Metro 2033 (xbox360)

For my first videogame review, I wanted to deviate from my strategy in the movie category and start things off with something I actually ENJOY – I wanted to feature a game that I feel not only exemplifies the post apocalyptic genre, but is a generally damn good game.  My first choice was “Fallout 3” (one of my favorite games of all time, which I promise I will review), but I decided to go with another game that is decidedly less well know, in the hopes that those who haven’t played it will be inspired to give it a try.  You won’t regret it.  That game is “Metro 2033”.

“Metro 2033” is based on the novel by the same name (which I have ordered to read and review, at some point)  by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky, and the game was created by Ukrainian developer 4A, who started as a splinter group from GSC Gameworld – the developers of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise.  Since Glukhovsky himself oversaw the development of the game, it is said to follow the book as closely as a game can.  As “Duke Nukem 3D” did years ago by inserting a “DOOM”(ed) space-marine as an easter egg, you can find dead Stalkers in the game and hear one of your NPC companions talking about how crazy the Stalkers are to try and scrape out an existence above ground.  It is clear, then, that both games are silently intended to co-exist in the same fictional universe… which means I’m going to have to review S.T.A.L.K.E.R. at some point, too… *sigh*.

The plot of the game is fairly simple:  The world was destroyed in nuclear fire in 2013, and the only known survivors were those below ground in Moscow’s massive system of metro tunnels.  They have survived among mutants and ghosts for 20 years, but now a new threat has emerged.  The “dark ones” are an unknown race of being that can psychically drive humans insane, causing them to die painfully for unknown reasons.  You play as Artyom, the 20-year-old son of the leader of a settlement that has come under attack by these beings.  Artyom decides to run away from home and seek out the help of other settlements and of the Rangers, an elite group of soldiers.  Along the way he fights mutants, bandits, Nazis, the Russian Red army, ghosts, and librarians.  He travels underground, but must also ascend above ground where the air is unbreathable, the water is radioactive, and absolutely everything wants to kill you, and can.

The game is classified as survival horror, but contains very strong first-person shooter elements – much stronger than many games in this genre.  Unlike other survival horror games, it also contains actual survival elements choosing between military-grade and low-grade reloaded ammunition, using this very same ammunition as currency (if I shoot this mutant, I can’t afford a medkit!), and maintaining your gas mask and filters which are imperative on the surface.  Your filters will run out periodically, which you can predict by paying close attention to the timer on your wristwatch, listening to the increasingly audible difficulty with which Artyom sucks air through the gas mask, or by watching how much your visor fogs up.  If your filter runs out, you die.  Luckily, you can buy filters at almost every store, and scavenge them from the bodies of other humans you come across, but the more time you spend fighting and exploring above ground, the more filters you’ll go through.  There were plenty of times I found myself sprinting past enemies just trying to find a passage back to the metro because I had no filters in reserve.  The gas mask itself can also be damaged in battle, which is portrayed as cracks in the visor.  If it breaks, you die.  I’m not sure what the specific rules are regarding usable and unusable gas masks, but it seemed to me that I could take sometimes scavenge masks off of dead bodies, and sometimes I wasn’t given the option… even though I could clearly see a gas mask on a body.  I never had this problem with ammo, filters or guns – if I saw them anywhere on a body, I could take them.  That’s another thing – don’t expect to open a dead body like a treasure chest and see all its goodies displayed in a grid along with all their states, like in Fallout 3.  If there is a spare magazine strapped to a dead bandit’s belt, you actually have to point directly at it and grab it…then look around for other places he might be carrying ammo and point directly at those too.  It comes off feeling very much like actually patting down and searching the dead bodies, and I felt like it really helped the immersion.

Items stats aren’t the only thing conspicuously missing… and don’t think it’s because 4A Games forgot.  There are no stats or power-rating on weapons.  To find out if one gun is better than another, you’ll actually have to either use common sense, or go out and kill something with it and come to your own conclusions.  There is no life bar, and like many other modern FPS games, your health is determined by audible heartbeat and breathing, and blood splatters on the screen.  Your health automatically regenerates in time, but can also be boosted by injecting yourself with morphine found in the game.  Ammo counters and a weapon selection bar are displayed, but only when you’re actually using them.  NO ELEMENTS OF A HUD are displayed consistently at all.  So, in effect, all you see on screen is what Artyom is actually seeing…again, this makes for an intensely immersive experience.  You have a flashlight, but it runs out of battery power often and must be recharged manually by squeezing a dynamo repeatedly.  There is no map in the game at all, and the compass is an actual compass that you must hold up to look at… and while your hand is busy holding it, you can’t fire your weapon (mwahaha).  There IS a journal to help you remember your objectives, but it is AN ACTUAL LEATHER-BOUND JOURNAL, and to read it in the dark, YOU HAVE TO HOLD A CIGARETTE LIGHTER UP TO IT, effectively engaging both hands… and NO, TIME DOES NOT STOP while you read your journal!  EFFING BRILLIANT!!!  This game is clearly not designed for sissies.

Depending on the level, you’ll either be fighting humans or mutants, and never at the same time.  When fighting humans, stealth is extremely effective, and silenced weapons and knives will come in handy. Humans also set traps, and can hear you when you knock things over, bump into things, step on broken glass, or kick tin cans.  Shooting out light sources and then using night vision is also extremely effective with humans.  Mutants, on the other hand, cannot be tricked.  They can see in the dark and they can smell you.  They’re also much, much, MUCH faster and stronger than you are, and can take A LOT of damage.  Your best bet with mutants is side-stepping and running backwards while firing the most powerful weapons you have.  Personally, I never had to dip into my military-grade ammo.  I saved that ammo to use as currency in buying new weapons, supplies, and more craptastic ammo.  (Don’t go saying it’s because I was playing on easy either, because I beat the game on Hardcore.  One thing about me is that I ALWAYS play games on hard.  Period. Hmmph.)  Yes, I did run out of ammo occasionally, but never in ALL of my guns.  I often had to switch from my AK to my shotgun, and then to my revolver, but I never had to resort to my knife… just make sure to search every nook, cranny, firearm and body for extra ammo.  Eventually you’ll get a shotgun with a bayonet which has a devastatingly powerful melee attack, and you’ll never even so much as look at your knife again.  At one point, you are also given the opportunity to buy EITHER a stealth suit or body armor.  You can’t buy both, and while the stealth suit does work great against humans, it is pointless against mutants.  Also, I was able to use stealth just fine against humans while wearing the body armor by crouching and walking slowly, using silenced weapons, and taking out all possible light sources.  Maybe it’s just me, but I definitely recommend going with the body armor. For the rest of you… when you’re surrounded by five angry mutants, running in backwards circles and struggling to reload your shotgun while also injecting enough morphine to drop a bull, you’ll sure be lookin’ snazzy in your fancy Sam Fisher suit!

All in all, “Metro 2033” is a hardcore game for hardcore gamers.  It has amazing visuals and textures, good physics, a quality immersive soundtrack, and talented voice-acting.  On my second play through I opted for Russian language and English subtitles, but the subtitles really distracted me from the game and pulled me out of the immersion a little.  This is very rare for me, but I recommend going with the English dubbing in this instance.  Metro will have you pausing the game to get up and catch your breath on more than one occasion – sometimes because your blood pressure and heart rate are dangerously high, and sometimes so you can wipe the sweat from your palms and pat yourself on the back because you have NO IDEA how you just survived that last onslaught.  Unfortunately, you will only experience this for a single weekend, because Metro’s campaign is very short, and due to the very linear nature of the game, there is little replay value.  Due to this linear nature, the story is very interesting and very well constructed, alternating periods of overwhelming action with periods of calm exposition, allowing you to reorient and re-equip, and get ready for the next descent into the maelstrom.  Still, I would’ve preferred a bit more freedom, but 4A didn’t want to deviate much from the source material, I assume.  I was a bit disappointed by limited choice of weaponry and the complete (with the two aforementioned exceptions) of any armor system.   The weapons that are present, however, are very cool, ranging from homemade shotguns and submachine guns to state-of-the-art mini-guns and assault rifles.  Personally, my main weapon was the AK-47, and as is its reputation, it never let me down.

While I won’t penalize it for this, I would’ve liked to see mandatory eating and sleeping, or at least an option to heal by eating food or drinking clean water.  To me, that’s just part and parcel to this genre.  That said, very few games actually require eating and sleeping (I miss “Ultima Underworld“… ) because most gamers are wimps in this regard and can’t be bothered by realism, but why not include it as a hardcore option for gamers like me who enjoy the challenge?  Well, many of you may know that my prayers and letters (yes, I really wrote letters) have been answered in the form of the hardcore mode on the upcoming “Fallout: New Vegas”.  You can bet I’ll be playing it as soon as my Gamestop pre-order comes in.  In the meantime, go pick up “Metro 2033” and play through it to get you in the mood.  I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

How to Increase Immersion: Wear goggles and combat boots while playing in absolute darkness with stereo headphones on.  No greasy chips or mountain dew, gamers… you can’t afford greasy grip!  You get a canteen of water and some beef jerky for this trip!  I personally prefer Ralph’s.

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