Unless you're a fan of Russian literature, you might not recognise the name Metro 2033. It's a book about a postapocalyptic future where the only people to survive did so by hiding in the Moscow underground system. The book has become incredibly popular in its native tongue--since being published in 2005, it's gone on to sell more than 400,000 copies. Soon, the story will become even more well known, thanks to the English translation and a video game adaptation from developer 4A Games. We were lucky enough to be invited to a special London screening of the game to see it in action, as well as speak to the development team.
You play as Artyom, who is a young man born just before the apocalypse but has spent the majority of his life underground. His memories of the world aboveground are fragmented, and his parents are absent. Thus, he was left an orphan who has been raised by other survivors. His one dream is to see the outside world, but he's still young and has never left the confines of his local Metro stop, Exhibition. You play Artyom as a 20-year-old man, who is entrusted to warn other colonies of a breed of mutated beasts called the Dark Ones that look to threaten this underground world. The physical structure of the Metro system is inspired. Each of the major subway stations has become its own little town, with the city of Polis at its centre. Each settlement also has its own social and political infrastructure--Exhibition is a peaceful democracy, but you'll come across fascist dictatorships as you travel further afield. You'll also get to see what it's like aboveground--albeit only at night--thanks to the collapsed ozone layer.
The game opens with a glimpse into the future as you and another man approach the final destination in the game. You're climbing up toward ground level when you're attacked by a couple of mutants. They're not difficult to kill, so you dispatch them and equip a gas mask to head outside to meet your allies. Vehicles approach, but you're ambushed again. This time, it's a stampede of mutants, so you have to take cover and shoot them down one by one. The horde knocks allies to the ground and overturns vehicles, and the sheer number of enemies makes your survival unsure. With your future uncertain, the game then sends you back eight days in the past to the beginning of the story as you explore Exhibition for the first time.
The prologue may sound like a simple sequence, but it's populated by lots of impressive details. Floors and ladders collapse as you're climbing, so you have to go back to jump over large gaps or depend on your teammate to catch you. The lighting engine means that enemy shadows are cast across the wall before you see them attack you. Your map is a physical object--you pull it out and flick on your lighter to navigate. The gas mask also distorts your vision and has a dampening effect on the noise. There are lots of little touches such as these that look to add to the experience, and it's impressive to see so many of them at this early stage.
The demo continued with a tour of Exhibition. Children ran around playing, people gathered around a fire to listen to someone play the guitar, and residents got up to their private business behind closed doors. It wasn't long before we were out on an assignment--a character called Hunter instructed us to head to nearby Riga using the underground tunnel system. Along the way, we took a detour, which set up one of the game's many set pieces. Our carriage was attacked by mutants, and it was up to us to save our comerades by fighting off enemies as we sped through the tunnel. It was impressive stuff--reminiscent of the tunnel sequences in the original Half-Life--and there were plenty of dynamic moments where the enemies made it onto our carriage to kill our friends. The final level we saw was a human battle against a group of neo-Nazis who'd deliberately flooded a station. 4A promises a completely different AI dynamic for every type of opponent, so it will be interesting to see how the different combat set-pieces will work in the finished game.
The custom-built technology behind Metro looks like it can compete with the big-name engines out there. THQ says it's going to be a poster child for Nvidia's PhysX technology while also using high dynamic range rendering under DirectX 9/10, as well as DirectX 11 in the long term. Perhaps even more impressively, it's genuinely difficult to see the difference between the PC and Xbox 360 versions of the game, both of which were shown at the event. While the team claims the PC is the lead platform for the game, the Xbox 360 version looked identical--even when blown up onto a huge cinema screen.
If another postapocalyptic shooter sounds like familiar ground in the wake of such games as Fallout 3 and Stalker, then Metro 2033 looks like it will still be able to distinguish itself from the competition. The development team stresses that it's predominantly a first-person shooter, and while there will be elements of character progression, the game is a long way from role-playing territory. We were left impressed by our first look, and with any luck, we'll get to play it soon. Stay tuned for more on Metro 2033 as soon as we get it.