The spectre of the Chernobyl disaster casts a long shadow over the Ukrainian psyche.
More than a quarter of a century ago, on the outskirts of the Soviet city of Pripyat in the Ukraine, the Chernobyl nuclear facility was rocked by a huge explosion that blasted radioactive fallout over much of the former USSR and Europe.
Beyond the 30 to 70 killed (reports from the USSR varied) by the explosion and radiation sickness, the human cost of the disaster is hard to quantify. Some estimate there will be between 50- to 60,000 excess cases of cancer attributable to Chernobyl.
In the four years after the event, Ukrainian farmers reported more than 350 animals born with severe deformities such as missing or extra limbs, eyes, heads and ribs.
The city of Pripyat was entirely evacuated. Now it’s a ghost town of stodgy Soviet apartment blocks and a solitary, forlorn Ferris wheel deep within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
This is the setting not in which Metro: Last Light takes place, but against which it is developed. “There's no way this game is made anywhere other than there,” the game’s producer, Dean Sharpe, famously told media in 2011. “Because Ukraine is a depressing f**king place. Ukraine is just as depressing as hell – especially in the winter.”
“I now have a fake sun light I sit with for an hour every day just so I don't shoot myself.”
Developed by 4A Games, Metro: Last Light is the sequel to the 2010 first-person shooter-survival horror hit, Metro 2033. In the wake of nuclear holocaust, the last of humanity desperately clutches on to life in the Moscow underground while mutated creatures prowl the irradiated ruins of civilisation. Far from unifying in the face of extinction, however, ever-fickle and opportunistic humanity has broken into factions to better squabble over what few artefacts and resources remain.
Players control Artyom, a metro-born Ranger responsible for destroying many mutated Dark Ones in 2033. The drama in Last Light, however, is much more human. The Moscow metro is threatening to erupt into civil war between the three preeminent factions, the Reds, the Nazis, and the Rangers as they vie for control of a military doomsday device.
The hands-on session picks up as Artyom sets out to kill a remaining Dark One. On the surface, things go predictably wrong, and when Artyom regains consciousness he discovers he’s in a Nazi prison cell along with two communist captives. To escape the machinations of these facists-come amateur phrenology enthusiasts, Artyom teams up with Pavel, a likeable fellow traveller, to escape the clandestine mutant concentration camp in which they’ve found themselves.
As a developer, 4A demonstrates a kind of obsessive compulsion with authenticity. The game can be played entirely in Russian or in English, and all characters have lip-synching for both languages. It’s even possible to watch each empty shell rattle from the chamber of a submachine gun in slow motion, bounce off of characters and weapons, and clink against metal or plop into water. Very often this kind of pedantic obsession with physics and audio engineering flags up wasted developer resources – an inability to see the forest from the individually modelled pine needles – but in Last Light it buoys the meticulous sense of atmosphere.
As with 2033, the user interface is minimal. There is no heads-up display, no minimap, no health bar, just Artyom’s heavy breathing into the gas mask and the scutterings of somethings in the shadows. The developer also demonstrates better understanding of pacing and contrast in Last Light. Just as the sense of binding claustrophobia becomes almost unbearable in the black tunnels of the old metro, Pavel and Artyom breach the surface, and look out upon the pocked ruins of old Moscow under a thunderous sky. But what feels like a reprieve soon gives way to a different sense of vulnerability: Artyom is exposed and hallucinating. Worse, his air filter is running low.
After a panicked last stand against monstrous rats, Artyom and Pavel barely make it into the Theatre Station, the seat of Communist power in the new underground. Within, Pavel guides Artyom past stalls and huddled civilians, each doing their best to eke out a mean existence in a place untouched by sunlight. Old men try to entertain desperately fidgety children with shadow puppets, and young girls – in a world that appears to have few other roles for them – perform lewd dances and solicit the affections of leering drunks who’ll soon go to their deaths in the dark tunnels.
Even here in what should be a place of respite, and a passage that should play more lightly, 4A’s vision is unremittingly bleak.
We can blame Chernobyl for that.