Most horror films ask the viewer to sit through a harrowing experience for around an hour and a half, hoping that the images on display will both excite and disgust. How memorable the experience turns out to be, and whether it’s largely positive or negative, depends on the skills of the filmmakers and the quality of their output, but you can be assured that the outcome will always be subjective and opinions always be divided. Video games have additional hurdles to overcome when seeking our attention and commitment; even more so horror video games. Not only is the experience significantly longer than your average movie, but (for the most part) the role of the viewer is far more active, making the experience both more personal and tangible. 4A Games faced an incredibly daunting task in bringing the sequel to Metro 2033 to fruition, not only due to its predecessor’s legacy (and somewhat rushed ending), but in trying to be faithful to the source material and its bleak and horrific narrative. Asking a player to enter a world where humanity is a greater threat than the radiation scorched-surface under which it dwells, and the last remaining refuges are rife with deformed mutations, is ambitious enough – asking them to do so for a significant period of time with little-to-no respite is downright audacious. For a generation which thrives on action-centric shooters, requiring little in the way of analysis, presenting a deeply rich and terrifyingly dark interactive experience based on the work of Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky would at the very least require an engaging and gripping narrative if it was to stand even a chance of survival.
Metro: Last Light takes place exactly one year after the closing events of Metro 2033. Series protagonist Artyom, having now become a member of the Rangers, is plagued by nightmares as he questions his actions during the previous game (launching a missile strike against “The Dark Ones” and effectively wiping them off the face of the earth). Humanity, or what’s left of it, is still living in cramped, squalid conditions in the tunnels of the Metro, where life continues as best it can. Factions and splinter factions have evolved, each with their own agendas and ambitions for supremacy. The surface is a ruin and can only be traversed for brief periods with the aid of radiation protective gas masks, requiring the appliance of clean filters every five minutes or so. The situation is bleak and isn’t going to get any better; a fact made abundantly clear when we’re informed that the main global currency is ammunition (military grade, with its capability of producing a far more damaging effect, being the premium). Humans live like rodents while the surface is ruled by disfigured, mutated animals, just as desperate to survive. While on patrol, Artyom is informed that a colleague claims to have seen a Dark One roaming the landscape, and suggests the best course of action would be to find it and attempt to communicate with it. Conflict soon erupts as the complex superiors insist Artyom tracks the creature down and eliminates it with prejudice.
That’s as far into the story as I’m will to go for fear of diluting the experience for those yet to enjoy it. As the opening of this review stated, if players are going to commit a healthy portion of their free time to play through this bitterly bleak experience, a complex and engaging narrative is a must. Despite straying from Dmitry Glukhovsky’s follow-up, 4A games have produced exactly that, with perhaps one of the most impressively realised stories ever to grace a video game. Admittedly, it’s a harrowing experience, one which seems to delight in showcasing the many depressing details it has to offer (from the desolate, dangerous communities to the ways in which people are forced to earn a living and survive); nevertheless, it’s as beautifully rich, engaging and rewarding a narrative as we’ve seen translated to digital form. The expertly crafted story is complimented by equally accomplished game mechanics, such as the disorientation you experience when traversing the surface, the panic you feel at constantly needing fresh filters, the requirement to manually recharge your torch, and the ever-present need to search for rare ammunition left behind by those less fortunate. The world is rife with devastation, and goes out of its way to show us what once was and can never be again. Ghosts manifest as painful memories of the past, prompting us to think long and hard about what we’re about to do, and the choices we’ve already made. Put simply, Metro: Last Light demands your undivided attention, and once it has it effortlessly retains it.
It’s easy to forget we’re looking at a video game, and with that comes certain clichés. This is, after all, a first-person shooter, an experience which is somewhat linear. For the most part exploration is restricted to the tunnels of the Metro, as you travel from one area of import to the next. Upon reaching the game’s few surface environments, exploration is limited to the amount of filter time you have remaining. With such impressively realised details, there’s never a time to simply stop and smell the roses; a deliberate tactic on the developers’ part, but one which, rightly or wrongly, removes an element of fun. In a similar vein, Metro: Last Light’s weapons are clunky at best, with accuracy (whether playing with mouse and keyboard or gamepad) somewhat elusive, regardless of which weapon you happen to be using. While occasionally irritating, it serves to add to the cobbled-together nature of survival mankind is faced with on a daily basis. Perhaps we’re not accustomed to the ramifications of a game’s central theme intruding on our gameplay experience in such a fitting and believable manner, and we can therefore forgive 4A Games for being more focused on being true to their vision than offering a wealth of “fun” mechanics.
Despite a few minor complaints (the campaign itself seems a little on the short side, ending in one of the game’s few action set-pieces around the eight hour mark), Metro: Last Light proves itself that rarest of beasts, a shooter designed and delivered which forces the player to think. And it’s not just an experience to enjoy while playing, but one to take away and ponder long after the gaming session has ended. Completely mature in nature and unapologetic in delivery, its story is the focus, and, despite the odd misfire, it delights in dragging you along for the duration (as you delight in being dragged). One of the bleakest and most rewarding gaming experiences so far.