As I replace my air filter - a necessity above ground - I squint through the frost crystallising on my gas mask to survey the area ahead. I examine the desolate and scattered remnants of Moscow, now lovingly named Dead City. I strain to see in the nuclear winter either friend or foe, though preferably not the latter. With my ammunition low and only a miniscule amount of military grade left, I'm going to have to make the few rounds I have remaining last. It's an arduous task to reach the next settlement; they could be friendly just as easily as they could be Nazis.
Metro 2033 is a single-player FPS based on the dystopian novel of the same name by Dmitry Glukhovsky, and is just one of the many iterations of the Moscow 2033 universe, spearheaded by Glukhovsky. Based in post-apocalyptic Moscow, 20 years after a nuclear devastation; thousands of people have taken residence in Moscow's Metro system (purportedly a bomb shelter) to protect themselves from the poisonous air above, nuclear winter and the mutants who maintain control over the outside world.
Graphically, Metro 2033 delivers, and delivers well. As you would expect from a post-apocalyptic world the colour palette is quite dull (this is far from being a negative thing however), and fits the game brilliantly; resulting in a fully realised recreation of Glukhovsky's dystopian vision (see Steve's interview with Huw Beynon
for a little more insight into Glukhovsky's overall vision). The dank, claustrophobic darkness of the Metro tunnels is broken up by the harsh whiteness in your brief visits to the snow-layered world above. Clever inclusions such as frost forming on the edges of your gas mask, and debris particles reflecting light add to the game's rich detail. The PC version obviously presents us with the richest graphical options, as we checked out both this and Xbox 360.
The less intrusive a HUD in an FPS, the better in my opinion. With Metro 2033, almost your entire gameplay experience is presented without a permanent HUD, giving you a more immersive experience. Most of the necessary HUD information is contextually included in your general surroundings - your objectives are whipped out with the right hand on a clipboard of sorts and the option to light a zippo-style lighter (in the shape of a bullet) with your left for those darker areas keeps you in the aware (or if you don't wish to alert anyone of your presence by using your flashlight). If you're unsure of how stealth you are, check your watch, it includes a detection sensor to inform you. Your timing and use of these items must be balanced though. Looking at your map for example, means you need to holster your weapon, so tactical decisions must be made. The only actual HUD appears when you're reloading; appearing on-screen for a brief moment to give you any relevant info about that weapon, then fading away.
With a clever enemy AI system in place, the use of stealth is paramount to your survival when traversing the underground tunnels and duking it out with bandits and other human adversaries. You'll want to ensure you use light - or the lack thereof
- to your advantage. Without it you won't make it very far. Enemies will often set up sound traps to alert themselves of your presence, which if you look hard enough can be disarmed. Broken glass or other objects scattered around on the ground will alert the enemy as you walk over them, too. All of this is useless when you're battling against mutants of course, but it creates an excellent enemy juxtaposition throughout.
The mutants often attack in waves, and almost always all at once, providing more hectic gameplay scenarios, while humans value survival, with AI taking strategic cover, flanking and calling out for back-up.
The scarceness of ammo, specifically military grade, means that ammo conservation is of the utmost importance. It doesn't help that military grade ammo is also used as currency to buy new weapons, ammo, health kits or air filters for your gas mask, thus giving the game a slight RPG element, but making it hard to stay alive, upgrade and conserve, all at once. It does take a long time to acquire enough military grade ammo to buy anything of value, other than more health kits and ammunition, but once you do, the game's steep challenge evens out a little.
Unlike some games that try and redefine the FPS controls for console (almost always failing miserably, mind) Metro 2033's controls stick to the tried-and-true left trigger zoom, right trigger shoot, B for crouch etc, while PC controls are very much what you would expect them to be - it also didn't chug too hard, though utilises DX11 with gusto. A nice touch is the ability to fire each barrel of your shotgun separately, allowing you to deal devastating amounts of damage if you target correctly (and fire both at once).
On release, the Xbox 360 version maintained the linear weapon selection suited to PC which of course works brilliantly with your keyboard and mouse combination (ah, good old quick-select mouse-wheel). On a console, however, the cyclical weapon selection method is much more effective, as has been proven time and time again on most console FPSs. Thankfully when you start up your Metro 2033 experience an update can be downloaded from the Xbox Live to add the option of cyclical weapon selection, greatly increasing your ability to change weapons quickly without dying in the middle of a heated battle. In saying that remember, if you don't conserve you'll end-up as so-called mutant fodder.
I was disappointed with the voice acting for Artyom, the game's protagonist, and felt as though the casting for him was somewhat unrealistic. He sounded weak and lacklustre; not matching the character you're controlling at all. Simply changing the spoken language to Russian, however, and throwing on the subs provided me with a much more immersive Soviet experience. The remainder of the sound mixing does its job well: People sit around playing guitar, random Russian's sing and various conversations are well voiced and believable. In particular, tension is far more believable and engaging in the game when your gas mask filters begin to dirty; breathing becomes heaver and more sporadic which, in the middle of an intense fire-fight, can really slam the situation home.
There are, however, some nice little details included in this game. Frost forms on the edges of the aforementioned gas masks, hindering visibility the longer you remain outside. Cracks and damage appear if you continue to wear the same one, especially after battles and attacks. Luckily you can swap gas masks you find, often from less fortunate souls who struggled to maintain their livelihood against the mutants with your own. The weapon animations are quality and on certain weapons bullet usage is represented in the gun itself (maintaining that contextual HUD mentioned earlier). If you only shoot one bullet from your shotgun, and then reload, your character doesn't empty both shells - instead only the missing shell is replaced.
Throughout your journey, beyond the discovery of the remnants of human society (a key factor and question in Glukhovsky's Metro 2033 stories), you'll come across some cool playable flashbacks; some in uber-cool slo-mo, but all progressively fleshing out the story. These are executed cleverly and give away just enough to entice you to examine further. These sequences present the appearance of mystical and supernatural elements; offering hints at life (or not), after nuclear devastation, though never overtly revealing their true nature (for awhile anyway).
All this said, the game does have its downfalls. At times the friendly AI will stand directly in front of stationary machine guns, or other interactive features, making it impossible to see. A few times when reloading my weapon it would reload and take away enough ammo to have reloaded three times. I was also running around holding a knife on-screen even whilst shooting with other weapons. Are we to believe Artyom has mutated and now has three arms? Another gripe is the reuse of several character models, attempting to pass them off as different NPCs. In the first settlement patients in hospital beds next to each other were the same person. Later on I ran into the same character model running around and fighting, complete with the same facial wounds. I realise this is a relatively small team, but they've worked in games before and with next-gen power it just shouldn't be.
Regardless, Metro 2033 is an excellently paced game that takes the popular post-apocalyptic setting and makes it its own with a uniquely rich story.
...as I stare at the various tattered postcards and burnt portraits on my dimly lit wall, I imagine what the future of this world beholds. Flying demons or 'dark ones', mutants, humans... I can't decide who is worse - our fellow brethren or the horrible, evolutionary creatures that plague our very existence.