When it comes to FPS games, Ukrainians know what works...and Metro 2033, like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., is more proof of that.
This controversy, which centered around GSC Gameworld's Sergey Grigorovitch alleging that 4A Games stole the beta version of his engine's code to make Metro 2033 was enough to convince me to swear off buying the game and look down on those who did. While I know it's childish to hold such a silly grudge against someone I don't know for supposedly wronging another person I also never knew, it was big enough of an issue to make me miss out on what was, by all accounts, a great game.
Regardless of whether Sergey Grigorovitch's claims were true, Metro 2033 is a game worthy of any shooter fan's time. Even though it took a long gaming dry spell and a 4.99 sale on Steam for me to realize that.
Metro 2033's story is based upon Dmitry Glukhovsky's novel of the same name, which is yet another odd similarity the game shares with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. since it was Roadside Picnic that inspired the otherworldly "artifacts" in GSC Gameworld's game. Though I have yet to read Glukhovsky's book, the plot of the Metro should be familiar to anyone who is into post apocalyptic survival or anti-war stories.
Metro 2033 takes place in a Russia that, along with the rest of the world, has been ravaged by nuclear warfare. To escape the unhealthy side effects our bombs have created, the survivors of the war have taken up refuge in the abandoned tunnels beneath the city. These tunnels, which are as dark and unsanitary as you'd think, have become the home for an entire civilization and are nearly bursting at the seams trying to hold everyone in.
In the middle of all of this is the main character Artyom. Early on he sees his home station attacked by mutants and is urged by a friend to leave his home and locate the military-trained rangers who will aid him in destroying these monsters. Knowing that his poorly defended tunnel wouldn't stand very long against a seemingly never-ending wave of mutants, Artyom packs up and leaves on a mission most expect him to never return from.
During his trip he encounters a new species of humanoid simply called the "Dark Ones" that resemble the long-armed and skinny "greys" we often associate with UFOs. These Dark Ones repeatedly make contact with Artyom and haunt him throughout his journey, causing him to frequently hallucinate and/or pass out.
Though the story seems simple, it quickly becomes apparent to the player that they are in fact seeing the prejudices of man and our addiction to fear being pinpointed as our downfall. The game does an excellent job of making the player question what they're doing and how they are going about doing it. While Metro 2033 is about war, it is, amusingly enough, about peace as well.
Though both games (S.T.A.L.K.E.R. & Metro 2033) were developed by Ukrainian companies and centered around a post-apocalyptic landscape in the former soviet union, the similarities actually end there. Other than these two commonalities, these games are completely different and can't even be compared to each other due to that fact.
Where S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a non-linear shooter with RPG elements (Quests, Faction play, NPC interaction), Metro 2033 is an extremely linear game with a strong survival horror aspect attached to its gameplay. Metro 2033 instead focuses on crafting very small and tightly bound levels that center around a single gameplay mechanic and require repetition to fully complete. Each area asks the player to perform some kind of special task that is often unique to that area in order for the story to progress. Whether it's getting chased through an underground marketplace and being forced to avoid fights in order to escape to the next level or huddling in a mine cart as you avoid gunfire raining down on you from above, you'll often find that "Run and Gun" tactics are not a viable option.
That's where Metro 2033 not only differentiates itself from the competition but also where it shines the brightest. Each level is its own little "set piece" that is highly scripted and incredibly well written...so much so that it feels more like an interactive movie than a video game. While the levels are almost always very short and very small, the unique tasks you are assigned to perform within them are anything but. While there are a few typical "kill everything you see" levels in the game, most are actually set up in such a way that you do more hiding or running then you do shooting. Much like the first two Silent Hill games you'll find that the best option is usually to "Stun or run" rather than "Shoot and reload". It takes quite a while to get used to, but once you learn to adapt the game becomes extremely frightening and incredibly intense.
While the heavily scripted levels and well-acted NPCs go a long way to creating this high level of tension, it's actually the forced gameplay mechanics that help maintain it.
Since the game takes place in an irradiated wasteland, you are forced to use a gas mask whenever entering the "overworld" that lies above your home of abandoned tunnels. Though that doesn't seem too much of a big deal, it becomes one when you realize that you need to keep replacing your air filters to survive. You even have to keep an eye on the condition of your gas mask itself, since it slowly begins to crack as you fight and eventually needs to be replaced with ones you find off of corpses or else your game ends.
Though I've heard many people complain about the scarcity of air filters or the high speed at which they degrade, I didn't experience such a thing. As a matter of fact I only bought an air filter once very early in the game and instead found the vast majority of my replacements on corpses or in equipment stashes. By game's end I still had a fresh gas mask and 15 minutes of oxygen left on my filters, so it was either due to me being an obsessed loot fiend who scavenges rooms like a pack rat or perhaps me playing on the default normal difficulty made my filters last longer. Either way, I found the gas mask requirement to be a nifty addition and not the nuisance some claim it to be.
Another interesting gameplay mechanic is the difference between "dirty surplus ammo" and "military grade ammo". While the Military ammo is much stronger (and only seems to come in rifle bullet form, sadly) the dirty ammo is much more common. While that's certainly nothing new, a twist is added to this old formula by making the stronger military grade ammo act as your currency throughout the game. It actually makes sense considering that the techniques needed to make such high quality ammo are no longer available or known to the impoverished survivors of the nuclear holocaust and any pre-war equipment is considered godlike compared to the jury-rigged junk they are normally forced to use.
Like the air filter system, many gamers seem to have been annoyed by the ammo currency system, but I wasn't bothered by it at all. As a matter of fact I never once used my "currency" as ammo and only started loading it into my rifle during the last two areas...and that was due to me running out of my regular "Dirty" bullets. The funny part was that I had over a thousand of the military grade rounds and by game's end still had about 400 left.
Though in all honesty, a lot of that was probably due to my reliance on the game's non-conventional weapons.
Another very clever feature in Metro 2033 is the strange pneumatic weaponry that the game lets you play with. Since you live in a world deprived of advanced assembly techniques you have to rely upon weapons that have been cobbled together with whatever spare parts the world's survivors could find. This often results in you finding weapons that are as incredibly silly as they are effective. Whether it's a sniper rifle that runs on compressed air and requires that you physically "pump" it before firing or a belt-fed shotgun that forces you to hold the reload button down for about 8 seconds in order for you to fully load the weapon it can't be said the game's guns are unoriginal. In fact, it actually adds a level of fright to close quarters combat that you won't find in any other game and probably haven't experienced since the early Resident Evil games.
Another neat gameplay mechanic involves your flashlight, which operates on a hand-crank dynamo that requires constant recharging. You'll often find that this light goes out and needs charging at the most inopportune of times and nothing is more jarring than having to sit there and hand crank your flashlight while loud howls and stomping feet close in at you from the darkness.
While this all sounds revolutionary and fun, Metro 2033 does have a few shortcomings that need to be addressed.
First of all, the game has two endings, a "good" and a "bad" ending. Though even the bad ending still results in Artyom "winning" his war, the game lays a gigantic guilt trip on you that you'll probably feel upset about once you see it. Making this a little harder than usual to swallow is that you never really know what actions you must perform in each level to attain the so-called "good" ending. After beating the game I looked at the list through an FAQ and was blown away by it all. Many of them I actually did (Giving the child a bullet for guiding you, listening to the ghosts in the pipes) but the majority of them (such as strumming the guitar in your bedroom before you leave) never even occurred to me at the time.
Regardless, the game does a good job at telling a story about the nature of man and the ugliness of war. Only a group of people who once suffered under communism could so eloquently describe the hopelessness and depression of this place and the overall futility of war. Say what you will of former soviet bloc countries and their sometimes chaotic relationships with neighboring countries, but nobody understands these things more than they do. Metro 2033 is proof of that.
Whether or not you'll enjoy Metro 2033 depends squarely on how you feel about heavily scripted scenarios and survival-horror "limited supply" gameplay. If the idea of nosing around for rare caches of survival gear and avoiding monsters while being pushed down a very linear but incredibly intense line appeals to you than there is no reason why you should pass this up. If however you abhor linearity and don't or can't appreciate heavily scripted gameplay then this game might not be worth your time.
For those who want a good story and some very well written thrills you won't find a much better game out there now than 4A's Metro 2033. Though it could have been longer and may have benefited from a little more exploration, it's still a worthy addition to any FPS fan's library.