Metro: Last Light - Don't Stop Metro-in'

Just a small town girl, livin' in a lonely world, she took the metro train goin' anywhere. Just a city boy, born and raised in south Pripyat, he took the metro train goin' anywhere. Blah, blah, blah, radioactive monsters and death.

By Tony Walter | May 22, 2013

About three years ago I bought a little known Ukrainian gem called Metro 2033. Well, it was unknown at the time. It quickly gained a cult following among the type of people who are willing to overlook technical problems, and sometimes weird localization, in favor of an interesting and unique experience. Metro 2033 had its share of problems, largely technical, but I enjoyed my time with it. And, my interest in the fiction was piqued.

By now, I'm sure any who are interested in the series, are aware that the games are actually based on a popular Russian series of novels by the same name. The author, Dmitry Glukhovsky, wrote the original story back in 2002, and self-published on his website - giving it away for all who were interested. Apparently, the right somebody took interest, because two games were made, and there are talks of a movie in the works. Unfortunately, at the time of first game's release, there wasn't yet an English translation of the novels. It's rare that a game sparks enough interest in me to spur an effort to seek out more of the fiction outside of the game itself. Heck, most games can't even convince me to read all of the 'journals' contained within the game itself. Metro: Last Light has reignited that interest. 

The assumption would be that the narrative in Metro: Last Light is what is driving such an interest, but in reality, the narrative in the game is almost secondary to what's great about it. Sure, the characters feel real - well, as real as they can feel in post-apocalyptic, Russian subways. But they are only important in that they justify your journey through the experience. The true star of Metro: Last Light is one less definable. It's a feeling. A sum of its parts. Any one piece may not seem so impressive, but as a cohesive creation, it works.

It is important to note that Metro: Last Light varies from a lot of its post-apocalyptic brethren (See: STALKER, Fallout, Rage) in one key way. That is, it is not an open-world game, but rather a linear experience. In this case, we define a linear game as one that has established chapters and a singular path. There is an undue stigma that comes with a statement like that. Some might assume that categorizing Last Light as a linear experience is a criticism, when in reality I think a lot of what makes the game great is rooted in this.

The human settlements throughout Last Light provide a bleak
look into what life in Metro has become.
Perhaps what is most important to acknowledge about linear games is that the linearity allows the creators to universally pace the fiction. The entire audience will experience the story in, more or less, the same way. When a creator does not have to account for pacing as a variable, tension is far more effective. This is part of an important narrative tool: juxtaposition. Juxtaposition is created when two contrasting acts or instances are placed side by side. For example, an hour-long stretch of the game may have you exploring an entirely abandoned metro tunnel, while hinting at something nefarious lurking in the shadows. Instead of having the monster pop out then, the game might shift and set you in one of its few safe areas. The tension does not dissipate here, as it would if it were immediately cashed-in for a jump scare. Rather, the tension will brew while the narrative progresses. When you finally do face your enemy, the fight feels frantic as you are also battling your fear.

These things will give you the heebie-jeebies for days.
Also, radiation sickness.
Another benefit to a linear game is an innate freshness that comes with the environment - and yes, it does feel weird using the word "fresh" to describe metro tunnels filled with radioactive waste and dead bodies. You will not be retracing steps unless there is a narrative justification, and each new area will be as intimidating or welcoming as the creators want it to be. Most importantly though, when the creators know where the player is coming from, and has an idea of the supplies they will have, it is easier for them to create segments based on that. If they want you to feel like you're running low on supplies, they can give you only just what you need, while being sure you have enough to progress. If they want to elicit a relieved feeling when you reach an outpost, this can be done by withholding supplies from you beforehand, and then giving you too much to carry. Ultimately, it feels like a more authentic post-apocalyptic experience than a game like Fallout. In an open-world game, the developer cannot know what supplies you will have, and so anything necessary to progress must be readily available. Metro: Last Light is able to force you to scavenge for those supplies.

The silent protagonist archetype feels out of place in Last Light.
Especially each time you just return a question with a blank stare.
The survival experience I'm getting from Last Light is almost definitely due in part to the game's Ranger Mode. Ranger Mode is not simply a harder difficulty for the game, but changes some key features to create "complete immersion". Well, so the back of the box told me. In reality the best part of Ranger Mode is that it makes items more scarce in the environment. While I haven't played the game's default difficulty, I've heard the much of the scavenger experience is lost due to the frequency you come across supplies. Ranger Mode isn't perfect though, when most of the HUD is removed, you are given no way to keep track of ammunition. While I wouldn't expect an on-screen count to appear, I do seem to remember the ability to manually check your clip in Metro 2033, something I can't figure out here. Part of the problem is that, while I was warned I'd see less tutorial, roughly six hours in, I still find myself struggling to understand some of the basic controls. I'm willing to accept some of the blame here, as the game was pretty explicit about this not being for first time players. However, even after reading the manual (remember those paper things that come in the box?), I am still not sure how to use the military grade ammunition (which doubles as the game's currency), when I'm in a pinch. Ranger Mode unfortunately feels like a bit of an afterthought, and not necessarily the ideal way to play. More troubling though, is that Ranger Mode is part of the first run incentive. You'll only have access to this content if you had pre-ordered the game, or pick up one of the first run copies. And, grabbing the game right now, isn't something I'm necessarily comfortable recommending.

Much like Last Light's predecessor, technical problems burden this game in a way that makes it feel as though it is actively fighting my enjoyment of it. The opening cinematic hitching halfway through before picking back up and finishing wasn't the best of first impressions, and ended up only being an omen of what to expect from the rest of the game. During one mission that emphasized the importance of stealth tactics, whenever I attempted to use a sneak attack to take out an enemy, the game would stop. Not a total freeze, but rather stall halfway through the animation. The player character and the enemy would stand there, locked, and completely invincible. This happened with any enemy during this mission, and, after a restart, ended up forcing me to either sneak past all the enemies or open fire, which is not recommended in Ranger Mode. A later mission was plagued with an even more problematic bug. This was during the tail end of a lengthy combat segment. I was left low on supplies as I approached an enemy encampment. Under normal circumstances, I would stealthily deal with the enemies and loot the camp. However, whenever I tried to pick up supplies in this area, the game would hard lock, requiring a total system reset. Luckily, autosaves are very frequent, so you'll rarely lose more than five minutes of progress, but the crashes still rip you from the experience. Metro: Last Light is a good game - great even - but that doesn't mean I'd like to replay each section four consecutive times. Then again, it probably says something that I did.

The combat is much improved over Metro 2033.
And, thankfully, Last Light doesn't lean on it too much.
I believe I am currently somewhere near the end of the game, but word is that I'm approaching an area that has more technical issues. I'm debating brute-forcing my way through the section, or waiting until a patch arrives. I'm playing Last Light on the Xbox 360, which is definitely not the ideal platform. And I've heard that the PlayStation 3 version is even more prone to crashes. Even the PC version of the game, despite being lead platform, has its share of technical issues, though I'm sure those are far more manageable.

Metro: Last Light is one of those rare games that strikes such an interest with me, that I seek out more than what is in the box. I don't think any game has had me making an early morning trip to Barnes & Noble just to acquire peripheral narrative, though that trip was ultimately fruitless, I have since ordered a copy of Metro 2033 (the novel) from Amazon. It is saddening that Last Light suffers from technical problems, but usually a few lock-ups are enough to turn me away from a game for good. I still have every intention of finishing, I just might have to wait until that's an easier task.

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