Metro: Last Light

I kick down the cardboard partition separating this man’s bedroom from the damp alley that leads to it. Shirtless, and reading a book in bed, he rolls onto his knees and holds his hands up in surrender.

“Take whatever you want, I won’t bother you.” He says, or something to that effect.

I keep my revolver trained on his head, sidestepping around his room, picking up stray ammunition and regarding the neo-Nazi memorabilia decorating his walls. I’m careful to keep the crosshairs squarely over his brow, not worth risking the chance that he surprises me. He issues further pleas to consider his safety, and after I’ve finished my supply sortie I have to decide whether or not to leave, or kill him and then leave.

He’s blinking a lot, and his eyes are darting about the room, trying to focus on anything but the gun barrel aligned with his sweaty forehead. I’m ambivalent about shooting him. On the one hand, he’s a neo-Nazi, and on the other, I’d be wasting a bullet on a defenseless enemy. So few are the opportunities to actually weigh honor against the necessity of fighting, I think. I should spare him and enjoy the luxury of not feeling compelled to take a life.

As I turn to leave, a small glint from the man’s belt catches my eye, and I remember that I spent all my throwing knives in the last ghetto that lead here. The left click of the trigger is reflexive, effortless, and I’ve already pocketed the knives before the gunsmoke clears. I can’t regret the sudden reversal of my decision, such is life in the Metro.

When it comes to honor, videogames often have their own unique parameters by which they inform the player of their intentions. These days particularly, the encroaching black bars of an aspect-ratio are often the first sign that a game is taking control away from a player to show them something new, or introduce a new threat-- the bellwether of this is Call of Duty’s “step through a door and get hit with a rifle butt” trick. Point being, players have been conditioned to expect that a game will handle surprise and misdirection on its own, rarely do such things arise at the player’s hands.

Metro: Last Light, from 4A Games and surrogate publisher Deep Silver, has plenty of these prescribed moments of tension. The protagonist Artyom is captured, knocked out, and even teleported to new areas willy-nilly at the story’s behest, all handled via the customary change-the-aspect-ratio-and-lead-the-player-somewhere-new convention that we’ve come to expect. However, at no point does Metro allow its audience to become complacent and feel secure within the confines of modern shooter design. Last Light has no new tricks with regard to the way first-person narratives are conveyed, and yet, its world is so quixotic and convincing that it tricks players into acting as if they were actually there. In any other game, I would have searched that neo-Nazi’s room without fear of reprisal, confident that if the game wanted him to attack me it would have done so as a story beat, but in Metro, I kept the gun trained on his head and moved with caution because I was simply that invested in the moment.

This is Last Light’s grand victory. Its conventions are as tried and true as the most famous first-person shooters around, but its aesthetics and mechanics are so engrossing that you’ll never notice them until the credits have rolled.

As a sequel to Metro: 2033, the 2010 cult hit based on Russian author Dmitri Glukhovsky’s novels, Last Light cleans up its predecessor’s glitches and quirks to depict life in the Russian subway system after a nuclear holocaust in gripping detail. As ranger Artyom, players pick up the story where 2033 left off, with Artyom launching a nuke into Moscow’s heart to destroy a nest of fearsome psychic creatures called “dark ones.” One of Last Light’s few faults lies in its overeagerness to explain what happened before. While it’s not necessary to have played the original game in order to understand what’s happening here, there are several moments in the offing where Basil Exposition is ingratiating himself just a little too much.

Things begin in earnest when Artyom and his guide Khan set out to explore the dark ones’ destroyed city, tripping a chain reaction of political upheaval against the encroaching threat of post-apocalypse wildlife. Danger comes for Artyom in nearly every form, whether he’s being stalked by irradiated nightmare beasts, or trying to remain hidden in the midst of a Nazi rally. Last Light’s penchant for throwing its hero into multiple beast’s bellies is both amusing and impressive, with a mid-game trek through a deadly swamp serving as its hellish watermark.

Folks who played 2033 and came away unimpressed with its stealth mechanics and ungainly controls can allay their fears, Last Light is easy to grasp and the AI has been greatly refined, if not truly improved. Human enemies now display more binary behavior to better serve the stealth. This trades canniness for reliability; nearly every stealth encounter in my playthrough had at least one moment where I should’ve been caught red-handed, but the enemies didn’t react because the rules hadn’t been “broken” yet. I’m perfectly fine with the trade-off, as it limits frustration and makes it simple to experiment with new tactics.

Artyom can adopt a fearsome arsenal, speccing his tools for stealth or chaos as the player sees fit. Weapon design is one of Last Light’s best aspects. Every gun looks as if it’s been pieced together from raw materials to best serve life in the tunnels; the standout being a pneumatic rifle that fires ball bearings. Last Light doesn’t just stir the pot with designs, though, guns are also the heart of the Metro’s economy. By collecting valuable “pre-war ammunition,” Artyom can choose to do more damage, or trade those bullets in for weapon upgrades, special ammo, or accessories like mines and grenades. The majority of Metro’s combat relies on scavenging and taking what you need from dead foes, but the spare moments when players have access to weapon merchants prove invaluable to surviving whatever threats await around the corner.

Last Light is ruthlessly efficient in both storytelling and progression, pacing its tense encounters with small character moments and bizarre interludes that play with Artyom’s mind. For the most part, it’s a narratively sound structure, but the game jumps the gun on character development far too often. It’s unclear who the real villain is until the last act, and the number of Artyom’s allies who disappear or betray him on his journey disrupts their ability to make an impression. The most memorable character isn’t even human. Likewise, Last Light has a bizarre habit of jarring its own immersion, with things like advertisements for Dmitri Glukhovsky’s next book and finding notes in the world that Artyom has supposedly written to himself. Ordinarily, these kind of things could be easily ignored, but Metro is so engrossing that they jump out in precisely the wrong way.

Nevertheless, Last Light succeeds due to 4A’s attention to detail. Every overheard conversation, every child bundled up in rags and playing without a care, and every last bit of hardscrabble technology give the Metro that “living, breathing” feel that so many games chase. It’s a relentlessly tense stealth-action shooter that manages to make its dead-horse premise feel as if it’s never been seen before now.

PC Specs: Core i5 3770k, GeForce 660ti, 16gb DDR3 RAM

The PC Difference: Metro: LL runs gorgeously even on Normal graphics settings, and the Nvidia Physx effects are quite impressive. As usual, if you have a Radeon video card you'll want to tread carefully when tweaking the settings. Even on my 660ti Metro was very finicky, but I didn't have a single problem once I found the sweet spot. If you don't mind a little tinkering, definitely go for this version.