Metro 2033 (Xbox 360)
Yes, as promised, there are mutants, a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and there are guns and even commies and Nazis of all things. I half expected this thriller/horror FPS to hit its potential zenith with, and rely on, these elements alone, but it’s in the absence of these that Metro 2033 swallows you. In the absence of enemies and light, when you're adrift from the outside world and its reality, the only reality you’re anchored to is confined to the sound of your gas mask, the seemingly thundering sound of your boots, and the thick embrace of the yawning darkness. This is when you see Metro 2033 ’s true craft, in these atmospheric brushstrokes; when you feel a little unnerved by advancing too fast, anxious that every step is aural blood in the air, telling the monsters frenzied to maul you where you are.
What really conveys this atmosphere is the meticulous detailing 4A Studios put into this game. Nothing is easy in Metro 2033 and little things that we take for granted in other FPS’s, things like sniper rifles that always shoot at full power, fully charged night vision goggles, or bullets that usually kill targets instantaneously, have their challenges. You have to use a portable hand generator to charge your flashlight and goggles, and you frequently need to pump your pneumatic rifles to make sure they have enough power; you even have to take into consideration whether the air is breathable. These reflect the nature of life for the inhabitants of the metro, barely eking out as normal a life as possible with everything outside wanting to massacre them. This is the world Artyom, your character, grew up in. The situation is so desperate, pre-fallout ammo serves mainly as the lifeblood of the economy, and is used reluctantly in only the most life-and-death situations. This is further complicated by the little amounts of ammo available in the game.
You live on the fringe and that fact is always apparent. Yet you also get the surprisingly lighter side of the world that author Dmitry Glukhovsky created. As you walk the tunnels of Exhibition, your home station, and others, you’ll run into the slurred, vodka fueled debates of soldiers, hear married couples arguing, and the general chortling and merriment, woes and complaints that come with people’s, surprisingly adjusted given the circumstances, everyday lives. This little slice of normalcy makes life worth living for Artyom. Protecting this little slice from the roiling horde of monsters raving to ravage it is why he ventures from Exhibition for the first time. This context puts more at stake for the player than just achievements and trigger pulling.
The game play is solid and surprisingly varied. The standard elements of FPS’s are present: a nice selection of weapons, smooth gunning and movement, and plenty of enemies to line-up cross hairs to. 4A’s take on the dynamics of FPS’s is what’s worth noting though. The fact that the pre-fallout ammo is not only the best ammo, but your currency as well makes you think twice about running and gunning. You’d be surprised how hard it is to shoot your military grade ammo in an emergency when it’s the equivalent of throwing your wallet at an enemy. Though mutants are the main enemy, don’t think that the only tactic you’ll need in Metro 2033 is the backpedaling gunner. You also come to face re-emergent Soviet and even Nazi factions. There, game play becomes more tactical; essentially, the tone of battle switches between hunter and prey. The detailing really shines in these iterations of combat. When you’re up against human foes, you have a variety of ways to take them out. The darkness is a great weapon. An LED light on your watch tells you how visible you are to enemies and you can spread the darkness in a room by blowing out lanterns or shooting light bulbs. Complimented with night vision, throwing knives, and silenced guns, you’re just another shadow in the dark, and foes panic.
What makes the hunter aspect even more compelling though is the assortment of traps and alarms enemies have waiting for you. With the upper hand through stealth, players can get cocky and reckless; this is when you trigger traps. The most rudimentary of things, aluminum cans on wires, can give away your position, send enemies whistling to their reinforcements, and leave you with a less than healthy serving of lead. If you’re not careful you can also bump into bells, get crushed to death by loving caress of spiked-trunks, or even get tattled on by glass on the floor.
It’s the antithetical case when it comes to walking down mutant-infested tunnels. The best crafted moments of game play are the seemingly stretched out minutes where you don’t see as much as a bat. 4A’s audio department really delivers in these moments. Your gasmask sloshes with the sound of your hesitantly thick breaths, and every step crunches and creeks, wooden beams and metal sheets fall when you bump into them, and open areas want to expose you; you become very aware of your own presence and how loud it can be. My favorite moment comprised simply of some shadows and sounds of gory feeding. Something was clearly in the parallel room working on a corpse and I just crouched as close as I could to the floor and walked, praying that it wouldn’t notice me as I was very low on ammo. Everything in the tunnels seems to suggest something fanged and ill tempered is in the vicinity. The phlegm coated, scraping growls of Librarians (you’ll know them when you hear them) seemed to ooze from every wall and corner of the library level. And other times, the air just seems to breathe with the slightest haze of shrieking.
The game does have its rough-edged moments, however. Sometimes, human-enemy AI can be in the single-digit side of the IQ scale. At times they would just stand and stare at the grenade I had tossed in the middle of their formation. Were they wondering what to name said grenade and whether they could take it home and teach it to roll over, or even not to explode like a shrapnel piñata? Fortunately, these storm-trooper grade moments were scarce and AI would react quickly to my presence while sounding alarms. Some of the mutant and civilian character models also bothered me especially in contrast to the rich lighting effects. The game's winged enemies, demons, seemed rendered in first generation X-Box graphics and you might experience deja vu when you run into the same young mother dressed in that suspiciously familiar pink hoodie in multiple, supposedly isolated and sometimes xenophobic, stations. On that note, there are also a few times it seems that nuclear fallout has impeded eye-lid growth in the populace; some of the people look like they are surprised by everything around them. It doesn't seem to be a design issue though with the soldier NPC's.
One particular type of mutant's AI, the nosali, always irritated me. They are the common grunts you'll frequently have the pleasure of playing extreme cops and robbers with. It really took from the fright of the experience though every time these things decided they wanted to warm up with some jumping jacks in the middle of a firefight. I'm shooting at them and they're just bouncing around. The other mutants thankfully don't seem to have ADHD though, and will rush you and hound you like slavering animals. You will have to fight for your breathing space in this game.
Metro 2033 is a fantastic early year surprise. It proves that a shooter can be both violent and fast paced yet grippingly somber and human at the same time. There are explosions and succinctly poetic moments that demonstrate shooters have no excuse for shoddy story lines and minute-man campaigns. If you're out looking for one of those few hidden gems in the media circus of games with higher advertising than development budgets, definitely go out and get a copy of Metro 2033.
This review is based off a retail copy of the game.