Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Metro 2033 review

    Having been recommended this game on several occasions by friends and internet acquaintances, I've been remiss by not reviewing it earlier. It's especially problematic because I love shooters, the apocalypse, and imaginative world-building--which Metro 2033 has plenty of in spades. I purchased the Xbox One remastering so I've got both it and its sequel, Metro: Last Light, which I will review separately.

    Based on a 2002 novel by Dmitry A. Glukhovsky, Metro 2033 shows a terrifying vision of the future where the world has been destroyed in nuclear fire. A large band of survivors, roughly forty-thousand, managed to survive by being inside the Russian Metro system during the apocalypse or fleeing there.

The atmosphere is dark, spooky, and evocative.
    A serviceable, if not thriving, civilization has since emerged with the populace managing to grow its own food as well as build small towns. This, despite the fact the surface is a nightmarish perpetual storm of radiation, lightning, and ash. Worse, the surface is inhabited by endless hordes of mutated animals which look like demons from hell.

    It gets worse from there.

    The protagonist, Artyom, is a twenty-year-old man who has lived almost his entire life in the Russian subway system. He has just reached the age of which he can participate in combat missions when a new enemy appears to threaten the struggling survivors of humanity. Mysterious and unstoppable "Dark Ones" have started to appear, stalking the tunnels of the Metro and driving anyone who encounters them hopelessly insane. They have begun riling up the mutated animal life of the surface and are seemingly sending them down to exterminate the already hard-pressed survivors.
    After losing a close family-friend, Artyom makes a difficult journey through the Metro system to carry his last message: despite the fact the tunnels are not only filled with the above threats but also bandits, communists, and Nazis. Yes, Russian Nazis. It'd be sad if they didn't exist now. The rest of the plot deals with Artyom unraveling a mystery which relates to all of these disparate elements and discovering just what the hell is causing the Dark Ones to want to destroy them all. The very fact it asks that question puts it above many shooters which stop with the answer, "because they're the bad guys."

Some truly nasty character designs. I approve.
     The plot is complex but engaging. If there's something which separates Metro 2033 from other action horror games, it's the vividly realized world. During your initial trek through Artyom's home, you encounter a hospital, markets, a pig-farm, and even a school. It's all cramped, confined, and filthy but there's a strong sense of community among the survivors.

     As horrible as living in a subway station for the rest of your life and your children's lives will be, you get the impression these people are reasonably happy and want to continue living. It makes the threat of the Dark Ones all the more pressing as there's something worth saving in this world. The fact it is not a materialistic existence which makes them happy but their friendship and bonds is also a nice rebuttal to a lot of people's beliefs that stuff is what allows us to enjoy life.

     Artyom is also a cut above the majority of silent protagonists we get in these sorts of games. We get the impression he's something of a cookie-cutter adventure seeker like Luke Skywalker or Jon Snow, only his particular Jedi/Night's Watch is the Rangers. Despite this, we understand why he would want to get away from the relatively boring and sedate life of his Metro station and do something interesting with his life. The journal entries he writes (and reads to the player) between each entry help humanize the character as well as let the player connect to the world.

There's light sometimes illustrates things better left in the dark.
    The atmosphere of the game is dark, gritty, and surreal with the sense of the world being akin to a nightmare. You can never tell if something supernatural (versus science-fiction) is going on or if Artyom is merely hallucinating things due to the horrors of his life.

    Unlike Fallout, the developers expect you to treat its world completely seriously. This is not a wholly "realistic" world but one which has mutants, psychic powers, and ghosts. None of it is played for laughs, though, and the player is expected to take it all at face value. Sometimes it works very well, such as the fact the monsters are all Lovecraftian in appearance despite just being mutated animals. There's also a strong anti-war message, which is not the kind of thing you'd expect in a game which includes Nazis in its antagonists.

     The level design is dark, drab, and terrifying but there's no way it could be anything else given the setting. It works here but some players may be put off by the fact this is meant to be an oppressive claustrophobic game rather than something a bit more colorful. The monster designs deserve special credit as while they're not quite up to the standards of Silent Hill 2, they're disturbing as well as frightening up close or far away. The voice acting isn't great with everyone's Russian accents passable at best but that's a small complaint in the long run.

    The gameplay isn't anything exceptional with it being just a standard shooter for the most part. One element I liked was the fact the currency of the world is bullets. Which means you have a vested interest in preserving your ammunition as every purchase you make and every wasted shot is something which might deprive you of a shot later. It's a simple but effective mechanic for making sure you realize resources are scarce in this setting.  I wasn't a big fan of the gas mask element of the game but I didn't find it too disruptive either. I had thought I might end up trapped in levels with no ability to breathe due to the inability to get extra oxygen packs. Really, it turns out I was worried over largely nothing in the end.

Home sweet home.
    The ending of the game was a genuine surprise to me and I approve of the fact it's actually something which is difficult to achieve but rewarding. It's another game which analyzes the perspective of "what it means to be a first-person shooter" in the context of a one-man army versus a horde of seemingly unstoppable enemies. What's interesting is I think the "bad" ending is every bit as interesting and engaging as the good ending since it lends itself well to underlying the setting's theme.

    The supporting cast is decent but there's only a few stand-outs and no one who really leaps off the page either. The survivors are a good-humored but resigned lot who are doing their best in a very bad situation. They're likable enough but no one really leaps off the screen either. My favorite character was Hunter who managed to make quite an impression in his short amount of screen-time. I also was quite fond of Artyom's stepfather who conveys love, concern, disdain, and a number of other emotions before getting left behind.

The bits of color in the game tend to be horrifying.
    The game's biggest flaws, really, are the fact it tends to be a hampered by its format versus let loose to sail forth. Being a first-person shooter means a focus on the violence and the action when this strikes me as something which would have benefited from being an open-world game or RPG better.

    There's a lot of fabulous world-building they managed to place in a very short amount of time but much of the gameplay is focused on encouraging our hero to kill a large amount of monsters as well as fascists--when that's the kind of thing which he should be avoiding. I also would have liked to have sat down to speak with quite a few of the characters within.

    In conclusion, this isn't precisely a "fun" game because it is very dark and somber when it's not being outright terrifying. It has a highly-effective action horror game, though, and one I was very glad I played. The developers and original author deserve credit for creating an engaging world with a strong underlying theme that elevates it above other examples of the genre. I recommend Metro 2033 for those gamers who don't just want to blow up monsters but ask themselves, why am I doing this?



  1. Russian Nazis are not surprising since the author wrote the book about the rising fascism in Russia.

    1. The game has certainly encouraged me to want to check out the book. I've also edited my review to add some additional thoughts towards the end.