Futuristic dystopian first-person shooters may not be anything new, but I’ve got to give credit to THQ and 4A Games for stepping outside the box, and creating one inspired by a Russian science fiction novel. Metro 2033 may seem like a bastard cousin of Fallout and Stalker, but there’s some interesting new concepts presented to help set it apart from the seemingly endless supply of shooters in stores. Disappointingly, the game doesn’t execute these ideas as well as it should, and instead of being a great game, Metro 2033 turns out rather average.
Based on a novel of the same name, Metro 2033 takes place in a future where most of the planet is seemingly ravaged by nuclear winter. The remaining living humans, who just so happen to live in Russia, hole up in the subways, the only place where the radiation and horrors of the outside world can’t reach them. However, not all is as it seems, and the terrifying abominations that somehow managed to survive are getting more and more aggressive. That, and the rise of an entirely new threat, the Dark Ones, leads you, Artyom, on a quest to save your home, and the future of humanity. The story’s filled to the brim with political and religious themes, but developer 4A Games doesn’t beat you over the head with a message. While a large percentage of the game is about Artyom’s journey, there’s just as much story built into the locales and characters you’ll pass by. This game’s greatest strength is the detail of the narrative and world it takes place in, and you’ll find yourself pushing through some of the more arduous sections to find out what happens next.
While it’s very difficult to create a wholly unique control system for a first-person shooter that gamers will enjoy without griping that it’s not like Halo or Call of Duty, that didn’t stop 4A Games from going down their own control path. Not only will you rely on the triggers and shoulder buttons for aiming, firing, and reloading, but depending what item or weapon your character is holding, you may have to charge your light battery, check your map with a lighter, or look at your watch to make sure you’ve got enough breathing time left on your gas mask. There are a lot of elements to manage, and at times it can be a bit daunting, but the controls never feel cluttered or messy. Each button has a purpose, and once you get the hang of the layout, the on-screen multitasking becomes second nature.
Mechanics like managing your gas mask, and making the compass/objective list an actual item instead of part of the HUD, goes a long way in helping Metro 2033 become more interesting. The gas mask isn’t just something you put on and change filters for. It can be damaged during a fight, and that means you’ll have to find a new one out in the wild. They’re not super-rare, but working masks are scarce, and you’ll have to spend some time searching. Time that is wasting how much fresh air you have left to breathe. You may not think you’ll be panicking the moment your current mask shatters, but once you’re scrambling around trying to find a new one, you’ll approach these sections much more carefully. Metro 2033 doesn’t have a map or compass built into the heads-up display, but players can access these features as an actual item in game. Having your compass and journal (where all your objectives will be listed) out means you don’t have a weapon at the ready. Also, in order to see anything, you’ll use a small lighter to give yourself some reading light, which may attract some unwanted attention. It’s often best to use these items sparingly, and only when you need to, because getting caught without a weapon will almost always result in a quick death. While it may not be what we’re used to in a FPS, the way in which these features are implemented in Metro 2033 makes total sense, and fits within the game’s world very well.
Metro 2033’s ammunition system is one of the most unique you’re likely ever to see in a game. In addition to using bullets to shoot enemies, the ammo you find scattered about the tunnels you explore can be used to barter for new and better goods like upgraded weapons, health packs, or air filters. There are two types of casings to find: pre-war and post-war. Pre-war bullets are rare military grade, high quality shells, and are worth quite a bit to the retailers underground. Post-war bullets are in much higher supply, but they don’t do quite as much damage as the pre-war type, so you’ll burn through them much faster. Therein lies the strategy of knowing whether or not to switch out the ammo types in your gun during a firefight. In concept, the idea works pretty well, but there’s such an overabundance of ammunition that instead of consciously managing your inventory, the bullets fly freely, and without consequence.
For all the interesting ideas presented in Metro 2033, sadly, there are equally as many that fall a bit flat, or worse, don’t work particularly well at all. Enemy AI is probably the worst aspect of the game, and ranges from absolutely idiotic to barely functioning. Opposing soldiers will often wander in front of your gun, or traipse between cover spots, while creatures do almost nothing but rush you in waves. While it’s understandable that the mutated animals would react in such a way, it’s a shame more mental acuity wasn’t attributed to the other humans. There are also some stealth elements to the game, but these sections are so painfully annoying, you’ll likely be gritting your teeth. Even more agonizing is the inconsistency in hit detection, and just how many bullets your foes can take before dropping. Sometimes headshots will take an enemy down, and sometimes it takes two clips before they’ll fall. It’s particularly aggravating in larger skirmishes, but can happen at any time, and really takes the fun out of an otherwise intriguing game.
4A Games should be commended for the effort they put into creating a world that both looks and sounds exactly like you think a world devastated by nuclear fallout would. Though you spend a lot of time traveling through tunnel after tunnel, many of the areas have a unique look that keeps the game from becoming visually monotonous. It’s dark and foreboding, yet you can’t help but feel that this world is alive. Putting the whole of civilization underground in small, localized areas makes perfect sense when you think about it, but the audio mixing in the underground shanty towns borders on schizophrenic. What should be incredibly atmospheric, and helping give life to the otherwise barren subway system, ends up creating a feeling that you’re stuck in a crowded bar where everyone’s shouting so loud you can barely understand a thing. What’s more, so many of the character models are used over and over again, déjà vu will strike more than a few times when investigating populated areas.
Metro 2033 has a lot going for it. The game may not tread any new ground in its narrative, but there are a lot of interesting concepts to play around with. Unfortunately, the mechanics behind those concepts often lead to more frustration than they do elation. A strong story and world will only go so far, especially in a month as crowded with anticipated releases as this one. It’s a shame too because Metro 2033 could have been great, but its pieces are much more interesting than the whole, leaving the overall experience a bit lacking. That said, it’s still worth checking out if you’ve got the time.