Metro 2033 is a strange beast. It’s probably one of the most story-driven games I’ve ever encountered, which is both good and bad in certain ways, it’s weapons are often of a kind you’ve never seen before and the visual style is marvellous and flawless almost all the time. However, I’ll expand on all that later on, you’ll just have to exercise patience (it’s a virtue, don’t you know?).
Metro 2033 (henceforth known as Metro, due to laziness) is based on the book of the same name which, like the game, is set (mostly) in the Metro system of a post-apocalyptic Moscow, though you do venture out onto the surface numerous times. You start the game on the surface, wetting yourself as you follow an NPC in what is essentially a bit of a tutorial (which is a common situation) before you battle a lot of mutants/monsters.
Immediately, you notice that the shooting isn’t quite up to scratch. When you’re moving around everything feels fine, but not brilliant. When you’re trying to actually fight, however, the controls start to feel a little slow, and a bit too awkward to facilitate the often frantic aiming needed when fighting various mutants. It doesn’t help, either, that said mutants are terrifying, crawling towards you on the floor, walls and ceiling, jumping around, dashing between pillars in the corner of your eye, so when you do see them hording around you, you frantically try taking them out but the game’s shooting mechanics don’t seem to be able to keep up.
The weaponry only exacerbates this. Whilst the guns are in-keeping with the post-apocalyptic setting perfectly, clearly being put together from pieces of other things found in the wasteland, actually using most of them feels awkward and they seem to lack power. The shotguns, for example, are woefully inaccurate from anything further than range of about 3 inches from the barrel, even though human enemies regularly shoot you in the face with them from the other sides of rooms. The automatic weapons, however, are functional, if a bit weak at first, though the game regularly punishes for using any weapons at all.
You see, ammunition for all of the weapons is painfully scarce, except for the pretty much useless pistol, with which you can’t kill anything that’s more than 9 feet away simply because it doesn’t shoot that far. There are two types of ammo, one being normal, low-quality ammunition that you find and will always be using, and military-grade bullets that are used as currency to buy weapons and ammo and as a last, desperate resort in the middle of a gunfight. You also have grenades that you don’t seem to be able to throw further than 6 feet and throwing knives that are difficult to master but effective when you finally manage to do so (and can be retrieved after throwing).
There are three different types of weaponry in the game, pistols, automatics and heavier things. Pistols are generally just a revolver, automatics stretch between SMGs and proper assault rifles and the heavier things can be shotguns, heavy machine guns or anything bigger. This is all well and good and, for the most part, it works.
Weapons do get better as you go further in (revolvers with scopes, for example, or upgrading your SMG for an AK47), but early in the game the lower quality weapons don’t just make things difficult, they can make things feel impossible.
Probably the best thing about Metro is the visuals. The Metro itself is thoroughly terrifying, from the omni-present dust floating in the air to the spider webs, the combination of this and the knowledge of what is probably around the corner is enough to make you honestly horrified at the thought of entering the next room, to the point where I really found it difficult to play for longer than 45 minutes at a time. Short of a few graphical glitches, such as random unimportant objects flickering perpetually for no apparent reason, or an enemy’s head sticking through some scenery, the graphics are flawless and, whilst not technically astonishing, they’re dripping in character and atmosphere like nothing I’ve ever seen.
I haven’t been so scared by a game since the first time I ever played FEAR, which isn’t an odd comparison at all. There are often FEAR-like visions that drop you into somewhere you simply weren’t a second ago, then drop you back where you were once they’ve finished, which is every bit as creepy as FEAR, and probably even more so due to you returning to the run down, bleak Metro rather than the dull offices found in FEAR.
Another parallel with FEAR is in the gameplay’s arrangement itself. Whilst it is a lot more varied than FEAR was and the transitions are less obvious, you often switch between different ‘types’ of play, from gun fights, to paranormal sections, to a brief respite in a settlement in the Metro or a piece of exposition (those are almost always one-and-the-same), then onto the surface to scavenge for items. The lines are blurred at times, such as sudden paranormality just around the edges of a battle, but the differences are still pretty obvious.
Speaking of exposition, there is very little of the game that isn’t exposition. You are only left without story-telling for short sections and you spend a lot of your time trailing behind an NPC as he leads you through parts of the Metro. At one point very early in the game, I was following my NPC when he was taken by bandits into a room. I then took about half an hour of heavy cover-based gunfighting between myself and a lot of bandits to get into the room and rescue him, only for him to be killed, then immediately replaced by another NPC, just like that. The only exploration available to you involves going into tiny side-rooms to pick up bullet-currency, so the game could stand a little more freedom. I’m not necessarily asking for Fallout 3-style freedom, just a bit less of the pulling me by the lead that the game seems to be relentless in.
I could be tempted to call the game hyper-realistic in places, such as the terror of the improvised weaponry and the fact that you die very, very quickly, and unrealistic in other places, such as the paranormal visions and the fact that you can’t throw a grenade further than 6 feet. It introduces interesting concepts on an academic level, such as whole new elements created by the nuclear disaster that occurred above ground which geniunely made me think and roused my interest, but that kind of interest might be better fulfilled in the book rather than the game. The storyline, however, is definitely interesting and drives you through the game once it starts to grip you with the visions and voices inside your head (again, similar to FEAR’s), though it does take a while.
- Atmospheric to the point of I-don’t-want-to-carry-on terror.
- Genuinely interesting game world.
- A gripping storyline.
- It takes quite a while for the story to get going.
- Weaponry can feel at times useless due to both accuracy and range.
- Running out of ammo for your automatic weapon only can easily render you dead in a gunfight.
- Loading screens between ‘levels’ are a little too frequent.
- A few small graphical glitches.
If you’re looking for a considerably more terrifying survival horror version of Fallout 3 without the openworld and most of the humour, Metro 2033 is definitely for you. If you’re looking for something more like a shooter then Metro isn’t going to satisfy you. Gorgeously atmospheric, at times completely frustrating and genuinely interesting hints about the surrounding world are omnipresent. If the shooting was less awkward it would be very easy to recommend, but as it is it’s difficult to do so.