Metro: Last Light was almost lost to gamers when THQ flashed a Game Over screen, but thankfully Deep Silver stepped up to make things right because it’s a bloody, terrifying and at times rather beautiful good time with a gun. The game finds a nice balance between stealth n’ machine gun FPS styles along with a spattering of surrealistic Silent Hill-style horror and a vividly unique world to create a deeply immersive experience. At times the game is a shoot em’ up, at times it’s a creep out survival horror, and occasionally it’s a character-driven sci-fi think piece. The mix is just right to keep the game unpredictable and full of variety. Sure, there are flaws like some dodgy character animation and an episodic narrative that sputters out, but when Metro: Last Light is working it’s an enthralling experience that feels closer to a big company marquee release than an indie attempt to crack the AAA market.
Ukrainian studio 4A Games kicked off this franchise with Metro 2033, an adaptation of Russian sci-fi novelist Dmitry Glukhovsky’s post-apocalyptic chiller (that’s right games from novels, that’s a thing now). Glukovsky had already written a sequel, but wisely the game is its own story with the author’s involvement. You play as the silent Artyom, one of the underground survivors of a nuke-scarred Moscow. With the surface city completely inhabitable thanks to an unfortunate mix of radiation and radioactive monsters (those ones are the worst!), humanity has taken to living in underground subway stations. The remaining humans are split into tribes who have taken over each station and use military grade ammo as currency. Most of the monsters are your usual winged semi-dragons, hairy beasts, oversized spiders, etc; however, there’s a special breed called “The Dark Ones” who have psychic powers, Predator-style invisible camouflage, and generally superior ass-kicking abilities to the normie monsters. Most of those guys were taken out at the last game, but one baby remains and Artyom is sent out on a scouting mission to find it because they share a special psychic connection. Inevitably, it goes wrong and you’re sent on an adventure through the underground Metro encountering various monsters and monstrous factions of humans.
The set-up and world of Metro: Last Light are fantastic. The story is second to the adventure and eventually fizzles out, but thankfully that’s not enough to kill the game. The 4A designers have created such a remarkable world of rotting tunnels filled with equally rotting corpses and burned out cityscapes and filled that world with so many action scenarios and peculiar character beats that it’s hard to care. Between each major set piece, you’ll wander through a new tribe of humans, glimpsing sights like a shadow puppeteer struggling to come up with an animal the post-apocalypse children he’s performing recognize. The game is filled with details like these and the human’s shelters all feel distinct and lived in. There’s a troupe of actors who perform for survivors of all factions, a communist revolution on the rise, a shantytown of gangsters, and even a Nazi cult determined to eradicate mutants. All are distinct and performed by talented voiceover artists with delightfully put-on Russian accents. Unfortunately, the developers didn’t quite have the time or tech to do detailed facial animation that nails the characterization and that’s a shame. Fortunately, 4A did ensure that there was enough going on at all times that you rarely focus directly on lip-reading or facial animation. The story formed through all the worlds might be episodic and tacked on, but the moment-to-moment immersion in the Metro world is so intense that you’ll never notice.
When you aren’t wondering through one of these communities, you’ll be either on the surface or in the connecting tunnels pursued by monsters (both literal and human). The designers really came through here too with shadowy atmospherics and disgusting corpse designs to give you the willies. They’ll frequently toss in haunting horror gags like shadows with no source to get in your head and it works wonders. Mixing horror with a FPS isn’t easy, but works well here thanks to Metro: Last Light’s sense of pacing. There are plenty of shootouts and stealth sections, yet they’re always connected by creepy subterranean links where the level design demands you to take wrong turns for shock effects and battles could burst out at any minute. You’ll constantly feel on guard and with ammo scarce and gas mask filters-fleeting on the surface. Survival horror is a constant presence and executed well. The visual design demands that it be played in the dark thanks to nearly constant flashlight and lighter lit sequences and the scares are so good you’ll curse 4A for making you leap from your couch and feel wary of radioactive monsters in your bedroom. Yep, they done good.
Of course this being a FPS, that’s where the meat and potatoes of gameplay is and fortunately it works well. Controls are responsive and there’s a nice mix of stealth n’ shoot em up. Any time human enemies need to be dealt with, you can hide in the shadows to slit throats for silent kills. It’s fun and effective, but at times AI intelligence can be so daft that you’ll stand face to face with someone who can’t see you or slip a toe out of the dark and be spotted from across the room. Fortunately, the shooting gallery approach is just as fun with plenty of varied weapons to try out and ammo always in healthy supply. Frankly, unless you’re overwhelmed with enemies, there’s no point in cutting down the ranks with stealth because shooting them is so easy and far less time consuming. There are still plenty of tense moments and nice bonuses like blood getting splattered all over your mask that needs to be wiped off mid fight, but it’s often easier just to plow through any shooting scenario like Arnie in Commando without fearing death. Difficulty can of course be adjusted for the hardcores (even mid-level), but on normal and easy modes getting through is more about persistence than skill building. Some of the elements added to increase difficulty like the gas mask filters that constantly need to be replaced are undermined by an abundance of refill availability that often prevents survival horror hoarding from coming into play.
Metro: Last Light isn’t perfect, but, thankfully, all the flaws like inconsistent difficulty, a weak narrative, poor facial characterization, and the occasional choppy animation are mild distractions at worst. Overall, this is a pretty stellar mix of FPS and survival horror tropes that livens up both dwindling genres. The world is so cleverly conceived and exquisitely designed that it’s often just as pleasurable to wander through and soak up the atmosphere as it is to machine gun an army of giant spider and/or Nazis. Given that killing giant spiders and Nazis are two of the primal joys of gaming, that’s really saying something. The folks at 4A Games deserve to be commended for what they accomplished. Critically, I’m sure that will happen. Let’s just hope that the sales follow.