When it comes to the theme of postapocalyptic survival, it's no secret that PC players have choices beyond Fallout 3. GSC's sandbox FPS series, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. takes place in, around and underneath the region surrounding Chernobyl after another incident, allowing would-be urban explorers to brave anomalous weirdness that could microwave their flesh or mutated beings that could feast upon them.
4A Games — also based in Kiev, Ukraine — was founded by former GSC members who were unhappy with the direction that S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s proprietary engine was taking. Prior to the first S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s release, they set out to create their own approach. Their debut title, Metro 2033, also shares some of the traits that make S.T.A.L.K.E.R. such a cult hit.
Metro 2033, based on author Dmitry Glukhovsky's novel of the same name, is also set in the future, where a war has turned the world into an irradiated wasteland. The player stars as Artyom, a young man who was born in Moscow shortly before the bombs fell. As people fled underground, the Moscow metro system became home, with its stations acting as new towns and cities.
The reasons for the war are left largely ambiguous, but it's understandable when the most important thing to survivors IS how to live long enough to see the next day. The world above has been rendered poisonous, and any necessary travel is restricted to nighttime excursions because daylight is lethal now that the ozone layer has been blasted away.
It's 20 years later and Artyom, like many living in the Metro, can't remember the world as it used to be, but he'll eventually see it for himself. Fulfilling a promise to a friend, he's forced to leave the safety of Exhibition, his home station, to deliver a message that could save it from destruction from beings known only as "The Dark Ones." Along Artyom's journey to Polis station, he'll be exposed to vicious mutants, Red Communists, unscrupulous bandits, and even Russian Nazis. Let me say that again: Russian Nazis. Metro 2033 doesn't try to replicate Moscow's underground in scary detail, but it does take a number of creatively imaginative liberties with it.
There are also references to stalkers in the game, although not necessarily the same kind of stalkers that are found in GSC's S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Both titles wear the grim and drab existence of life within the wreckage of human civilization, but they differ greatly in their stories and approaches. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. prides itself on its open-world and RPG-like elements, but 4A's Metro 2033 focuses on a scripted experience resembling that of an interactive foreign film. It's also an incredibly atmospheric title, so much so that I almost forgot that I was following a story. Pulling into Polis station for the first time reminded me of when I first saw Zion in "Matrix Reloaded."
It also shares what seems to be the Ukrainian trend for game-oriented realism as advertised by S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Action Form's Cryostasis. Regenerating health is in, although it's still easy to die from a few bullets, being mobbed by a pack of mutated horrors, or simply falling when the floor gives way. Even the HUD is treated in a minimalist fashion. Damage is indicated by the bloody tunnel vision that grows worse until you can guide Artyom to cover, although health packs are also available to recover when escape isn't an option.
Turning off the aiming cursor leaves only the iron sights of each weapon, and a portable generator has to be revved up every so often to keep night vision goggles functioning after they've been obtained. Ammo and goodies aren't automatically vacuumed up, either. Each corpse has to be searched, or valuables like ammo and military bullets might be missed. This usually involves a lot of button presses to make sure everything is grabbed, but it's also nice to see that the bullet packs and pouches attached to each body aren't always there for show.
Traveling up to the surface or through poisoned areas also requires a gas mask, which will also sustain damage if Artyom takes too many hits. Filters are also needed to keep it working, so it's easy to die from a broken mask or a lack of filters because you were too frugal to buy them when you had the chance. Air filter time is measured with a watch (as well as Artyom's breathing, which becomes more labored as a filter gets worse), and a built-in light meter can also measure your visibility. Your next goal is indicated by pulling up a journal and checking it in a safe spot before you progress.
Players can even opt to switch the game to Russian if their listening, or subtitle reading, skills are up to the challenge.
Cash is worthless in Metro 2033's world. Only bullets are worth anything, and in a unique twist, they can also be used as harder-hitting ammo. Tapping on the right shoulder button reloads the gun you're using, but holding it down can also switch ammo grades. Fortunately, there's a delay between both motions to keep you from accidentally shooting off your wallet, and an indicator shows which ammo is loaded.
The underground world of Metro 2033 is smeared with copious amounts of dirt, grit and lived-in detail. Amidst flickering oil lamps and bulbs in the shantytowns, NPCs huddle in the cavernous terminals and claustrophobic tunnels to chatter about the days before the apocalypse while children scare each other with stories of brain-eating mutants. Each station is treated as a microcosm of this society and has its own unique quirks and dangers; the stations are separated by the dark stretches of rail, where even stranger things dwell. If the game weren't as linear, the area between each station would have been a great sandbox for adventures. Sobering, often melancholy, music also completes each scene. You won't find any Hans Zimmer-inspired action tracks to keep you from feeling like someone's potential victim.
It's also hard to not stop for a while and listen to how much there is to hear, even though it might go against the FPS instinct to head out and start shooting things again. Stories are shared at the local bar, guards in battered helmets and piecemeal armor wonder if the rumors about the latest horrors are true, and bits and pieces of what had happened to the world are gleaned from overhearing chance discussions. It's also too bad that the player can't interact with these characters other than through preset points required to move the game forward. Artyom has little to say, aside from narrating his thoughts during the occasional load screen.
Even the areas in which the action takes place are soaked with this dystopian lifestyle, each one a modern-day ruin to the Soviet secrets that might still lie buried in Moscow's foundations. There is often more than one way to any one particular objective, and while Metro 2033 isn't an open-world title, many of its areas often feel as if they offer more than a linear path as long as you don't get impaled or crushed by others' tripwire traps. Depending on how sneaky or brutal you want to be, you can climb into the rafters to get by an enemy encampment or simply shoot through by using the darkness as cover.
The patchwork weapons also add plenty of character to the game. While they won't wear out with use, they do have varying degrees of recoil that affect their handling. A dual-barreled shotgun can be fired from one or both barrels by using the trigger buttons, and a modified pistol with a scope and stock can be used as a decent sniper rifle. If a silenced rifle or a batch of throwing knives isn't enough, there's also a pump-action pressure gun that hurls harpoons at bad guys for silent kills. With enough bullets, many of these can also be upgraded and traded via merchants, depending on how you want to approach the game. It adds a nice layer of flavor to Metro 2033's world when you must decide on whether to save these special bullets for later, use them in a pinch during a fight, or exchange them for less effective but plentiful "dirty" ammo.
Going in with guns blazing is an option, but while ammo might seem plentiful in the beginning, it can be easy to burn through 100 rounds in a few minutes when things inevitably get crazy. There are also plenty of opportunities to snipe, stab or slip by enemies as they look the other way. Blowing out gas-lit lamps and shooting out lights to flank foes are only a few of the things that can be done to mess with the sometimes-spotty AI.
The enemy isn't the smartest round in the chamber and often walked right up to me so I could gun them down. It'll move around and try to make the best use of cover but will often stay in one spot, so their next actions are somewhat predictable. What the AI might lack in tactical smarts, it partly compensates with behavioral details. It's not unusual for them to shoot off the gas mask from your face and then taking you out as you're hurrying to put on another. Enemies shoot you when you think you're safe in the shadows, but that's because they're equipped with night vision goggles.
On the other hand, the mutant monsters are far more numerous and deadly than human foes, and they can take a lot more punishment. They also use the environment to their best advantage, sometimes ducking into vents and reappearing somewhere else on the floor, or diving through one hole and emerging from another so you're forced to waste shots as you chase after them.
Metro 2033 firmly tells its scripted story along a linear path and leaves little else to explore once the player is finished. The sci-fi story is interesting, and the scripted events within the gameplay form a nicely coherent thread through the entire experience. Although it leaves quite a few things for the player to deal with and will push your suspension of disbelief for sci-fi, the climax is worth the journey.
You can revisit subchapters and areas in case you want to try to collect a few more Achievements, but there isn't much to look forward to beyond the 10 to 12 hours that it might take you to finish it the first time around. You can't replay the game with your earnings, and there's no multiplayer component. Additionally, there are no art galleries to unlock, interviews to watch, or even an in-game sample of Glukhovsky's book to whet your appetite. There's the scripted story, a few very simple Quick Time Events (QTEs) that involve mashing the X button, and little else. There is an alternate ending that players can work toward, but it depends on certain choices that have been made through the game. As it played out, though, I wasn't sure how much of a factor some of those decisions were.
On a more technical level, the reloads were quick, and I was surprised at how little time I spent staring at a load screen. As beautiful as the game's dingy interiors were, the engine isn't as pretty when you finally head outside. Bland lighting and textures on faraway buildings and the generally flat appearance of the outside world made me feel as if I should just go back underground.
There were also a few odd things that made me question whether they were bugs or random weirdness. Although most enemies drop weapons, not all of them can be picked up, so they're only useful for their ammo. The same goes for gas masks that look like they're in great condition, but you can't swap them out for your own or loot its filter. Not all filters can be picked up or looted, either, unless they are flashing to indicate that they are "good." It's also verboten to pull the helmet off of a body or filch someone's night vision scopes.
Metro 2033 is a gritty, dark, and sometimes chilling excursion built atop Soviet urban legends and the bones of modern civilization. Despite the amazing storytelling experience that easily feeds the craving for postapocalyptic adventures, whether or not the sci-fi story is worth the full sticker price largely depends on how long you'll want to stay in Metro 2033's world.
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