Metro: Last Light
Twenty years ago World War III happened. Missiles permanently scorched the Earth. Those that fled into the underground metro system survived. Though what was left to survive for is little. Artyom – our protagonist – was one of those who escaped into the metro tunnels. Underground he now dwells, carrying deep regrets that will come back to haunt him.
4A Games attempt to create a mature, believable and claustrophobic future often excels, occasionally fails. Within video game writing the term mature is often used as a positive. Its use therefore suggests that this is not the norm. A film critic, on the otherhand, would expect a film to be mature about its content, and discussions in this medium will usually occur when the movie is crass or irresponsible. This is due to the audience involvement. During a film the viewer sits and observes, displaying in culture what is seen as responsible and adult behaviour. To sit, listen, observe, analyse and later discuss.
“Works to create tension ”On the flipside, the video game audience is expected to be playful. The behaviour it encourages is what a child experiences: looking with their hands, prodding and testing every environment. As such, the input of the audience in this medium encourages childlike behaviour, making scenes that should be emotional or carry weight fall apart as the player instantly loses patience and begins jumping around or pressing ‘interact’ on everything in sight.
To combat this, developers will constrict interaction if not completely remove it as a symbol for their audience to shut up and pay attention for a short while. Metro: Last Light begins in such a fashion, allowing minimal interaction during an opening sequence. Though not subtle in content, this decision works to create tension and strip away any sense of automatic entitlement that the first-person shooter genre carries via an instant threat. Walking down a dank, dusty underground metro tunnel with comrades sets the scene.
Suddenly, supernatural events escalate and those around you begin to die. A Dark One, feared beings that roam above the surface, lunges forward from the darkness. A button prompt appears. Instinct kicks in and you do what you’re told. The combat knife in your hand plunges into the Dark One’s head as it moves inches away. Except all is not as it seems, and the enemy is immediately designated to be a force that cannot be overcome.
However, the overall linear nature, transporting you down a preset path, feeling like two Ukrainian bodyguards are essentially on either side guiding you through, is not always successful. There are little off-the-path events that help loosen the linear nature of the narrative, with the occasional extra line of dialogue cementing that achievement. It still remains limiting though, and some will struggle with this. The best moments are those when you’re without a pre-scripted partner, wandering the surface in an old gas mask alone. Here the reins are removed and some freedom of direction is gained. There’s always only one way out but the illusion of a journey is strong.
“Does little to introduce characters”4A also assumes the audience has knowledge of the Metro lore as it does little to introduce characters. By the time the credits roll the names of fallen comrades and key survivors will already have been forgotten. It’s fortunate for 4A then that the metro system is such a strong character itself, because without it this would be a shallow tale. This is reinforced when the narrative introduces Anna, a female solider. There was much that could have been done with the concept of a strong female warrior in a post-nuclear world. Instead, she’s used as a victory token in a woefully delivered scene. Ye gods.
Occasionally Artyom will reach a hub where he’ll be able to trade and eavesdrop. Listening to conversations of citizens of neutral or friendly zones builds the world, allowing discussion on the need for art even in a post-fallout world, and more, including abundant alcoholism and desperation. Seeing people trying to get by in such awful conditions is enthralling. The living quarters are a testament of the attention to detail. Every hub is designed to make sense as an individual habitat. The rope, wire and bolts holding everything together can be witnessed. It’s impressive.
In a gang controlled hub a shack had been made-up into a stripper club. There was an expectation that what was inside would not be pleasant. This was a hub overridden with alcoholism and bad attitudes. Upon entering this expectation was shattered. Women were dancing topless, their figures much like those of porn stars before the war. Lack of sleep, sunlight and a diet of fungus had not affected them. Though it should have; the emotions of the audience here should have been of shock and gloom at oppression and slave labour, not a misguided attempt for some titillation. The central concept of Dmitry Glukhovsky’s work is that man is an animal, and animals act on instinctive behaviour forever following the same cycles. Here the old ideologies that lead to war are rising once again. To then see this played in a light, possibly ‘sexy’ manner was utterly at odds with the core ideology.
And so the storytelling and intrigue comes from Glukhovsky’s descriptive world. Claustrophobic environments are insistent. Rust and grime covers the poorly ventilated living quarters. Corpses of families unable to survive in the metro, or caught in the radiation fallout, remain clinging to each other in their final moments. It’s bleak. It’s fascinating.
“There are some exceptional moments”The force of the devastation that left the world a wasteland has left imprints behind. Like audio committed to an analogue source, visions and sights from before will replay in a ghostly manner. The pain of the world is forever burnt into the earth. This is used to breathtaking affect in the strongest moments of Last Light. When it excels, it becomes a poster child for linear narratives. There are some exceptional moments.
To avoid ruining the detailed locations, only a limited number of core interactions are highlighted. The rest, most items and collectibles, are not flashing beacons to attract attention. Instead, a large icon will appear when pointing up close at said item, indicating that it can be collected or opened. It’s a simple change that removes the distraction that can occur from mounds of glimmering bullets and beaming weaponry.
One of the greatest strengths is Alexey Omelchuk’s score. From the opening sorrowful acoustic guitar to the low, throbbing electronics, this air of melancholia is pitch-perfect for the dystopian future. Life in the metro is not pleasant. It is raw, animalistic survival. Humanism is a concept long abandoned as persistent depression and distrust become the new religion. Omelchuk’s choice of instrument and mood is bold and a powerful choice in the face of copping out for a licensed metal soundtrack that’d aim to impress in the trailers, but fail in the game world proper. Bravo to 4A Games for ensuring this aural vision is maintained.
Vocally, Artyom narrates the tale but doesn’t talk in-game. This choice doesn’t work when he’s asked questions by allies and foes, coming across as arrogant and dull rather than worn and strong as he does in the original novel. He carries his gun in a typical FPS manner too often, rather than relying on full body awareness to react to the surroundings. For all the technical fidelity, and it does look gorgeous, it’s a nuisance to look down and not see his body and legs, or his reflection in a mirror. A more physically expressive Artyom would have helped us to bond.
“There is no shortage of firepower”Mechanically much is maintained from the original. Using a gas mask on the surface with limited breathing time is kept, as is the manual task of wiping the visor clean from blood and dirt. Both are great and welcome returns, separating it from the waves of other FPS’ flooding the scene. There are two types of ammunition – military and makeshift. The military rounds are pre-war and deliver more damage; however, they’re also currency. Unlike Metro 2033, this is now an interesting concept rather than a vital system. There is no shortage of firepower.
Following criticism of the realistic take on weaponry, with the original underground makeshift weapons being clumsy, there’s now plenty of high-powered weaponry, ammunition and attachments to be found and traded. Lugging around three full customised weapons with hundreds of rounds soon becomes the norm as stealth is encouraged in many areas. There’s never a reason to use military rounds. By the end Artyom could have easily retired as the New World’s wealthiest man, or hired a personal army to do the dirty work for him.
Stealth is thoroughly encouraged and the AI allows you to duck right next to someone without being spotted. Rather than reduce the number of guards on patrol, and make these situations more intense and personal, areas are flooded with personnel all inflicted with retinitis pigmentosa. Lights above their heads can be shot out with no attention paid to them. Artyom’s magical watch will flash blue when you’ve been spotted. Walking around in a squatted position and knocking dozens of guards out in one punch becomes a chore too soon.
Several days after wrapping up Metro: Last Light and it’s still swimming around in my mind. Part of that is the frustration at how close 4A Games came to something breathtaking. The rest is positive: the world they have taken from text to video game in pristine detail. Those memorable moments that often occur when Artyom is alone. The claustrophobic environments and last stand battles. What it inherits from the original are often its greatest strengths. It’s the inconsistencies that do it harm. They’re so close to something truly special here, and I’m confident that 4A Games’ next will be something to behold.