The industry has seen the post-apocalyptic setting receive more and more investment over the past few years. This shouldn’t be surprising given how the scenery perfectly responds to the consumer’s need to brood over everything. Based on Dmitry Glukhovsky’s novel of the same name, Metro 2033 seeks to stand with the best that have come before it in exposing players to the horrors of a decimated wasteland. With the rare chance of getting a straight novel-to-game adaptation, freshman developer 4A Games is able to confect a large group of interesting narrative and gameplay ideas for their first-person shooter. This interesting circumstance makes it even more upsetting to see how things go awry so often.
The year is 2033. Twenty years have passed since Moscow was ravaged by nuclear war. Those that survived eke out an existence in the decaying metro tunnels below. You play as Artyom, a young man who’s lived his entire life in the “metro-city” of Exhibition. As fate would have it, Artyom is tasked with venturing outside of his home in order to warn the other remnants of mankind about The Dark Ones, a mysterious race that are supposedly the next leap in evolution.
Artyom’s journey through Moscow’s streets and metro tunnels will lead to quite a few thrills along the way. The story fashions a great level of trepidation thanks to both the concoction of different plot devices moving it forward and the well-realized claustrophobic setting, both obviously indebted to the novel. Narrative pacing of the various sci-fi, psychological thriller and spiritual vehicles are staged in a smooth, transient fashion. While the plot is solid and shows great finesse, the motivations behind some key characters feel desultory because of the lack of discovery outside the main storyline and problematic exercises inside the mechanisms employed to push it forward.
Common among first-person shooters, Artyom is a silent protagonist during everything that’s happening “in the now;” however, he also delivers voiceover introductions to each new chapter. The voiceover mechanic multiplied by in-game cutscenes that obscure Arytom and show he’s never in control becomes detrimental to the structure of how the story in the first person perspective should be maintained. Instead of allowing the player to feel as though they’re discovering the world on their own terms, the show/tell pendulum swings wildly back and forth, ultimately robbing the player’s sense of importance in the process. This wouldn’t be an insurmountable hurdle if there were layers upon layers to discover in this metro, but there’s not. While the level design of both the metro-cities and battlegrounds do have “their own stories to tell,” their effects weigh thin after frequently failing to be anything more than a façade.
Metro 2033’s story demonstrates an incapability of evaluating what should and shouldn't get more exposition in this narrative. In one hand, the pervasive atmosphere alludes to the heuristic introspection it should be; in the other, the overwrought voiceover narration redundantly states what the player will already discover themselves. Even Artyom’s sense of self-worth is only padded by comrades’ gentle reminders when it should be understood on its own. These blunders lead to a lack of enthusiasm to keep moving forward.
The bleak picture painted by the opening cinematic adequately renders 4A’s specificity in making these decrepit stretches of tunnels feel occupied by real people. Within the confines of these packed areas are dozens of teeming individuals going about their daily business in the metro: gossiping with others, having drinks and simply anticipating the privations of a sadder tomorrow. Things are even more depressing whenever you’re forced to venture through the dead city. What’s remarkable about the artistic design is how unwelcoming the surface feels. At first glance, the amount of breathing room and natural light seeping through the cloudy sky rekindle what you’re accustomed to seeing; but soon after, an unremitting yearning to get back underground as soon as possible starts to build up. This backwards logic is not only refreshing but shows the team’s capacity to make simple nuances into the best qualities of the game.
Despite the admirable efforts in crafting this world to feel so believable, the plethora of technical inconsistencies clearly show this product was rushed. The haphazard amount of minor problems, from clipping issues to frame rate dips during demanding scenes, happen far too often to ignore. Even worse, I was able to slip past some enemies because of geometry issues. These problems plus plain facial animations and identical character models fetter the player from being completely immersed. While most games suffer from glitches, frame rate issues and more (typically to lesser degrees), it’s confounding to see so many of them in a tightly-designed, single-player experience that only has a moderate runtime (approximately eight hours).
Though not free of its own errors, the sound design is the most consistent aspect of the title. Oddly enough, the chief praise to give falls back on the distinct lack of sound during the tenser moments of the game. Whether it’s walking the abandoned streets of Moscow to only hear Artyom’s breathing underneath his gas mask or the ear-piercing yelps of monsters reverberating throughout every crevice of the metro, the noiseless moments set up a few solid scares. Like the attention in the artistic design, the team understands when and where sound is necessary to heighten your anxiety. There are a couple of complaints to be made though: the lists of so-so characters don’t have much life breathed into them by the mediocre English voice acting and strange auditory bugs make it hard to understand some civilians’ dialogue. Some may not like subtitles when attempting to get absorbed in these sorts of games, but it’s recommended to turn the option on and switch the language to Russian for authenticity purposes. The metro-cities often sound like they’re bustling with life, but oftentimes a cacophony of speeches from different people will stack upon one another if you accidently meander towards different individuals. Beyond those and other miscellaneous difficulties, Metro 2033 does a suitable job of embodying that sense of dread and ambiance through both the particulars of an appropriate soundtrack and the surrounding environment.
Like any post-apocalyptic world built around rusty parts, the game’s fusion of survival horror, stealth and shooting mechanics all attempt to inhibit the player in grounded ways: military-grade ammo is the new gold standard in currency, electric equipment needs constant care from your universal charger, and harsh environments demand Artyom replace the air filter in his gas mask (or replace the mask if necessary). Combine all of these demands plus the shooting controls and it already sounds like a cumbersome system. Certain input issues did arise with the standard Xbox 360 controller. Since reloading between military-grade and ‘dirty’ ammo is retrofitted to the same button, a few problems arose in switching out the rounds I wanted during heated moments--effectively causing me to shoot money. Although there are a few other annoyances, like an overwhelming UI whenever switching weapons or some input incongruities with air filters, the variations in controller mapping felt refreshing.
Despite the simplistic approaches to the shooting/stealth nucleus, the core gameplay is permeated with annoying flaws. The most prevalent problem is the inconsistent AI varieties. While mutated monsters are efficient, combative human opponents can be incredibly dumb and later stages with amoebic enemies are unfair. The arsenal is mostly standard: silenced/typical pistols, submachine guns, knife, throwing knifes, grenades, shotguns, snipers, and pneumatic weapons that require you to pressurize the tank manually to shoot. A key problem in shooting most of weapons is the lack of impact most contain because of the pathetic dirty ammo that doesn’t even momentarily halt human enemies from shooting you. This could lead many to believe this is the game’s way of forcing you to play stealthily, but that also suffers from questionable AI. One small mistake typically causes every guard in the immediate vicinity to know exactly where you are, regardless of distance and/or if you’re hidden in complete darkness. The problem in elevating both aspects as one half of a whole, as the game convinces you they are, is because of how often they feel like they’re combating one another. There’s no challenging ebb-n-flow for the player to discover because luck is the real key to advancing.
Despite the amount of criticisms laid against the execution, there are still a handful of noteworthy design ideas. For one, the ‘librarian’ enemies offered an unexpected twist to the formula. Also, hints for sneaking through portions of a level were subtly told to the player through some NPC’s dialogue (that isn’t displayed as subtitles). The most notable concept however would be the duality of the dirty and military-grade ammo which causes players to weigh out the short-term goals of downing enemies faster and the long-term ones of purchasing better equipment. These slight wrinkles to the formula are pleasant, but this raises its own question: if the developer is able to ingrain so many solid ideas into the minutiae then how were so many egregious errors overlooked?
In closing, the best way to describe Metro 2033 would be as such: a house of sticks built on an incredible foundation. The story has the blessing of being backed by an established author; the visual and aural proficiency of the designers creates an engrossing backdrop; the gameplay retains a bunch of excellent qualities on paper; and yet, each of these aspects comes falling down in one way or another. Make no mistake about it, there’s novel (pun intended) concepts to appreciate all throughout this game-both big and small; the problem is for every facet that can be lauded there’s always one more that could be criticized.
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