In Metro 2033, a novel turned video game, mankind's worst fear has been realized. Twenty years prior, in 2013, the apocalypse happened and the last remnants of humanity were forced underground. Earth as we've known it is no more -- cities are leveled, the air is poisonous, and violent mutants kill humans at every chance. As the player, you will control young Artyom, who was born twenty years ago in the metro subway system of Moscow. These miles of interconnected tunnels are where humanity makes its final stand against the harsh reality of a spoiled earth and the unrelenting brutality of the mutants and Dark Ones. For mankind to avoid extinction, something must be done -- and it's up to Artyom and brave Rangers to make it happen.
At first look, Metro 2033 reminded me a lot of STALKER, one of my favorite gaming franchises. Metro 2033 and STALKER share several similarities including a near future, apocalyptic setting in Russia complete with hazardous environments, dangerous monsters, and bizarre anomalies. You can certainly draw other comparisons, but ultimately, the two games are significantly different with perhaps the biggest difference for Xbox owners being that Metro is available on the Xbox. Generally speaking, STALKER is far less linear and has more RPG elements to it than Metro, but for what Metro does, it does it very well.
Metro 2033 begins with a raucous fire fight scene before fading off into events about eight days earlier. Artyom is greeted by a friend led through his home station of Exhibition. Around the metro, there are dozens of stations setup much like Exhibition. Players will visit numerous stations in the campaign that starts at Exhibition and ends about twelve hours and seven chapters later.
Gameplay in Metro 2033 varies nicely and includes elements of RPG, Survival Horror, and even Stealth. The most pronounced genre though is FPS. Many times, players are working with one or more NPCs, including several main characters like Hunter, Bourbon, Khan, and Miller. The balance between working with NPCs and going alone is great. Thinking back, I would estimate that just over half of the game is played with you fighting alongside one or more NPCs. This makes the experience more realistic, and fun, because the mutants are tough and almost always attack in swarms. There are a half dozen or so mutant types, and all use melee attacks (no projectiles). Some attack and run, but most will attack and stay in your face until you get away or take them down.
But Metro 2033 has more enemies than just mutants, I'm pleased to say. Some stations are under Fascist and Communist rule, and they are at war with each other. Yes, even in apocalyptic times, in author Dmitry Glukhovsky's vision, humans will still fight each other instead of facing the problem of extinction together. As if that weren't enough, the environment is rife with hazards from radiated areas that'll make your Geiger counter click (and your blood boil) to treacherous high points. Not to mention, anytime you step out topside, you better have your gas mask on or the toxic air will make quick work of you. With all of those dangers around, it's nice to have some NPC friends with you for much of the game.
Whether with NPCs or alone, Artyom will have to rely on his abilities and weapons to get through. How you approach a situation depends largely on your preference. Instead of forcing gamers to always go the guns blazing route, several areas in Metro 2033 allow you to go stealth and sneak your way through. Destructible lights, being able to move silently while crouched, silencers for some weapons, and throwing knives make this possible. The throwing knives are great -- line up a head shot on someone without a mask on and you'll get a quick, silent kill. You can even pick up your knife for another use once you get up to the body. Just be sure to stay aware of broken glass and noise traps that will alert the enemy you're in the area.
One nice thing about having the choice of firefight or stealth is that you can mix the two, although it's far easier to start stealth and finish with guns than the other way around. And with Metro's frequent checkpoints, I didn't mind spending a little time experimenting with different tactics because if I died, I knew I wasn't going to be that far back. Load times are really brief too. But, since you cannot predict when a checkpoint save will occur, you have to careful because you cannot restart a mission or level (you can only restart at your last checkpoint).
Anomalies In Design?
Before going on, there was one very weird occurrence early in the game at Dry Station. In this area, your buddy gets captured and your objective is to get to the room he's been taken to. Problem is, there are about twenty Communist guards in front of you. I tried the stealth route at first -- turning off or breaking lights as I came to them, using my spotlight carefully, if at all -- but that didn't work out, so guns blazing it was. Ammo can get pretty tight in Metro 2033 at times, and it was getting especially low in this area because I encountered what turned out to be an invincible enemy -- literally. I was shocked, but I managed, after about ten or fifteen checkpoint restarts, to get this particular foe in a position whereby he couldn't advance on to me and I could just fire at him any time he popped out of cover -- so I was safe to test my theory in other words. Despite pouring a couple hundred rounds total from three different guns, he wouldn't go down. My only thought was that the game was really expecting me to go stealth and it didn't properly handle it when I didn't -- fortunately I was just able to avoid this enemy and move on...
With the inability to restart a mission (you can only load your last checkpoint) -- I was concerned that I might have 'broken' the game and gotten myself stuck. This was an uncomfortable feeling I had a couple of more times by game's end, including once at Outpost and one more time at D6. At Outpost, I was outside and so I had my gas mask equipped. Anytime you use your gas mask, the filter slowly depletes and you have to find other filters to keep your mask working. Well, I got lost at Outpost and couldn't figure out what to do. All of the enemies were killed that I could find and my compass wasn't worth a damn because I was in a 3D environment, and the compass only shows forward/back/left/right, and doesn't take into account multi-floored buildings like the one in Outpost and the Library (where I also got lost). With my gas mask filter running very low, the game auto-saved, although I had no idea why. Whenever I died, I came back with just a few minutes of air, and that was intimidating until I found where to go.
Inside of D6, there was a sequence in which I ran to safety, leaving my NPC friend Miller behind. An auto save occurred, but the game was stuck -- I went on too quickly and Miller was never going to catch up to me or die, so I had to go back for him. As a third example, very late in the game during a fairly short running sequence, Miller and Artyom must run across a field while under attack from numerous mutants. Instead of making a break for it, Miller runs, stops, waits a second, and then the monsters come. The game doesn't like it if you run ahead for safety -- if you get more than a few steps beyond Miller, you're instantly killed.
Miller's casual walking pace was the source of some frustration in D6 as well, but my point is that there are these instances where you can basically break or 'upset' the game. You'll either die, or you'll be stuck as a result, which is a sign of sketchy game design. On the whole, 4A Games did a great job with Metro 2033, especially considering it's their first project, but I wanted to point out these experiences.
For the most part, Metro 2033 is a great game, but in addition to those tidbits I just mentioned, there is a small list of other (minor) issues I'm compelled to mention. For one, I thought grenade throwing was awkward. I could not get Artyom to throw a grenade very far at all and I never felt that comfortable using them because of it. Grenades aren't a big part of the game, but I feel I could have used them more if Artyom had a better throwing arm.
The enemy human AI talks a lot, especially when you've got them spooked. That's fine, but you'll hear them say a lot of the same things over and over and that diminishes the level of immersion and believability that the game otherwise tries so hard (and does very well) to achieve. Additionally, the friendly AI or NPCs you work with can sometimes be very slow to react which means you either have to work harder to protect them or they're taking a short snooze while you're getting pounced on. This isn't the norm, but you will notice this from time to time.
My list of issues may seem like a lot, but it's short compared to what I liked about Metro. For one, I like the setting, story, and characters. That said, it'll take DLC and/or a sequel to help expand upon the Metro 2033
universe. The game tries to cover an awful lot, and does pretty well with it, but I'm still confused about Artyom's history, his strange relationship with the Dark Ones, who the Dark Ones are, where Hunter and Khan fit in, and a few other questions. And, while the inclusion of Fascist and Communist factions made the game more enjoyable from an action perspective, it may have also muddled up the story. Reason being, you encounter these factions during the middle of the game, but then you abruptly never deal with them again, which I didn't think was a smooth transition. I'm just not sure they were all that beneficial to the story in other words.
A good setting with interesting characters is great, but it doesn't mean a lot without a great atmosphere. No concerns there, as 4A Games did a great job making a wonderfully interesting and immersive world. It starts with excellent visuals and a HUD that only appears when necessary, and ends with a variety of gameplay mechanics that keep you in touch with the game world.
Lighting is a huge part of Metro and 4A Games' custom engine does an exceptional job with it. Sources of light can be turned on or off, fires flicker and create eerie shadows, and strange plant life emits beautiful colored light. Night vision goggles and a shoulder mounted spotlight make for some neat lighting effects as well. Players can stop and charge up their night vision or give their spotlight a temporary boost in power by pulling out their universal charger and tapping RT for a few seconds. Failure to do so every once in a while will result in your night vision batteries depleting when you need them most. A Pneumatic sniper rifle known as the Tihar needs to be pressurized every so often to work properly which also requires tapping RT. A gauge mounted on the gun shows you if it needs a few pumps, which I thought was neat.
Metro has a lot of dark corners and short, alternate, routes to explore, too. Sometimes I felt rushed by the friendly NPC(s) I was with, but you should make it a point to poke around every corner and path to see what you'll discover. More often than not, a dead human will have some ammo or even an advanced weapon for you to take. There aren't that many big secret areas in Metro, but there are a lot of 'quick rewards' for going off and exploring.
Knowing where to go and what to do isn't always made clear by the NPCs, so you'll want to look at your objectives. To do this, Artyom pulls out his journal and a lighter in his other hand to read it if it's too dark. The compass, as I mentioned before, works well most of the time but it's nearly useless in the few multi-tiered buildings you'll get into.
The stations themselves, at least several of them, are interesting in that they give you a glimpse of what life in Metro is like. A few dozen NPCs are in the area, sleeping, eating, standing guard -- all trying to eek out a life basically. It's neat to walk through one of these areas and catch parts of different conversations. You'll always find some traders, too, eager to buy and sell goods. Of course, money is no good in this world. Currency is military grade ammo, the kind that can't be made anymore. Military grade ammo, indicated to the player by its glossy shine, provides superior firepower. It can be found by exploring and picking it off of dead bodies. You can switch to military grade ammo at anytime by holding down the reload button, but you should avoid using it so that you can make purchases for better weapons and gear from the traders. Since enemies -- both human and mutant -- can sustain a hefty amount of damage, make every shot count. That said, goods that you can buy include ammo, medkits, gas mask filters, and a variety of weapons.
There are four main weapon types including Pistol, Automatic, Heavy, and Thrown categories. Only six shooter revolver pistols are available, but they can be customized with silencers, shoulder stocks, extended barrels, and optics (one type of each) to enhance their use. They're especially effective against the 'Librarian' mutants. Automatic weapons include the 'Bastard Gun,' a homemade weapon you use for the first couple hours of play. Then you're onto the Kalash (AK47), VSV, and Kalash 2012. The Heavy Class includes a double barrel shotgun, automatic shotgun, Tihar and Helsing. The Tihar is a pneumatic powered sniper rifle while the Helsing is a pneumatic powered, silent, harpoon gun. Finally, throwing knives, fuse grenades, and sticky grenades round out your weapons.
I mentioned the gas mask earlier, but I wanted to elaborate on it a little more. Players can equip it at anytime by holding down on the d-pad. You need to also remember to remove it when you're out of a danger zone, because it can get damaged unnecessarily if you don't. You'll know when your mask is damaged because stressed glass fractures will appear on your screen, and stay there until you can find a new mask. That's one visual effect, another is the fogging that appears in your view as your filter nears depletion. You can keep an eye on your filter status by checking your survival watch with the LB. Not only does it show you the remaining time on your filter, but an LED indicator shows you how visible you are. I didn't use this LED function at all, but it's nice to know it's there.
Presentation and Wrap Up
Metro 2033 uses the 4A Engine, a new engine made by the developers that's quite impressive. They put it to good use, yielding a great looking game with impressive lighting effects and visceral detail. About the only flaws I could mention are some instances of clipping that were noticeable, but frankly not a big deal. From an aural standpoint, 4A did a solid job as well. The effects are great, voiceovers were very good, and what little soundtrack there is was fitting.
With that, lets get to the summary...