Ever since the first wave of games in the "Survival Horror" genre creators of such titles have looked to ramp up the scares, the tension and just exactly how horrific their creations can get. Metro 2033 has a huge advantage in this respect being based on a truly traumatic novel by Russian writer Dmitry Glukhovsky. In the usual bleak "mankind will eventually destroy itself" setting the protagonist of the game, Artyom, is one of a handful of survivors that were not killed during a nuclear holocaust. Having retreated to the underground system society is slowly rebuilding itself via a series of shanty towns at each of the stations. However, even with the assertion that the worst is over, there are a mix of anomalies, mutants and even the supernatural that will all too soon see the player battling for their life in a genuinely tense environment.
While the game with its references to Russia and nuclear holocaust may well draw comparisons with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - not least of all because there were some of the same staff involved in the creation of this title - this game is far more interested in telling the player a story than having any aspirations of sandbox gameplay. This makes the game incredibly linear with little deviation from the main plot; something that is a requirement with the story being so key to the proceedings, including the unveiling of Artyom’s destiny.
To label the game as a mere "Survival Horror" would be something of a discredit to the attempted blend of several genres here. The rich storyline is more like something more likely to be found in an RPG, there are moments of action but key to the game’s mechanics is the idea of "stealth" during the journey. As Artyom makes his way through the underground stealth is key as ammunition is incredibly limited, it is so limited in fact that ammunition itself is currency. Due to this the player has to have a constant evaluation between whether to spend it on better equipment and things that aid survival or hold on to the ammunition ahead of the prospect of more monsters waiting in the shadows. Going gung-ho is literally throwing money away and there is always something bigger and more brutal up ahead. With this though comes frustration as glitches in the game mechanics make avoiding detection way more difficult than it should be. For example, if an enemy detects the player, the rest in the area instantaneously know where to attack. This isn't stealth in the sense of Metal Gear Solid where there were opportunities to fool the guards into thinking Artyom had vanished, it is avoid detection or face the horde with no in between. Even when using silent weapons, such as throwing knives, failure to kill an opponent will have the consequences of everything in the zone knowing exactly where the knife came from and seeking out the protagonist with bloody intent. Booby-traps are also detrimental to the experience and add nothing to the game, we lost count of the times that our character was instantly killed but NPCs avoided them with ease, even during hectic firefights.
The atmosphere is one of the genuinely great things the game brings to the table. From inside the gasmask things look even more claustrophobic and bleak than they really are but it is something that has to be worn for long periods because it is possible to die from exposure to toxic gasses. Unfortunately there are also a few glitches that detract from the overall immersion such as "clipping" through parts of the environment. Additionally the fact that players can get stuck on walls, fences and ledges and not be able to move seems like something that could have easily been corrected by additional in-house testing. This aspect, more than any other, will induce more than its fair share of gamer-rage, especially given how everything in the game world is so hostile.
The game controls are very easy to get to grips with and intuitive. In addition to this nice touches such as weapon choices and limitations add to the authenticity of the game, for example only one gun per class of firearm can be carried. So with only one pistol, one automatic weapon and only one heavy weapon the player is forced to think carefully about their choices, another reason why throwing knives and grenade use is important. The vitally important gasmask also can be damaged if worn during combat and the filter will start to wear out with increased use meaning a replacement will have to be sought. There are even pneumatic weapons that have to be pumped up before they are fired. Things like this truly link gameplay to environment to create a satisfying experience.
While it might not sound possible, this game has really captured the grimy grimness of the source material and made it truly shine. The shadows always look bleak and somehow menacing; the light and dust effects are incredible. Smoke feels thick as it is waded through and the limited field of view adds to tension that has already been ramped up higher than most titles.
There is little here in terms of graphics to snap the player out of the overall claustrophobic environment and that is crucial to keeping the impact of scares and the excitement ticking over.
It's a shame that there are graphic glitches marring the proceedings at time as seeing one does detract from the overall suspension of disbelief that the game encourages so readily. However, it has to be said that this is a very impressive looking game which features some excellent DirectX11 effects such as Tessellation and, for those with NVIDIA graphics cards, there is PhysX support for added graphical effects.
The graphics play their part in the building of tension and so does the sound. The tunnels under Moscow echo and reverberate mixed with condensation drips just within earshot. Footsteps and movement can be heard in the distance before characters are seen and the sound of gunfire is alarmingly genuine. Kudos too has to go the dialogue and cut scenes, which can be seen as something a little bit better than normal. Parts of the main character's destiny (no spoilers here) are revealed via flashbacks and hallucinations and when these happen, usually without any prior indication, the player is treated to something that feels cinematic.
Also wonderful are the little self-contained touches such as the muffling effect of the gasmask and as this life preserving piece of equipment becomes less and less effective the character's breathing becomes more and more ragged; this then prompts the player to think about just how soon the filter can be replaced. For the sound to be so cleverly employed as to be able to indicate things about the effectiveness of the in game equipment without any visual signs shows how well thought through this aspect has been.
Metro 2033 is far from perfect, it is frustrating in parts and those who don’t like linear games with a "trial and error" mechanic are going to be frustrated and unsatisfied. For those who don’t mind a game being little more than an interactive story though, there are few as engrossing as this one. Clearly the source novel shines through and it is far better scripted and intriguing than most games in this genre, those games that focus on run and gun action, leaving the brains firmly tucked away inside the medical kit. Metro 2033 is something far more visceral and wanting to get to the bottom of what is going on will spur the player on to invest the hours, even if the game mechanics might have the opposite effect at times.
In short, with some more polish this could have quite possibly been a bona fide classic as it is though there is enough here to elevate the game above it’s "FPS with gimmicks" tag. Additionally not many games can manipulate players into feeling a wide range of emotions but this seems to do that with ease, dragging the gamer from tension, to shock and then to curiosity in very short spaces of time.
In Soviet Russia, the game plays you.
||Could have been much better and some glitches will disappoint but there are still some innovations and moments of genuine gaming joy to be had. The slightly regressive linearity of the game is welcome within the confines of the story.
||Metro 2033 looks great and the graphics add something to the game. The lighting, shading and smoke effects are particularly impressive and all combine to create a believable environment.
||Some great touches, even with long periods of not having to do anything special, the sound also plays its part in creating a setting that is believably hostile.
||Although the game would appear to have little replayability value, the story it tells in itself is one worth hearing and the experience is something very different from the current crop of FPS games.
(Not an Average)
||Definitely something for fans of either slow-burn FPS titles or the Survival Horror genre but the linear nature and some bugs might put some players off wanting to see the game out to its conclusion until a patch or two are released.