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Written by Kevin Kennedy, @thekevmiester
Based of the 2005 novel of the same name (though not getting a western release until 2010) Metro 2033 is a dank, moody, post-apocalyptic FPS made by 4A Games, which consists of many members of GSC Game World (S.T.A.L.K.E.R), who broke off to create their own studio. With the game’s sequel, Metro: Last Light, just being released, now seems like a good time to head back to Moscow and see if this is a series worth getting invested in.
Set 20 years after a devastating nuclear war leaves Moscow in ruins, Metro 2033 takes place in the city’s Metro system, where the survivors have fled in an attempt to carve out a new life for themselves a grasp for survival. Those that remained on the surface, both human and animals, either died or have mutated into creatures known as the Dark Ones. Once Artyom, our protagonist, learns that a a group of mysterious creatures are planning on attacking his home station, he sets of in search of help.
The tone and setting are the most impressive things about his game; it is truly a dank depressing place and the atmosphere is thick with desperation. I played The Last of Us (TLOU) recently and as fantastic as that game is, I never felt that the world was quite as hopeless and suffocating as it wanted to be, which may have something to do with the gameplay (more on that later) but in Metro 2033, things are grim.
Not that it is painted with a heavy brush though; the game still has it’s humor and lighter moments, which simply shows how much confidence 4A Games has in the world they have created, as simply being in it and walking around is enough to make you feel hopeless.
The story feels equally as hopless, where it’s hard not to feel that Artyom has as little knowledge of the world than the player does. He sometimes has someone there to help him along, but more often than not he is alone and vulnerable. A large chunk of the story in the middle does feel a little muddled (Nazis show up at one point!) and it can be hard to know exactly what is going on, but it’s also hard not to feel like that is by design.
At times it’s as if you are simply being lead by the nose into situations and skirmishes that not only do you not understand but also have trouble dealing with. That being said, the middle third of the game does feel somewhat “wheel spinny”, as if we’re simply killing time until the length has been padded out enough for us to enter the final act.
While the majority of the characters do sort of blend together after a while with maybe one or two exceptions, they all still have enough life, energy and nuance to make them both interesting and fun to be around, though the limited colour palate and character designs doesn’t help them stand out much.
There is always an interesting debate to be had when it comes to gameplay (or more to the point, combat) in survival horror games. Limiting your players prowess and abilities can help rank up the tension and even immerse you into the world. Though where is the line between a finely tuned combat system and a simply bad one? Can a game that by all intents and purposes is meant to be challenging really be accused of making a game too hard? This is an interesting question that kept creeping into my head during my playthrough.
Quite frankly, it doesn’t play that well. At all. Shooting at monsters is awkward, hit detection is almost non-existent and at times it’s hard not to feel like you’re simply firing wildly and hitting nothing. The stealth is even worse, while you do have a meter that tells you how hidden you are, you never really feel as if you are in a more advantageous or powerful position than the enemy, which is perhaps something we’ve grown too accustomed to in stealth games, though it is still annoying that it only takes one mistake for every single enemy to suddenly be aware of you.
Though to go back to my previous point, if the gameplay worked perfectly and was even fun, it would take away from the immersion and tension greatly. When playing TLOU it’s hard not to feel that Joel can take on entire armies as long as he has enough supplies, but in Metro 2033, I honestly breathed huge sighs of relief whenever a cutscene took over, the loading screen came up or when we were in non combat zones, a feeling I never got with TLOU.
The gameplay isn’t all bad to be fair. There are lots of excellent ideas sprinkled about. The Flashlight for instance has to be charged manually. A simple mechanic but oddly satisfying and adding depth and tension to otherwise ordinary skirmishes. A gas mask must be worn when walking about the surface of Moscow (or other infested areas), though if your mask breaks, you better find another quickly before the poison fills your lungs. There are also two types of bullets, brown dirty ones and clean silver ones which do more damage but can also be used in stores between missions.
Finally, there is a section near the end of the game however that is perhaps one of the most tense things I have ever experienced. You have to enter a library in which there are “The Librarians”, huge hulking monsters that take far more damage to kill than they’re worth, though if you keep completely still in their presence they SHOULD leave you alone. Play the game with decent headphones and the lights off and get ready to tighten those butt checks.
Overall though, it is hard to look at the gameplay and feel that it is all intentional. It may work with the game despite itself but it can also be deathly frustrating for the wrong reasons.
I don’t think I can recall a single colour throughout the entire game. There are a couple used in a dream sequence or two, but the world itself seems to only consist of blacks and greys. It’s this design that helps hammer home the idea of how dank and depressing the Metro is, though that excuse doesn’t cover every aspect of the game. The aforementioned characters have no distinguishing designs to set them apart and it’s more than likely that you wont know who anyone is until a name is mentioned.
The sound is mostly excellent, voice acting is great, there are nice touches whilst walking around the more calmer areas of the Metro including people bickering with each other or playing guitar and the monsters sound gruesome though are at their worst when you don’t see them (again, get a set of headphones and get ready for your skin to crawl).
The sound of Artyom breathing heavily as his air filter runs out or is sprinting is very claustrophobic and the condensation on the inside of the masks are a nice touch. Though also be prepared for screams being repeated and other annoying bugs; I was unable to take off my gas mask until I loaded a save from two levels ago, keep in mind that the game has been out for over 3 years now and has yet to be fixed with a patch.
Perhaps it is just me, but there seems to be a lot more big budget games just now that are designed to depress the player on some level, from Spec Ops: The Line, to Halo: Reach and even The Last of Us, which personally I am all in favour of. On many levels, Metro 2033 may have them all trumped. That being said, this is a hard game to recommend to people who are looking for a classic example of “fun”; a well made game that anyone can appreciate.
From a gameplay perspective Metro: 2033 is frustrating, buggy and clumsy, but also tense as hell. The main reason to pick up this game is to let yourself get soaked into one of the most thick, dreary and atmospheric games that you are likely to play for a very long time. If that sounds interesting to you, then pick this up the moment you notice it on sale, maybe even sooner.
The Final Word: A thick, dreary, atmospheric experience that will defiantly making an impact, though does suffer from some gameplay issues and glitches.
Metro 2033 is available on Xbox 360 and PC (reviewed).