Yesterday I finished Metro: Last Light Redux. I’d always wanted to play it, and it was on sale, and after 12 hours of playing it in my spare time over the past two weeks I can definitely recommend it.

I’m coming at the game from a strange position, in that I played some of Metro: 2033, and then read the book, but I read it long enough ago that the story is a fuzzy memory. I remember the main characters, and the general setup, but little details are missing. Similarly from the game I remember the sounds and the way the game looked, but I can only remember a few sections in jumbled-up order.

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It’s just as well that I remember the atmosphere, because the game really shines when it comes to creating believable scenes. I think it mostly has to do with emphasis on light and sound. The game plays with light, the warm glow from fires casts long shadows against the walls, the kind of shadows that are both comforting and also a little creepy. During firefights your visor can be dazzled by the harsh artificial bulbs of enemy flashlights.

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It has an effect on the game in that the game designers understand that the scariest thing is what you can’t see. For example some sections are well lit, but there are always some patches left in the darkness, and I feel those are scarier than if the whole room was just dark. There’s also the spiderbugs, arachnid monsters which are more vulnerable to light than bullets, they lend an air of danger to some areas. You’re acutely aware that they’re waiting just out of sight, and they’ll overwhelm you the moment your flashlight runs out of energy. The opposite is true when sneaking through areas with humans, you want it to be as dark as possible so as not to get spotted. Plus, when you inevitably end up in a firefight it’s useful to have a pitch black tunnel to disappear into. There’s a fluid switch between hunter and hunted which to some extent depends on who controls the source of light.

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The sound of the game fills in little indications. Musical cues tell you when you’ve been spotted, rasping breath means you need to change filters on your gas mask. Every action makes a noise; metal ringing against metal, the wind in the tunnels, the crunch of broken glass, the steady dribble of water from leaky pipes. The end result is that you could easily imagine the scene in the game even with the screen turned off.

Another hangover of the book is that I’m sympathetic to the Dark Ones. I can’t spoil the twist at the end of the book, but it’s reasonable enough to say that maybe these creatures aren’t so evil after all. I don’t think the ending of the first game had as much emotional impact because, unlike in the book, the game doesn’t treat the Dark Ones as an existential threat to be vanquished in order to resolve the story. Instead Artyom’s passage just comes across as a haphazard series of events guided more by Khan’s directions than a sense of heroic purpose. Metro: Last Light does build on that final scene with D6 on the tower, to the point where you actually get to revisit and see it play out again. Part of the reason for that might be to give new players the background to the story, and the rest seems to be taking Artyom on a path to redemption. As if he has to prove that humanity is capable of more than just violence and war.

It’s actually quite a simple setup: there’s one survivor of the Dark Ones, it’s young and poses no threat to anyone, and your first mission is to kill it. From a twisted perspective I can see how that makes sense, because allowing it to live means it could pose a threat in the future, it’s a risk. In the end, when it comes down to it you have to eliminate your predators, even if that means the complete extinction of a rival species. However, thus far humanity has been brought to the brink of its own extinction by a nuclear war of its own making. Even with the last survivors huddled together in underground metro tunnels they still fight amongst themselves when they’re not too busy fighting off mutants and monsters. There’s a subtext running through the story that Artyom can break the circle of destruction, if he can make peace with the Dark One he can save humanity (again, this time without nuclear missiles).

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There’s a very emotional bit towards the end, which comes as an offhand remark from the Dark One. He looks at the remains of those who died in the nuclear apocalypse and says something along the lines of ‘oh, missiles, like the ones that killed my family’. It draws on all the reserves of guilt that have been building up throughout the game and even though it’s a throwaway comment it completely grounded the whole situation. There’s no real external evil here. Humans launched a nuclear war, humans killed the Dark Ones, and if anything we’re the bad guys in this situation.

As it happens the whole redemption arc doesn’t quite work as planned, but there’s so much to say about the ending that I want to discuss it in a separate post.

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I like how the game maintains tension, making it clear that in some areas you’re not safe, you have to be alert, be on your guard. And it works. I play the game and I move carefully through the tunnels, listening to every sound and watching for signs of movement. You can feel it most clearly when you go up on the surface. It’s not particularly scary, but the backdrop is foreboding; grey overcast skies, radioactive rain, and a confusing landscape which leaves you easily disorientated. If you linger too long, you run out of gas mask filters and choke to death, if you step in the water you might drown, if you get ambushed by monsters you get mauled, if you step on a booby trap, you die. Everything in the environment is harmful and it provokes just as much panic to be standing out in the open as it does to be sitting in a dark tunnel.

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What’s more the game isn’t scared of limiting your ammo. I’ve had several occasions where I’ve run out of bullets, and firing repeatedly is only necessary if you’re panicked and run out of options. Instead the game forces you to act tactically, you focus on headshots and sneaky melee kills. I find the monster sections hardest because ammo is sparse (the monsters don’t carry guns), and they move quickly, making headshots impossible. The start screen actually comes with an option to play the game in a ‘shooter mode’ where ammo is plentiful, enemies are harder to kill, and the whole thing is like a generic pop-up shooting gallery. Normally that would appeal to me, but it’s still enjoyable at a slower pace. Creeping slowly through the environment is fun in its own way, and there are even some sections where you’re mainly just exploring or wandering around. It’s not boring because there’s a story to follow and the game taps into your natural curiosity to find out what happens next.