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Metro: Last Light - fighting the pull of Call of Duty

Courting the crowd without compromise

On paper, Metro: Last Light looks like it's sucking up to the military shooter crowd. On paper. Perhaps the most telling tweak concerns the knife, which now gets a dedicated button rather than being closeted away like a Victorian gentleman's niece on the inventory screen. The inventory now has slots for only three firearms, too, edging the action closer to the primary/secondary interplay of Activision's flagship franchise. In theory, you're slicing the life out of people with your off-hand while effortlessly quick-scoping a tricked-out pneumatic rifle. In theory.

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In practice, you're a bony heap of rags and scrap, bleeding your life out beneath a walkway deep in the dank, miserable belly of a metro station colonised by hard-drinking neo-Nazis. Metro: Last Light's new control scheme reflects main character Artyom's increased battlefield prowess, and applies a thin grease of accessibility to help newcomers settle in - but this is still a shooter that trades on patience, the careful hoarding of pitifully inadequate resources, and a preternatural sensitivity to the whereabouts of your foes.

The halls of Metro: Last Light are dense with shadows, pitfalls, side routes, trip wires and inconveniently well-lit chokepoints. Enemies rarely cohere into nice tidy groups, and they won't miraculously lose interest when you evade line of sight. The guns, meanwhile, are as beautifully makeshift and unreliable as they were in the original. "Bastard" SMGs must be gingerly handled, lest they sputter precious rounds in a wide arc around your crosshairs. Sniper rifles must be pressurised by hand, lest their ball bearings bounce uselessly from the helmets of armoured enemies. There are useful quirks, once again, to how each resentfully imperfect cluster of salvaged parts behaves - a tap of the reload button adds a single shell to the breach of your shotgun, while clenching it slots in the full six.

THQ marketing boss Hew Beynon shows off the variety of which Metro's grim, generally subterranean breed of corridor blasting is capable by playing through the same area twice. His first stab is murderously low-key, Artyom ascending to the second level of a warehouse to deactivate the generator powering the lights, before picking off the unsuspecting goons below with suppressed pistol fire. Metro's taste for environmental intricacy is as beguiling as ever, to the point of being hazardous to progress - it's hard not to dwell on the subtleties, like the delicate way Artyom unscrews a lightbulb, or the individually rendered leaves of the plants in a subsequent hydroponic garden. The wider world and fiction are delicately sketched in these details, such that touring each station is a hidden exercise in anthropology - as much driven by the need to unpick how each micro-society works as your story objectives.

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And of course, these are worlds you can blow to rubble if you please. Beynon's second playthrough is a chaos of comedy-accented yelling, swaying headlamp beams and echoing gunfire, as Artyom scurries from one knot of shadows to the next, using rudimentary "last known position" tactics to get the drop on the guards. The game's improved object deformation systems are flaunted in the process, slabs of concrete peeling from punctured pillars. Going loud is a high risk endeavour, as noted, but unlike in, say, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, there's no point-of-no-return between stealth and action - alerting the AI in one area doesn't mean alerting the AI in the next one along.

There's the same rhythm between hostile areas and safezones. Later I'm shown Venice, a flooded metro station which houses a brothel swathed in tattered red velvet, steaming markets, slums, a jury-rigged bureaucracy and military outposts - all the variety, sordidness and dazzle of a developing world metropolis, packed into tunnels a few metres wide. A local dignitary boards Artyom's craft and converses with him as we progress through the town, past gaggles of juvenile thieves and lounging goons in striped tracksuits. Later, there's a tete-a-tete with a prostitute in a dingy closet, which Beynon declines to carry to its conclusion, citing ominous precedents in Metro 2033.

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