Metro: Last Light's world might be lacking the glorious vistas, the Kinkade-esque veneration of light and the surreal architecture of Bioshock Infinite's colourful Columbia, but make no mistake: its universe is every bit as impressive and as captivating as the one Booker DeWitt ripped apart in 1912.
Between its pitch-black tunnels and bone-strewn monster dens, 4A Games' post-apocalyptic vision of Moscow helps establish one of the most haunting shooters in years. And when you're crawling through abandoned vents, burning away new blankets of cobwebs with your lighter and sending creepy crawlies skittering away into the darkness ahead, you'll discover first-hand that games really are capable of making you feel claustrophobic.
It's been a year since the cataclysmic events of Metro 2033 and life's improved, albeit slightly. Returning hero Artyom is now a Ranger, and D6, the secret underground vault discovered at the tail end of the last game, is your new 'safe' haven. Chock full of food and supplies it's become the Metro system's most coveted station city. Unfortunately for you, that also means you're now squarely in the crosshairs of the underground's less friendly types.
New dangers come in the form of old human foes, and in adventuring out and stemming those problems some familiar sights are inevitable. But while some areas and themes explored could be classed as revisits for those of us who rode the Metro 2033 train to its conclusion, the vast majority of the game takes place in unexplored territory. Anyone worried about repetition of the dark manmade caverns can take a deep breath: when it comes to Metro, once you've seen one tunnel you really haven't seen them all.
Inventive new station cities are waiting to be explored (the waterlogged Venice and its flooded surroundings are particularly memorable) and poking through blood-drenched grottos by torchlight while creatures snarl from unseen cavities and flies land on your face is an experience not long forgotten - and one you'll struggle to replicate in any other shooter released this year. Past Metro riders will notice the world above ground has moved on too. Where there was once a blanket of ice and an unrelenting sub-zero wind there is now sun, rain and the genesis of a new ecosystem.
Hunks of ice have melted into marshlands and the street-swamps are home to new mutant terrors hungry for a Suarez-style human snack - Artyom-flavoured their clear favourite. You don't have to battle the biting cold any more, true, but one misstep and you could find yourself taking an unexpected dunk into deadly soup.
Best of all, when your visor is covered in gunk (say, with blood splashes from close quarters combat or mud from an off-path jaunt) you need to manually wipe it clean with a button press. It's a small but effective touch so novel that we found ourselves gleefully repeating the motion over and over like John Cena's, "you can't see me," taunt. Little things...
Creating a compelling world was never an issue for the series' first game, of course. Its mix of supernatural caverns and arctic-like surface stints were no less accomplished than Last Light's (for our money the nuclear winter topside sections were actually more unsettling to traverse before the big melt took effect). But even the original's staunchest defenders - and we class ourselves as part of that list - have to concede that flimsy combat and hideously unbalanced stealth mechanics were rail sleeper-sized thorns that lodged deep.
Metro 2033's core mechanics were blue rare at best, but there are thankfully few such complaints with this journey. The guns are still predominantly of the homemade variety - cobbled together from nuts, bolts and other metallic odds and ends scavenged from the world underground - but when you pull the trigger in Metro: Last Light you now feel like you're able to hold your own.
Indeed, human-versus-human gunplay is one of the highlights this time around. Enemies are no longer bullet-sponge mutants (humans crumple more easily than monsters, however) and as a result the gunplay feels fully-formed. If you do find yourself in a straight up shoot-out you'll now feel empowered rather than underequipped.
It helps that the kitbashed weapons are so distinctive. The side-loading machinegun tears through bullets but isn't the best at stopping monsters in their tracks; the double-barrelled shotgun's lethal at close range but has a reload time too long for anyone wanting to keep their face unchewed by charging mutants; the pneumatic ball-bearing rifle packs a hefty punch but needs manually pumping once the pressure's dropped; and the spear gun, also saddled with a pneumatic pump, is slow but comes with the distinct bonus of retrievable ammunition.
Every weapon has its own personality and it pays to try them all, never mind that each can be customised with different scopes and stocks and barrel attachments when you come across one of the few weapon vendors. Having to repeatedly tap a button or click your mouse wheel to store up pressure for another burst of pneumatic fire remains a brilliant touch, as does having to crank up a portable generator to recharge your ever-faltering flashlight and night vision goggles.
You'll need to do this last action plenty, because Last Light is an incredibly dark game. Beautifully designed and textured, with plenty of props and small touches littered throughout the world for environmental storytelling purposes (look out for the family of skeletons huddled together or the shotgun/blood-smear/lack of head body combos to discover how people died), but dark.
Yet the gloom plays nicely into the hands of Metro's other big improvement: its stealth mechanics. In most situations it's possible to sneak past enemies, stealthily knocking them unconscious and unscrewing light bulbs should you choose to, rather than engaging in a head-on battle.
People who tried to play stealthily in the last game will likely remember diamond-hard setups where success necessitated save point reloads or heaps of luck. Metro: Last Light, on the contrary, is built for stealth from the ground up. Save for a handful of action set-pieces you'll find at least one way to tip-toe through even the most heavily patrolled areas without alerting anybody; paying attention to NPC comments certainly helps too.
And now that your watch has a handy in-built LED that tells you whether you're either visible or hidden according to the game's modal stealth logic, packing away the weapons and creeping through Last Light's caverns is a nervous (but wholly fair) tic-triggering thrill. Mostly.
We completed the game on PC and played the first half again on Xbox 360 and noted gamma inconsistencies in both formats that slightly tainted the experience. On PC some areas appeared lighter or darker than they really should have done (to the point where we were crouched centimetres in front of a guard's nose in a relatively light shadow without him spotting us), but we were able to rely on the watch's diode to tell us if we were hidden or not.
On the 360, however, we twice had to adjust the gamma slider in the options to hit optimal levels and make out the paths forward without trying to compromise the gloomy effects too badly.
Difficulty levels are similarly off. Conscious that Metro 2033 was borderline impenetrable at times (albeit mostly because of raw mechanics rather than fine-tuned Dark Souls-style balancing), developers 4A Games have constructed a more lenient experience. On the default difficulty, ammunition and filters are far too easy to find and hoard, meaning the memorable moments when you're trapped on the surface and running out of air filters - mask visor fogging; breathing growing loud and heavy as you gasp in your final lungful of air - are going to be completely absent from anyone playing through the game on that setting.
Combat toughness, however, is fairly well judged, and if you don't choose to replace your regular ammunition with military grade bullets (in the world of Metro, military ammunition doubles as currency so you've always got the option of changing clips and gaining extra firepower at the expense of money totals) you might even find a couple of the 'boss' battles draining. In trying to make the game more appealing to shooter fans 4A have forgotten that Metro is primarily a game about survival, but to fully appreciate these mechanics your only option is to play in the tougher Ranger mode and accept a couple of sharp difficulty spikes in predetermined combat events. The kicker's this: Ranger mode is only available in the Limited Edition version of the game.
They're not insignificant complaints, but they're nowhere near as damning as those fundamental shortcomings levelled at the first game's mechanics, either. We're sad there's no encore for the terrifying Librarians (giant ape-like beasts who attacked if you broke eye-contact) and yearn for a few more level-bypassing short-cuts a la the first game's Frontline level pipe-hopping excursion. But Last Light has some great watercooler tricks of its own to make up for those absences.
In March's big shooter we zipped through the clouds; this month we're trudging through faecal matter and detritus: as extreme a shift in experiences as you can get. But far from sitting quietly in the shadows of its bigger-named competition, Metro: Last Light can hold its battle-scared face up high as it joins the ranks of 2013's must-have adventures. On the evidence of this, new IP holders Deep Silver would be wise to keep 4A Games under their wing...
Gruelling, but worth the effort, Metro: Last Light is a refreshing change from more traditional first-person shooters.
- Gunplay and stealth have been significantly improved
- The world's a captivating place to explore
- Pushes graphics cards to their very max
- One too many scripted moments reduces the series' sandbox feel
- Overground sections are no longer centred on survival