In the Moscow Metro, twenty years after an apocalyptic nuclear war, the struggle for survival continues. The surface is a deadly wasteland. If the radiation doesn't kill you, the mutants will. Beneath the ground, it's not much better. Survivors are split into factions, constantly battling for territory, supplies, and weapons.
It's grim. But, it is also the perfect setting for a post-apocalyptic first person shooter. And, after the success of 2010's Metro 2033, Ukrainian developers 4A Games (with the help of publisher Deep Silver after the collapse of THQ) are ready to take us back to the world of even neo-er Neo- Nazis, gas masks, deadly air rifles, and the mysterious Dark Ones.
Metro: Last Light is set a year after the events of Metro 2033. Again, you take the part of Artyom, a young ranger with a strange connection to the supernatural Dark Ones. The game begins with Artyom sent on a mission to capture a Dark One that has been spotted on the surface. What follows is wonderfully bleak story of desperation, treachery, and a small glimmer of hope - all set in a world where it seems like hope has died.
If it all sounds hopelessly depressing, it is. And Metro: Last Light brings it to life brilliantly. From the misty, grey, crumbling, surface, to the underground communities full of desperate people determined to carry on. From dark tunnels shrouded in cobwebs and a wonderfully ominous and oppressive soundtrack, to flashbacks of the day the bombs fell. Once the game gets going you'll be feeling the cold, fighting a sense of dread, and treating rifle rounds and gas mask filters like gold.
Within the world of Metro, the game plays like your average shooter. You choose your load-out from a typical array of rifles, handguns, and shotguns. However, you also get a few air-powered guns that you have to hand-crank occasionally to keep the pressure up. In standard mode, you choose three guns as well as grenades, and throwing knives. It's all pretty standard FPS stuff, just with an added touch of dour realism. There are no snappy one-liners when you take out a guard. No "yee-ha" bravado, or man sized mini-gun, when you stumble on a room full of enemy soldiers. In Last Light after you kill a guard your celebration is usually crouching in a dark corner, checking you gun's pressure and ammo, before sneaking out through an open vent.
That's not to say you don't have a choice in how to play. You can shoot everyone and everything if you want, or you can play sneakily, creeping around, turning off lights, and knocking people out. And this leads us to Metro: Last Light's Ranger Mode and the flak thrown its way pre-release. Although the game comes with the usual easy, normal, and hard modes, to get the two Ranger modes, normal and hardcore, you have to buy the pre-release bonus edition or unlock it online for a price.
This caused a bit of a stir, because Ranger Mode is described in press releases as playing the game the way it should be played. The HUD is gone, there's no cross hairs or loot indicator. There's better enemy AI. You can only carry two guns instead of three. You get some extra ammo and another gun is available in the in-game stores. If having no HUD is important to you, get it. If not, don’t. The biggest difference I found with Ranger Mode, aside from getting used to looting dead enemies without an icon coming up telling you to loot them, was making sure to have a laser sight equipped for my guns, to compensate for not having the usual cross hairs.
Essentially Ranger Mode Hardcore is there to make sneaking your first and best option. And it is pretty fun. Knocking people out, or using your knife for silent takedowns, shooting out lights, and shooting Nazis from the shadows. It's tense, and though I generally use the ‘stand there and shoot’ option rather than ‘sneak and stab’, I found it very enjoyable.
But, Metro does have problems. Because it's focused on Artyom's story, it is very linear. Every level has one way in and one way out. And while there are cutscenes that you can skip, there are also long sections of just following people around listening to them talk. While this is not a problem the first play through, if you're going back to complete achievements/trophies, it can make the game drag.
However, not having arbitrary in-game rewards is in keeping with the game's focus on realism. There's no health meter magically in front of your face. No armour bonus for killing ten enemies in a row. If you fall down in a swamp you have to wipe the mud away so you can see. And, if you run out of ammo shooting mutants, their bodies don't magically carry twenty fresh shotgun shells to keep you going.
What you do get is a watch that tells you how much time you have before your gas filter runs out. This is vital because if you are caught outside without a functioning gas mask and filter, you're dead. Your watch also glows if you're standing in the light - an important part of the game's sneaking mechanic, letting you know if you can be seen.
What you also get with Metro: Last Light is a hugely enjoyable game. It is very European; there is sex, violence, politics, and some pretty weird mysticism. With the voice-over in a very heavy accent, it's like a play by Chekov but with more guns and mutants. There's no co-op or online and only one save slot. So if you start a new game in Ranger Mode there's no going back and replaying chapters in Normal. But, what Metro: Last Light does best is establish and maintain a tone. It is sad. It is hopeless. It is grim. Wonderfully, thought provokingly, and very enjoyably grim.