You don’t need an elaborate excuse for mutants and excessive gun use if it’s after the apocalypse. Many games have leveled the field with nukes and invaders all in the name of giving players an arena to shoot their handmade rifles and ask questions never. So while the nuclear fallout isn’t new grounds for a narrative, Metro 2033 does offer a new, if limited, horizon. Moscow’s last survivors are on their heels against a monstrous threat, while attempting to relocate the remnants of humanity into the subway tunnels under the city. Does Metro uncover a scenic route, or does this commute just tire and smell like pee?
Metro follows the quest of Artyom as he treks across the tunnel system to assemble a team of Rangers needed to strike back against the dark ones, a mysterious race of alien like creatures who are determined to finish off the human race. Along the way, Artyom encounters mutants, holy men, ghosts and an underground conflict between new formations of the Nazi and Communist parties. While the actual reasons or politics for these two parties to be going at it again is never explained, the game just identifies them as two groups of mean jerks. Metro is also based on a Russian novel series of the same name and while being familiar with them isn’t necessary, it does explain why in-game ads for the books are charmingly scattered throughout the tunnels.
Despite the fact that members of the same team that created S.T.A.L.K.E.R. worked on Metro, being in a familiar territory doesn’t make this a familiar game. S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and Fallout 3 for that matter, are open, free roaming excursions. Metro, much like a subway train, can be a tirelessly linear experience. The game is basically divided into short and sometimes punchy segments. These segments clearly know their own purpose, even if you don’t clue in. Some are dedicated to the plot, some action, some both, but all brief, making for a jostling pace. The game prides itself as a narrative experience, at some moments crafting truly haunting and atmospheric gems for the player to take away, others chunks of frustration and confusion. There isn’t much glory in dying mere seconds away from a pre-scripted, intentional death, then being forced to replay from the last checkpoint anyway. The game also has an obsession with cheap deaths, like having a wall suddenly collapse on you or being snagged by a bat-monster for standing in front of a ladder for too long. At first it’s cute, but cute doesn’t repeat itself very well.
The gameplay base itself doesn’t boast much originality, but while it is plain it’s also fairly competent. Players can carry around multiple kinds of weapons, though only one of each class. Choosing which rifle, pistol and shotguns are right for you can be a little difficult, as discovering which works the best can only be determined after a transaction and a ton of pulled hairs. I lost my favourite scoped weapon after a trustworthy NPC handed me something he seemed to promise would be needed for the level. I’ve missed plucking off confused Nazi troopers ever since. You also need to use a gasmask in highly radiated areas (apparently radiation is a gas) and the button to put it on is aggravatingly stiff. One clever mechanic is that instead of cash money for a currency, transactions are made with pre-fallout bullets, which are more powerful and accurate. I made it through the game without having to rely on valuable ammunition in the battlefield, but it’s curious that there are only about five-odd times in the games you are even given the chance to venture into a marketplace.
Metro 2033 is an interesting experience but a mediocre game. There are a lot of amateur mistakes and glitches (like an audio hiccup that makes all voices equal volume leading you to wonder about your own real life sanity) and some gross moments of player abuse. The environment is interesting, and when it decides to branch out it can be wonderful, despite the fact that certain encounters seem to follow similar layouts. The ending is spectacular, and if the same force was spread evenly throughout the rest we’d be looking at a can’t miss game—though a little bit before this ending there is an escort mission so unbalanced that you’d be willing to give your Xbox a handjob just to skip it. All in all, Metro could have been more unique than it turned out to be. With such dedication to linearity and an overdose of derelict architecture, Metro simply never becomes bold enough to leap off the rails.
This review also can be seen on the SPACE website, though odds are you’re more likely to read it here.