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Metro: Last Light hands-on - one last look before our review

Stalking out of THQ's ashes comes Artyom's second hellish trip on the underground

Don't think of this as a first-person shooter", says 4A Games' Huw Beynon, "think of it as an adventure." Let's be honest, he's not fooling anyone. That's definitely a great big gun we can see on the bottom right of the screen, after all. And the closest thing we find to a puzzle in this post-apocalyptic wasteland is a particularly baffling brain-teaser where you have to shoot lots of monsters in the face.

But still, 4A Games' request that you look at Metro: Last Light a little differently to other first-person shooters is actually reasonable. Like its predecessor, this is a game that's unafraid to put away its guns for long periods of time, and one that works hard, very hard, to draw you into an atmospheric, detailed world.

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"A lot of it comes down to pacing," argues Beynon, "the entire plot, the storyline and the vast majority of the dialogue has been contributed by Dmitry [Glukhovsky, the author of the Metro series]. He's got some great experience as a storyteller. It's a real journey. It has high and low moments, points of action, and more slow-burning survival horror. A lot of that pacing and variety helps to keep the experience fresh and interesting."

Long way home
It's true. We spend about three hours with the game, and in that time protagonist Artyom goes on quite the adventure. Starting in freezing wastes of post-apocalyptic Moscow, he stops over in a Communist drinking den where he takes in a magic show, then battles through an armoured train factory before tearing through the subway tunnels on a scrappy cross between a race car and mine cart. There's a kind of bleak road-trip feel, heightened by a story that sees Artyom trying to make his way home across the graveyard of Moscow, as well the cheery companionship of communist ally Pavel.

In fact, playing through Last Light leads to a genuinely surprising, and very flattering comparison: Half-Life 2. There's an obvious similarity in the way they both take place across ruined, monster-infected worlds but, like Valve's game, Last Light has mastered the trick of pacing its gameplay along with its story.

Battling monsters on the surface feels quite different to fighting humans underground, while the vehicle section in particular plays like a cross between Half-Life 2's Highway 17 and the original Half-Life's On A Rail, as pesky power failures force Artyom to hop off his car and explore the monster-packed nooks and crannies along the side of the track. One of these rooms is overrun with spider-like creatures that are severely allergic to Artyom's flashlight, forcing us to ration its battery as we push deeper into the hole in search of a fusebox.

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Sadly, Last Light seems to lack Valve's guiding hand. We don't actually figure out that these beasts hate light until a representative from 4A Games points it out to us, and that's only after we've pointlessly emptied so many rounds into the creatures that the poor things have probably doubled in body weight. Earlier, we get lost in that factory while looking for an exit that turns out to be a tiny gap in a wall. It's great that Last Light doesn't patronise players with hand-holding arrows or distracting messages, but it needs slightly more assured signposting if it's going to avoid frustration.

Still, in a genre ruled by triple-A giants, it's reassuring to see a series like Metro survive the death of its publisher. There's a dash of the heroic underdog to Last Light, which seems to suit its gas mask-wearing, homemade-gun-toting stars nicely.

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