Once when I was twelve I spelunked about a hundred yards down a half-constructed sewer pipe while all my friends stood at the open end cheering my name, like the beginning of an episode of Michael Buerk’s 999. It was great. And just like in 999, my adventure ended in tragedy when I walked into a spider’s web and had to come back out, but up until then I felt more popular than I had ever felt, or would ever feel again.
In the tunnel I was a hero, I was an explorer, I was Scott and Amundsen and all of the ninja turtles rolled into one. But since returning to “the surface”, as I call it, the harsh above-world has shunned me, probably fearful of the awesome subterranean insight I had earned in my seven minutes in a sewer pipe. So you can only imagine my delight when faced with the prospect of Metro: Last Light, a brilliant shooting game all about going through a dark tunnel and having fun for about nine hours.
Last Light is the sequel to another, very similar game about tunnels, Metro 2033. It returns to the same world of warring societies eking out their grim existence in dilapidated stations beneath a nuke scorched Moscow. Expeditions to the surface require that you manually slip into a claustrophobic gas mask to avoid gulping down lungfuls of radioactive air. Condensation fogs up your visor, your breath rattles around the deadened acoustics of your mask and you must swap out your limited filters to keep your air supply fresh. You can even press a key to wipe guts, rain and mucous off the thin glass shield between you and invisible death. It’s like playing hide and seek with a fish bowl on your head.
There are demonic mutants, deformed bears and bats and wolves to fight on both the surface and inside the metro system. There are also more human enemies now, as the embittered factions of Communists and Nazis plot to expand their reach in the underground. Last Light picks up the story thread from one of the original game’s two endings, namely the one in which you drop bombs on a gathered community of Dark Ones, the sinister looking mutant race of seven foot tall, black-skinned spooks who chased you around during the first game, accidentally murdering everything they touched. Last Light begins with a mission to make contact with a surviving Dark One before protagonist Artyom, a Freeman-esque mute who only seems to pipe up during loading screens, becomes embroiled in an inter-faction spat.
The plot is sound, the writing and heavily accented acting a little less so, but they’re still enjoyable. As you wander the settlements and station-towns you’ll overhear conversations between survivors, some of them spilling key narrative plot points, others adding flavour to the game world. You can pause to listen to a father and daughter fishing, the child naively worried that they might “catch” cancer, the father reassuring her that cancer isn’t a type of fish. Others give useful clues, such as the scout who commented that the best way through the irradiated swamp (which doesn’t appear until hours later) is by following the red marker flags. I’d have overlooked them otherwise, sploshing into the deep water and gagging on nuclear kelp.
The problem is, as a storytelling conceit, overhearing all this chatter becomes a tedious routine of stopping by every window and hovering by every group of drunks until they exhaust their script and you can move on. Unless, of course, you’re the sort of sociopath who’s happy to charge through and ignore the hours of dialogue folded up in these dioramas. Last Light also stumbles into questionable narrative territory when it takes full control of your view, throwing Artyom into quick time events to progress a scene. They’re fun, but they’re not clever. Either way, all this flavour effects a real sense of authenticity in the wider Metro universe. I knew the game had its story-claws in me when I overheard a Russian soldier ask if things were just as bad in other cities and found myself genuinely caring about the answer. When he mentioned London I jumped up and down in front of him and waited to see if he said any other words I recognised, but he didn’t.
Combat in Last Light is achieved by pointing your gun at other people and clicking the mouse button. Rifle headshots are snappy, shotguns send ragdolls cartwheeling backwards and even the weakest pistols feel dangerously powerful, their blasts resonating in the tiny concrete spaces and leaving your speakers ringing. Muzzle flashes are pronounced in dark tunnels, turning some gunfights into deafening fireworks shows. Enemy AI does a decent job of keeping goons alive and in one piece, sending them to hide behind cover and generally preventing them from screwing up in a way that’s noticeable.
It’s satisfying gunfun, and on the default difficulty setting you won’t encounter the series trademark ammo scarcity until the very last chapters. When ammolessness bites, it bites hard: the game introduces a number of piss-poor boss encounters later in the game, where the checkpointing system can put you in impossible situations with precious little ammunition to chuck at whatever bullet-sponge you’re face with. Restarting an entire chapter is often your only recourse.
Weapons can be customised with scopes and silencers and things, and there are rare guns seemingly only available at certain locations, at certain times and at great cost (the game’s currency being the very ammunition you’re trying to stick into mutated wildlife and enemy humans). I had to sell two of the three possible guns you can carry to afford the last ever model of assault rifle produced for the armed forces during World War 3, the conflict that irreversibly mucked up the Earth. It’s a superb gun, and it felt well earned, such is the canny balancing of the game’s economy.
You’ve also got claymore mines, dynamite and throwable knives, the latter assisting you in stealthing your way around Last Light’s darker and more ventilated areas. You can stealth more or less anywhere humans are involved (mutant dogs have no problems sniffing you out) and as their retinas are presumably irradiated to shreds you tend to have to march out in front of them spinning your gun like a baton to get their attention. Snuffing lights and shutting down generators gives you more darkness in which to stalk enemies, while lethal and non-lethal takedowns jab bad men in the face with knives and fists respectively.
For a game all about tunnels, and one so unashamedly linear, Last Light does manage to espouse lots of variety in its level design. It borrows from Half-Life 2, presenting you with a makeshift sports car on rails during one section, then later, when you reach the partially meltwater-submerged Venice station, plopping you on a boat and having you shoot at giant shrimp. Then there’s the surface, which manages to feel at once open and spacious yet utterly hostile and unwelcoming. Here you’ll explore destroyed planes and abandoned churches. Underground or overground, rarely will you spot the same environments repeating, despite everything being rubble and tunnels. That’s some accomplishment.
The game looks stunning too, a masterclass of dynamic lighting and performance capture colliding with some subtle motion-blurring and minutely detailed surroundings. Lens flare and other visual flourishes are used sparing enough so as not to be utterly garish. Maxing out the settings brought my machine to a 20fps shudder (Intel Core i7 920, 6GB memory, Radeon HD 5700), though dialling down to the second highest setting (which turns off the fancy motion blur effect) booted that back up to a smooth 60fps in most scenes. The game continues to look damn impressive on even the lowest quality setting.
There are no advanced graphics options, strangely enough, nor is there an FOV slider, though the default field of view is wide enough for my taste. Also, turning Nvidia’s advanced physics nonsense on made my rival graphics card do a little computational fart, killing the framerate until the physics box was unchecked. The cloth looks nice enough without it anyway.
Last Light is more mainstream than Metro 2033, taking cues from blockbusters, but it largely benefits from this move towards mass appeal. The first game’s cute idiosyncrasies are still there, such as your lighter flame pointing you to your objective, and the hand-pump generator powered torch, they’re just not as proudly highlighted as they were before. The more directed level design draws more life, more horror and more story from a world that aches to be savoured. The is Metro 2033 focus tested to within an inch of its life.
There’s plenty to raise a critical eyebrow at: there’s a bit where a woman gets her boobs all the way out, because parts of this game were created by a penis sellotaped to an idiot. Also, at no point did I ever have fun shooting at the mutants, who are boring targets compared to the all singing, all dancing human foes. But Last Light keeps its mucky little head afloat regardless, and finds real beauty in the piss and shit covered walls of its ruined metro. It’s a compelling shooter, one whose story is awkwardly told through windows with tunnels and guns, and one you ought to play.