Metro: Last Light won't be for everybody. The first game in the series was an unapologetically bleak trudge through flickering train tunnels under a nuke-bombed Moscow with only a lighter and your shadow for company. And when you finally clawed your way to the surface? Nothing but grey skies, acid rain and mutants that look like the products of Rancor/Elephant Man sexy time.
Give in, however, and you'll miss out on one of this generation's most atmospheric games, part action-packed shooter, part survival horror and fully certified pant-filler. This picks up a year after Metro 2033's 'bad ending' in which Artyom, reprising his lead role here, sticks two fingers up to the concept of reconciliation and nukes an intelligent race of mutated (but not all bad) humanoids called the Dark Ones.
Moral plurality? Pah! It's absolutism all the way, and while this cajoling of the player on a set course betrays the very function of a dual ending, moral choices and multiple conclusions will, we're told, return.
But Mass Effect this ain't. Artyom's not the type to sit and ponder, and it's beneath a poisoned sky in concrete catacombs you'll quell a subterraneous civil war between survivors, bandits, mutants and the Third Reich, racing to secure a doomsday device from the bowls of top secret military facility known only as D6. That'll involve a lot of shooting, 2033's stumbling point.
For all its immersion, actually wielding the assortment of electromagnetic volt drivers, rattling revolvers and rusted flamethrowers felt painfully limp in the first game. Simply, if blasting a giant radioactive wolf in the face isn't fun then there's a serious problem. Last Light rectifies that: roaring miniguns churn like a dozen chainsaws in a washing machine, and gunfire rips through the air with a freighting crack. It's not all ballistics; throwing knives return, along with sticky grenades, bayonets, and attachments including customisable scopes, suppressors and barrels.
The irony is, during our walkthrough Artyom barely fires a shot, his nervous fingers lightly tapping the trigger as if issuing Morse code. You start - surprise surprise - in a tunnel. It soon opens up into what looks like a waiting area, near pitch black and choked with dust. You reach for an oil lamp and the room floods with dull light, revealing paint-peeled walls and mouldy scraps of trash strewn across the floor. Suddenly a rat - or what looks like one - darts from the glare, leading your eyes to a rotting body. You bend over to inspect it and crab-sized spiders burst from its mouth and ALL OVER YOUR FACE.
Last Light is full of these darkly detailed scenarios, hardly easy-going fare and not fun in the strictest sense, but definitely compelling.
ou push on, cobwebbed like candyfloss but otherwise fine, and move further into the tunnel. It threatens to become repetitive; despite occasional bustling survivor encampments where you can trade bullets (your currency) for food, equipment and more bullets, it's all concrete under a muted light.
That is, except for your fleeting trips to the surface. It's here that the improved 4A engine shines. A pockmarked Moscow post-nuclear annihilation is hyper-detailed, with passing rain splattering your gas mask and sunlight piercing through grey clouds. It's no sandbox, radiation restricting your movements to a set path, but it's a thankful break in pace. Artyom spots the crashed chassis of an airplane and makes his way inside.
Here 4A Games demonstrates another great feature. As he moves through a luggage-strewn aisle, stepping over ashen bodies and burning away cobwebs with his lighter, occasionally brushing a fly from his goggles, Arytom experiences burning white flashbacks, echoes from the past. Moving into a busted cockpit with the stiff forms of pilots sitting upright instigates a cutscene. The pilots now have a little more blood in their cheeks, calmly navigating a blue sky.
And then a fireball streaks across the windshield. And another. This is when the bombs fell. The plane drops fast, pilots frantically poking dials and radioing in. It's no use, and as it takes a fiery nosedive into terra firma, you've got a front row seat. Used sparingly, this device could give life and colour to an otherwise very colourless place.
4A Games, however, have accounted for the reletentless loneliness, this time adding both co-op and competitive multiplayer. "Groan", we hear you say with your actual mouth, "another shooter with tacked-on multiplayer". You're right to be sceptical, but Last Light won't just slap a bunch of single-player assets into a map and have done with it. They're mourning how modern FPS campaigns are nothing but an entry point to multiplayer, and promise each mode will stand alone.
This is not a Hollywood vision of the apocalypse. It's fresh off the Eastern chopping Bloc, gritty, harrowing and at times emotionally challenging. With new weapons and improved shooting, the amazing graphical lustre courtesy of the 4A Engine and the Wii U's beefed-up hardware (combined with the promising new co-op and adversarial multiplayer), Last Light is bleak, challenging, and shaping up to be one of 2013's best shooters.