It’s astounding to witness the difference between cultures in game development. Being from another area can be a deciding factor, even today, on exactly how a game of a similar genre can differ. For Metro: Last Light, this means a first person shooter with its roots in a novel and its eyes set on experience over gratification. Unlike other similar titles, this game doesn’t reward the player, it takes away from them. Yet, that’s exactly what this ugly beast does best.
Its story is divided between a nuclear holocaust that forced mankind into the underground railways of Moscow, but also the new society of mutants that this has beckoned. It’s a changing of the guards, if you will. Players see this tale unfold in the eyes of protagonist Artyom, a soldier from one of the many factions in the metro. He’s quickly sent to investigate rumors of a Dark One; a creature of tremendous power that could topple mankind. It’s a thankless job filled with perils, but there are no more free rides down in the tunnels.
Aboveground, things are even worse, since the air is poisonous and the territory is ruled by ferocious abominations. Therefore, man can only tread carefully when incased in a suit and gas mask, while holding a light handy for dark sections. Survival of the fittest is once more the rule and a puny man is no longer a competitor, they are prey. No matter where, the environment will reflect this bleak outlook. Desaturated wastelands stretch far beyond what the eyes can see through the rubble. Dark pipelines have not seen color in ages and the whole is overrun by vegetation that barely remembers what sunlight is. Still, this fitting ambience sees any source of brightness enhanced through the visor of masks, breaking apart any reflection into a myriad of color that paints the landscape. Light plays an essential role in this presentation, as the lack of it confines the universe even further, while excessive brightness disorients players with color blasts. Additionally, swamp gases and broken pipes leak vapors, brushes and twigs ruffle the excitement and omnipresent death stares Artyom in the face. All of it blends into a chilling atmosphere that is raised by a brilliant soundtrack of springing chords and nagging notes that shank their way into the mind for an intense playthrough.
Not just the artistic value is correctly addressed; the game’s narrative is well above par too. Human tragedy affects the world deeply and as such, Artyom will encounter gruesome acts frequently, which need to be dealt with and forgotten instantly, because any of these are just the tip of the iceberg. Survival is vital and Metro adequately displays what a cornered human is up to when their freedom is taken from them. Those that think that this condensed home will bring people together couldn’t be further away from the truth. Proximity only sets up new and more volatile ways to hate and segregate.
The metro is filled with beauty.
The ever-present tension is taxing, for Metro: Last Light is not a “fun” game. This story breathes tragedy and spits its venom directly at the player. By the end, the amount of effort that Metro demands will have drained players of their will to go on, in a good way. Brief resting periods are, therefore, paced after each survival period where every breath is counted by a watch that indicates how much air is left, before gas mask filters need replacement. Not even breathing is simple in this nightmarish universe.
Survival splits itself up in several sections in the game. Primarily, Artyom relies on his cunning to either sneak through the cloak of darkness or use firepower where necessary. Stealth is heavily advised at all times, certainly since ammo is scarce, which forces ways of properly using scavenged weapons. Special ammo serves as currency to purchase gear in settlements, but these things are even rarer, so wits are more important than wealth. Additionally, the variety of guns can be fitted with differing customization tools, such as scopes, recoil stoppers or even extra guns. It’s also possible to carry a few secondary items, such as grenades, to use in a pinch. Finding a combination that works and being cautious with the dispensing of it provides more impactful gameplay, where every shot matters, each kill counts and each battle avoided is a battle won. Take victories where possible, because Metro’s gruesomely challenging gameplay will take everything away in a second to those that don’t keep their guard up.
It's hard to believe that these are screenshots.
Quite like this fight or flight element, there is also a duality present between human and mutant battles. While mutants are mostly brutish juggernauts that can snuff out players in a second, human battles can provide their own complexities, which requires sneaking up behind unsuspecting soldiers to slit their throats or turning off lights to pass undetected. Both species offer their own way of playing and each require constant diligence and courage. Particularly when mutants and darkness converge, Artyom will feel helpless in a black sea, where teeth and claws are the only things bouncing off radiance.
Unfortunately, two sides of a coin often include a lesser side and Metro: Last Light has a ton of ugliness to show. Model textures look lifelike on some models, while women mostly seem to be made of plastic. Some men own burlap clothes, with a face that matches that same ruffled trait. Stealth only works as well as the inconsistent artificial intelligence allows it to be, checkpoints can land players in serious trouble, framerates go from splendid to woeful in seconds and glitches occur constantly. Soldiers will blindly know a player’s location and shoot through walls one second, then stay perfectly still after their buddy is executed beside them the next second. Collision detection errors can out Artyom’s position, while character models are so poorly done that they frequently merge into their frames. Technical flaws are completely off the hinges and that ruins gameplay on dozens of occasions. User friendliness is rarely a concern, as Metro expects any soldier to have nigh superhuman skill at almost every corner. It comes dangerously close to being a fiasco with the amount of shoddy technical designs.
That’s without discussing the gross amounts of cutscenes that the game forces onto the screen. Certainly as this is an 8-hour experience, being led by the hand half of the time gets old long before the ending credits. There are parts as simple as exiting a pipe that are scripted, because somehow people can’t be trusted with this simple task.
Then again, in the end it is Metro’s duality between beauty and beast that ultimately redeems it. In this swamp of dreadfulness, this shooter will evoke emotion by presenting sensitive content like murder and rape and make players look inward with mystical occurrences and flashbacks. There are even stories of morality for those that let this monster touch them. If nothing else, it will simply strike awe in players by cascading sparkles onto the fragile state of mankind with the beauty of nature. While the world dies, even just a glimmer of light can be a beacon of hope for the many people with a dozen stories scattered throughout the tunnels of Moscow.
While the broken tunnels of Metro: Last Light only offer a short ride, it will be such an intense experience that anything else would feel like too much of a good thing. Cleverly explored gameplay elements compliment an atmosphere that drowns players in the atrocity of a nuclear holocaust. Despite having too many issues, this shooter wades its way through the filth and overcomes, by providing something unlike any of its peers and by opening up from there. Beauty from tragedy; it may be as poetic as the book it spawned from, in a sense.