On paper Metro 2033 sounds as generic as they come – post-apocalyptic survival, mutant-infested tunnels and nuclear-scorched skies. What’s ironic is that Metro 2033 actually was written on paper – it’s the 2007 novel of young Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky and a huge bestseller in his home country. It’s not often videogames are adapted from literature (Dante’s Inferno really doesn’t count) but Glukhovsky’s adaptation shows that if a source material contains exceptional plotting and world-building, any game can rise above convention to create an intoxicating experience.
Metro 2033 casts players in the capable hands of Artyom, part of a generation born and raised in the Moscow Metro system. After an unexplained apocalyptic event, the earth’s surface has been rendered inhospitable and is teeming with mutated foes, with an evolved species know as “Dark Ones” being the most substantial and threatening. It is this threat that forces Artyom to embark on a one-way quest that takes him from the relative safety of his home on Exhibiton to the underground’s main city Polis to warn of the dangers “Dark Ones” possess. Metro 2033 is a tightly-scripted and linear experience, and is all the more cinematic for it; 4A Games has made a smart decision to avoid free-roaming trappings because there’s only one word that encapsulates the title’s gameplay mechanics, structure and ultimate goal – survival.
Although we’ve seen post-apocalyptic settings played for laughs (Fallout 3) or just as an excuse to load as many cover systems amongst the rubble as possible (Gears of War), for Metro 2033 its unique approach is a master class in immersion and desolation. Every aspect of underground-dwelling, from the overcrowded masses, pigs farmed for food and eavesdropping of the fears and foibles of everyday conversations create a heady, realistic experience that rises above expectation. By creating a world we can first believe in and then entrusting the player with its safety Metro makes it a lot easier for the player to co-operate with what is essentially quite a linear experience, with some stunning scripted moments that linger.
As I’ve said, survival is the basic necessity of Metro 2033 and 4A Games introduce a clever, though divisive method of ammo retention. Pre-war military ammunition is the currency of the game and will be used for buying new weapons and health packs but can also be loaded into your weapon for extra damage. Whilst it’s a smart piece of storytelling that such an item is now used as currency and in theory may sound like an intriguing source of combat strategy, in practice it is very nearly game-breaking. Simply put, there is a very noticeable lack of ammo throughout the entire course of the game and some enemies that far too many hits to down; if you hate the sight of human enemies repeatedly nodding backwards after powerful headshots, take that as a warning. Also the actual method of selecting your fancy ammo requires holding the reload button down for slightly longer – in the heat of a seemingly interminable battle this “last resort” will most likely be used regularly, accidentally or otherwise. Although the scarcity of ammo is clearly a nod to the survival horror genre, its consumption amid firefights in Metro 2033 does not compare.
In many ways the shooting mechanics themselves come close to spoiling the fantastic work that has came before it. Enemy AI varies wildly, stealth tactics continuously fail and in some cases it is even difficult to tell whether your shots have landed or are affecting your foes. It’s a real shame that such basic flaws hinder Metro 2033’s enjoyment – you can even say the biggest weaknesses of the title are the very things that make it a videogame. However, what will compel gamers along the tracks to Polis is the gripping narrative and lure of what lurks around the corner or next chapter. Sections that take players to the hellish, dead world above ground are worth the trade-off.
It may sound like I’m recommending Metro 2033 the novel over its videogame adaptation but this would be a disservice to work of 4A Games. Whilst combat leaves much to be desired (frustration peaks with a horrendous orb-related difficulty spike) it is never a game-breaking issue and the scale and ambition of the project shows how much effort and consideration is being put behind coherent presentation and scripting in videogaming today. Author Dmitry Glukhovsky followed up his novel in 2009 with the equally well received Metro 2034 – 4A Games have already realised his vision and no doubt have the potential to match it with thrilling gameplay of its own creation. Frustrating, taxing – Metro 2033 is also a curiously compelling refuge from the mundane.
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