Metro 2033 (PC, Xbox 360)

Metro 2033 is an FPS game from developers 4A Studios and published by THQ that adds elements of horror to its post apocalyptic setting of the Moscow Metro System.  I’m going to review it.

What it is not  is STALKER.  I’m only going mention it here; yes, part of the team that developed STALKER left and formed 4A games, who in turn made Metro 2033; yes, they’re both set in Post-Apocalyptic Russian settings; and yes, I’m sure you can eyeball all kinds of superfluous and otherwise nebulous comparisons in an attempt to seem more discriminating and knowledgeable. Tough shit.  STALKER is a great game, but the unending comparisons are mainly aesthetic, and only serve to undermine what the game is, and what makes it great.  So, no, go listen to another reviewer prattle on about that.

[Metro apparently is Russian for badass]

In the wake of games like Fallouts 3 and New Vegas, as well as the near incessant deluge of monochrome FPS games (apparently the future is as grey as the 1800s), a game like Metro 2033 (from now on just Metro because I’m that lazy) probably wouldn’t seem to differentiate itself much on the surface.  In fact, on paper, the game sounds even less original: Shooter set in war ravaged Russia (in this case), except set in the Metro system (AHA!).  The only real difference would seem to be the immediate setting of the tunnels of the Russian subway system, a cheap gimmick used to try and grab some cheap attention and probably your money, despite you probably having a few slightly different copies of the game. The timing of the release combined with the general themes and ideas of the game probably sent it under a few radars, but this release from a rather young Russian developer is something you shouldn’t miss–jaded misconceptions or not.

Based on the novel by Dmitry Glukhovsky of the same name, the premise of the story (without going into too much or giving away enough that would save you a fairly quick Google search) is that the world, ravaged by nuclear war has become largely uninhabitable and devoid of life, and a few lucky people have retreated to the extensive network of tunnels of the Moscow Metro system to avoid the harsh new world above.  A new subset of cultures and life has developed under the rubble.  The game follows Artyon as he goes to find help for his crumbling home from more powerful stations in the metro as the Dark Ones threaten his family and neighborhood.

The game isn’t for everyone–let’s get that out of the way right now.  It’s hard. Really hard. The game takes an example from the environment it is trying to convery, as in it takes the “harsh” aspect as literally as possible.  It’s about as forgiving as that cold, inhumanly detached boss you worked for all those years, punishing you for every noticeable mistake or careless move while you cry every night because he won’t show you compassion.  Even on its easiest settings, the game can spur a few scowls and procure a few vulgarities.  There are a lot of ways you can die, and chances are you’ll find out what most of them are fairly quickly; many instances have you making split second decisions, many of them ending in a black screen and a “Load last Checkpoint?” menu.  If you’re easily frustrated, or don’t like a game that emphasizes taking things more carefully, then this probably isn’t for you.  The game isn’t a run and gun action type–and you’ll learn that quickly if you try it.

[This is will happen frequently]

The core of gameplay is skeletally similar to games like Call of Duty and Battlefield: Bad Company–or just about any other FPS in the last 5 years–having things like iron-sighting, sprinting, toggle crouching and even… regenerating health.  That’s where the similarities end, however. Being an FPS, there are obvious things you can expect, but Metro immediately begins to differentiate itself with all the other aspects of gameplay and routine that are just as important as “point and hold down the trigger until it stops moving.” The game also features some very well executed aspects of stealth, giving you not just the choice but obvious incentives (and some not so) to sneak and sabotage instead of run and gun.   Silent, pneumatic weapons or throwing knives can kill without alerting surrounding enemies, while you can turn off lights in a variety of ways, from straight out shooting them out, blowing them out, or finding a circuit breaker to turn them all  off.  Even the headlamps are free game for a well placed shot, sending the soldier staggering, and the rest into a panic.  The AI reactions to darkness (which can be monitored via your watch or later by a gauge on your Night Vision goggles) is surprisingly fair, as they will lose track of Artyon and fire randomly or at the place they saw him last.  The options and emphasis of stealth in Metro adds a unique feel to the game, as well as an interesting challenge to several situations that can become frustrating–for a game not about stealth, it sure pulls it off nicely.

[You also get to experience the sheer terror of manually pumping your power supply while looking for creatures that will rip your intestines out through your nose if they find you]

One of the most prominent features of the game is the iconic air filter, plastered on every post-apocalyptic game, movie, book and interpretive dance (as well as both the book and game) since it became stylized to blow up the world.  However, in Metro, it’s your lifeline.  You can’t do anything without it.  At all times on the surface and in certain areas below, the gas mask is all that separates you from lethal fumes and a quick journey; but the game isn’t about to let you off easily.   Unlike most games that even feature filters and gas masks, it is not an infinite, invulnerable resource.   The game has you scrambling for unused filters off dead allies, enemies and hiding throughout the game–and you learn quickly to take off the mask as soon as you can, because fighting with the mask on can leave it cracked or even completely useless.   You can find replacement masks on the dead, occasionally, but it’s not a habit you should make.  A broken mask or a short supply of filters can end your game regardless of how well you’re doing on killing Russians or Dark Ones.  Every time you place your mask over your head, Artyon (you) resets his watch’s timer; every filter lasts about 5 or so minutes in badly ventilated areas, or on the surface, and you have to check that manually.  Artyon will change the filter automatically as it runs out, but you can tell when it’s time change through the clues that the game offers–heavy breathing and a fogging goggles, giving you the opportunity to change before you enter a fight or a tense part of the game.

—-

[The game features several incentives to make you take care of your mask, like breathing and seeing]

Metro‘s use of small, but noticeable features in the game, from the manually reset and monitored stop watch to the objectives menu being an actual clipboard that you check by holding a lighter to, help create a very realized and often tense atmosphere in the game.   It’s a balancing act of checking a myriad of things aside from your run-of-the-mill tactics that makes the game challenging and interesting–without being unfair or just stupidly hard.

Graphically, you’re not going to many games that look better than Metro 2033.  From a purely technical standpoint, it ranks up with the likes of Crysis (which is not to say that it surpasses the game) in terms of sheer impressive graphics.   From big and small touches, the game is alive within its own world–shadows dance against the wall as soldiers sit by a fire; a green phosphorescent glow illuminates the lowest tunnels from light emitting fungi as mist swirls around you;  cracks and ice crystals cling to your mask.  The direction of the art, as well as the engine power behind, is simply gorgeous.  The world is brought to life in vivid color (well, you know) and scope, giving a very genuine sense of isolation and fear simply via the landscape.   Occasionally you will venture to the surface, and you can watch as snow is blown around the sky and see the ruined landscape, and how very large it is.  Cars and rubble litter ruined and fragmented roads, and the whole thing becomes very immersive, especially during some frantic segments of the game, trying scramble back down into the safety of the tunnels.

[The 450 width doesn’t really do it justice]

Another noticeable touch to the game, and one that often goes overlooked in many, is the sound production.  It’s wonderful. There’s a surprising amount of voice acting in the game, and it all sounds very well done–laughter echoing down the tunnel, beggars mumbling by the railway, Communist inspectors interrogating a prisoner, the ambient voices and sounds within the stations is phenomenal, an easily overlooked, but very important aspect of immersion in Metro. This is also another aspect in which Metro shines for using ambient noise so effectively to create a sense of dread and tension.  Many times I remember stopping and listening, terrified that something was following me, making rocks tumble or wood clack or even just breathing heavily (as all monsters apparently do), and waiting for something to happen.  Sometimes you can sneak by, and others you can’t.  The use of everything from dripping water and the different noises of footsteps to crumbling buildings and creaking pipes, the whole atmosphere is incredible and very polished.  Making noise can alert enemies, both beast and man, so listening for anything proves to be an integral part of not being eaten alive.

[You’ll have to imagine how cool it sounds]

Combat is… well, what it is.  You’re not going to find much new in the game in terms of basic mechanics.  You pull the trigger and things die… sometimes.  Your health regenerates ala Call of Duty and its modern ilk, thought don’t let that be off putting: it’s agonizingly slow, and nothing on which you can rely heavily.  The only way to recharge quickly is to pop a medkit and get that boost of regeneration, but they become scarce in intense sessions.  The biggest problem with combat comes better with a slight explanation about the ammunition in Metro 2033: in the wake of world-wide disaster, military grade ammunition has become scarce, and being as useful as it is, a very prized commodity, used to make “Dirty Ammo” by taking the high grade gunpowder and adding fillers, weakening the stopping power, but allowing more to be made.  Obviously, the dirty bullets have a lot less stopping power than a regular bullet–and it shows.  Initially, enemies (Dark Ones) don’t take much to put down, but as the game progresses, they become bullet sinks in which you can dump large amounts of your ammo collection if you’re not careful–the problem ends up being that later in the game you will end up scrambling for ammo at every which way, because your weapons seem fairly week against enemies.   One of the biggest problems with the combat of the game is the amount of ammo it can take to kill the numerous enemies; a lot of times you will probably waste horrendous amounts of ammo into a single enemy, and leave you with little to conserve in order to repel the dozens of others in the game.  This is probably one of the biggest flaws in the game as it crosses the line from being a challenge to being flabbergastingly unfair.

A big problem noted in criticism of Metro is the enemy AI being pretty thick–even for FPS AI.  The severity of (and emphasis on) mainly depends on whom you ask, however there is some merit to it.   One of the games biggest shortfalls is pretty bland AI–some of the time, anyways.   While I found some aspects, like enemies firing poorly and at random as you hide in the dark, fairly well done, others found myself standing within obvious lighting and sight of enemy soldiers and remaining hidden, leading me to believe all of the inhabitants of the Metro needed glasses–badly.  It also seems to randomize between hawk-eyed enemies and mole-eyed enemies, making the game frustratingly inconsistent at times.   The AI of the Dark Ones is largely serviceable, but hardly worth any praise; they just run up to you and try to bite your face off.   The AI in the game, generally speaking, isn’t amazing but isn’t quite deserved as much as some reviews would imply.

[Like the creepy guy on the bus, except he can rip you in half]

[AKA Bullet Dumpster]

In each station you’ll find ammo exchange stations as well as shops that you can buy newer weapons, ammo or other supplies.   Generally, if you have a scavengers mentality, you can find all you need amidst corpses and hidden areas, but occasionally stocking up on filters and extra ammo is a good idea.  You may be tempted to horde your ammo, but most of the expensive weapons you can buy are found throughout the game, and the difference isn’t enough to warrant that much of an emphasis.

The story fairly interesting, and leads to some unusual sequences near the end–though I’m not going to give much away.  The Metro is plagued by creatures known as the Dark Ones (or Homo Novus) as they put increasing pressure on smaller settlements as attacks increase.   Factions like Communists and Nazis have survived the end of the world and fight under the ground as much as above.  You will meet some interesting characters along the way, many of them colorful and sometimes hilarious (a lot of the faceless enemies have funny dialog) and some fairly interesting.  There is a small and often subtle moral point system that can lead to a ‘secret’ ending, but when I mean subtle I’m not being facetious.  More than being a black and white (save the kitten; rape the kitten) choice compass, it’s small acts like giving a spare bullet to a beggar (more obvious) or just listening to a soldier tell you about his day.  It’s largely inconsequential ’til the trippy end of the game, but an interesting if ultimately too subtle attempt at making you explore the game’s culture and crevices.

[Life in the Metro consists of scavenging, cowering, dying and listening to the gorgeous country tunes of Sasha Kruskev]

Despite the shortcoming of the game, what you have is a brilliant example of atmosphere, immersion and challenging gameplay from relatively young company.   The attention to detail, painstaking detail and care that this game is given is truly amazing despite some of the shortcomings that plague the game, and something that is almost entirely devoid in modern titles–especially the stagnant FPS hierarchy.  This is the type of thing we should support.  Obviously there are hurdles to pass for those who enjoy their games forgiving or easy, as well as those with hardon for multiplayer, as well as a few problems with AI and linearity (for some), this is a fantastic game, and one I hope to see more of in the future.

Get this game.

Just make sure it’s on the PC.

[REAL PUMPING ACTION]

 

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2 Responses to Metro 2033 (PC, Xbox 360)

  1. anon says:

    Great review! A sequel was just announced too; can’t wait.

    • fuckyournames says:

      Thanks.

      And I’m very excited for the new Metro. They’re talking about fixing all the problems they had with 2033, and that hopefully means very good things for the company. I’m glad they did well enough to do a sequel.

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