Going deeper underground
It’s rare for games from Europe’s Eastern Bloc to receive as much attention as games from the West and the Far East. The most successful titles from this region have been the Serious Sam and S.T.A.L.K.E.R series, but there’s always been something oddly appealing about this particular “genre” - if you can even call it that. Their storylines are typically fairly unique while the developer’s ambitions spread far and beyond the technical limitations that befall them. These games may have their fair share of flaws and system crashes but you’re almost always guaranteed a gaming experience unlike any other. Metro 2033 has surprisingly seen a fairly substantial promotional push, elevating it from the realms of obscurity most Eastern Bloc titles are condemned to. This may be due in no small part to its Western influences, opting for a more linear, scripted experience; but there’s no denying that signature Eastern European flavouring is still there, whether that’s a good thing or not.
Metro 2033’s setting is definitely inspired by the region, not just because of its obvious Russian backdrop within the city of Moscow, but also because it takes place after a nuclear apocalypse. The famous streets of the Russian capital have become a desolate wasteland; the air is toxic to breathe and the freezing cold weather ravages anything and anyone in its path. The last remaining survivors have taken shelter in the city’s sprawling underground metro network, using train stations as towns and small mine carts to travel between them. It’s a bleak way of living; the dark, cramped and grimy underground is no place to lead a healthy life and it really hits home when you hear kids talking about the sky as though it’s some kind of supernatural myth that only a few people have ever seen. The only rays of light are the lone guitar player strumming a sombre mix, or the laughter emitting from the make-shift bar as the locals drink their sorrows away. It’s a depressing environment and Metro 2033 does an exceptional job capturing the atmosphere, both in the stations and outside where many dangers lurk beneath the eerie shadows.
Because while this metro life isn’t anything special, at least it’s something. Outside the safety of the stations are numerous mutated creatures, strange anomalies and even Nazis; though it’s the mysterious “Dark Ones” that pose the biggest threat to this underground community. You play as Artyom, a unique person in that he can somehow resist the supernatural powers of this dangerous foe. With the whole metro in danger he’s sent on a mission to warn the others and try to put a stop to this threat. It’s an interesting premise with plenty of intrigue, and as the story begins to unravel you’ll meet a multitude of enjoyable personalities as you venture deeper into the metro and even emerge topside. The pacing is a bit off towards the end, but the story and atmosphere will keep you coming back until you reach the final credits.
Though if you want to get there you’re going to need some heavy weaponry and the relevant equipment. You can only carry one type of each weapon at a time (pistol, automatic and heavy), with the ability to use throwing knives and different types of grenades as well. Your starting weapons are fairly poor, and the opening few hours of the game can lead to some frustrating moments as you deal with the inaccurate and inconsistent shooting. Any sort of long range attacks are futile, and even at close range you’ll find shotguns are pointless, even against other human opponents. It can take four or five shots from point blank range to down certain enemies, while at other times it will only take one or two. It’s too inconsistent to be of any fun and I found myself using the revolver more than anything. Some will find it a refreshing change of pace since you’d imagine these old weapons would be rather worn down and unwieldy, but it can negate the gameplay at times and turn off any newcomers.
However, if you stick with it things eventually improve as you find and buy more improved weaponry. The shotguns remain poor throughout, but getting your hands on some powerful assault rifles opens up the gunplay and it’s much more enjoyable as a result. Most of the weapons will still feel a tad inaccurate, even with scopes, but it really makes you plan each conflict, especially when you need to make each shot count due to the sparsity of ammo available. Metro 2033 presents an interesting dynamic with its in-game currency, using actual bullets as money. You’ll find a range of worn-down, homemade bullets throughout the game, but it’s the shiny, military-grade equipment that’s worth the big bucks. You can choose to use your top quality bullets in any of the game’s towns to buy more low quality bullets and even new weapons. But if you want you can even use these bullets to deal out some extra damage. It provides some unique dilemmas as you debate whether you want to risk using your currency as a means to deal out extra damage or save it to buy more low quality ammo in bulk. The only problem with this system, and Metro 2033 in general, is that it doesn’t really explain the mechanics. The shop menus are confusing with all the different types of low and high quality ammo, and it’s never really explained that you can use both types in your current firearms. It could have done with some extra tutorials and explanation.
Of course, if you do find yourself outnumbered and outgunned with little ammo to spare, you can take the stealth route. It’s not a necessity, but Metro 2033 certainly provides the means to be quiet, with silent throwing knives, silenced weapons and the ability to turn off light sources and lurk in the shadows. When done right it can be extremely satisfying as you silently take out guys unbeknownst to their friends in the next room. However, more often than not the stealth mechanics are a lot like the shooting: inconsistent. At one moment missing with a throwing knife will go unnoticed, while at another time it will alert every enemy in the area. It’s tough to pull off stealth when one mistake will alert every guard to your position, even if only one enemy saw you for a split second before dying. There’s no general area for them to search, they just know where you are and there’s no way of hiding again.
Visually, Metro 2033 is impressive for the most part. The use of dynamic shadowing and lighting looks fantastic in the gloomy tunnels of the metro, and it really complements the frightening atmosphere achieved with the mixture of supernatural, survival horror effects and howling sound design. Topside, things aren’t as impressive with some poor, low-res snow and ice textures. While the character models, particularly in the faces, are substandard with awkward animation and lifeless eyes. Some of the best moments come from your time spent using gas masks, whether it’s on the toxic surface of Moscow or trudging through a radiated tunnel. The frantic breathing of Artyom, mixed with the steaming up of the mask, and even the crackle of the glass after an intense battle is fantastic and really adds to the tension as you begin to run out of clean air. The use of air filters never really plays into the gameplay if you loot enough, but the effect really adds to the game’s terrific atmosphere.And it’s this atmosphere that makes Metro 2033 worth experiencing. The metro tunnels might not have the art deco of Rapture or the vast, desolate wastes of the Capital Wasteland, but the underground world 4A Games have created is truly spectacular in its bleak outlook and frightening circumstances. Its mix of survival horror and an intriguing narrative will propel you on, it’s just a shame the shooting and stealth mechanics aren’t always on the same level. There’s no doubt the gunplay improves later on in the game, but a frustrating moment is never far off as you deal with weapon inaccuracy and annoying bullet sponges where there should be none. It’s certainly an impressive debut title and one of the best games to come out of the Eastern Bloc, but its basic mechanics could have done with some extra polish.