Developer: 4A Games
Year of Release: 2010
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3
Based on the games I’ve played from Russian developers, they must be the most depressed developers in the world. The STALKER games are bleak apocalyptic wastelands filled with death and horror while Cryostatis was a deeply upsetting and tense voyage through a ship frozen in the polar ice. I guess its in part due to the hard ships that their country has overcome (invaded constantly, weather that hates mankind and bad stereotyping) but it sure helps to make atmospheric games such as THQ’s Metro 2033.
Based on a recent Russian novel, Metro 2033 takes place in Moscow after humanity decides to stick the middle finger up at Sting and nuke the crap out of each other. Most of the Muscovites hide in the underground stations to avoid the nuclear winter, due to the fact they are built like bomb shelters any way. Over the years, these stations became their own states each with their own specific character (under siege state, communist state, factory state). Above ground, the radiation has ruined the surface and plunged the earth into nuclear winter as well as creating hordes of mutants that are attempting to get into and turn the humans into steaks. Even worse than even the mutants are the rumours of the Dark Ones, the new bogeyman that parents use to scare their children to sleep. This world is a horrible, gritty and grim vision of the future made worse by the fact that even when humanity’s very existence is in trouble, we are still trying to kill each other – the war between the Communists and the Nazis still carries on underground, in the ruined stations and the cavernous tunnels.
Your actual role is a much simpler one. Your character comes from one of the outlying stations, which is constantly under threat from the hordes of evil banging on the airlock. After a friend of your father’s goes missing in the wasteland, you head to the central station to relay the news of an impending attack. Along the way, you experience a cross section of the underground life. You fight the frontline of the war between the Commies and the Nazis, trek through a haunted tunnel with a spiritual ranger and then venture above ground to look through the ruins of Moscow. The story is a brilliant setup for the action, dragging you from set piece to set piece. Some of the associated dialogue that goes with it, as with many games from the Eastern Bloc, is lacking some of the quality of other games that came out in the same month. I also like the fact the background information isn’t just shoved in your face but is instead picked up by simply standing around in the hubs, listening to the chatter of the passing civvies as they relax in the cramped huts that line the corridors.
Unlike the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of games to which it resembles in look and tone, the game is a simple corridor (often quite literally) shooter. There are no faction levels to monitor or free roaming to be had – instead the focus is on scripted experiences such as the rail car sequence near the middle of the game. All these sequences are really good, with no single one that left me feeling that I’d wasted time. Each one has various pathways which allows each playthrough to be done differently – an example is “The Line” were you can either fight your way through the battling sides or simply drop down to the floor (which does use up your gas mask filter due to the noxious gases) and sneak past all of them. These do add a little replayabilty to the game, which it is slightly lacking due to the absence of multiplayer.
One particular feature I quite like is the design of the weapons. There are several weapons that survived the nuclear war (such as the old standby the AK) but most of your arsenal is made from bits of other weapons that are strapped together. The double barrel shotgun is quite simply two tubes of metal strapped together with wire, while the Bastard (a starting SMG) is akin to a Sten gun – a lump of metal made as cheap and as quickly as possible. The funnier selections are the pneumatic weapons which require you to pump up the gas chamber. Every time I used them, it just felt like I was using a super soaker. Other standout weapons include the semi automatic shotgun, due in part to the worlds most inefficient magazine system which leaves a massive gap when you need it the most and also one of the coolest looking games, and the revolver, which when given a scope and/or stock is effectively a mini-sniper rifle. However despite all of the weapons feeling and sounding powerful, they can occasional feel a little weak. The enemy troops can act as bullet sponges due to their body armour so all combat has to be focused on location damage to the head or legs and arms. The mutants on the other hand range from the disposable rat things to fucking annoying Librarian/Gorilla bastards (see below) which take more lead than the amount lying on the roofs of all the world’s cathedrals. The worst are the flying daemons which require a grenade or two in the face (bearing in mind that they fly) to kill. These factors combine to make battles quite challenging and often requiring a checkpoint reload
Relating to the weapons is the games currency – military grade bullets. The story says that collections of pre-war military class bullets are impossible to manufacture and so now are used as currency. Yes, you are using bullets to buy slightly crappier bullets. These are then used to buy new equipment and stock up on the essential before venturing back into the tunnels. In the early game it is rather hard to get enough to buy the good weapons, but most of the time you end up finding the best weapons lying around or are given to you. It is more of an issue when buying ammo as you never find it in large enough quantities to fully stock up, making some sections rather hard or requiring you to rush around looking for rounds rolling on the floor like a squirrel looking for its nuts.
Due to the messed up surface world, some places require you to wear a gas mask to progress through. These sections shows off the game’s sound especially, as when the mask goes on the sound and view of the world changes. Everything sound more bassey and as you are injured your breath becomes louder and raspier. However, the sound of breathing can also mean that your gas mask has become unsealed due to your gun play. The gas mask require two separate things to think about – gas filters and the aforementioned damage. This can make it rather complicated when you are above the ground and all you can hear is your breath – is your gas mask holed enough to be a problem or is it that your filter has just run out and your breathing in radioactivity? You can look at your watch but the vast majority of the time it doesn’t seem to correspond to what’s going on. The gas mask isn’t the only bit of gear – there is also your torch and your night vision goggles. Both of these require you to manually keep the power up via a hand cranked recharging system or else they lose effectiveness, with the NVGs cutting out totally. In the tunnels both of these are essential – as well as letting you see the bad guys, the torch is the only thing that can reveal the instant-kill ghosts while the NVGs allow you sneak past the bad guys before jabbing a knife in their back. The items also all have animations for using them, so when you need to put your NVGs on, the camera pans up to show you clipping them onto your helmet before pulling them over you eyes. It helps to tie you into the world a lot more, especially when used alongside the very minimal HUD and the physical journal/map.
As I have said, the game isn’t without its issues. As well as the bullet sponge firefights, the enemy AI is a little simplistic. The enemy humans are fine, taking cover and laying down suppressive fire. The mutants on the other hand are very different – most battles end up with some side stepping, walking backwards and the odd quick time event when one decides to jump on you and eat your face off. Its a little annoying when most of the game is focused around firing lead at high speed towards bad guys. Despite this it is also rather hard, with the enemies liking to be constantly attacking and the number of health or other items rather hard to find. It can be hard to find a new mask when your current one has a gapping hole in it which can lead to rather quick death. Worse the game is also short at around 8 hours with no real replayablity apart from the level specific achivements (it requires Steam by the way for Steamworks) and trying out new tactics.Actually, I don’t really care about the lack of multiplayer. Many games (like STALKER) stuck in multiplayer just to seem more appealing to the western market but they always end up being so generic and lacking in other players apart from one guy is now the expert on it. Even just playing through it you could feel how it would be done and the gameplay just wouldn’t suit it. The time that would have been spent on multiplayer has been instead used to great effect elsewhere on the tech and the rest of the game.
Metro 2033 is also rather good looking. A lot of work went into the lighting and the fog due to its use throughout. It is used rather well to crank up the atmosphere and make the stealth sections better. One such places that looks rather spectacular is the wide open areas of the Library on the surface, with dust being highlighted in the light. Unfortunately, the wall and floor textures are a little hit and miss in some places while most of the character models are a little glass eyed and fast approaching the uncanny valley. The audio is also excellently done and also benefits the sneaking points as well as when the action kicks off. My main issue with the tech is the frame rate – like its Ukrainian cousin S.T.A.L.K.E.R., it has a major issue with some of the optimisation leaving some very good looking graphics crippled by its framerate. Which is a shame.
I’m relatively easily pleased and I love games from Russia. Metro 2033 has a great setting, some great ideas and is a perfect match of survival horror and shooter. However, its failings can mar the good points and once you’ve finished it there is little reason to go back and play it again. Even so, the experience through is one not to forget, so why not give it a go?