Last Light also does a great job of integrating ideas from the more RPG-flavoured titles in the STALKER series. Even the most simple bullet holds real value, and without filters for your gas mask you won’t last long above the surface or, in some cases, down below. There are only a few basic gun types, but these can be customised to create sniper weapons, stealth weapons and overpowered shotguns, and the numbers of enemies and the relative scarcity of ammunition makes you think carefully about the weapons you carry, and ensuring you have the right tool for any given situation. Different weapons have a tangible impact on the way you play. Equip a pistol with a night-scope and a suppressor, and you have the perfect tool for mid-range stealth kills. Equip a quad-barreled shotgun, and you’d better strike quickly and strike hard.
Those who struggle with more cerebral shooters needn’t worry. The default campaign mode deliberately ramps up ammo availability from the miserly levels of the original Metro 2033, and balances the difficulty level to ensure that an aggressive approach doesn’t have to end in failure. Some may feel that this, and a reduced emphasis on gas masks and radiation, counts as dumbing down. They might have a point, but Last Light is still miles away from Call of Duty.
Partly that’s a matter of storyline, which is more ambiguous and not so prone to the usual gung-ho nonsense. This is a world where notions of good and evil have mostly faded away, and where you spend half the game unsure whether your hero is even doing the right thing. This is a game where your most selfless and heroic acts can be counter-productive, in a variation on no good deed going unpunished.
Much of the atmosphere comes not from big plot points and heavy characterisation, but from the almost incidental dialogue you hear in the background, all delivered naturally by an excellent cast. The people of the Moscow underground have had time to acclimatise to a brutal reality; what’s shocking to you is just normal to them.
The graphics, meanwhile, are equally effective. The PS3 version tested suffers from the odd dubious model or muddy texture - the mutants seem particularly bad - but the detailed scenery and lush lighting, with some impressive smoke and gas effects, more than make up for any shortcomings there. It’s impossible to say that Metro: Last Light is ever beautiful, but at its best its eerie and convincing. You can almost smell the dank corridors, the grease of the workshop, the fetid odour of a half-eaten corpse.
Where Last Light falls down is in its lack of originality, but also polish. Despite some clever in-game guidance the way forward isn’t always clear, and one point had us scratching our heads until we chanced on the right spot that led to the next sequence. Some of the set-piece fights aren’t just generic but clumsily handled, leaving little scope for the player to do anything except alternate between blasting and healing. The pacing is a little off, so that some dull sections drag while some great sections are over before they’ve even started, and a little more branching in the levels wouldn’t hurt. Overall, though, Metro: Last Light is a treat: a grimly atmospheric single-player shooter with a great setting, a decent story and a slightly old-fashioned approach. Better still, it comes undiluted by shoehorned-in co-op options and team-based modes.
Metro: Last Light isn’t the most original or polished shooter of the last twelve months, but it is one of the most atmospheric and compelling. It’s more accessible and well-rounded than Metro 2033, but it has the same grim sense of place, along with impressive graphics and an intriguing plot. Fans of the STALKER series might say that this is a step too far towards Call of Duty, but Last Light is actually closer in spirit to Half Life 2. It’s rarely as inspired or inventive as Valve’s classic nor as brilliant as a Bioshock or Dishonored, but it’s a game that fans of intelligent sci-fi shooters still won’t want to miss.
Read more: Best games of 2013