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Rate This Review: Metro: Last Light
Metro Last Light Review
Blood From A Gas Mask
HIGH Changing a gas mask filter while running from a mutant lobster whose blood was running down my visor.
LOW Having control wrestled from me more and more as the story progressed. Did Hideo Kojima consult on this?
WTF What exactly about nuclear holocaust makes the political landscape such that modeling your party on the Nazis isn't a PR disaster?
At one point in Fallout 3, if you're one of those dull saps who bother to play the main storylines of Bethesda games, our intrepid hero (uh. . .you) comes across a radio DJ with delusions of grandeur.
"What do you do?" runs one branch of the DJ dialogue tree. "I give the people a voice. You just crawl through the rubble with a gun."
Joke's on him. Crawling through the rubble with a gun is a multi-billion dollar industry. In fact, if I were making a time capsule for the average gamer in 2033, I would be sure to include a picture of a Gamestop with "Shack of $60 Apocalypses" written on the back. Let the Voice of the Wasteland chew on that the next time he has to run a fundraiser to keep his station in bottle caps.
On the one bumper, it's easy to see gaming's monomaniacal obsession with THE END as cynical 2010s trendiness. On the other, it's hard not to believe that warfare and the end of the world are what the medium was born to portray. Movies and books can show you how other people might deal with the apocalypse, but only video games can make the apocalypse happen to you. Only video games can force you to survive it.
Consider Metro: Last Light. A manhole grates open and you stumble into the open in the skin of a young man named Artyom. A boiling swamp scoured by toxic wind stretches in broken lines ahead of you. In the middle distance, a hairless mutant with the skin of a 90-year-old woman flies awkwardly over the burned-out wreckage of a gas station. Over the next twenty minutes, you'll be walking on your haunches beneath said mutant as you pick your way among sticks with tatters of red cloth on their ends. Your fellow survivors were kind enough to mark the way for you. Whether or not you can trust them is another matter, seeing as their corpses are strewn about face-down in the muck.
Here's where Last Light makes good on its Slavic heritage and quashes any urge to cowboyism you may be experiencing. First things first, American. The swamps above Moscow's subway system are so poisonous that a standard gas mask filter (the disk-shaped bit at the end of the snout) lasts a mere five minutes. You'll have to scour the ground along the flagged path for spares before fielding any advances from the overgrown bat. Last you checked, your filter had less than three minutes left.
If there's one thing that makes Metro: Last Light worth recommending among an embarrassment of Ragnaroks, it's the gas mask. The breathable tunnels where Artyom and the other survivors live have their own claustrophobic terrors, but the bitter irony that gives the game's surface sequences their charge is that no matter how expansive the world above the manhole is, it's never bigger than the inch and a half between Artyom's eyes and the plastic visor protecting them from the backwash of the end of the world.
4A Games does a brilliant job of making this restrictive reality tangible. Holding the left bumper and pressing the X button tilts your perspective downward as Artyom bows his head as if in prayer. From this new vantage point you can see his right hand grip the nozzle of his battered gas mask as his left hand pulls its head strap backwards. A deep breath worthy of a pearl diver and the mask bites down on his head with a snap. Slight smudges at the corner of the screen and a wind of the wristwatch.
A 32" LCD screen. Scarcely a foot of pre-war plastic. Artyom has his barrier and you have yours, but no game has ever made it so clear that you and your avatar are two insects under the same bell jar.
Preparation complete. There remains the swamp. As you traverse its surface, drops of condensation from Artyom's breath are twinned by beads of moisture from the wind as he stalks his way across temperature gradients. Acid rain falls, dirtying your mask instead of rinsing it clean. A scream and the airborne mutant's claws are suddenly raking your face, cracking your visor. Get hit too much and your mask will cave in. Artyom will asphyxiate, if he doesn't bleed out first. Then again, maybe you manage to shoot the monster.
A step toward victory, but the creature was so close that a gout of blood hit your mask, and now rivulets of red are cascading down the screen as you fire blindly into air. Maybe you luck out and the monster drops. Exhaling, you press the left bumper. Artyom's gloved hand wipes the mask lens. Cleaner. But not clean.
Over the course of Last Light, you'll crawl past bandits in the dark, creep through a rally of the Fourth Reich, and be dragged like a dog through the training center of a reborn subterranean Red Army. Even then, nothing will compare to the horror of keeping your gas mask alive and unstreaked, and nothing will match the relief of ripping it off when you're once again safely below ground.
Compared to these breathless surface sections, the rest of 4A's attempts to sell the urgency of Artyom's world fail to convince. The notion of using ammo as money is fascinating, but even on Hard there's little incentive to use your military grade ammo (the only kind that can be traded for gear and upgrades) in battle--enemies go down easy with regular bullets, and the game's chapters are balanced such that three weapons fully stocked with junk ammo will see you safely from station to station.
Elsewhere, the flashlight mechanic, though similar in concept to the gas mask, doesn't do for the underground what the mask does for the surface. The action in Moscow's blacked-out subway tunnels is spaced out enough to give you ample time between encounters to crank the handheld generator that powers your light. What's more, five minutes with a charged flashlight will get you much farther than five minutes with a fresh filter, since walking blind tends to prove inconvenient rather than fatal, and the tangling of the mutant- and bandit-filled tunnels is nowhere near as disorienting as irradiated Moscow's winding vistas.
As for Last Light's story, it works against the sense of desperation that the gameplay so painfully constructs. Artyom's motivation is unclear from the outset, at least if you didn't happen to get the "good" ending of Metro 2033. Not being so lucky, I spent the beginning of the game wondering why on earth Artyom would bother to save the last surviving Dark One (a special breed of telepathic mutant that may or may not be the next step in human evolution) when, as far as I could tell, he spent the last game trying to wipe them out.
From that dubious starting point, the plot devolves into a stream of information flowing from one improbable concept to another. Featureless Character X does Heinous Action Y to Nondescript Character Z. Later, Sudden Capture A leads to Deus Ex Machina B. Along the way, the game asks that you accept a world in which Nazis and Stalinist Communists have managed to worm their way from the fringes of society to the center of post-nuclear political life. Baffled? Losing the thread? No worries: A wandering mystic will soon take you to a magical river that will deposit Artyom exactly where he needs to be to save the day. Once there, you'll be forced to make a few Bioware-esque choices that, upon reflection, shouldn't logically have any impact on the outcome of Artyom's journey but, if GameFAQs is to be believed, dictate whether you get the "good" or "bad" ending.
Fortunately, Artyom's hippie-mystic friend's navel gazing rubbed off on me. The goal, I'm told, is the path, and as insupportable as the logic of Last Light's path is, the tale manages to trace its way through some of the most lived-in and organic environments ever committed to disc. In particular, the stations (read: towns) where the Metro's denizens work, trade, and make do among the ruins serve as poignant reminders that while the main talent of the people of Artyom's world is destruction, their ability to improvise runs a close second.
Now that the gas mask's off for good, I'm not sure if I can recommend Last Light. Looking at the balance sheet, my inner art accountant insists that the game does too many things wrong. It betrays its own brilliance over and over again.
There's another part of me, though, that would rather judge the game by the imprint it leaves on the imagination. By that measure, it seems unlikely that the patches of fried cortex left by Artyom's journey will scab and flake away anytime soon. Granted, it's already July, so if you feel the need to recuse yourself from yet another apocalypse, no one's blaming you. But when 2013 slides down its last rubble heap, you might find that the most haunting thing you did in video games all year was wipe blood from a gas mask.
Rating: 7 out of 10.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via Redbox and reviewed on the XBox 360. Approximately 8 hours of play were devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time) and 0 hours of play to multiplayer modes.
Parents: The game depicts graphic violence in keeping with other modern day shooters, but perhaps more to the point, it depicts a world that is psychologically oppressive to play through. The end of the world, radiation poisoning, suffocation, ethnic cleansing, and knives to the jugular all make an appearance. The M rating is well deserved.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing: Despite large portions of the game taking place in the dark, audio cues play a minimal role in combat. As long as your flashlight is charged, you shouldn't have any trouble avoiding ambushes. Russian and English subtitles are available.