Monday, May 20, 2013


With last week's release of Metro: Last Light, I figured it was high time that I go back and play the original game, Metro 2033.  A bleak, dark survival horror FPS set primarily in the metro tunnels of post-nuclear Moscow, Metro 2033 is based on a series of novels by Dmitry Glukhovsky.  Reminiscent of both S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Fallout 3, I wanted to see if the original would capture my attention enough to warrant checking out the sequel.

What were my expectations going in?
I'd say mixed, to be honest.  I actually played this game once before, on the XBox, back when it first came out.  I was completely lost.  I barely played it for an hour before saying "Fuck this shit, I have no idea what's going on".  It felt overwhelming and obtuse.  However, it always sat in the back of my mind as something I should give a second chance.  Metro 2033 has a small cult following, but they are a very devoted lot.  The game isn't exactly horror in the sense of say, Amnesia or Silent Hill, but it gets brought up a lot in horror game discussions.

So how was it?
I am so glad that I gave this game another shot.  Much like the aforementioned S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, this is one of those games that I am kicking myself for not getting on board with sooner.  While it definitely has its flaws, they never get in the way of this being an excellent game, with mood and atmosphere in spades, well-crafted action, and haunting visuals.  I'm honestly not even sure what I didn't like about it my first time through, because this time around grabbed me hard, and I couldn't put the game down for five straight hours.

Metro 2033 puts you in the shoes of 20 year old Arytom, a young man born in Moscow just before the nukes destroyed the surface.  He has memories of the war as a very young child, but grew up in the metro tunnels below.  A ranger arrives in their settlement, a friend of Arytom's adopted father, with news of a new species of mutant rising from the toxic ashes of the radiated surface world.  These homo novus, or Dark Ones, are slowly rising in power, beginning to drive humanity toward a bleak extinction.  When the ranger leaves and does not return, Arytom knows that he must get to the settlement of Polis and warn them of the coming of the Dark Ones, before it's too late for mankind.

Baby Cloverfield?

Make no mistake, Metro 2033 is a very bleak game, in that way that Russian science fiction (particularly post-apocalyptic) often tends to be.  There's a sense of abandonment and desolation that seeps into every nook and cranny of the game.  However, there's an undercurrent of hope that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. didn't have.  The metro dwellers here aren't just surviving and waiting to die, they're surviving and hoping to someday make a new life for mankind.  I think that's what makes these Dark Ones such a potent threat to the player; the people have this sense of survival, that even after a nuclear holocaust, mankind managed to survive...and the Dark Ones are trying to take even that small victory away from them.

The game features some fairly impressive visuals, although I felt that the character models were a little stiff in the face.  You will notice in the terrifying depths of the metro tunnels that this game features particularly good lighting effects.  The pale blue-grey of the surface world will give you a sense of loneliness that is incredibly effective.  Shadows, reflections, and blinding lights all add up to an often very creepy, haunting atmosphere.  This is especially highlighted in the chapter entitled, appropriately, "Ghosts".  The lighting allows for some truly eerie moments, as well as a few fairly good stealth runs throughout.  Weapons and objects are very well detailed, and I didn't notice reused art assets nearly as much as I do in other games.

Even in the tunnels, life goes on.

I will say that the controls leave a little to be desired.  There are a lot of functions that require a key press for one action, and the same key held for another.  This can get slightly frustrating on a keyboard, though I can see it being a little easier with a controller.    Some functions aren't even explained to you, such as the ability to swap ammo types (which is VERY important, and I'll explain later).  It's not told to you in the tutorial stages, it's not in the Options Menus.  I only learned by googling it outside of the game, and then later saw it as a gameplay hint in a loading screen.  That's a little bit bullshit.  There's also a save checkpoint system that fucked me in multiple occasions because the checkpoint was located in the middle of a firefight, in a place with poor cover.  

Combat in Metro 2033 is swift and brutal.  It doesn't take much to kill someone, but it doesn't take much to die either, especially from bullets.  Your health isn't shown anywhere, apart from a red tinge around the screen, and by listening to Arytom's labored breathing.  It does regenerate, but very slowly.  Medpacks aren't instant-use; like many things in the game, they take several seconds.  You can't just spam them in combat, forcing you to find a safe cubbyhole to hunker down in.  However, the enemy AI, particularly humans, tends to be fairly smart.  They will corner you, flank you, and sneak around.  It can be rage-inducing when you keep dying quickly, but on the other hand it's incredibly rewarding when you succeed.  It captures the feeling of those old-school PC FPS, back when they were brutally hard, yet fair. 

There is one feature of the game that may split players into love and hate camps, and that is the heavy sense of deliberateness.  You have to think about every action.  Instead of money, the game uses military-grade ammunition as a currency.  This is also the most powerful ammo.  You can save it and use hand-made ammo that you can pick up in spades, but those don't pack nearly as much of a punch in combat.  In the heat of battle, what will it be?  Hoard your bullets and slowly plink the enemy to death, or survive by firing away all of your money?

There are a lot of items and weapons that you have to hand-crank to charge or pump up, like pneumatic sniper rifles, or a railgun that fires electrically-charged ball bearings.  Gas masks in toxic areas have to have their filters swapped out.  Even your trusty flashlight will wear out, and needs to be charged with a hand crank from time to time.  As these items are used, their charge or pressure drops, and they become less effective, forcing you to watch their gauges, and occasionally find cover and re-crank or re-pump.  This leaves you to decide: do I use the more powerful weapon knowing it has some drawbacks?  Or a less powerful weapon that I don't have to think about?  Is that ammo cache worth wasting a gas mask filter, or can you survive without it?   Personally I really liked having this level of depth to the gameplay, but I can see how some people might find it a bit frustrating at times. 

Watch your pressure gauges!

In my time with Metro 2033, I managed to get about halfway into the game.  I'm actually very excited to finish it, rather than just skipping on to another game.  I will fully acknowledge that this game may not be for everyone, but if you like your FPS games to have a little bit more depth and atmosphere than your typical point-and-click twitch shooter, I think you really owe it to yourself to give this one a good look.  It begs a little more thought and consideration than your average shooter, but pays the player back with some excellent horror, tension, and action.   

Honestly?  As soon as I finish this, I can't wait to check out Metro: Last Light.

Play time:  About 6 hours  
Finished:  About halfway.  
Recommended:   Yes, especially if you like Russian sci-fi Available For:  PC, XBox 360


  1. I read once somewhere that the game is just as awesome if you play it in Russian with subtitles. Although you can't understand ambient NPCs talking.

    Never played it myself, though.

  2. One technical note I would like to mention though, for PC gamers! If you have a controller hooked up, but you want to use mouse and keyboard? You actually have to unplug your controller. You can't disable it in-game and it always takes precedence. Annoying, but a simple fix of just unplugging.