Post-apocalyptic settings have always been ripe for exploration. From movies to literature to video games, the bleak aftermath of either a natural or man-made global holocaust easily plays into both our worst fears and inner longing for adventure.
The problem is when the premise becomes stale, because for every superb game such as Bethesda’s “Fallout 3” there seem to be many forgettable offerings in the mold of id Software’s “Rage.”
Ukrainian developer 4A Games thankfully uses a fantastic story as inspiration in “Metro: Last Light” (4A Games/Deep Silver; $59.99 for PlayStation and Xbox; $49.99 on PC), displaying an obvious passion for such settings and populating it with memorable characters and scenarios.
Based on the fiction of Russian novelist Dmitry Glukhovsky, “Last Light” throws you into a gloomy, claustrophobic world teeming with tension and very little else beneath a nuclear-ravaged Moscow.
No hidden cache of high-level weapons. No abundance of medical supplies. A flashlight you need to constantly recharge. Gas masks that require new filters to avoid suffocation. High-grade ammo that is best conserved because it doubles as currency.
Yes, life in the Metro tunnels is harsh, unforgiving and entirely dependent on smart resource management.
This isn’t the first time 4A has taken us underneath Moscow. The developer first explored this world and the exploits of its player/protagonist Artyom is 2010’s “Metro: 2033,” a game boasting incredibly detailed visuals that helped the player overlook somewhat sluggish combat controls, clunky enemy AI and a slight vagueness in the narrative.
Not so here.
Any minor complaints thrown at “2033” have been addressed in superb fashion. While the visuals remain extraordinary, the combat controls are now tight and responsive, the menus with which you manage your inventory have been streamlined to keep you consistently engaged, and the enemy AI has improved enough to ignore the occasional quirky behavior.
The story has also been fleshed out a bit beyond its predecessor, and as much as “2033” had very lively characters in the Metro stations, 4A has taken that a step further with great dialogue and voice acting. You truly get a sense that these places are inhabited by real people engaged in a struggle for survival.
Playing as Artyom, you wake up in the military compound you discovered in “2033” following the missile attack that destroyed the surface-dwelling creatures known as the Dark Ones. Artyom has his doubts about his decision to destroy the Dark Ones and sets out to find a lone survivor to learn the truth of their existence. Are they friend or foe? Mutant or alien? Perhaps something in between?
On your journey through the tunnels and the occasional foray to a very harsh surface world, you come across Communists, Fourth Reich Nazis and ordinary folks inhabiting the heavily-fortified train stations. Nuclear war may have decimated the surface, but humanity has not learned the error of its ways. Factions still fight each other over ideology and seek any advantage they can get.
And all this while many deadly forms of mutated life roam the surface and stalk the network of tunnels.
Your arsenal in this fight features weapons for stealth (throwing knives) and head-on combat (pistols, shotguns, rifles). One of the more interesting is a pneumatic rifle you need to pump. Pump the gauge too high, the weapon jams; too low and it’s like firing a BB Gun.
But the greatest strength of “Last Light” is how deeply it immerses you in this dark and dangerous place.
The dancing shadows and nearly-inaudible ambient sounds will have you wheeling around only to find nothing. The gunfire is appropriately muffled when wearing a gas mask, which fogs up the longer you wear it and needs the occasional hand wipe to remove the blood and grime. Health regenerates slowly but the process can be sped up with adrenaline shots, while your objectives are not to be found in a UI but on a clipboard that requires you to stash your weapon in order to read it.
Even the stripped-down, mid-tempo score — built around moody, reverb-heavy guitar notes — perfectly fits the Metro tunnels and the hard life of its inhabitants.
And as much as gamers bemoan launch-day DLC — as they should — the “Ranger Mode” add-on is well worth it for those seeking a challenge. With this mode enabled and the difficulty set to Hardcore, resources are very scarce and combat is extremely difficult.
If you’re up for the challenge, “Metro: Last Light” will test your knack for survival in a way few games can.
Three and a half stars out of four.