Stalker, like many Russian works, attempts to separate art, science and intellectualism; an inherently contradictory notion given that the production of a film is equal parts art, science and intellect. Yet, at the same time Andrei Tarkovsky attempted to give Stalker authenticity by artificially inserting elements from other mediums into the film which ultimately came across as little more than the basest of name dropping; drastically taking away from an otherwise incredibly complex work.
Despite this major flaw, Stalker is unquestionably a masterpiece, but the production was quite literally a painful experience for all involved. The original footage filmed for Stalker was incorrectly developed and destroyed in the process, and it is believed that the chemical waste from a chemical plant which was near to one of the shooting locations (the river in which the chemical waste flowed, features in the film) was directly responsible for several of the film crews’ untimely cancer-related deaths, including Andrei Tarkovsky’s.
Stalker is important to Metro: Last Light. Not only does it feature many similar themes (though these themes are a dime a dozen in Eastern Europe, and Stalker made no attempt to modernise Russian mythology with nuclear holocaust, instead choosing to stay true to its Russian folklore roots through a sci-fi lens), but extensively references Stalker, including one scene which is virtually directly borrowed from the film and placed within the world of Last Light.
But more importantly, its major strengths and flaws lie in similar areas to Stalker’s. Whenever Last Light attempts to imitate its peers for the sake of relevancy and a desperate need to be seen as authentic, it falls spectacularly flat. The opening to the game is a dull walk through a hundred different—but all terrible—interpretations of the Russian accent that would only have been slightly improved if the game was set to the Russian dub by default instead of the hammy, vodka-soaked English one. It’s a dull and unremarkable opening, concerned with recapping the events of the previous game and setting the scene. It does neither with subtly, and nor with flair; you may as well stroll through your local underground train station instead.
Last Light introduces each style of gameplay separately from one another. The elements of stealth are introduced to the player at a leisurely pace, carefully teaching them how to play, but draining all tension from what should be a terrifying, desperate tutorial (a Nazi concentration camp, no less). The same applies to the combat—a dull fight with the safety of a guiding voice keeping you company all the while. This is a world in which the surface of the planet is no longer habitable, and people must huddle in the dank depths of old underground train stations and tunnels just to survive, and yet everything’s so hunky dory and sanitised.
Perhaps it’s because of the fact that Artyom, the protagonist, has just destroyed (as per events in Metro 2033) an entire species bar one which has just been discovered—wait a minute, genocide? Genocide acted out against the protagonist’s enemies perhaps, but it’s all just a little bit too chirpy; and not in a laugh so I don’t cry sort of way. There are whispers of discontent in the first diary note you pick up, but they are delivered in the same droll monotone that is a perfectly accurate adaptation of the equally droll and monotonous source material, the author of which helped pen the story and dialogue of Last Light.
It doesn’t help that the newly introduced shooting mechanics feature lightweight, soft weapons that feel as if they have little more power than a pea shooter, despite the fact that the seemingly brainless enemies are quickly felled by said peas as they discuss the latest metro gossip while one of their comrades falls dead to the ground after being shot in the head or stabbed in the back a mere few metres away; even audibly exclaiming before being knocked out cold.
And just to get to this stage, there’s a good chance that you’ll have had to spend a fair amount of time fiddling around with not only Last Light’s limited in-game settings, but also its .config file which holds the key to altering many important settings that are otherwise inaccessible—assuming you were foolish enough to buy an AMD card. Thanks Nvidia.
Even its most immediately accessible, and perhaps its greatest asset is wasted on the early hours of Last Light. Instead of showing off the titular lighting effects that become such an important part of the game, the incessant nattering of your underground comrades as you wander through the long opening cutscene is the focus, and it serves only to demonstrate how poor the animation is. Characters fidget and twitch as they speak, performing potted mannerisms and moving with the fluency of a bad back; all brought together in a visual loop that afflicts a large portion of characters so that all but a few move in exactly the same way—not to mention the repeated character models and faces.
But what if you can bring yourself to persevere? Perhaps it wouldn’t seem like such a commitment if you hadn’t spent so much time on just making the game work properly (a feat I did not achieve completely; sure, I got the gameplay running smoothly, but at the cost of blocking out more than 75% of the cutscenes), but sometimes—as babushka has always said—commitment begets rewards.
It was my own stupidity that first introduced me to the potential of the gameplay. It was the second or third time that I had ventured from the safety of the underground to the grey, dangerous drudgery of the outside world. The rain was falling heavily which meant that it was hard to see because of the thick drops of water collecting on my gas mask’s visor. I had to stop playing soon, so was in a rush. Triumphantly, I reached the climax of the level after a rather dull fight with some monsters whom—while no smarter—were at least more agile and faster than the human cannon fodder. Even so, it still came across as little more than a shooting gallery; their attack patterns predictable and easily intercepted even in the pouring rain.
But, the level wasn’t over yet; there was another wave of monsters to fend off. Before they could even get to me; I had suffocated. I found myself transported to the beginning of the first battle and, looking down at my watch, noticed that I had barely a minute of clean air left—I was in desperate need of a new filter. I was forced to go back, searching every nook and cranny for fresh filters—the time I wasted while searching eating away at any extra breathing time that the new filters afforded me. It took me a few attempts to scavenge up just enough air to even begin contemplating fighting off two waves of monsters, and suddenly the battle took on a completely new dimension.
I couldn’t just sit back and wait for the monsters to attack me; lazily picking them off as they charged towards their doom. I had to proactively kill them, running from monster to monster; killing them as fast as I could. So close was I to the monsters now that not only did I have to squint through the rain on my visor, but blood too. After killing only a few monsters, I would have to wipe the blood from my visor just to be able to see; more precious time wasted.
From that moment on I was meticulous. I would risk wasting air searching for filters and ammo because (despite the short term risk of suffocation) without doing so, death seemed inevitable; the time innocently ticking down on Artyom’s watch as his breathing got progressively louder; progressively more desperate and wrought: the ultimate climax of which is, when changing gas masks, Artyom gulping down the toxic air instead of holding his breath—yet another musical reminder of the surface’s dangers. The percussion: the sickening thud of a monster’s pawsteps directly behind when you are down to only a few bullets; a few filters, and can barely see due to your gas mask visor being cracked—the broken glass not so easily wiped away as blood and water; now you need a new gas mask as well as filter.
The same simple, predictable attack patterns from the monsters had not changed, but with so many other things to consider; it didn’t matter. Each group still seemed deadly, and individuals just as dangerous. Kill it and make too much noise and you just might alert many more of its kin; or something even worse. But perhaps you need the filter from the corpse that it’s devouring it; and to leave it? Maybe it will take you unawares with your back turned or spot you and run off for backup.
Below ground in cramped tunnels—even without the added peril of the toxic air—the monsters can seem just as dangerous. Blood spray becomes an even greater danger because you are not afforded the space with which to kill the monsters at medium or long range, and in the darkness they can only be found through growls and pawsteps or the light of your torch. Your torch which provokes them just as much as it allows you to see them. In some ways, in the tradition of horror, their predictable patterns make them all the more threatening: you know exactly when they’re coming and what they’ll do, but that only makes you fear their arrival and viciousness all the more.
On hardcore mode, at least. On normal or below, they are but lambs to the slaughter. And sometimes on hardcore—when the environment or the air is not acting as your true enemy—they still are. Despite the fact that Ranger Mode was originally DLC on Metro 2033 as well, one can’t help but wonder if Ranger Mode really is how “Last Light was meant to be played”. It sits plumply on the main menu as you start a new game; a tantalising tease just out of reach. Hussy.
But such intensity is often lacking when taking on humans, for the simple fact that they have guns too. This means that there is rarely desperate scrounging for ammo, as there often is above ground. With every enemy you kill, you can immediately replenish your stock of ammo from their corpse, and if you’re playing stealthily then each human combat section seems specifically designed for you to restock your ammo before your next encounter with monsters.
And due to the fact that the humans behave no more intelligently than the monsters (the only unpredictable thing about the humans is when they’ll stop yapping and walk off so you can kill or knock them out stealthily), there is little challenge or intensity in these sections. However, for what these sections lack in technical nous, they makes up for in presentation and panache.
The light, snappy feel of the gunplay helps to punctuate your sneaking around; get spotted and your first reaction might be to run and hide again so that you can continue picking off the enemies with your quiet pea shooter from where they can’t see you, and a big reason for that is the relative lack of punch that all weapons have when viewed in a broader context.
But, the contrast in loudness between a weapon with a silencer and one with a reinforced, more powerful barrel is vast enough that if playing stealthily, it’s hard not to cringe when you’re forced to use an unsilenced weapon due to having run out of ammo for your silenced comrade.
Comrade? You survive by your weapon, so it’s easy to develop an affection for a personally customised gun, and feel a little sad when you have to let it go for lack of ammo. Or you could waste your money—military grade ammunition—on your favourite weapon in place of normal bullets. But such a decision might mean eventual suicide. What happens when your money runs out and you must pick up that crappy old luger? The next time you have the opportunity to buy a new weapon or turn the crappy old luger into something useful, you might not have the bullets to do it.
And once you have figured out just how you want your weapons to behave and feel, then there is some satisfaction to be had in such combat; even if it is not through overcoming great odds. Instead, stealthily moving through an entire squadron of communists/Nazis as quickly as you can, or taking them on head first, becomes enjoyable because of the ease with which such a feat can be achieved—it might be easy and mindless fun, but it’s also effortlessly engaging.
This is for one reason: the atmosphere that has been achieved through the use of light. Shadows are rich and black, and although the requirements for being deemed invisible are unbelievably lenient, when you actually are well hidden, there is a great sense of safety and superiority—the simple satisfaction of hide and seek. Seek, because enemies can be just as invisible when hidden by a shadow as you; unless outfitted with an obligatory torch on their helmet.
And even then, when peering down the barrel or through the scope of your gun at an enemy’s head, obviously that torch will be shining directly in your eyes. It’s a painful experience; the glare just as detrimental to your vision as blood and rain so that as easy as enemies can be to pick off even when spotted, there is still great motivation to stay hidden so that they are not looking painfully in your direction as you try to shoot them.
It’s even more intimidating when you’re stuck in a corner in the dark—your cover blown—and there’s a hail of yellow bullet tracer fireworks, and muzzle flashes explode as the blinding transparent light of helmet torches bear down at you with the same ferocity of the bullets; the laser sights of enemy guns cold scanners in the darkness searching for you.
But all of these things must be used to your advantage as you eke out the enemy, carefully scouring the darkness for any flashes of light, or listening for the faint sound of footsteps close by as you scurry from shadow to shadow; always keeping an eye on Artyom’s watch which glows when you are visible, thus letting the unobservant of us know when Artyom is in danger.
But the light goes further than that; it adds a certain richness to the world, making it all the more believable. As bland as the translation is (though it cannot be criticised for staying true to its source material), the world is rich and alive. While it’s terribly primitive to have extended jaunts through the safety of bunkers—in which you can upgrade your weapons, buy ammo and even perform the odd side quest—acting as pace dampeners, they help to detail the world, and sometimes do provide a welcome respite from a particularly harrowing roadside picnic.
The lighting is just as important to these sections as it is to the combat and stealth. The light colours the world both literally and figuratively; imbuing each little dalliance with a certain hue and feel. And the way that it settles on people’s faces and clothes and the environments they live in (dirty train stations fashioned into village squares and shanty towns), make these areas feel safer and warmer still; even when you’re trapped in enemy territory. Better to be around other people where it’s light, than alone in some tunnel full of monsters with only your torch to light the way forward. If the light were to fail, the whole underground world might just die; or so it seems…
And it just might. Even your loyal torch can let you down. The battery power is perpetually depleting, although it can always be recharged by using Artyom’s hand pump generator—an action which leaves you vulnerable, if not in complete darkness: the torch’s light continuing to shine and then beginning to grow ever stronger as you recharge its batteries. Or worse than that, when you are stuck with only your lighter which is barely bright enough to light the hand that holds it, let alone the world around it.
As enjoyable as it is to simply observe the light due to how technically impressive it is (shadows shift dynamically, as do light sources, and so detailed is the lighting that the colour of objects shifts with what lights them and reflections on an objects result in dynamically coloured glares), Last Light uses its lighting to effectively expand upon the story as well as add tension and intensity to the gameplay so that it is not simply a great technical achievement, but a great artistic one as well.
Although the story has little impact until close to the very end (where the supernatural qualities of Russian magical realism are expressed through dialogue to provide a sometimes poignant commentary on life in the literal sense), the world itself feels steeped in history. It’s a fine illustration of Russian literature, employing the separation of the intellect, the artistic and the scientific, as well as an amusingly absurd exploration of Russian history complete not only with Nazis, but communist jokes and philosophising about work related accidents and the bourgeoisie, as well.
But even towards the end of the game there are some serious missteps and issues with balancing. The final push was an epic one, but it was one without tension because of the ridiculous amount of ammunition and gas mask filters that I was presented with. I amassed well over thirty minutes of spare filter time, and was never close to running out of ammo. There was perhaps reason for this: Artyom was given ample help in combat by a new friend, so maybe the extra ammo and filters were a way to drive the point home; but instead they made the point irrelevant—I hardly needed my new comrade’s help because I already had so many extra resources at my command.
To make matters worse, when you are totally in control—as I was here—it only helps to expose the failings of the AI. I remember vividly crouching on top of a rusty old train carriage, surrounded by what should have seemed in the heat of the moment like hundreds of enemies. I had just shot one of them, so the AI had gone into panic mode and started sweeping the area to look for me, but I was busy laughing at the soldier I had in my sights as he glanced back and forth without moving; seemingly ready to venture forth to join in the hunt, but never quite able to pluck up the courage to break free from his epileptic fit. Because Last Light relies so heavily on its presentation to succeed, it was a crushing blow to the intended tension and flair.
And yet, Last Light seems as if made bespoke specifically for me: polluted water and air; dusty old underground bunkers; trains and dilapidated train yards with rusted metal more dangerous than the Russian goons that inhabit them, and a special few with a taste for radiation that find the comforts of humanity stifling and limited—home. With that in mind, it’s easy to imagine Last Light as a long lost letter from home, its contents far more than the sum of its parts, and the familiar handwriting spectacular and comforting; the flaws in writing and composition forgivable despite their graveness.