Nuclear war eh? It always seems to be getting in the way of things, whether you’re roaming the post-apocalyptic wastelands in Fallout or sending a nuclear missile over to flatten Manchester in Civilization you can guarantee someone will come out of it in less than ideal circumstances. In 4A Games’ Metro 2033 the residents of Moscow had taken to the city’s subway system to save themselves from the nuclear war that kicked off a few years before the game occurred. Metro: Last Light picks up the theme and sets you up with the previous game’s main character Artyom a few years after he used a handful of nuclear weapons to wipe out the nest of Dark Ones – the mutated survivors of the initial nuclear war.
You see it turns out that despite the moderately excessive methods used to clear out the Dark Ones, not all of them were killed. Last Light begins with you taking to the surface to hunt down a remaining mutant, but after a short hunting session things take a turn for the worse and so begins a story of unlikely partnerships, double crossing and desperation. Your character is clearly the strong and silent type – don’t expect Bioshock Infinite levels of discussions here – but that doesn’t seem to matter, as it’s the conversations that other characters have that push the story onward.
By eavesdropping on the chats that other folk are having you pick up on secrets, little bits of information that make your life slightly easier or open your eyes to new ways of trying things out. It’s an interesting way to drive the narrative and apart from the short diary-style snippets of information given between the main sections of the game it’s the only real way you’ll be finding out what’s going on. It makes for some truly atmospheric gameplay, and sneaking around is made all the more important when you might interrupt a conversation that could help you out. But the sneaking is far more important when it comes to staying alive. Trying to shoot your way through a room full of human enemies will have your gunfire returned tenfold and your chance of survival cut to something approaching zero. Instead you take to the shadows, trying desperately to stay undetected by silently throwing knives to kill them, knocking them out where they won’t be found and avoiding the patrolling flashlights with immense care. Even finding a ladder to a higher platform provides some respite from the potential problems below, with the consequences for being spotted generally becoming very deadly very quickly – unlike other stealth games these guys don’t forget about you after a few seconds of fruitless searching. It’s a very nervous way to play, and works beautifully.
This atmosphere is enhanced by the locations in the game, a mix of grubby and overcrowded Metro stations, dark and dangerous underground railway lines and the overground shell of a city which has been torn apart by nuclear weapons. The whole look and feel of the game perfectly portrays the shocking state of life in the city, and it’s not even as if getting out of the tunnels and above ground makes life any easier.
While you’re out in the open it’s not just the mutants you need to worry about. The radiation in the air means that breathing under your own steam isn’t a good idea – in fact you’ll be dead within seconds. So you’ll be needing a protective mask to filter the air, which brings about another problem when you realise they become useless over time. You’ll want to sneak around when you’re out in the open to stay out of the way, but spend too long doing so and you’ll use up all of your filters and be choking for air. It’s a tough balancing act between keeping quiet and keeping mobile; you won’t be finding many of these filters perched conveniently on top of a nearby fence post after all. Grabbing everything you can when you have chance is vital considering you never know when you might get caught in a battle and need a minute or two extra out of your filters, and one shooty section outside a church sticks in my mind as a fierce and unforgiving example of that.
This idea of being trapped in an area until you clear the bad guys is repeated a few times through the game, and these section which feel like a more stereotypical FPS don’t shine in the same way the stealth does. At best they’re enough to raise the heart-rate a bit while you run around and panic about what’s chasing you. At worst they’re a source of massive frustration, with a section waiting for a lift to descend causing me far too much grief and frustration to be classed as remotely enjoyable.
If nothing else these sections only enhance the desperate issue of scarce ammo, panic-ridden scrambles to reload and even more panic when you unload all 4 barrels of your pimped up shotgun into a nearby wall, suddenly realising you totally missed something which is intent on removing your face. These moments though are split by some of the most atmospherically quiet moments you’ll find in a game – hook up a surround sound system and the echoes through the tunnels will not only totally disorientate your sense but give you no idea where the nearby scratching and shouting is coming from. It’s a surprisingly engrossing extra experience which takes your creeping around in the dark and turns it into something that puts you more on edge than you’d have thought possible.
Ultimately playing Metro: Last Light will give you a vast range of emotions. Fear, sadness, relief and frustration all flood through you as you make your way through the Metro tunnels and across barren nuclear wasteland, and yet it’s the desperation that hits you the hardest. The way people are forced to live underground in constant fear, the way you find corpses of those unlucky enough to get caught by a mutant or just overcome by the toxic environment they’ve tried to explore… you even start to feel quite protective about some of the characters you come across, something which only makes certain events all the more hard hitting. It’s an exhilarating experience, one which will delight and sometimes frustrate in equal measures, but very much worth playing.
Reviewed on PS3