Playing a game for the wrong reasons...
With the huge arrival of Kickstarter and more and more indie projects almost eclipsing their more expensive and blockbuster-ish competition, the smaller games seem to be giving a bigger impact and almost become lauded for being so different trying new things. But, to be a bit cynical, being indie doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to make good games and Metro 2033 is in this weird spot. Atmospheric, creepy and darkly gorgeous, 2033 is a game I kind of notice is more about bringing one's PC to its knees and seeing if you got the rig to run it rather than a game that you MUST play (a la Witcher 2). It's a shame I played Last Light, its more excellent and improved sequel, first since it almost tainted my experience through 2033. It's a game dripping with atmosphere and the setting, albeit common, is well handled...it's just the game part that's kind of a nuisance.
The game takes place in Russia in 2033, 20 years after a nuclear war left the country devastated and forced people to live underground in the metro stations and tunnels. The radiation topside ended up mutating the wildlife and humans left behind into beings known as the "Dark Ones" who roam around not only up in the surface but within the metro's dark subways tunnels. You play as Artyom, one of the first born inside the Metro, who learns that some Dark Ones are planning to attack his home station so he travels under Russia and on top of it as he makes his way to Polis Station in hopes that he can defend his home.
In a way. I have to call out Metro Last Light for being the reason why I ultimately decided to finish 2033. Its sequel, albeit in retrospect a bit less creepy and not as "desperate" in terms of tone, far exceeded everything else from the gameplay to the story and more memorable moments. That's not to say 2033 doesn't have its upsides but like most first games in a series, many of its shortcomings were looked at more closely and fixed or abandoned which makes their inclusion in 2033 kind of disappointing. The gunplay is...spotty at best with at times enemies becoming a bit too bullet sponge-y, traps are not as easy to de-activate, and the stop-start pattern of having Artyom narrate the chapter loading screens makes it a really up-and-down kind of game.
Since this is post-apocalyptic Russia, the game's gotta introduce a way to make some of its fiction neat little gameplay and one of them is 2033's use of pristine bullets. Usable either as currency for gun upgrades, ammo, or equipment refills, they can also be used inside your bullets for more damage but the inconsistency of when you're actually firing them, not to mention the bullet sponginess of enemies makes it so you can't really rely on them much. A cool element though is that the game does interject some realism such as flashlights needing to be repeatedly pumped to stay charged, guns that can be pressurized for more punch and guns that for once take long to reload. But then again, the creatures, especially the regular werewolf looking types have a tendency to not only swarm but repeatedly slash and stay low to the ground, which can make combat not only frustrating but barely strategic.
Underground, the game is oppressively moody with very low lighting, fog filling the spaces and creepy ambient noises making you paranoid if you're being hunted or if the game's messing with you but it's topside where the game also works its atmospheric muscles. Needing a gas mask (which can crack and needing repairs) for the radiation, it can house some incredible vistas and ruined cities as well as big huge buggers that fly around. This gas mask element is unique and actually well done and helps sell the unseemly living conditions the people are forced in.
You can't talk of a Metro game and not talk about how utterly gorgeous it is. From some incredible lighting that gives CryEngine 3 some good competition, some great texture work and detail, 2033 was/is notorious for being difficult to run but it's still quite a treat to get it full-blast. Sound design as well plays a huge part, adding an almost paranoia-like element to many scenes which reminded me of the first Dead Space which was more about freaking out the player and making them think they were about to get attacked. Voice acting is...well, it's serviceable. I did try the Russian language/English subtitle way which actually ruined the immersion as I ended up just reading the subtitles and not reveling in the setting so I switched to English. It won't win much attention but it does its job.
Unlike games like Crysis or the Witcher 2, Metro 2033 is a game where you will most likely see whether your computer can handle running it but probably won't find a worthwhile game underneath. In its weird way, you almost keep playing just to see more of its setting and what other visuals you'll run into and not notice the game but since a lot of this was improved on in Last Light, actually recommending a full playthrough of 2033 is a tough sell.