Metro 2033 Hands-On

A disused nuclear bunker was the venue for our first hands-on with THQ's postapocalyptic shooter.

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Metro 2033 was only unveiled for the first time last month, but now, just over a month later, publisher THQ has already allowed us to play the game. Based on the Russian novel of the same name, the game is set in a postapocalyptic future where a small group of survivors has stayed alive by taking refuge in the Moscow underground system. Given that setting, where better to let us play the game than in a disused nuclear bunker deep beneath the Russian capital? That's the event we were invited to recently, which allowed us to spend a few hours with the game and talk to the Ukranian developer 4A Games, as well as the author of the original book, Dmitry Glukhovsky.

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We won't retread over old ground in this preview, so if you're unfamiliar with the setup for Metro 2033, make sure you read our original impressions piece. Our hands-on time with the game allowed us to experience the first few hours of it first hand, and while that included a lot of the areas we'd seen in our hands-off preview, we also got to see some new areas above ground. The leisurely pace of the preview allowed us to take our time exploring underground, witnessing the human interaction between non-player characters and the environmental details of the underground cities. It also unveiled new above-ground areas, which result in vivid flashbacks for the playable character of Artyom, who only experienced a short period of his life outside the metro system. But most of all, our hands-on time allowed us to get a better feel for the finer details of the gameplay--the intricate touches that developer 4A Games has lavished on the entire production.

Metro is a world where you have to be incredibly resourceful--you must manually charge your flashlight by pulling out a universal charger and squeezing the left trigger. You also have to check your watch regularly by pressing the control pads on the Xbox 360's left bumper, which reveals how much time you have before your gas mask becomes useless above ground. The navigation system is also ingenious--the map is a physical object that you have to pull out and view in conjunction with a lighter in your other hand. You'll notice that the lighter is formed in the shape of a bullet--another nice touch--but the main effect is in keeping you immersed in the world. Because your view is obscured by the map, and the game doesn't pause for you to view it, you have to pick the times to use it in the eerie darkness of the underground tunnels.

These underground tunnels are beautifully realised, with each underground station acting as an individual town that has its own political structure and economy. We got to spend the most time in Artyom's home station of Exhibition, which housed plenty of details from his past. When you first wake up in your room, you can walk around and see postcards of places above ground. There's also a radio you can turn on and a guitar that you can strum. As you walk around the underground cities, you find makeshift pig farms, drinking establishments, and people gathered around fires singing Russian songs. Exhibition is one of the more progressive and peaceful settlements, but there are also stations at the other end of the spectrum that have become fascist dictatorships, which you'll get to see further into the game.

One of the things that Metro really nails is the human interaction among the residents of the metro system. Children are a highlight--innocently playing with their toys, running around the tunnels, or escorting you to meet other people. One of the saddest moments was seeing a conversation between a father and son--the younger quizzing the elder about the absence of his mother--with the father making up a story about the mother's imminent return. You also spend a lot of time in bars after completing missions, drowning your sorrows with the help of vodka. There are some funny moments to be had--one character refers to the submachine gun as the "bastard gun." You also meet one character called Bourbon, who gives you an AK-47 rifle and asks you to accompany him because "the s*** in the tunnels don't work on you."

"The s*** in the tunnels," as Bourbon calls it, is just one of the many monstrous and supernatural aspects to Metro 2033. The main enemies are mutated humans, whom the disaster has transformed into "homo novus," or the next step in human evolution. There are also strange paranormal occurences whenever Artyom roams the tunnels in which you witness alien-like creatures approaching you. Above ground, Artyom suffers other flashbacks from his childhood, and in one sequence, his brief childhood memories present themselves when he sees familiar objects, such as park swings. Despite these hindrances, Artyom soon develops a reputation as being immune to the spiritual anomalies, which makes him a valuable commodity to a lot of people in the metro system.

Technically, Metro 2033 impresses, with a PC version that pushes current technology, such as DirectX10, and an Xbox 360 version that retains parity with the lead platform. The developer is keen to stress that there's never been a PlayStation 3 version of the game--this is an Xbox 360 exclusive on the console side, and speaking to the production team, it looks likely to remain so. We did have a few issues with the Xbox 360 version at this stage--the controls felt too sensitive, making the combat needlessly frustrating, while the AI on both sides was also problematic--allies have little concern to protect you, while enemies run headlong into your gunfire. Hopefully though, these issues will be ironed out in the final release.

Author Dmitry Glukhovsky joked, "You guys [the Westerners in attendance] are used to thinking of Russia as the bad guy." Thankfully, his hopes of telling a Russian story from a different perspective certainly look to be delivered upon. Though the postapocalyptic setting is nothing new for video games, the story, environments, and characters all feel fresh and interesting. The game is shaping up very nicely, and with the book being translated into English to coincide with the release, as well as sequel Metro 2034 already released in Russia, this could be a series that's hard to ignore early next year. Watch out for more intel on the game as we get it and check out our video interviews for even more information on this compelling new universe.

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