Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light were both released to zero fanfare in 2010 and 2013, respectively, and promptly vanished into the vast, unimaginative well of grim-and-gritty AAA first-person shooters—a well the compilation release Metro Redux seeks to rescue them from. It’s hard to blame the general public for this, as, from a distance, you’re looking at two games—from a studio no one’s heard of prior—that suggest the dour, claustrophobic, Russian cousins of Fallout. The first five minutes of both games proceed to slay every single one of AAA’s worst tendencies one after the other, until only a few stragglers remain, and they don’t break the games’ affecting, fatalist spell.
Every turn in 2033 and Last Light brings protagonist Artyom in contact with either humanity laid low, humanity gone terrifyingly xenophobic, grossly deformed snarling mutants, or the ethereal remnants of the nuclear dead. There’s a slow burn to both 2033 and Last Light. This isn’t a series you play for the power trip. This isn’t a quest to save the world. 2033 is one man straying from the battlefront to warn what’s left of humanity that death is on its way. Last Light is a mission of redemption for a crucial, mournful mistake, in which the player chases down the last thin strand of hope that humanity could actually thrive instead of just survive. Success in both games isn’t measured in the series’s extensive arsenal, but in gas masks. The Metro games make the simple ability of your character breathing long enough to pull a trigger a scary, anxiety-inducing thing, and depending on if you decide to play it on its Normal mode, or on the supply-stingy Spartan mode, it may be the only thing that matters, bullets be damned.
Not that bullets don’t still have their place in Metro, but this is where the games falter in ambition. Redux may have given the series a good injection of graphical horsepower, but 2033 in particular still has that early-last-gen problem where A.I. gets quite loopy and wayward, and damage done doesn’t feel like it truly registers until something suddenly drops dead. Unless you’re the master of headshots, closed-area shootouts are a chore. Last Light fares better here: By not creating another boring pop-up shooting gallery, it has a much better handle on using shootouts to ratchet up tension, though it still exhibits its predecessor’s aforementioned A.I. problems. Both games are still quite competent as plain-jane shooters, but everything else about them is aiming to be so much more than that. Their best set pieces are staged to terrify rather than test, namely scenes in near-total darkness with the player jumping at shadows, hearing distant scraping and scratching, roars from out of nowhere, creatures crawling on walls just far enough away to make you think you never saw it. Thankfully, or not, depending how good one’s blood pressure is, these scenes occur fairly often.
The Metro games dress in the clothes of Fallout-style FPS, but really they have far more in common with Silent Hill and Resident Evil, injected as they are with a high dose of Eastern European politics and nihilism. The next gen has been able to give them greater beauty, but not at the expense of their often haunting, hollowed soul. The series’s strengths have always been based around traversing subway stations, lamenting humanity just barely scraping by on bread, bullets, and vodka, until you wander on down the tracks and regret ever having to leave the stations’ squalor. Its literary soul and unearthly horrors override the boring AAA trappings it finds itself mired in. This is the truer definition of a mature title. This is what happens when first-person shooters strive to be more than a vulgar display of power.