4A Games and THQ’s new survival horror shooter, Metro 2033, is based on the novel of the same name by Dmitry Glukhovsky. It retains the story and spirit of the original work and delves us gasmask-first into an immersive post-apocalyptic Moscow.
Twenty years have passed since the bombs fell and reduced the world to uninhabitable deserts and tundra. Moscow is no different. Grotesque mutants and supernatural phenomena have retaken the world above and below, forcing the few thousand survivors to retreat into the metro stations beneath the emaciated city, banding together into tiny city-states.
We step into the shoes of Artyom, a young man living in an outskirt metro station that begins to see attacks from a new enemy called “Dark Ones” who have unleashed devastating mental attacks on the hapless human inhabitants. He is tasked with journeying to Polis, the central metro station, to inform them of his station’s plight. Along the way he discovers much about himself, the misshapen world he calls home, and the enigmatic “Dark Ones.”
Metro 2033 is a first-person shooter survival horror that tries many new conventions and pulls off most of them very well. Whenever you head top-side or get around too much irradiated gunk, you have to put on a gasmask. The mask requires filters to be changed as you wear it and can be damaged in combat if you’re not careful. This was definitely an immersive element that heightened tension. There was a portion where I ran out of filters and sprinted around frantically to find more, having to kill three enemies before finally coming across a small stash of filters just before dying.
The game makes a beleaguered attempt at stealth sections a few times too. While you’re given several stealth weapon options throughout the game, the ability of enemies to notice you isn’t consistent and if one does notice you, every Fascist, Nazi, or bandit in the level will know exactly where you are. I could be in complete darkness and enemies would be shooting at me that I couldn’t even see once I was discovered. Fortunately, there are only a few of these stealth sections and most aren’t very long.
Apart from these stealth sections, the enemies are well designed and brutal. There are relatively few mutant types but they all behave very differently. Humans behave like humans (I see you, I shoot you) and can overwhelm you quickly on hardcore mode. There are a few frustrating moments in the game that kill you without forewarning. I stood outside in one section after hearing a Demon’s roar. I was looking around to try killing it and suddenly I was off the ground in its clutches, flung up against a building, and then dead. No quick time event to save myself, no nothing. Thanks. Next time, I’ll make sure to go down the manhole quicker. While annoying, moments like this are very rare.
The control options were a disappointment. I couldn’t reassign the buttons into any configuration I liked, offering only a few unfamiliar presets. It took me a long time to get used to hitting RT to reload. There is also no option for changing aiming sensitivity or inverting the X-axis.
4A’s shooter does provide some nice features, like a light meter on your wrist and an easily accessible clipboard with a compass on it, which serves to tell you where you’re going and remind you of your objectives. There are rails sections (literally on rails) that are well done and break up the gameplay. Your flashlight and night-vision goggles are also rechargeable through a “universal charger” which you equip and then pump to charge. There are also some pneumatic weapons in the game that require pumping before firing like big, deadly Super-Soakers. All these little touches really set Metro 2033 apart and add to the immersive feel of the game.
While not as deep as the source material, Metro 2033 still stays true to its literary roots by drawing from the same characters, locales, and themes as Glukhovsky’s popular novel. Artyom’s interactions and narrations really pull you into this dystopia, as well as the very detailed world. Every nook and cranny of this broken Moscow is filled with character, even if many of the human characters come across a bit flat. The graphical presentation often reminded me of Fallout 3, if that game had been much smaller in scale and heavier on narrative. Character models are good – but not great – and there are some noticeable repeated character models.
Sound is one of the real high points of Metro 2033. This is a game based on a Russian novel with Russian voice actors. It doesn’t just feel like it was set in Russia as an afterthought, the game feels distinctly Russian. As a fan of Russian film, and particularly Russian theatre, the game gave me the same feeling as those experiences. This was a refreshing surprise in playing a video game. The music is good, if unnoticeable. The voice acting is spot-on, hindered only by some flat character writing in parts. Every good survival horror title needs to play with 5.1 and Metro 2033 did not disappoint in freaking me out with creepy sounds from every direction. A word to the wise: turn the subtitles on. Accurate Russian accents behind gasmasks are rather difficult to understand.
To those familiar with Marxist philosophy, the game offers some depth as well. The “Dark Ones” early on are referred to as creatures that have evolved beyond Homo sapiens to survive in the new world. The Marxist theories of alienation and the perfect man play into the differences between humans and these evolved creatures. The humans live in fearful little communities that are more like capitalistic societies than communistic ones. Choices made throughout the game affect the ending on a philosophic level, though I won’t go further into that to avoid spoilers.
In the vein of other story-driven shooters like BioShock and Dead Space, Metro 2033 features no multiplayer, online or off. While there is some replay in the event of missing one of the endings, and you can replay missions for specific achievements, the story only takes 10-15 hours. There are no extras like concept art or a book-to-game documentary, which would have been welcome. This makes the $59.99 price tag a bit too steep for me, but a very enjoyable rental.
In a genre full of stout multi-title franchises like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, Metro 2033 steps boldly onto the Xbox 360 as a new IP with a self-contained story. The bargain pays off despite a few gameplay hiccups, delivering a great narrative in an engrossing world. If you’re itching for a good survival horror game or something to tie you over until Fallout: New Vegas hits later this year, Metro 2033 is a great way to spend a weekend.