Dmitri Glukhovsky’s novel Metro 2033 is a gripping and terrifying tale of post-apocalyptic entrapment. Other fiction amongst this enduring genre have shown the possibilities of our planet resetting itself to a primitive state, but the confined tunnels of the Moscow underground that form the setting of Metro could not feel anymore claustrophobic. As a result, the contrasting ideologies of fascism, socialism and religious fundamentalism that form the backdrop of its narrative are in constant conflict. It allows an interesting way to look at the history of extreme politics in our various societies, but it also goes part way to explaining how our world might reach post-apocalyptic destruction.
It therefore was something of a disappointment that the 4A games delivered adaptation in 2010 did not capitulate enough on the interesting ideas that underpinned the manic mutant blasting of post-apocalyptia. Especially considering that author Glukhovsky supported it by acting as a narrative consultant. In a generation dominated by FPS’s trying to prove, like a great big chip on their shoulder, that they could tell a good story, the video game of Metro 2033 felt like a missed opportunity. Fast forward to 2013 and we have a sequel that attempts to reconcile the past with a recalibrated attempt at capturing Glukhovsky’s universe.
For the uninitiated, Metro Last Light follows directly the events of protagonist Artyom’s whimsical adventures in the previous game. While the first title was a direct adaptation of the novel material, Last Light follows a separate story that features far more tits and bullet storming than its novel counterpart (cause gamers like them things right?). Glukhovsky (I’ll shut up about that Russian rascal shortly) even returns to provide thousands of lines of dialogue, which has resulted in him turning the game into a forthcoming book. It begins with Artyom exploring further the mystery of the alien ‘Dark Ones’ who were thought to have been wiped out at the end of the last game.
But what can you expect from Metro: Last Light? Well like the last title, it’s an FPS that emphasises the survival horror element present in the novels in order to create a rather different shooting experience. Ammo is scarce, torch-light must be charged by hand and rare filters for your gas mask are scavenged in order to survive the harsh air of the world above. It’s also bloody terrifying, with various kinds of beastly mutants trying to end your life by stalking from the dark of the metro tunnels or simply charging at you in packs. These sections flit nicely between the tense quiet and an all-out shooting for your life. There are also the local hostiles to contend with, whether they take the form of super-nazi or raging bolshevik, but it’s possible to take a stealthy route against these opponents; which on harder difficulties feels all the more necessary. With weapon upgrades allowing you to silence weapons (or add more barrels if you’re opting for the loud approach), as well as silent takedowns and the ability to blow out lights, the combat is a varied experience that can be approached in various ways.
Combat and exploration is made very interesting by your sense of infallibility. Ammunition can be scarce, the need to recharge your torch light makes the dark all the more ominous and the frantic search for filters above ground may initiate a panic-induced coma for the player. However, the major problem is that you are often punished for embracing these different experiences. On the surface, I found myself compelled to explore the well imagined wastes of Moscow, but instead of being rewarded for my curiosity with extra filters I was instead penalised with a saved checkpoint that gave me 60 seconds of air to complete a section that took at least 3 minutes. Likewise, the balance of ammunition is often a little off. At some parts I had too much to feel the sense of scarcity and then at one boss fight with the lovely ‘Big Momma’, I found myself forced to take down a giant monster with just my knife. The result of this is that you respect the game for putting such different mechanics in place, but then you become frustrated with the way it undermines itself.
Last Light also hopes to use its narrative origins as a defining aspect that, perhaps, tries to be taken seriously as a work of serious artistic fiction. The big question though, is does it succeed at this? Well definitely no, but in a way also a little bit yes. Forget any notions that you’re going to be gripped into a story as sophisticated as the novel of Metro 2033. While the text is a brilliant yarn that is as much a tale of a young man’s coming of age as it is about giving the mutant population a bad time, here the abrupt plot pacing and repetitive changes of direction come across as outright dumb and lazy. There’s only so many times you are back stabbed or betrayed by a comrade before you just think ‘man Artyom, you should go out on ATLEAST three dates before you trust them so much’. It’s a shame, because in spite of the fact it comes across this way, you can really tell by the sophisticated character models and blockbuster sequences that they are really trying to tell an exciting story. It just so happens that they went to Die Hard for influence, rather than Christopher Nolan.
Yet for all the unbelievable dialogue and character motives, Metro: Last Light still manages to capture an experience that respects the source material and crafts something that is wholly distinctive from the current FPS roster. This is because it strives to use imagination. The dark treads through the bowels of the tunnels are filled with monstrous growls, salivating roars and atmospheric lighting effects that are truly memorable as terrifying and thrilling. While above ground, the winged beasts that prowl from above and the stalking presence of the snake-like swamp mutants recall the eccentric creativity of the enemies of Half-life. It is in these many moments of excitement or dread that Last Light shows its ability. Whether it is the quiet scuttle of a giant spider shuffling through the torch-lit shadows or one line of dialogue from a particularly tragic citizen, it is undeniable that the work in audio, lighting and control motion is masterfully done.
Metro: Last Light is a game defined by contradictions. The perpetual silence of protagonist Artyom does not help the ridiculous plot because it provides no feeling of real interaction with the characters and events around you. And yet, this silence allows the player to take on the character for themselves: in which the array of adrenaline fuelled adventures and small moments of rich detail in the various characters and locations of the Metro take on a meaning of their own that is separate from the story. Last Life is ultimately given meaning by the player’s own sense of imagination. Likewise, the flaws of the combat, survival and scavenging elements of the game often undermine the more interesting parts of the experience. And yet, it is these unique mechanics that create such a memorable and distinctive experience. At a glance it is a disappointment, but look patiently further and any player will find a lot to love about Metro: Last Light.
Version reviewed: Xbox 360