You’re caught in a dank, dark subway tunnel with several ranger squad mates. A shriek echoes and reverberates through the enclosed space. Flashlights mounted on your team’s weapons flail about wildly trying to track movement and discern who, or what, is approaching. Humanoid forms materialise and attack your comrades and then turn their attentions to you. Frantically you compose yourself and take aim. Your rifle’s muzzle explodes barking back at your would-be assailants.
The first two drop almost immediately, but something’s not right. You’re hallucinating. As each bullet rips through their now lifeless shells the illusion shatters. They’re not mutated humans known as Dark Ones, but the newly deceased members of your squad. As the last surviving member approaches you, morphing from aggressor Dark One to fear-riddled companion you draw your combat knife and embed it in his head. As the body drops you’re left pondering the consequences and implications of your actions.
Disorientated, addled, horrified and confused you wake up with a start, breathing heavily and drenched in sweat. It was all a dream, or more like a nightmare. What do the Dark Ones want? Is this lucid dream a cry for help? What is the nature of your connection to them? And more importantly you hope you’ve got a spare set of fatigues as you may have crapped your pants.
It’s a pretty jarring start to Metro: Last Light, the post-nuclear apocalypse first-person shooter by 4A Games, and it certainly does grab you by the balls. While the original Metro 2033 was based on the best-selling novel by Russian writer Dmitry Glukhovsky, Metro: Last Light forges ahead walking its own path as you take the next steps in the irradiated journey of Artyom as he tries to make sense of the cataclysmic events at the conclusion of Metro 2033.
For the last 20 years the world has been reduced to a fallout infused wasteland. Radiation has rendered the surface uninhabitable with those foolish enough or forced to brave these harsh conditions, and survive, mutated beyond recognition. Animals embrace their more pack hungry, flesh eating bestial nature and become Watchmen (formerly known as Watchers) while some humans evolve into a whole new telekinetically enhanced sub-species known only as Dark Ones. Or at least, they used to be.
At the end of Metro 2033 Artyom launched a missile strike right into the heart of the Dark Ones’ nest virtually eradicating the entire species. What many viewed as a threat, shooting first at something they didn’t quite understand or comprehend, revealed themselves to be so much more. In a brief flash before the impact the Dark Ones Vulcan mind melded with Artyom and he discovered to his horror that all previous conflicts have been fleeting and failed attempts to communicate. This moment renders him immune to their abilities and burdens him with the terrible knowledge he played a part in genocide.
Not a bad set-up when you think about it. A protagonist plagued with regret and doubt, sure to be butting heads with the more military minded philosophies of ‘if it breathes (fuck the bleeding stuff) we can kill it’, while dealing with other opportunistic factions rallying for power, and that’s all set up in the first ten minutes of gameplay. Looks like Metro: Last Light wants you to take the safety off your brain and make some hard choices if you want to survive.
As you climb out of your bunk and walk through the Order’s military facility (all set up in tunnels or train stations as these are the safest places to hide from radiation, hence the “metro” in the title) developer 4A Games’ desire to keep you as immersed as possible is evident. There’s no HUD or overlays to get in your way, even your objectives and markers operate via a clipboard and compass. NPC conversations don’t commence at the press of a button. As you walk the halls they organically trigger and if you want to hang around and smell the roses you can, or carry on if you’re in a rush to get on with the killing.
Let me get this out of the way. Keep it in Russian and choose the English subtitles option, seriously. Use your mind-brain and read a little. It adds so much to the experience otherwise you’ll be listening to a whole bunch of Chekovs dropping “Wictor Wictors” every chance they get. Yep, two unnecessary Star Trek references in one preview and it ain’t even over yet. But I digress…
After a quite bit of kitting up and target practice to get all tutorial’ed up -- you know, aim this way, press this for gun to go pew pew, customise scopes, stock and sights, put on gas mask to not die topside, change filters to enhance not dyingness, use full metal jacket bullets for extra damage or currency blah blah blah – you hit a war room, get a mission and head to the surface.
It seems that the dream you experienced was not you going all crazy pants, racked with guilt. A child Dark One has been spotted and the Colonel has ordered you to move it from the endangered species list to extinct, but Artyom may have other ideas on the subject. Hitting the surface brings to light all the subtle nuances 4A Games has been going for in this sequel. While you’re not going to drop dead from the visuals, they are still impressive and artfully rendered with no glitches, clipping or pixilation to speak of. The bleak remains of Earth have an inherent melancholic beauty as you traverse the irradiated and decimated swamplands of what used to be Mother Russia.
With your gas mask donned the sound of your own breathing is painfully loud and envelopes you. While monitoring the filter’s effectiveness via your watch on your gun hand and hitting bumpers to wipe the gunk off your mask a pack of Watchmen want a piece of the action. With no need for stealth here. I whipped out the old Shambler (beast of a shotgun) and showed them who’s the boss. It has a spectacularly meaty feel to it and each round bucked with satisfying force. All of the weaponry I played with felt just right, recoiling believably while still handling rather well.
After tracking the child Dark One a few seconds of shared memories connect you both, detailing the devastation of the Dark Ones via missile. Shrugging this off a boot to the face interrupts story time as Artyom falls to the ground relieved of the burden of consciousness. Awaking in a cell he is greeted by the remnants of the new master race. A few Fourth Reich members are interrogating a few captives and discerning if they are Aryan enough to survive. They’re not.
As the slaughtering begins a fellow detainee, Pavel, goes all World War II on their goose-stepping arses, sending them on a one way trip to meet Hitler and I was only too happy to join in and oblige before disappearing into the shadows. Here’s where Metro: Last Light’s use of light becomes apparent. With no HUD or any other marker other than an occasional lightly flashing door or ladder you’ll need to take stock of your surroundings as well as staying crouched to muffle any noise. Your watch has a light meter which flashes blue when you can be seen and is a subtle indicator of when to skulk around and when to move forward.
Timing my attacks with Pavel (which is key as I initially jumped the gun, was spotted by ze Germans and they released toxic gas to wipe out the entire compound as their final solution) we dealt with the remaining guards as we wound our way up through a makeshift concentration camp with prisoners beckoning and begging for release. This was a stark vision of the future and you couldn’t help but feel for these poor souls.
Navigating through a sewer pipe I overheard a guard (mid knife throwing practice) mention that he’d sold the child Dark One and that he wasn’t in the compound. It looks like this wasn’t going to be anywhere as simple as it initially seemed. After reaching the pipe’s end and noticing the board he was practicing on had a prisoner strapped to it, I grabbed the remaining knives, returned them to sender, pulled them from his lifeless body and met up with Pavel for the home stretch.
As we wormed our way across walkways to the exit I extinguished lamps to slip into the darkness, unscrewed light bulbs and shot out fluorescent tubes to mask our position. Hell, you can even take potshots at windows to distract and send them in another direction. The throwing knives are killer for stealth attacks just make sure you aim a little higher over distance as they will drop. With three remaining guards in a control room I threw stealth out the window and introduced them to Mr Shambler. God damn it makes a gloriously bloody mess.
As I was just about to hit the sychronised switch with Pavel to exit I thought a cursory final looksee might be prudent. Lo and behold a second switch without a massive ‘hey press me, I’m a SWITCH’ indicator prompted. I flicked it and freed all the prisoners in the camp, feeling a certain sense of satisfaction as they cheered and rushed to freedom in the background. I couldn’t help but ponder the ramifications for this event. I wondered if the Reich would take extra exception and hunt me down or if these freed devils would one day return as reinforcements when least expected. Who knows, only time and a full playthrough can answer that one.
As my time with Metro: Last Light drew to a close it left me with a whole bunch of unanswered questions. Can saving and protecting the life of one child redeem a man who has had a hand in a race’s genocide? Will the military share his view? Just how far will mankind go to survive and if the very thing we sacrifice is our humanity, are we worth saving? All big questions with farther reaching implications, you’ll have to wait a month to see if the choices you make will save us all or damn you forever.