The relationship between games, movies, and literature is one that seems to be growing in significance as technology improves. The parameters of what interactive media has to offer to justify the title of ‘game’ is a contentious issue at best (Telltale’s recent Walking Dead series is a prime example of this), and whilst the immersion and sense of agency offered by games puts them in a unique position in among other narrative media, the more prevalent that literary and cinematic ambitions become within gaming, the greater the risk of losing that fundamental aspect of interactivity that separates and elevates the medium to begin with.
Either way, the days where a few screens of scrolling text were enough to justify countless hours of button-mashing mayhem are far behind us, and we’ve grown accustomed to being provided a certain level of context for our kill-streaks, of exposition alongside our XP. An engaging plot, and characters we can empathise with, are enough to make a lackluster game bearable, a solid game good, and a great game into a classic. Despite this, and even as we start to see more recognisable acting talent crop up, it’s still relatively rare to find a case of an established author working within the medium, and rarer still to find a game directly inspired by a work of literary fiction. 2010’s Metro 2033, based on the Dmitry Glukhovsky novel of the same name, was one such rarity, throwing gamers into the bleak science fiction of a society attempting to survive a perpetual nuclear winter in the labyrinthine tunnels of Moscow’s metro system.
But Metro 2033 stood out not only because it started life as a book, but because it dared to commit what is seemingly a cardinal sin amidst a trend for hyper-masculine badassery in games. Far from providing a power fantasy in the vein of countless shooters, it created a world in which the player was vulnerable – always the hunted, never the hunter. Handing gamers control of the far-from-superhuman Artyom, arming them only with ramshackle, unreliable weaponry befitting the desperate, post-apocalyptic setting, and pitting them against both terrifying mutant and ruthless human foe were all brave and inspired design choices made in aid of an uncompromising vision, and as a result, Metro 2033 proved too challenging and oppressive to be palatable to a wide audience. Even so, the game achieved cult classic status among those who could remove their gas mask long enough to appreciate the breath of fresh air its atmospheric survival-horror gameplay offered. So how does its direct sequel, Metro: Last Light, stack up against its divisive predecessor?
Players once again take control of Artyom, the almost-silent-except-for-loading-screens-and-when-scribbling-his-thoughts-on-notepads protagonist of the original. After waking from a horrific nightmare, Artyom is visited by Khan, an old associate who reveals that he’s located a sole surviving member of the mysterious race known as the ‘Dark Ones’, whom Artyom assumed were completely destroyed at his own hands. Khan believes that the Dark Ones are significant to humanity in some way, and urges Artyom to accompany him to make contact with the creature. It’s not quite that simple though – Artyom is now a Ranger of ‘The Order’ and his superior Miller is convinced that the Dark Ones represent a threat to humanity. An argument ensues between Khan and Miller, and as Khan is dragged away, he pleads with Artyom to ensure the creatures survival, for his own sake if nothing else. “It’s the only way to stop the nightmares.”
Right from the offset, it’s apparent how much care was taken in crafting Last Light‘s world. The post-apocalypse is an all-too-familiar territory by now, but the varied and stunningly rendered environments manage to maintain a sense of desolation without ever seeming drab. Gluhovsky is known for his grasp of magical realism, a literary technique that instills believability in even the most otherworldly scenarios, and the game too excels in this area. The sense of despair is tangible here – children cry for lost parents, adults for lost lovers – and yet what’s truly touching is the aura of hope that surrounds it all. Survival is a theme the game touches on throughout, and like all good art, Metro: Last Light manages to reflect an aspect of our own humanity back at us. Even in such horrific circumstances, the Metro’s inhabitants still find comfort in the small pleasures – A vaudeville performance, a battered cup of moonshine, a joke shared between friends. Less touching is the utterly pointless lap-dance scene about halfway through. It wouldn’t have stood out so much if it wasn’t for the obvious attention paid to boob physics, but as it stands, it comes across as a cynical attempt to tick the box marked ‘tits’ on the part of the developers, with absolutely no attempt to characterise the woman in question.
Fortunately, you’ll meet some less arbitrary characters along your trip through the Metro. The otherworldly Khan seems to have stepped straight out of Eastern-European folklore, whilst the chaotic Pavel stands out as one of this years great characters. He’s a little Vaas Montenegro (of Far Cry 3 fame), but with a nihilistic humour that’s all his own, and like Vaas, absolutely steals any scene he’s in. Even the background characters ooze style and personality, and it’s testament to some absolutely fantastic scripting that even though character models lack the polish of the environments, each one is endearing in their own right.
As much as the underground locations instill a sense of claustrophobic unease in the player, it’s the brief trips to Moscow’s surface that stand out as truly tense and sometimes terrifying highlights. During these sections, Artyom is forced to keep a close eye on the air filters for his gas mask, and on Hardcore difficulty at least, the game offers these sparingly enough to create a few occurrences of genuine tension. Last Light‘s intelligence as a shooter shines through the pale light of these levels, rarely resorting to ghost-train scare tactics, it succeeds in making the player feel genuinely oppressed even in the most well-lit environs.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for combat against human opponents. The level design is such that protracted combat sequences are rare, and whilst this shows restraint on the part of the developers in regard to pacing, it ultimately strips too much meat from Last Light‘s bones. The sections in which you’re forced to defend yourself against an onslaught of mutants show just how satisfying the combat has the potential to be – guns all feel and sound like they should and pack a hell of a punch, but there just aren’t that many opportunities to use them. AI is also lackluster throughout. It’s not so obvious with the mutants, as their tendency to act irrationally and unpredictably can actually add to the game’s character, but humans never fight smart enough to force any kind of tactical play.
It’s understandable that the game is hesitant to become a military shooter, but whilst taking lives shouldn’t necessarily be enjoyable, the tension the game so masterfully instills in the player is lost during these sections.You go in expecting a bang, and are treated to what amounts to little more than a series of damp squibs. If these sections were few, it wouldn’t be so much of an issue, but you’ll spend the majority of your time here engaged in dull combat. You can skip the shooting all together of course – you’re always given the option of stealth – but don’t expect this to ramp up the tension. Enemy AI is such that unless you feel like blatantly prancing around in the open, you’re unlikely to be spotted.
The ultimately unsatisfying combat becomes even more frustrating when you begin to realise how few truly interactive sections the game offers up. Although control of Artyom is only taken away from the player on a small number of occasions, the sheer amount of ambient dialogue accounts for at least a third of the game’s length, not including the stuff you can skip by walking past it, and Metro: Last Light isn’t a huge game to begin with – my playthrough on ‘Hardcore’ difficulty weighed in at a slightly anaemic 11 hours. Again, it’s all great dialogue, and the narrative devices the game employs are far more enjoyable than forcing hours of cutscenes, but, interactive or not, these occasions aren’t a substitute for actual gameplay. It’s likely you’ll just be starting to adjust your play style to compensate for the combat’s irregularities, when you’ll get slapped with another lengthy chunk of plot, and it’s jarring to say the least.
And this becomes the core problem with Metro: Last Light: What to make of a first-person shooter that fails in the fundamentals of what define the genre, but still manages to offer something incredibly unique and poignant in its own right? I doubt I’m alone when I say that we should be demanding the quality of storytelling from our games that we do from our books and movies, and it constantly amazes me that with the bloated budgets some developers are given to work with that so little attention is seemingly given to the creation of believable and interesting worlds and characters, but it’s important to ask whether it’s worth sacrificing the key elements of what makes a ‘game’ worthy of the title to achieve this.
Metro: Last Light is a fantastic piece of art, it’s just not a particularly good game. I’ll leave you to decide for yourselves whether that makes it worth the price of admission.
Metro: Last Light is out now for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.
- Fantastic storytelling, script and atmosphere
- Beautiful and haunting environments
- Poor enemy AI kills the tension the rest of the elements work so hard to create
- Pointless and exploitative lap dance scene seemingly shoehorned in to widen appeal
Read some of Nick’s personal thoughts on his Twitter: @NickTheHumanBoy