If there's one word to describe Metro: Last Light, that word is "better". It is a better game than its predecessor and a better shooter than its competition. Equal parts Crysis, Call of Duty, BioShock and Fallout, Metro: Last Light overcomes the problems that plagued its predecessor and straps on a gas mask to climb up, out of its niche. The result is easily one of my top games of the year.

Last Light, picks up where Metro 2033 ended and drops players right into the thick of a journey that they don't even know has already begun. Many story driven shooters suffer from fatigue, presenting the stakes up front and sending gamers on a flame-licked log-ride to one giant splash at the end. Based on the audience they attempt to appeal to, many also trap themselves. They either sprinkle unsatisfying story over the top of great mechanics or present so much exposition that they hope the player won't notice gameplay hitches. Last Light, however, strikes a much needed balance between the two.

A very good, but not quite great, story guides players through one of the most interesting worlds that video games have to offer. At its best the story jams together elements of survival horror, post-apocalyptic thrillers, and military drama. At its worst the plot stumbles slightly over ambiguity. Although it buries some story elements in its codex-like Diary, the story is still understandable and enjoyable without that extra information - even if it does tuck away some excessively interesting tidbits. I never felt lost, or as if I needed to read the Diary notes to grasp what was happening.

The story never needed to be as strong as it was though, thanks to its pairing with an absolutely pitch perfect environment. There are good looking apocalyptic environments, and then there's Metro: Last Light. The darkness of the metro is suffocating, and your flashlight does little to combat it. Tight corners branch into large areas before shoving you into a duct and doubling down and claustrophobia. The constant change adds an air of believability to the idea that the metros are a rough, dangerous place. Just getting to the next room can be difficult, requiring searches, makeshift solutions, and a handful of desperate encounters that mesh perfectly with the atmosphere.

Metros are also, thankfully, much more varied this time around. I was thoroughly surprised when a half hour of tunnels opened into a large, flooded metro and I was forced hold my ground against a pack of beasts as a fisherman brought his boat over to rescue me. The fleshing out of the world beneath the surface also presents opportunities for environmental storytelling. Settlements now feel lived in, though I was disappointed to only have the chance to thoroughly explore one. The setting now feels like a world instead of an excuse to make small levels, with little events happening perpendicular to your adventure.

In one instance, I found myself sneaking through a train car to save a woman from two armed men. Successfully accomplishing that, I shut off the lights as I worked my way out, and took down their friend who had come to investigate the silence. Further down the tracks, I found where those three men came from and cleared out the base as a woman screamed for help and the bandit leaders berated her. Upon confronting them though, I did not experience the same success as with the last encounter and the bandit leader, along with the captive woman, disappeared into the tunnels never to be seen again. It's these momentary choices, to stop and listen to someone's cry for help, to clear out an ambush or speed on through to the other side, that make the metros special in Last Light. They are where the last of humanity tells the last of its stories.

The surface is just as beautiful and players spend more time up top in Last Light than in Metro 2033. Unlike the previous game, time spent on the surface is not a mad dash in the face of overwhelming enemy strength and dangerously low supplies. Instead its often a slow and methodical trek through naturally hostile territory. The same new variety also makes its way to the razed remnants of Russia.

Swamps and ice fields, storms and sunlight, night and day. All in service of a world that actually feels like it has seen the scourge of nuclear war. The surface of Last Light's world is the first environment that I felt that way about, even the massive world of Fallout felt a little too orderly. In contrast, Metro is chaos, the best kind of chaos. The proper path is almost never the first you see and getting to it usually requires ducking in and out of the ravaged Russian streets. Enemies often scamper through the world as well, popping up here or there for a scripted sequence and even running in packs across the battlefield. Many of these packs can put up a hell of a fight, and Last Light makes it clear that a shoot on sight policy isn't always the best idea. It is truly impressive to see a game put so much effort into making its monsters a part of the world. When you are set upon by a pack of Watchers it doesn't feel like a wave of enemies is being thrown at you, because you've seen them scurrying about as you went.

Completing the trio of necessary elements, Last Light's gameplay also avoids slouching. Metro 2033's mechanics are probably most aptly described as obtuse. In a way that (almost) worked though. The visuals were rough around the edges, the world was rough around the edges, so why shouldn't it be a little rough around the edges in motion? Last Light takes a different approach though, cleaning up everything that was jagged and jarring about the previous title. Every movement and weapon swap is silky smooth, with the exception of the breach-loading shotgun which has a strange hitch in the reload animation.

Although the threat of running out of supplies may be all but gone on Normal, the men and beasts that have survived in the hostile environment still pack a punch. Unfortunately, most of these men and beast are also very predictable, advancing in the same patterns and with the same numbers in almost every instance. Surprisingly, the least predictable segments were the on rails ones - which were occasionally literally on train rails. The level of interactivity that some of these sections presented, was rather impressive. Similarly, while the same "defend yourself until the lift arrives" mechanic appeared several times, and was plagued by poor situation specific enemy AI, roughly half were punctuated by a satisfying twist.

This fault is largely overshadowed by the weapons, and shooting the occasionally brain-dead enemies is honestly the most fun I've had shooting anything in a video game for the last few years. The same cobbled together guns make a return appearance, along with the ammo as currency system, and they feel great. Shooting is much tighter, and variations in how different enemies must be approached, along with balancing of your loadout for the situation at hand, add an active touch to an otherwise passive system. A few new items are sprinkled in and an upgrade system is layered on top, although I was disappointed that I never came across the game's new night vision goggles.

Upgrades aren't extremely powerful, but they can affect how you approach certain situations. They also present an interesting system of give and take. Do you spring for a new gun or attachment knowing that down the line you may have to abandon your weapon in favor of one that you actually have ammo for? I found myself confronting that situation more than once; in the worst case spending almost 300 bullets tricking out a rifle, only to realize after struggling through a few areas that it just wasn't worth keeping a loud, slow gun around while sneaking through the metros.

However, some of the coolest weapons come in the last handful of levels, which, when grouped with a few other elements that crop up around the same time, makes it seem like the developers realized they would be wearing their audience thin with constant, repetitive combat. It's not that the encounters are bad, but rather that they feel samey. Late game tweaks change them slightly, but only really with the effect of making confrontations play out faster.

Earlier segments unfold much like Crysis or Farcry, with players given the choice to be stealthy or go in guns blazing. Like those games, the reality is often somewhere in between. There were a few sections where I found myself restarting checkpoints like I would in a stealth game, but at some point that level of detailed stealth stopped being fun for me and I started shooting. I like that it gave me the opportunity though, because I truly had fun working my way through the environments, and the tension created by those situations really helped get me into the game as the story was just pulling away from the platform.

This is the nuclear apocalypse though, and it's not without its troubles. The worst offender in the category of gameplay is the boss battles. They are something that, in practice, would have been better done without, regardless of how good they seemed on paper or how admittedly cool the boss designs are. All eventually turn into a game of cat and mouse involving running, then turning, then shooting, and finally more running. A process repeated until the oversized enemy finally hits the ground. Most show off enemy types new to the series as well, which means no epic showdown with the flying Demons that terrorized Artyom in Metro 2033. These fights feel out of place, and they aren't alone.

Much of Metro: Last Light feels odd. It's a game trapped between console and PC, between next-gen and current-gen, between old and new approaches to games. Carelessly designed, arena based boss fights punctuate carefully laid out and directed levels. The game is much better optimized, running at the highest settings - bells and whistles like PhysX turned off - without much trouble on my stock EVGA 660Ti graphics card in 1080p, a feat that would probably be difficult to match in the hefty Metro 2033.

However, when presented with that same card sporting a mild overclock, Last Light suddenly becomes unstable. Crashing while running at a consistent 50-60FPS on an overclocked card became an issue, especially in the rain soaked second trip to the surface, and I eventually had to unclock my card to proceed. For those not versed in PC tech, overclocking is like a tune up for a processor, and my card ran every other game I own, as well as EVGA's stress testing software and most of the game, without a hitch at those settings. I was surprised to have it running fine out of the box, and even more surprised to encounter this oddity. 

More immediately noticeable are the game's visuals and interface. Last Light is a gorgeous game, but it's clear that it is still tied to current consoles. Characters are outstandingly detailed, but occasionally give the impression that they are computer generated puppets instead of people. Textures look great, but every now and again one pops up that clearly should have had something replacing it in the PC version. The interface that Game Informer's PC based review called "convoluted" is actually very simple, it's just one that is clearly meant for a gamepad and was clumsily mapped to a keyboard. At its core, the game is meant to be played with a controller, but it is, at the same time, meant to be played on a PC where mouse and keyboard controls reign supreme. A handful of other less important issues, such as the game occasionally not displaying the loot icon before the weapon swap icon when looting downed foes, present hindrances that have no real reason to exist. 

Metro: Last Light is a great game. It simultaneously presents what people loved about Metro 2033, in a shinier, better performing, and better playing package. It offers something for standard shooter fans on the Normal difficulty level, while ramping up into a proper survival horror game on the higher ones. Better atmosphere than Fallout, better gunfights and set pieces than Call of Duty, the versatility in approach to combat of Crysis, and all the story driven goodness of BioShock. Last Light has its quirks, but is easily one of the most interesting shooters on the market, and one of the best games of the year so far.