Metro: Last Light

4A Games shows us what it means to be afraid of the dark

From the moment it opens with minimalist delay-laden electric guitar echoing as if played at the opposite end of one of its deserted and derelict Moscow subway tunnels you know that Metro: Last Light is going to be something different – something special.

4A Games was on to a winner when they made Metro 2033 carefully blending the post-apocalyptic with survival-horror, FPS action and that stoic Eastern European pessimism and Metro: Last Light takes it that one step further bringing a game that revels in darkness kicking and screaming into the light.

Darkness is not your friend as you are reminded on a moment-by-moment basis. Unlike Splinter Cell where Sam Fisher makes the shadows his home in the same way as a spider makes its web, the Metro games throw at you a system of checks and balances – the darkness may hide you but there's plenty else out there that will suck away your precious ammunition and your life if you don't temper it with the careful use of light. Metro: Last Light

The balance of light and dark is everywhere in Metro: Last Light from the more blatant use in Artyom's adventures through the tunnels to the ways in which the game's characters and factions interact is is clear that, despite the darkness, Last Light's story is one about the shades of grey that need to be negotiated in order for the player to survive in the hostile environments they are thrust into.

Metro: Last Light picks up right where Metro 2033 leaves off sadly spoiling the ending of the previous game (which is well worth playing nonetheless) for anyone who has not yet experienced it. Artyom is sent out to follow up on rumours of a solitary remaining Dark One left over from the missile attack that destroyed their home and wiped them out.

Venturing out into the irradiated ruins of Moscow's Botanical Gardens with his sniper partner, Anna, Artyom soon finds himself a prisoner of the vicious Reich, a fascist faction in the Moscow Metro bent on protecting human purity in the face of radiation-related mutations. From there tracking the path of the Dark One which has also been captured leads him to uncover a conspiracy that threatens to plunge the fragile society that remains in subterranean Moscow into a savage and catastrophic war. To say any more about the story would ruin it but it winds its way through some of the most vibrant a creepy locations in video games from the richness of the artistic community in the Theatre Metro station to the haunting ruins of a crashed airliner on the streets of Moscow.

Artyom's journey is carefully punctuated by visions of the past; images of people who did not survive the nuclear attacks as Artyom did although it would be difficult to say exactly who was better off, the dead or those that survived. The game seems to depart quite heavily from the traditional level-level-boss game structure instead presenting each segment as a chapter in the story, some which contain more than one tense moment or 'boss' battle. Having the game presented in this way feels like a real step forward for storytelling in the medium of games and helps to draw the player further into the experience. Metro: Last Light

It is all made more haunting by the effort that 4A Games has put into producing the latest version of their own game engine. It recreates in exquisite detail the post-apocalyptic world of the Moscow underground in a spectacular fashion. Lighting effects in particular play their part in a game which the player's most reliable source of light is a cigarette lighter and a headlamp recharged by a hand-cranked dynamo. Even the humble Xbox 360 hardware produces a game that is a visual treat at every turn and the engine really shows just how much can still be squeezed out of console hardware that is now pushing eight years old.

With such a beautiful and tensely haunting world there is only one way to truly get the best experience out of it and that is with the Ranger Mode which makes its welcome return from the first game. Almost all traces of the game HUD are removed in this difficulty setting allowing players to immerse themselves deeper into the game. There is nothing more terrifying than fending off wave after wave of giant mutated rats and hearing the hollow click of a gun that has run out of ammunition. It serves to underline the dangerous atmosphere and the fragility of Artyom's existence far better than any other more traditional survival-horror has done before.

With the quality of Metro: Last Light it is hard not to wonder if it could have helped to turn around THQ's fortunes had it been ready for release some time last year. It certainly stands as a testament to what a smaller studio with a tighter budget can achieve under especially trying circumstances.

There is no question that Metro: Last Light is one of this year's must-play titles. Only one question remains: Do you play it in daylight or do you turn off the lights, draw the curtains and allow yourself to be sucked deeply into this terrifying masterpiece? We would suggest that you do because you'll have trouble playing a better FPS this year so you might as well make the most of it.