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Metro: Last Light's darker campaign looks poised for success

We brave the surface lands and head underground for a hands-on...

Before jumping into our latest hands-on with Metro: Last Light, a developer from 4A Games offers us a few words of wisdom: "Don't play this like a first-person shooter."

It's sound advice. Not just because bursting into a room pumping the trigger isn't always the best course of action, but also because the modern shooter mentality doesn't account for much of what makes Last Light so promising.

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Its predecessor, Metro 2033, didn't command mainstream attention in the same way Call of Duty or Battlefield has for the last few years, but it ignited passion. The same kind that fuels spirited discussions of BioShock and STALKER all these years later.

Metro 2033's strengths were its unique world - informed by the writings of Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky - its foreboding atmosphere, and its willingness to explore complex narrative themes. Based on our recent preview, it's apparent 4A's mandate is to once again lean on these pillars, while smoothing out the rough edges so the gameplay pieces better fit together.

Cruel World

Our hands-on begins in an abandoned bar; like everything above the metro stations it has been savaged by nuclear winter. Although there are signs that Rangers used the building for shelter recently, they have clearly abandoned the position now.

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From the outset it's evident that 4A Games is firmly holding on to its roots as a PC studio. The visual detail is uncompromising; a thick fog chokes the air, rays of light intermittently pierce through, furniture has decayed and wooden fixtures are draped in cobwebs; spiders hang from them, swaying gently.

Similar attention has been given to weapons and items such as masks and filters - both essential for above ground expeditions - and Artyom's trusty wristwatch, which indicates how much time players have before they need to switch out filters.

Returning protagonist Artyom is joined by a young cadet named Pavel, together the duo are braving the perilous surface world to reach Theatre Station. In the astute words of Pavel, on the surface "every step could be your last" so make our next few count by pilfering the bar of its remaining supplies, then head out into the unwelcoming open.

Outside, an icy cold wind blows and the sun blazes, but its rays fall on a skeleton city. The eyes are naturally drawn to a towering building in the distance, it stands defiantly in the midst of widespread dilapidation, but it's the centerpiece - a downed plane - that we're headed towards.

The game makes a point of showing us how quickly things can go from bad to worse above ground. On our first step the sun is instantly blotted out by a thick carpet of rain, obscuring our vision, and the crashing of raindrops make Pavel's directions a barely audible jumble of sounds. A daring second step is challenged by a demon, which springs from the darkness to catch us unprepared. We bolt for the plane.

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It doesn't get much better inside, where Pavel warns us not to "lose your head" as we slowly pace through the centre aisle. On either side families returning from Majorca lay motionless, lifelessly slumped over each other. Artyom starts to lose his head. Grim images of death flash up as we creep through the plane, becoming increasingly intense.

When we reach the cockpit Artyom is completely overcome and relives the moments before the crash in first-person. From his front row seat he watches as the plane emerges from the clouds to find the city in flames, then a mushroom cloud and the shockwave that brings it down.

If it isn't already clear, Metro: Last Light strives to instil unease, it revels in its bleakness. Speaking in an interview, 4A Games' Huw Beynon pointed out "there's nothing that says it has to be happy and jolly all the time and you play through with a smile on your face." Though he also claimed the game has plenty of dry Russian humor, we certainly didn't crack a smile during our time with it.

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