Like the previous Metro, Last Light is characterized by the unforced mellow melancholy of a post-apocalypse some people call home. This is not the apocalypse we know and love. The Fallout games could never shake Bethesda’s penchant for fantasy quests and character builds and elaborate inventory subgames and dialogue trees and hearty faithful sidekicks. But Last Light has the somber sense that an apocalypse is not fun. It can be sad, small, dim, and lonely.
After the jump, mayday over Moscow
Consider what Metro does with an airplane crash, which is a grand familiar set piece in movies. You can tell a lot by an airplane crash. The noise and shredded suburbia of the airplane crash in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, or the goofy redemptive power of Denzel Washington’s airplane crash in Flight, or the neatly crashed airliner in The Quiet Earth (thanks 80s production values in New Zealand!), or Pulse inadvertently invoking 9/11 months before it happened. How you bring down an airplane says a lot about your story. The airplane crash in Last Light is just a sad echo, where shifts in lighting and weather decades later are far more dramatic than a passenger jet falling out of the sky.
Even though this is a shooter with a mechanical resemblance to a Call of Duty — corridors, guns, more corridors, guns, more corridors — it has a unique tonal quality, much like a movie made entirely outside the Hollywood system, outside of the cheery independence of a Sundance project, even without the can-do no-budget grit of a true American independent. Metro is something that could only come from another country, from its designers, from its artists, from its imagination, from its cultural heritage. Metro is, through and through, Russian (the developer is Ukrainian, but the source material and subject matter are thoroughly Russian).
The storyline picks up where Metro 2033 left off, and it even plumbs a time before Metro 2033 began, reaching further into the lead character’s backstory. You can play it as a standalone game, but it’s going to be richer and more meaningful for those of us who remember the ending of Metro 2033, and particularly for those of us who knew that Metro 2033 could have gone one of two ways. You start Last Light by hunting a baby monster. The deeper the ambiguity of this moment, the more effective the development of the storyline and especially the payoff. Last Light once again visits the soul of Russia expressed as an intersection of Nazis and Stalinists. It squeezes big political themese into cramped tunnels. It also explores parenthood. There’s even a love scene that’s not nearly as hilarious as it could have been. Last Light might not always be successful, but it’s almost always admirable.
A lot of the elements will be familiar to those of us who played the first game. The political commentary, the rail sequences, the town hubs, the ramshackle guns, the bullets as currency. But as befits any good sequel, a lot of the elements will be new and exciting. I won’t mention them here because I want you to discover them. But Last Light taps into nearly universal concepts like getting a really cool car and driving it hard enough to thrash it, the gratitude you feel towards last-minute hair’s breadth rescues, the manipulative but effective poignancy of listening to children talk to parents, betrayal, revenge, torture, boats.
The developers at 4A Games are a schism from the developers of STALKER, which is a completely separate gameplay approach to the same mood. STALKER’s developers believe in open worlds, and all the potential problems therein. But the folks at 4A understand how to maximize the narrative value of a linear shooter. They do it as Irrational and 2K did it in Bioshock and Bioshock 2, without getting tangled in the narrative ambition of Bioshock Infinite. They understand setting, mood, lighting, emotions. If a game is just going to trundle you along an amusement park ride of shooting men and monsters, sometimes quite literally on rails, with breaks to overhear conversations if you’re so inclined, this is how to do it. And this is also how long to do it. Some will call Last Light a short game; I call it a game without any filler. I also call it one of the best straight-up (neat, no chaser, no RPG elements, no branching storyline) shooters since Half-Life, mute protagonist and all. Although for a mute protagonist, Artyom sure is chatty during the loading screens and cutscene voiceovers.
The gunplay is, of course, as good as it was in the last game. I played through Last Light on normal and mostly wished I was playing on the harder level to force me into more stealth, into more tough choices about ammo and weapon upgrades, into smart tactics. This is a game that can be as challenging as you want it to be without feeling too cheap. Although, speaking of cheap, you have to pay extra to download the harder ranger mode, which is an awesome way to sink deeper into the world of Last Light. It almost made sense that you had to pay for ranger mode in the last game, since it was added later. But holding it back as $5 launch DLC in this sequel is a spit in the eye to the people who care enough about this game to want to draw out the experience and sink deeper into its world. It’s a tax levied on the game’s biggest fans.
I should probably mention how fantastic Last Light looks, because it does. It’s gorgeous, smooth for me, and easily an example of getting the most from a PC (I haven’t seen the Xbox version, but Last Light on the PC looks far and away better than Metro 2033 on the Xbox 360). But it’s not fantastic in that showy Electronic Arts way of “do I dare turn down the graphics for a better framerate and risk missing out on some of the spectacle?” way. This isn’t a showy setting. Last Light looks great because it renders the mostly mundane in staggeringly attentive detail.
It’s a fascinating juxtaposition to Crysis 3, another exercise in high-end technology. If you just look at their incidental components, these games are similar. If an alien were to visit Earth to learn about our culture, and if it had no conception of videogames or tone or narrative, you could sit it down to play these games and it would be equally captivated by the gunplay and the graphics. But if you were to take someone who’s played his share of shooters, someone who cares about the story between and around the shooting, someone who can appreciate games that offer new takes on familiar experiences, Crysis will feel like a soulless blockbuster to the auteur’s art film of Metro: Last Light.