Metro Last Light review: Tunnel vision

There is so much suffocating despair in Metro: Last Light. The world is irradiated rubble, blanketed in noxious fumes and trampled by gnarled monstrosities. Humans that remain must huddle underfoot, eking out lives in Moscow's underground railways. But the worst thing, the cruelest twist, the darkest dick move of the apocalypse, is that millions die and the accordion still makes it.

If not its purpose, I have to respect the accordion's presence in Metro: Last Light. You can listen to the instrument's musical wheezing as part of a show put on in a dilapidated theater, one of several populated hubs you'll visit in your trek through the tunnels of Moscow. If you opt out of the game's scavenging and shooting for a few moments, there's an entire show to take in. It has all the awkwardness and earnestness of a production that only needs to be less bleak than its surroundings.

Last Light, much like predecessor Metro 2033, is a feat of obsessive, paradoxical world-building – you believe this as a place that has been demolished, poisoned and forced to retreat into claustrophobic hovels. There are glimmers of recuperating life in these bastions, most of all in Metro's stunning sewer-bound equivalent of Venice. The town layouts are noticeably linear, in part because there isn't much room for subterranean sprawl, and because the game spends all its money on the critical path. To explore is to linger, listen and look; and that's fine.%Gallery-188180% While you assume the role of Artyom, a member of a hardened peace-keeping group that settles matters in the metro, it's impossible to forget the dangers lurking above and outside. Last Light, more than most games in which you are primarily built to shoot, manufactures tension through an ever-bleak environment and your fragile existence within it.

The flashlight, which is necessary to ward off some of the scarier things scurrying out of Moscow's corpse, needs to be regularly charged with a small handheld generator. Air filters for your gas mask must be replenished when above ground, with a countdown on your watch reminding you how little time is left before the gasps and gulps set in. And you know the visor is a big deal when there's a button for it, dedicated just to wiping off the dirt and blood that accumulates.

Metro: Last Light is smartly conservative: for as much as it revolves around picking everything clean of ammunition and currency (which are sometimes the same thing), it's remarkable how much less rifling there is compared to a BioShock. The infrequency of combat empowers that activity in the same way, with sporadic bursts of violence giving Last Light both a clear rhythm and purpose. To wit, a large shootout against an invading metro faction is dwarfed by any battle in Call of Duty, but feels ten times more important in your journey.

It helps that the shooting mechanisms have been overhauled after Metro 2033, which fumbled whenever you peered down the sights and pulled the trigger. Last Light's guns have a believable heft to them, and unleash clear visual feedback when they strike a target. The charming Frankenstein weapons are still the highlight, and many of them can be paired with a predilection for stealth. There's nothing better than killing lightbulbs from afar with a silenced, pneumatic sniper rifle.

A non-lethal approach is feasible too, and it comes with one of the most satisfying knockout punches in years. Sneaking isn't mandatory unless you crank up the difficulty; it simply feels appropriate and hinged on the game's tenets of resource conservation and life preservation. It's awfully forgiving too, what with enemy headlamps turning off right before you knock them out, but not to the point of eroding the tension or pacing. The infrequent boss battles are bigger offenders in that regard, if only because every bullet wasted there could have gone toward exterminating the world's last remaining accordions.

Last Light truly excels at pacing and direction, even while it dabbles with verbose characters and an ambiguous supernatural element. Its pacing is tied to Artyom's goals just as much as the hostile geography: you escape the claustrophobic metro just as it starts to test your tolerance, but then it's a grueling trip through a toxic marsh in the dead of night, a frantic shootout on a moving train, or a nerve-wracking march across cracking ice. The biggest, most jarring bungle here is in the role of Anna, a rare female character that seems to get a personality transplant when she steps out of view. She's certainly no Alyx Vance.

Metro: Last Light does belong in the company of Half-Life, though. It's an unusual, meticulously detailed shooter inextricable from its environment – making its refuge in the railways of Moscow all the more apt. The survival and shooting aspects engage with what is considered valuable in the world, and both leave ample room for moments of solace, exploration and concise violence.

This review is based on PC download of Metro: Last Light, provided by Deep Silver.

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