its shock: death becomes an all-pervading force, a simple, grim inevitability. Metro is, I found, rarely as scary as it is sad.
"Metro is, I found, rarely as scary as it is sad."
Things aren’t much cheerier above ground. The toppled skyline of Moscow has a grim sort of majesty to it, but it’s colonised by a bloodthirsty ecosystem that harries your every step, ripped at by winds, whipped by rain and crumbled into pools of irradiated slurry. It all feels rather like you aren’t meant to be there – which is entirely the point.
The only places where mankind still thrives are the underground stations, each its own semiautonomous city-state. It’s here that 4A go to town on the scripting. Each station looks incredible, but they are essentially galleries, and each cluster of people in them a separate exhibit, triggered one after the other as you follow the prescribed route. An elderly man makes shadow puppets to entertain a gang of kids, but none recognise the pre-apocalypse animals he’s describing. A soldier strums a guitar while a pair of civilians bicker with an officious guard. Dancing girls with improbable breast physics do their thing and hoodlums scour the docks, shaking down whoever they can. Not all the voice-work does it justice – the children, in particular, are dreadful – and the ludicrous, non- Newtonian mammaries really stick out (ha) in a game otherwise drawn with such consistency. All the same, the hubbub of personal stories is so captivating that you almost forget that your consumption of it is essentially passive.