Metro: Last Light‘s strength comes in its rich fiction.
Portraying a Russia ravaged by nuclear war, where the remnants of mankind have taken refuge in the tunnels beneath Moscow while a conflict between ideological factions is emerging, there’s no world quite like Metro‘s to be found in other games.
The post-apocalyptic circumstances and underground horror trappings might sound familiar, but the crucial difference comes in the choice of tone. There’s a harsh grimness to Last Light, where loyalty is an extremely rare commodity and people are paid in bullets, while those left live by uncompromising ideals in maddeningly claustrophobic metro systems below the old city.
The backdrop is terrific fodder, then, for a shooter predicated on the idea of survival, sparing bullets and staying out of harm’s way, where an imaginative range of set piece ideas makes the most out of such a well-considered sci-fi setting.
For those not familiar with Last Light‘s predecessor, Metro 2033, there’s no education required to jump into the story, here.
A nasty civil war is cooking while your character, Artyom, finds his fate is tied to a creature called the ‘Dark One’, the last surviving member of a peaceful species devastated at the close of the previous game. You’re basically bringing humanity back from the brink, but there’s a lot of optional mythology to enjoy on top of this simple premise just by listening to conversations around you, reading documents or interpreting environmental details, similar to how Dead Space fleshed out its narrative before it fell off the trolley with its less intelligent third instalment earlier this year.
The best stories in games really are told this way. Last Light gets heavy-handed in the face of such high concepts and the voice-acting overdoes it a bit, but the fiction feels so specific that we found ourselves actually dwelling on Metro‘s depiction of human life, as well as the limited value it has within this universe. There is, at the very least, something to think about here, even though you’ll obviously be guilty of mowing through reams of living creatures yourself as you trundle through the tunnels with a still impressive armoury.
The advantage that setting lends the game, then, is moment-to-moment atmosphere. 4A Games experiments with light and dark, using fancy effects and a healthy, sub-Abrams amount of lens flare to generate a bit of tension when mutants and soldiers come scuttling out of the tunnels ahead.
Last Light‘s structure is very specific, almost cherry-picking set pieces that offer a greatest hits-like package of impressively varied action and horror sequences, at the same time generating intriguing snapshots of what Moscow has become in these circumstances. The art direction and detailed environmental design enhances everything else, here, and there’s a real beauty in the sparse colour palette of this urban concrete grimness that defines the visual language of Metro.
Last Light doesn’t feel like an especially expensive sci-fi shooter in terms of production values or elementary things like the quality of animation, yet it makes the absolute most of what its setting has to offer.
Lavish shooters like BioShock Infinite take the benefits that come with five years of development time and massive budgets, and we’re richer for having them, yet Metro: Last Light equally feels like the product of smart creators who genuinely love the worlds they’ve created, backing that passion up with respectable storytelling and exciting level design.