I'm not exactly sure why I missed Metro: Last Light when it was first released. I was a huge fan of Metro 2033. I love the STALKER games. I'm obsessed with Russian dystopian science fiction. Yet for whatever reason, I skipped it when it was first released. I'm glad I didn't let it pass by completely though.
At a glance, Metro: Last Light is a first person shooter/survival horror-without-the-jump-scares hybrid. The game's set in post-apocalyptic Moscow, where humanity lives inside of the transit tunnels underneath the city. On top of warring factions gunning for power in the tunnels, you'll also run into some monsters. In typical Russian dystopian fashion, the monsters are part of a bigger, supernatural world. And as things tend to be this sort of video game situation, your character is out to save the world.
As far as the game itself goes, Metro: Last Light is a versatile, but linear shooter. It's story-driven—filled with corridors and cutscenes—but you can approach the action in many ways. You can sneak through the bulk of the game if you want. Or go in with your shotgun on your hip. You can silently kill everyone you see. Or you can bonk them on the head and put them to sleep for a bit, completing the game without killing a single person. It's in a line of linear-but-sort-of-open games with likes of Dishonored, Bioshock, Half Life 2, or the more recent, Wolfenstein: The New Order.
The magic of Metro: Last Light lies in its atmosphere. At every corner, Metro feels purposeful. In every small village you'll find the likes children running around with their parents looking for them. Or you'll see a haggard old man trying to survive. Or a young woman looking for food. As you walk past people they'll have their own conversations without a care for your existence. But sometimes they'll stop mid-conversation and talk to you. Or they'll sing songs. Maybe they'll even cry a little. As you progress through the tunnels you'll see clear indications of previous inhabitants, hideouts, and the progress of factions you're fighting against.
Even your own body is part of the story. You see your hands. Your watch. Your shadow matters as much as your sound. Even putting on your mask is a whole deal, with your character grabbing it and pulling it over his head. Everything is diegetic, from the HUD to the music to the note pad your characters holds up with objectives. You can play the entire game in the original Russian (which I did). Similar to a game like Far Cry 2 before it, Metro: Last Light does its best to keep you in its world and avoids breaking your immersion at all costs.
This might all seems like nonsense, or at the most, goofy technical tricks that make good bullet points on the back of a box. But Metro: Last Light's uncompromising focus on ambience and atmosphere had a surprising effect on me: I didn't want to mindlessly kill people.
As mentioned above, Metro: Last Light affords you the chance to stealth the entire game. When you approach a bad guy from behind, you get two prompts: kill or knock out. From a strictly gameplay perspective, there's nothing different about either approach save for the animation that plays out. Yet when you're standing there, staring at the back of a person—even a person in a Nazi uniform—it's remarkably hard to hit that kill button. The complete lack of a HUD helps. There's no health ticker reminding you that you're playing a game. There's no objective marker pointing onward. It's just you and him. I picked "knock out" every single time. In fact, I went out of my way to avoid conflict at every point possible. Why? Because that's how I'd approach this type of situation in real life.
To be fair, I tend to play games like this when they let me. I didn't kill anyone in Dishonored, or the Metal Gear series, Deus Ex, or Thief. But I did that because I was sick of killing people in video games and wanted an alternative. In the case of Metro, I felt a pang of true guilt if I selected the "kill" option. Perhaps it's just the verb sitting there in your face all the time. It isn't "stab" or "knife" or "attack." It's "kill."
Which is what makes Metro: Last Light different from other first person shooters. On the surface, Metro is just as scripted as a Call of Duty. Every moment is a one-off scripted moment. If I stand and stare at it for too long, it breaks. It repeats or the characters just start up again. Metro does a good job of hiding the animation and acting loops, but they're there. The thing is, I rarely felt like peeking under the hood to break it. I just sat back and enjoyed Metro.
Metro is competent as a game. The guns work fine. The underlying systems are interesting. The story works on multiple levels without being overwhelming. The sneaking works. It's good looking. Sure, it struggles with its identity a bit, especially with gender and its representation of women, but it's a game that pretty much anyone can pick up, play, and enjoy.
But if you let yourself go a bit and just dig into it, you'll get a lot of out of it. Maybe you'll even get the inclination to cruise through without killing a soul.
We are Games On Delay, a non-professional gaming blog by and for filthy casuals. Read more about us here.