Metro: Last Light is an odd shooter. It’s deliberately slow paced and many of its action moments are optional, yet it’s at its most intense when it’s at its slowest. That’s because you know the slow pace is building towards something, whether in the gameplay or narrative, and in this, way the game strikes a better balance between action and horror than the Dead Space series.
Last Light takes place in a post nuclear apocalypse Russia. The surviving humans have fled underground to live in the metro railways since the land above is irradiated to hell, the air is poison, and the wildlife has mutated into monsters. The game begins with a simple mission (that nonetheless requires a fair amount of back story exposition since it’s tied to events of the first game), You set out to find and kill the last remaining Dark One, an intelligent mutant species that can live above ground. Of course, things go wrong, and the story grows into a political thriller with the whole of the metro at stake. This is good thing and a bad thing.
It’s good because it keeps the story grounded in reality even as you fight monsters and encounter ghosts. There are supernatural elements in this world, but this is not a game about the supernatural. It’s about humanity—human nature, human greed, human perseverance—and those are much more interesting than monsters and ghosts.
It’s bad because important names and locations blend together and the game doesn’t seem to care if you understand its plot or not. Your view of the world is limited to your first-person perspective, so we never get to see that behind-the-scenes politicking that’s so important in a political thriller. Thankfully, the narration that precedes each level spells out what’s going on, but there were multiple times when I was left confused as the screen faded to black, only to have an “a ha” moment when the game explained itself point blank. You’ll always know what’s going on, but the Why and How are more slippery.
In any other game, this kind of “save the world/metro” story would feel clichéd, but Last Light establishes such a bleak world that you’ll believe one wrong move could lead to the end of humanity. The limited perspective that hurts the plot actually helps the themes and atmosphere since you see the personal cost of political decisions: people left to die because they lack supplies, people killed in the name of genetic purity, people using and abusing others for their own ends. What makes Last Light truly great is that it gives you the opportunity to conform to this bleak world or fight against it.
Last Light looks like a first-person shooter, but in truth, it’s a hybrid of genres that play off each other. Stealth is also a major component, partly because resources feel limited and partly because enemies can kill you very quickly. Firefights are legitimately dangerous, so it’s much safer to sneak up on guys and take them out silently. What make this so interesting is that you have a choice to kill them or knock them out. There’s no benefit or drawback to either choice. The guy will fall to ground and you’ll steal his ammo all the same, but the mere fact that the game gives you a choice makes you reflect on your choice.
It’s hard to be completely quiet and go through the game without killing anyone (though it is possible according to the Achievements). You’ll get caught, and you’ll feel justified when you fight back because they clearly shot first. Even if they don’t shoot first, there are some really bad people in the metro that you’ll want to shoot in the face first. The combat mechanics are satisfying and empowering, featuring a variety of guns and throwing weapons that turn you into a versatile killing machine. As a pure shooter, Last Light is tense and exciting.
Because of this interplay — the mechanically meaningless choice of kill or knock out, the difficulty of staying hidden at all times, and the sheer fun of killing — when the protagonist Artyom wonders if mankind’s violence makes us deserving of extinction, he’s indicting the player as well as the other characters. Last Light is a shooter that wants us to consider the consequences of shooting.
However, that changes when you’re on the surface, fighting off waves of monsters as fast as possible because the air filter on your gas mask is constantly ticking away. Consequences and nuance are not issues up here, just survival. Some of the biggest and longest battles happen above ground, and the game builds up to them at a nice pace. You might horde supplies in the metro, preferring to kill people with a single silent shot, but that’s not possible against the mutant Watchmen and Winged Ones. The game forces you to burn through that surplus of bullets you spent so long saving up, leaving you feeling vulnerable, which adds another layer of tension to everything that comes afterwards. You’ll actually feel relieved when you reenter the metro.
Thankfully, on the Normal difficulty, the game never gets so punishing that you run out of ammo and are unable to continue. It just creates an illusion of scarcity that makes everything more intense. However, on harder difficulties, supplies are actually scarce, and the game warns you that there’s no guarantee of success. To think that you could shoot and spend yourself into an impossible corner seems crazy in this era of forgiving shooters, but it feels right in line with the bleak, merciless world that is Metro: Last Light.