on 9 January 2011
It's not very often that you see video games being developed outside the English-speaking world. Apart from German RPGs and Japanese Fantasy games, most other countries don't have big software companies with the necessary budget to bring out big titles. Least of all Ukraine. However, after more than four years of development, 4A Games, founded by former employees of GSC Game World (known for the Cossacks and S.T.A.L.K.E.R series) has now released the latest survival-horror First-person shooter, Metro 2033, which is a welcome change to the current wave of Call of Duty oriented FPS games dominating the market.
20 years after an apocalyptic nuclear holocaust turned most of the world's surface into a radioactive wasteland, Metro 2033 follows the story of Artyom, who has been living among forty thousand other survivors of Moscow in the city's underground metro network, which is the only home the inhabitants of Russia's capital now have. The game's biggest and best feature is exactly this setting and the atmosphere it creates. Not only is the game engine rich in detail, but the developers have also exploited the linearity of the campaign to make each game level as realistic and unique as possible, breathing life into the tunnels of the Moscow metro. Each Metro station has been transformed to provide housing for hundreds of people, everything feels cramped and cosy at the same time. On the other hand, tunnels leading to other stations feel ghastly and foreboding, while the surface radiates a sense of bleak hopelessness making you shudder in your gas mask, eager to return to the tunnels below.
Metro 2033 is a First-person shooter with RPG elements. This involves limited interaction with the enviromnent (unlike Crysis, you cannot pick anything up and throw it about) such as turning lights off or on, knocking on doors (much to the annoyance of its owners), giving handouts to beggars and also buying and selling weapons and ammunition. The currency in Metro 2033 is pre-apocalypse military grade ammunition, which can be exchanged for a great deal more bullets, albeit post-apocalyptic, "weaker" ones manufactured in the metro. This definitely makes for a cooler and more realistic and likely post-apocalyptic currency than Fallout's bottle caps.
There are several basic weapon types, this involves your usual handgun, shotgun, assault rifle and explosive, but also some more exotic weapons making use of electricity or air pressure, requiring you to keep charging or pumping up these weapons periodically for maximum effectivity. And unlike most other shooters, ammunition is hard to come by in Metro 2033 - you have to be constantly looting corpses for bullets or you'll run out of ammo pretty soon and a knife can only get you so far.
The game has a steep learning curve - the use of gas masks, filters, nightvision, head torch and weapons that need constant recharging, a stopwatch to determine how long an air filter will last and the whole concept of military grade ammunition as currency takes a little while to get accustomed to. Similarly, the weapons in this game require some experimenting before one can settle down with which one suits the personal playstyle best. My favorite is the Volt Driver, aka Railgun, deadly at close to mid-range and dirt cheap ammunition. Throwing knives and silenced (or suppressed, for the purists) weapons are quintessential for stealth gameplay, which is an alternate option of playing this game: almost any overhead lights can be broken to render you invisible in the darkness, with an LED on your watch indicating your visibility.
There are some bugs however, that I am not happy about. First of all, there are some glitches in this game. For example, characters partially vanish into walls when they get too close or when loading a save, you start drifting off in one direction and the only way to fix this is by fumbling about with the movement keys. There are also some other bugs I've heard about but didn't personally encounter, such as infinite gas filters and dead enemies flopping about. Another drawback is that despite the game designers taking so much time in making the singleplayer experience immersive, they threw in a crappy checkpoint system almost as an afterthought. The game saves at irregular intervals, in the weirdest of places. This often ends up in the last checkpoint being half a second before a headshot kills you, and unfortunetely, Artyom doesn't have the skill to continue with a bullet lodged in his skull. Games from the last decade already had the ability to save wherever and wherever you wanted, so this is not a technical limitation, rather sloppy programming.
But the main problem is the initial installation process: getting this steam game to run in the first place, requires some patience. The first time I tried running Metro 2033, it wouldn't get past the THQ logo screen and kept crashing. I had to run the game in safe mode and experiment with the video settings to find out what caused the crashing until I found out the culprit: DX10. With my GTX295, I can max out the game (1920x1200, no AA though) quite well with DX9 and get 15 - 30 FPS depending on the situation I'm in. About 5 FPS worse than Crysis maxed out running with DX10 and 4xAA, too. As you can see, Metro 2033 is, while graphically a close competitor but not superior, an even more demanding game than Crysis. Nevertheless, the promised next-gen capabilities of the engine regarding DX11 disappoint - the DX9 version of the game looks identical to its DX10 and DX11 counterparts in almost every aspect. You have to look really hard to spot the differences. Direct X 11's hardware tesselation for example, turns octadecagons into proper, round objects - but cuts the average framerate by a staggering half! Such subtle effects aren't noticable in regular gameplay and are certainly not worth shelling out half a grand for. At least not for anybody who bought a new graphic card 2007 onwards.
Overall, I can only recommend Metro 2033 to anybody who is seeking a deep singleplayer experience without having to resort to a full blown 50 hour RPG. The storyline itself may not be very gripping, but the journey Artyom takes from his home station to the grande finale is a rollercoaster ride of atmospheric awesomeness that just cannot be measured by words alone. It took me 15 hours to finish the game, which involved some exploring, watching all cutscenes and dying a couple of times. Metro 2033 is not only a refreshing change to the typical American setting for almost any given post-apocalyptic scenario, but also full of setpieces and cinematic moments, despite mostly being set in the tunnels, with occasional excursions to the bleak surface. The choice of playing the game guns blazing or utilizing stealth and the scarcity of ammo also make for a unique experience that you won't be forgetting so quickly. Metro 2033 is one of the few titles that make you lean back and think about what you just experienced after you finish playing the game, leaving plenty for open thought. A four, out of five stars.