Developers have been making video games out of movies for years, but recently, that trend has morphed a bit; they're now making video game adaptations of books. Perhaps the best-known case is EA's upcoming adventure game Dante's Inferno, based on the 700-year-old poem of the same name, but it isn't the only one. THQ's upcoming Metro 2033, being developed by 4A Games and due for release in March, also finds its roots in literature--namely a science fiction book of the same name by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. THQ representatives recently stopped by the GameSpot offices to give us another look at the game just ahead of its release.
The Metro 2033 novel has proven to be one of the fastest-selling books in Russian history, with its mixture of science fiction, action, and a mystic undercurrent, and the game takes all of those elements into account. In the game, you play as Artyom, one of thousands of Russian citizens who have been living in the Moscow subway system for decades after a nuclear apocalypse. The subway system, which was designed not just to protect the citizenry from nuclear fallout but also to act as a makeshift shelter for an extended period, has become Artyom's home, and each of the stations in the subway system has been transformed into a miniature city all its own.
The setting of Metro 2033 is vital to the game's narrative. When you start the game, exploring the opening areas of your home station, you gain an understanding of the underground way of life--most of the citizens have never been to the surface, and fewer still even remember the days before the nuclear blast decimated the planet. And while Artyom's home station is a safe haven, danger isn't too far away. Traveling between stations requires you to make your way through the subway tunnels, which house all sorts of trouble--from mutated monsters that attack without provocation, to renegade bandits. Certain stations are home to trouble as well--for example, there's a raging conflict between the remnants of the Communist Party and those ubiquitous (at least in video game terms) Nazis.
Then there are the Dark Ones, mysterious creatures who psychically attack their victims. The regular populace isn't able to fight the Dark Ones. Most folks simply black out when they appear, which makes their threat that much more terrifying. As Artyom, you are somehow immune to the effects of the Dark Ones, which naturally makes you the ideal person to find out what they're all about.
Much of the early action in Metro 2033 is straight-up shooter action--in one early scene you're traveling between stations on a simple pushcart and are attacked by mutants. A bit later, you'll be accompanying a rogue-ish character known as Bourbon, who has promised to reward you with his AK-47 in payment for your assistance. And while that notorious Russian automatic weapon might not sound like the greatest of rewards, in Metro 2033, the weapons you carry (and the bullets you fire) define who you are. That's because most of the weaponry and ammunition you acquire underground are hand-fashioned and, as a result, not as accurate or as powerful as topside weapons. Topside weapons, produced by machines before the apocalypse (like Bourbon's AK-47), are more powerful and significantly more valuable. In fact, topside ammunition is used as currency underground--you can use it to buy new equipment or save it to use as traditional ammo when additional stopping power is needed.
During THQ's visit, and in our subsequent play of the game, we got a good feel for the world of Metro 2033, which seems to be rich with details inspired by the book. For example, in an early scene set in a bar, Artyom and his friends toast one another with three shots of vodka--a number insisted upon by the Ukraine-based 4A development studio. Producers told us that while the book's narrative forms the game's heart, there were changes that needed to be made in order to make the game a compelling experience to play. For example, in an early version of the game, the player didn't get to fire a weapon until about 45 minutes into the game. By contrast, in the build we played, you're dropped into the action much more quickly, with a gunplay-intensive prologue and other action sequences spread in between the exposition.
While the focus on Metro 2033's gameplay seems to be on shooting, there is some variety--in certain areas you can use stealth to get past enemies. Artyom's wristwatch comes in handy here because it has a sensor that will show you how exposed you are in the shadows. In certain sections, such as when you're topside in certain levels, you'll need to wear a gas mask to protect yourself--your watch also has a timer that will tell you how long your gas mask's filter will last. Incidentally, if you are attacked by enemies while wearing a gas mask, there's always the danger that the mask will crack, rendering it useless. But with plenty of dead bodies around, especially topside, you'll usually be able to scavenge new equipment when you need it.
From a gameplay standpoint, the shooting sequences can be lackluster at times and the enemy animations aren't always as smooth as they should be. That said, Metro 2033's rich setting and mysterious narrative look to be its greatest strengths as you explore the huge underground setting and learn more about Artyom's connection with the Dark Ones. There's plenty of story to tell--the original Metro 2033 novel has been translated into English and will be released next month, and the author released the sequel, Metro 2034, last year. Could we see a video game sequel as well? That will depend on the success of the first game, which is due for release on March 16.