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Review: Metro 2033

There are not many games that manage to pull off the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. atmosphere. In fact, it's arguable that STALKER is the only game that manages to do it with any modicum of grace. However, the Russians are not content to let a single developer sit on a post-apocalyptic Russian landscape first-person shooter (what a mouthful!). 4A Games has decided to take the challenge and make their own gritty, realistic, post-apocalyptic shooter. The result is Metro 2033, which arguably does the survivalist atmosphere much better than STALKER. However, there's a number of problems and gameplay differences that make Metro 2033 not so much of a competitor to STALKER. It's more of a companion game, set to showcase all the wonders STALKER could experience if it was completely linear instead of open-ended.
Metro 2033 takes place after a nuclear holocaust that destroys much of the world and renders Moscow as a city of rubble. You play as Artyoom, a man born shortly before the nuclear war occurred. His entire life has been inside the metro tunnels beneath Moscow, and these are where the refugees live. The metro is a place filled to the brim with activity, as the Russian populace that lived in Moscow were forced to retreat into the tunnels. There they survive, produce goods using factory equipment taken from the surface world, and fight back the onslaught of mutants that seek to wipe them out every day. The story starts when you find out the threat of the Dark Ones, a race of mutants that kills people by mentally disturbing them. This new threat must be eliminated if humanity is to survive, so you set out across the metro system to figure out a resolution to the problem at hand.

The story of Metro 2033 is the strongest point of the entire experience. It is based primarily on a novel of the same name, but it takes things past just what was displayed in the novel and showcases the apocalyptic atmosphere expertly. Each station is teeming with life and interactions, although only a few are truly meaningful to the actual game. This is the primary problem with the atmosphere and tension present in Metro 2033: it shows a potential for engaging complexity and open-endedness, but sticks you along a linear path with only a few important choices along the way. This could also be its strength, as STALKER's atmosphere is slightly diminished due to its openness. The choice is clear: if you want a linear, focused experience, Metro 2033 is amazing. If you are expecting something less corridor oriented, then you will be disappointed. This game is stiflingly linear.

The atmosphere of Metro 2033 comes across primarily in the visuals. In most cases, the whole world is in washed-out greys and browns. This is mostly true for the upper world, while the metro has more color to it. Still, the heavy desaturation in every aspect of the game makes it a little hard to see details. Some brighter (although not terribly so, this is a post-apocalyptic setting after all) textures, especially in the metro station areas, would have been welcome. Despite this minor issue, a lot of care was put into the design of pretty much everything. All of the weapons have a dingy, broken-down feel to them. The detail on the derelict tunnels and structures is amazing. The characters reflect the despair felt by all, and the monsters are ugly and disturbing. The audio follows this same pattern, with creepy minimalist sounds pervading every location in the game.

Metro 2033 follows a standard FPS formula. You are moving through corridors, gunning down enemies, and scavenging their corpses for goodies. However, the accuracy of your weapons is more in line with realism than with games like Battlefield or Halo. Your accuracy is quite poor when firing from the hip, and aiming down the sights of your gun only marginally increases your ability to hit. This is especially true of the larger automatic weapons. You can only carry a few weapons at a time, but it's more than the two guns many shooters use. The guns are everything in this game. you can find some which are more accurate, silenced, or what have you, but for the most part, you stick to the vanilla weapons. The weapon designs themselves are very interesting and sport the salvaged aesthetic that make the rest of the game stand out. Our personal favorite is a revolver-type shotgun with shells hooked along the outside.

Metro 2033 follows an interesting method of currency. The ammo you cart around is your currency, and in order to buy weapons, you have to give up your ammo. There's two difference kinds of ammo in the metro: dirty ammo, which was produced from scavenged materials, and pristine (or golden) ammo, which was made before the nuclear war. Pristine ammo is what you use to buy things, so you convert regular ammo to pristine ammo at merchants. Pristine ammo, when used in a gun, will also convey a massive damage bonus, thanks to the quality of the bullets. Pristine ammo can only be used in assault rifles and machine-guns, though. This balance between ammo as a resource and ammo as a currency is a careful one, and you can easily screw yourself by going to far one way or the other. Most of the improved weapons in the game require purchasing from a merchant as well, so if you want to save money, you have to use the default guns.

Another interesting element is the necessity to put on gas masks. Gas masks are found across the metro, usually alongside filters. You also start with one, although it (and other gas masks you find) can be broken by an enemy if you are attacked while wearing one. When entering a dangerous area, you must put on the gas mask and mark how much time you have on your watch before you suffocate. With the gas mask on, your hearing is muffled and your breathing becomes more and more labored as your filter runs out. However, you automatically change filters once it is used up, which removes a good chunk of the tension from the game. All you have to do is find enough filters and you can stay going forever. Given the focus on realism and tension, this is disappointing. You automatically prime your watch and automatically change filters. Setting your watch and changing the filter should have been manual actions, as it would've contributed significantly to the atmosphere of survival and self-reliance. As is, it's an interesting mechanic but not much more.

The most jarring part of Metro 2033 is the supernatural segments of the game. At certain points, you will have visions and other such revelations. Unlike other characters, you seem to be more resistant to visions and psychic trauma than others. This makes you an important weapon against the Dark Ones. Psychic disturbances include seeing a playground that isn't really there, being stuck in a corridor of crumbling architecture as something dangerous approaches you, and ghosts which harm you unless they are prayed near. It's disconcerting to see just how much Metro 2033 embraces the supernatural aspects of a nuclear holocaust, but it does it with style, grace, and above all, total creepiness. The ghosts in particular as especially disturbing, as they are little more than shadows, emulating the "shadows burned into a wall" motif seen in other nuclear war literature.

There are a number of gameplay issues with Metro 2033 worth mentioning. The game is first and foremost entirely linear, even in the metro areas. This linearity is frustrating, as it would be more interesting to be able to explore the metro and go along divergent paths. Another is the lack of interaction with anybody outside of important story characters. You can offer an aside to somebody, but the characters all feel very stiff and unresponsive. This wouldn't be as big of an issue if certain characters weren't necessary to get the alternate ending, which makes wading through the faceless NPCs necessary if you want to get the better of the two endings.. Finally, although there's a waypoint system, it is sometimes obtuse in where it tells you to go. These are all minor issues, though, and do not cloud the excellence of Metro 2033's storytelling.

Despite minor issues in gameplay, Metro 2033 is one of the best first-person shooters we can think of in recent memory. It has an engaging story, a believable and interesting world, and tense gameplay. It's also disturbing and psychological. However, it is not worth the price of admission at the moment. $50 is a little much for an entirely linear game that happens to be so strong on atmosphere. We must urge you to wait until it drops into the $30-$40 range or until it goes on sale. Once it does, though, it gets our highest recommendations. Did we mention that it has a great atmosphere?

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