Metro 2033 was developed by 4A, a team of guys who worked on that other classic post apocalyptic Eastern European sunshine filled world, Stalker, before splitting off to form their own company. The gamed have much in common – from the Russian accents and culture to the barren landscapes – this is a game that’s not afraid to make you feel a little gloomy. There’s no sign of the brown futuristic vistas of Gears of War here, but there is a lot of gray. There’s something about the crumbled exterior of communist office buildings that creates an oppressive but atmospheric feel to games of this type, and Metro 2033 does not shy away from showing you devastation and ruined architecture, as well as the ruined lives of the survivors of this world.
The premise of the game sounds unappealing. You explore a system of Metro stations underneath Moscow. When you are not underground, you are constantly choked by toxic gasses unless you wear your gasmask. Even with this protection, you must change filters as you hear your own breathing become more laboured. The ragged breaths echo in your mask as you look out the stained and often cracked glass visor, the feeling of oppression supported by how exposed and isolated you feel in the outside world.
It’s surprising to find that this claustrophobic overworld is a beautiful place. Ruined and scorched though it is, you see ashes blowing in the wind and the emptiness of the streets seems all the more poignant when you are looking at them through what almost feels like a space suit. The developers have taken least appealing aspects of other games and made them feel special. You feel privileged to be allowed to return to the surface after the damage that has been done to the world. Like coming out of the Vault in Fallout 3, you are entering a new world that everyone else your character knows has never seen and so as a player, your awe at the environment is mirrored in your avatar.
Returning to the metro is a similarly refreshing experience. With the exception of The Darkness, a trip into the underground rail system has never been an enjoyable gaming quest, but in Metro 2033 the relief of taking off your mask and huddling around the fire with real human company renews your enthusiasm for the game. The pacing is good, you always feel like the environmental change from interior to exterior takes place before you grow tired of either.
It’s not all easy going to get there though. The games starts strong and combat against humans is enjoyable with solid feeling weapons and smoothly responsive gameplay. Despite this though, the middle section of the game features a few stealth missions which are very difficult to overcome and will require serious trial-and-error if you hope to have any chance of avoiding the guards. You can almost always shoot your way through, but you can’t help but feel that you are missing out on the gameplay experience the developers tailored the levels for: taking out guards with throwing knives and hiding in shadows.
Meanwhile early encounters with the animalistic main antagonists of the game are genuinely terrifying and combine freeform combat with semi-scripted sequences which advance the story. During the middle section though, these encounters become laboured and you can’t help but feel that there’s little here that hasn’t been done already with antlions and a beach. There’s some impressive sequences with the games alien-like boss creatures towards the end, so they never become a truly second class opponent like the Flood in Halo.
The only other criticism of the game to make is its currency system. You use the higher quality ammunition to buy items, but you never have advance knowledge of when you will reach the next shop or trader. It’s very easy to essentially fire all your money into your enemies and thus lock out the most impressive weapon purchases. Despite these criticisms, the sites you see, the characters that you interact with and the feel of the combat will make you want to play the whole thing again. In particular, the two man sections where you team up with a grizzled old mystic or a shifty rogue explorer recall the very finest moments of a certain war game set in modern times.
Metro 2033 is an underground Half Life, A Modern Warfare in a ruined library and set in a world grimmer than Fallout 3. Despite how unappealing all of that sounds. Metro 2033 is quite simply brilliant.