What are you doing after the apocalypse?
Video-game creators have been asking that question for years, with results ranging from Bethesda's sublime "Fallout 3" to id Software's forgettable "Rage."
Ukrainian developer 4A Games fell somewhere in between with 2010's "Metro: 2033," based on the bleak fiction of Russian novelist Dmitry Glukhovsky. It boasted incredibly detailed visuals that helped the player overlook somewhat sluggish combat controls, clunky artificial intelligence and a somewhat vague narrative.
The new sequel, "Metro: Last Light" (Deep Silver, for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, $59.99; PC, $49.99), addresses all those complaints. While the visuals remain extraordinary, the combat controls are now tight and responsive, the menus have been streamlined and the enemy AI has improved enough to forgive some occasional quirks.
Like its predecessor, "Last Light" throws you into a gloomy, claustrophobic world teeming with tension and very little else beneath a nuclear-ravaged Moscow.
No hidden caches of high-level weapons. Scarce medical supplies. A flashlight you need to constantly recharge. Gas masks that require new filters to avoid suffocation. High-grade ammo that is best conserved because it doubles as currency. Yes, life in the Metro tunnels is harsh, unforgiving and entirely dependent on smart resource management.
As a young Russian named Artyom, you wake up in the military compound you discovered in "2033" after the missile attack that destroyed the surface-dwelling Dark Ones. Artyom has his doubts about that decision to destroy the Dark Ones and sets out to learn more about the creatures. Are they friend or foe? Mutant or alien? Perhaps something in between?
On your journey through the tunnels and the occasional foray to a very harsh surface, you come across communists, Fourth Reich Nazis and ordinary folks inhabiting the heavily fortified train stations. Factions still fight each other over ideology and seek any advantage they can get - even as many deadly forms of mutated life roam the surface and stalk the network of tunnels.
If you want to be stealthy, you can take down enemies with throwing knives. If you don't care how much noise you make, you can wield pistols, shotguns and rifles. One of the more interesting weapons in your arsenal is a pneumatic rifle you need to pump: Push the gauge too high and the weapon jams, too low and it's like firing a BB gun.
But the greatest strength of "Last Light" is how deeply it immerses you in this dark and dangerous place.
The dancing shadows and nearly inaudible ambient sounds will have you wheeling around only to find nothing. The gunfire is muffled when you're wearing a gas mask, which fogs up the longer you wear it and needs the occasional hand wipe to remove the blood and grime. Health regenerates slowly but the process can be sped up with adrenaline shots. And you have to put down your weapon in order to read the clipboard that lists your objectives.
While "2033" had some lively characters in the Metro stations, 4A has gone a step further with the great dialogue and voice acting in "Last Light." You truly get a sense that these places are inhabited by real people engaged in a struggle for survival. Even the stripped-down, midtempo score - built around moody, reverb-heavy guitar - perfectly fits the Metro tunnels and the hard life of their inhabitants.
It's a grim, disturbing future, and not for the faint of heart. Three and a half stars out of four.