McMillan’s Codex #23 By C.T. McMillan
Metro: Last Light
If you read my reviews for the Fallout games, you know how much I like the post-apocalyptic (PA) genre. Whether it is other videogames or the vast catalog of movies, I will seek out anything that involves people struggling to survive in a wasteland. It was only after I spent days playing Fallout 4 that I discovered PA literature. I started with A Canticle for Leibowitz, the story of a recrudescent Catholic Church after a nuclear holocaust, then gathered a small collection of novels like The Postman, Damnation Alley, and Alas, Babylon. The fiction I am accustomed to is American in origin and not often am I exposed to foreign works until I played Metro: Last Light.
Being an offshoot/adaptation of the Metro novels, a Russian series by Dimitry Glukhovsky, it is difficult to judge if the game captures the essence of PA from that perspective. Since I have not read the English translation of the available books, I am more than willing to take the game for what it is, especially considering Last Light is a new story written by the author himself.
From what I have been able to glean, Russian PA is characterized by a sense bleakness and despair. It has a realistic feel as people live in squalor and make due with what they have. Survival is the only option and what hope anyone retains is if they will make it through tomorrow. The depiction of a nuclear apocalypse is more accurate than something like Fallout where radiation and a lack of clean food and water take a huge toll on survivors. Mutants are still a mainstay, but one cannot journey across a ruined cityscape without protective gear, lest they succumb to the elements or worse.
One aspect that separates the game from standard PA is the titular metro. The story takes place entirely under Moscow in one of the biggest fallout shelters in the world. In addition to providing a last-ditch military control center in the event of an attack, each metro station doubles as a shelter for people fleeing from the destruction above. When the bombs fell, each station became a settlement with differentiating characteristics. One is devoted to entertainment, another is trading focused, and one is a red light district.
The need to recover some semblance of civilization is inherent in PA fiction, but rather than turn medieval, the people of Last Light regressed into old forms of government. Communism comes back in a big way as well as an organized gang of neo-fascists, a real-life problem in contemporary Russia. The two groups vie for control of the metro with ordinary people just trying to survive caught in the middle. One settlement was infected with a plague for supporting a rival faction, causing a full quarantine and execution of the sick.
Last Light is a first person shooter with an emphasis on giving players a choice in how to complete levels. The diversity of choice, however, is restricted to completing stages loudly or stealthily. The gameplay is probably the best part as the feeling of shooting or sneaking is fluid and gratifying when you unload on a Nazi or creep past a huddle of Communists. There is also the option to kill or knockout enemies whenever you perform a take down, but your decisions do not affect the story. They are, however, tied to the game’s survival trappings.
In the metro, bullets are both scarce and a form of currency that will get you health kits, air filters for your gasmask, and new guns. If you go loud in combat, you run the risk of using up your ammunition. And when you are desperate for a kit or filter, you realize you used your bullets being careless. While you acquire resources by scavenging the dead and abandoned, having ammo to not just bargain with, but to defend yourself is plain common sense. It is simply a matter of how you play and how good you are about being frugal.
Last Light is arguably survival horror thanks to its potent atmosphere. The claustrophobia of the tunnels is made worse by the fantastic sound design of ambient noise. One sequence that sticks out is a walk through a maze of rooms filled with mutant insects vulnerable to light. They make this chattering noise as they scurry around that never ends until you leave. The horror is pushed to the limits when you journey above ground. As I passed through a marsh, there was this omniscient, grotesque croaking that grew louder as I progressed, and I immediately wanted to go back underground. At the same time, mutants would pop out of the water and attack me when my back was turned. In the metro it was closed off and easy to comprehend, but in the wilderness, everything was open and monsters can get you from any direction. It is doubly unsettling if you used up your ammo in a fight going to the surface.
Last Light has an interesting aesthetic that sets it apart from conventional PA fiction. Since the inhabitants of the metro went into the tunnels at a moment’s notice when the bombs fell, they had to make due with what they had with them. It is fair to assume the metro would not have much in terms of clothing or weapons and scavenging would have been difficult with the radiated surface. And so everything is adapted from scraps and whatever was left from the old world. Armor is fashioned from cannibalized train parts and many of the weapons are makeshift with a few real guns here and there. While the metro is cramped, there is plenty room for small structures like shanties made from wooden planks that are stacked up on top of each other in a maze.
There are obvious problems with the story as it has no sense of urgency and things just happen with no explanation. You are told about all this political upheaval when it seems like everything is going the way it should with nothing at steak until the very end. It is also worth mentioning that the English voice dub is laughable and I would recommend playing it in Russian if you do not mind subtitles. But the great gameplay, fully realized world, and the survival horror trappings make up for what Metro: Last Light lacks. It is an interesting take on the post-apocalypse genre from a part of the world that is not often publicized in the West.