14th April 2010 - It’s been a few weeks since the launch of this seminal successor to STALKER but as the dust settles over the Russian metro, there is still a lot to discover. The third official shooter from 4A Games of previous GSC Game World developers, this post apocalyptic first person survival, horror game is still garnering reviews- So lock and load as AAG takes a look at one of the first surprise hits of the year.
Inevitably the comparisons to the 2007 PC hit Stalker are going to come out. Created by little known developers GSC Game World from Russia, it was delayed to the point that people thought it was a pipe dream. The result though was well worth noting. Literally recreating the entire 'exclusion' zone currently in Chernobyl, Russia; the detail and extent of mapped area was staggering. It quickly went on to become a bench mark for power hungry PCs and modders alike. It was also the showcase of the X-Ray Engine, now in its 3rd generation.
Metro 20333 has a lot to live up to then. 4A studios have a bit of a legacy behind them now have split from GSC, forging the way for other Russian shooters of the simulation style. This time though, they have chosen a slightly more fictional plot. Set in the near future beneath Russia’s' wasted metro stations, 2033 is based around Dmitry Glukhovskys' serial book in much the same way that Bourne Identity was. An otherwise unknown author has now received the next-gen treatment and his story, bought to life. Playing as Artyum, it is a step up from the titular 'S.t.a.l.k.e.r.s' that inhabited Chernobyl, but no less confusing for a number of key reasons:
A Far Cry from perfect
4A have in essence created a console game through and through. As much as people wanted Stalker ported over, this is the final result and in part is reminiscent more of Far Cry 2 than any deep Role Playing Game. Metro will see you pulled through the nose via cut scenes and general game play as the computer takes over and the best u can do is stare at your hands as you are taken through the tunnels and trenches in the dark. There is a lot of dialogue and talking in the game, but otherwise it is interactive and wholly linear. To be fair, this is what 4A said they were doing, but hopeful optimists perhaps raised the expectations higher.
In Far Cry 2 the HUD was stripped away and instead a unique combination of a physical map, compass healing items and such were provided for the player to use to get around. It was a curious thing to have to actually hold the map out in front to read it, and Metro is not much better. The compass is horrible. A clip-board, lighter and compass does not make up for the lack of a decent map, especially when it is so dark and the compass only ever points forward. This makes finding up and down levels almost impossibly hard. The much touted gas mask is the exception, well implemented and useful both for dealing with the outside environments but also in adding tension and fear into an otherwise ordinary shooter. Additionally gas masks will require the filter re-filled and over time will crack and damage requiring a tight re-time on the replacement, lest you succumb to the dark beyond. There are other useful gadgets like night vision and the torchlight all easily mapped to the D-PAD, but it actually gets a little tedious to have to continually crank the light just to see where you are going. It hinders gameplay and none of the items pause the action further adding to tension and timing, but also frustration.
The truth is out there
When you’re not being attacked by neo-Nazis and communists, there are other layers of Metro to explore. Namely the paranormal activity surrounding the dead Russians. Without giving spoilers it extends just beyond mutants and zombie daemons and eventually into science fiction. There are genuinely spooky moments of ghostly paranormal activity in the tunnels and just enough diversity to make the travel in between fights worth it.
Unfortunately, once again things are done well, but not excellent. The outside areas are few and far between which means some of the better looking environments and monsters are hardly seen. 4A have traded this in for a bunch of ammo and some very long and tedious fire-fights in the dark.
The unique gameplay concepts are sound, in theory but the result is a very hard plough through almost psychic, realistic AI with very unforgiving mechanics to aid new players
Pro tip: Try to only use 'gold' shiny (military grade) ammunition for money. It is the only currency that exists. Look everywhere for it including inside toilets! Luckily even when you run out of ammunition you will not default to the good stuff wasting precious monies. However it is well more accurate should you choose to use it in a gun instead.
Things have come a long way since Stalker first graced our screens and with Tech like Crysis paving the way, Metro 2033 had its work cut out. Fortunately, the game is rather excellent. The biggest issues across the board are that 4A Games have not played to their strength, in this case strikingly beautiful outside environments. The ruined city and offices are well represented as the 'dark ones' circle overhead and pockets of radiation pool on the ground. The snow mixes with corpses and the balance of dark and light is excellent, albeit viewed through the lenses of a gas mask.
Inside the tunnels, the same can not be said. It was always going to be hard to make generic tunnels of trains and trenches anything other than bland, and luckily it is mostly too dark to see anything anyway. Character models are some of the best seen this generation though and being able to turn lights on and off is a nice touch. In fact many areas become a cat and mouse game of darting between spot lights, only to turn them off so that the enemy can not see you. It builds tension and slows down the gameplay but graphically, is also uninspired. That said shadows are as good as ever, playing as much a part as the small areas of light.
Home sweet home
The most appealing aspect of the game is the shanty town 'hubs' located between levels at various Russian stations. Better illuminated than the tunnels they provide respite for trading and buying gear and talking to other soldiers. It's also the only time you will get to really look at character details up close and take time to soak up some of the atmosphere.
Sadly there are no cut scenes in Metro instead Developers 4A have gone for a more interactive approach of character development. As soon as one guide dies, there is always another soldier to pick up the story of Moscows' history for you. These allies will generally take you through the story until inevitable the darkness claims them.
There is also a continual ever present monologue from your character Artyum. It bridges the gap between the book and the game but is rather ordinary as a load screen with text and dubbed voice over. The quality is inconsistent with the rest of the game.
Pro Tip: Keep eyes and ears open for the sad tunes of the Russian guitarists. They have appeared in every game so far and are an iconic sign of the post apocalypse. Usually sitting around camp-fires it makes a welcome change from the sound of bullets or otherwise screaming.
There is a certain ambiance that comes only from the sound- of no sound at all. Metro 2033 can at times be very unsettling, and yet as soon as the silence sets in, it is broken by a scream of the fire of guns. For a first person shooter, there is also a lot of talking in this game. People will constantly talk to you, and if not then even the load screens tell the tale of the lost souls trying to survive. It is unrelenting and a few more moments of being left alone wouldn't have gone astray. Turn the speakers up loud, because this one is going to keep you awake at night.
The overall tone is depressing driven home by the now famous tunes of the start menu and the guitarists. There is defiantly something iconic about the games 4A makes, but each one is heavy with both sombre music and a sad wasted reality.
The value of this game is perhaps spoiled by an overly difficult AI, even on easy and some unforgiving game mechanics. It is not a game that everyone can pick up and play, and yet that is exactly the way 4A seems to like it. There is no multiplayer to speak of, however the internet would seem to suggest some DLC that will further the experience.
Problems will occur for either fans of Stalker expecting more of the same or FPS fans who think they can handle it. To top it off, the depressing tone and dark sci-fi horror does not make for happy game: i.e. - if otherwise unsure, buy at a cheaper price or rent
Props to this fledgling studio for both cracking the consoles market and making such a solid game. On top all this, trying some new gameplay design ideas and stretching their storytelling ability. Stalker despite its open world realism was sorely lacking any credible story and Metro more than makes up for it. The game is let down by woeful Russian dubs, however there are options to play through the whole affair in either German or Russian, adding both to the 'appeal' and authenticity.
AAG SCORE: 8/10
- Does not compromise on difficulty
- Well conceived ideas and storytelling
- Look excellent for the most part
- Some poor choices in voice over and dubs
- Niche game and definitely not for everyone
- Very linear
Reviewed & Written By Ian Crane