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Surviving Metro 2033

Metro: Last Light is around the corner so I thought I'd finally post my initial impressions of the first game in this fledgling but promising series. Metro 2033 is a post-apocalyptic first person shooter set in Moscow amid a nuclear scarred surface and a metro underground besieged by mutants.

Given its reputation, I'd always wanted to try the game on Xbox 360; however, I was able to obtain a promo code for the PC version free, so happily struggled with the mechanics at the same time fighting mutants. The thing is, as I'd written about Microsoft Flight, PC gaming is a challenge as my computer is little more than a word processor.

That said, I somehow got it to install and run, so I was ecstatic. Granted, my bar is set pretty low, but the fact I could experience this anticipated game at all was reward in and of itself. And considering the enjoyment I derived from my limited playtime, I can only imagine how it would play on the proper equipment and settings.

The Moscow setting is compelling though in my limited playtime I didn't get to see much of the surface. Compared to wandering the wastes of many post-apocalyptic games, much of the action presumably takes place in the underground tunnels that, in and of themselves, are relatively unique and atmospheric.

So, how do I tell the nightmarish mutants from the ragtag miscreants I call comrade?

The Russian metro is an interesting environment, especially when converted into a makeshift habitat by survivors. The challenge for designer 4A Games is in making it stand out compared with traditional corridor shooters, such as Doom, that it is more reminiscent of.

An important distinction, in fact, is the characters that inhabit this subterranean shelter. Besides the cultural trappings in the form of keepsakes, posters, uniforms, etc., the Russian accents, dialog, personalities and issues help imbue the environment with a particular identity.

My PC operates on minimal effort -- a computer after my own heart!

The environment would be moot if I couldn't view or play the game properly, and at higher settings it chugged at a gruesome rate on my archaic system. However, adjusting to the lowest settings mostly allowed for an adequate presentation with only minor framerate issues and a measure of audio/visual fidelity resulting in an immersive experience.

Splendid idea! And next time, you sample the radioactive canned goods. Deal?

Speaking of gruesome, attempting to learn PC gaming controls is a frightening exercise for a lifelong console gamer. But as with Microsoft Flight before, I know it's not an impossible task. And although I can't compare the keyboard/mouse controls with other computer configurations, the learning curve was not too steep so I feel that they are somewhat intuitive.

Red is always such a warm, inviting color, especially in mutant infested quarters.

The atmosphere is well conceived and contributes to a sense of forboding especially when on missions. Early on, the game does not distinguish itself to any great degree, but the art design and presentation still are well done, helping immerse players in the underground world and promote exploration.

What's the letter for accessing a quick reference of key commands?

The basic movement and weapons controls, as suggested, are serviceable, but when adding other gameplay elements to the core keys it begins to overwhelm for someone unaccustomed to such configurations. In fact, the OCD in me demanded I create a keyboard diagram to map all the actions for a quick reference guide.

It seems some micromanagement might have been streamlined or removed for the sequel, which no doubt will help make the entire experience more fluid and less cumbersome. It remains to be seen whether such compromises will detract or contribute to one's immersion in the post-apocalyptic setting.

You'd be angry and aggressive if you looked like this, too.

Mutants, at least early on, come in two varieties; one being a kind of indistinct humanoid creature that scurries about the environment. Its attack is mostly a charge that typically occurs in packs. Although movement is dynamic, AI is not too challenging. Indeed, my challenge was in not panicking while I tried to type an attack.

In darkness apparently it's easy to mistake anything for a gas mask.

There is some loot to be gathered while exploring one's surroundings. While not an open world game, different areas afford an opportunity for limited exploration, and each setting effectively depicts the post-nuclear, hardscrabble life, with occasional corpses adding to the chilling scenery.

American Idol is creepy in any language.

Outside of dark corridors, visibility can be likewise obscured by nightfall or snow. This contributes to already tense situations when on patrol in inhospitable areas such as the surface. In this looming confrontation, our group was attacked by scores of mutants.

My instinct is to spray and pray when under assault, a reaction made more extreme when the framerate takes a dramatic dip on my low powered hardware. Imagine a stop-motion scene of otherwise frenetic combat made more ridiculous by my laggy control inputs. It actually was pretty funny to watch. Thank goodness I had backup!

Though I don't remember having an opportunity to engage them (and not just because of my framerate issues), airborne foes are another variety of mutant that make an early appearance. It's just as well, as I had my hands full with standard issue land-based enemies; that said, weapons controls prove capable, all things being equal.

Back inside the tunnels, survivors keep a few mementos from their former lives, or at least from the prewar world. Such artifacts contribute to the sense of longing and solemnity that permeate discussions and expressions everywhere you go underground. The sense of loss and despair is palpable, befitting such a scenario and somewhat rare among games.

Self-referential posters (above) are part of the decoration adorning subterranean walls. I think it's supposed to represent advertising for a film but still has the impact of breaking the fourth wall, a questionable practice not that uncommon in games.

Watching pavement crack is the new watching paint dry.

The atmosphere in Metro 2033 is oppressive though not prohibitively so. There's a fine line between making entertainment that is dire and alienating your audience, but this game manages to engross by virtue of interesting characters struggling against an overwhelming predicament.

The nightmare scenario depicted in the game is never more pronounced than when illustrated by the medical emergency survivors face on a daily basis. The doctor(s) and their patients, not to mention the limited medical facilities, bear witness to the indignities and tragedy of everyday life in the tunnels.

The entrance of this figure (above) reminds me of John Goodman's exterminator in Arachnophobia. He's an example of the variety of characters to be found on one's journey through the game world, so far one of the strongest impulses for forward progress in this title.

Canned beans again? And no windows anywhere ...

Along your journey you'll see survivors in mundane or sometimes interesting pursuits and overhear conversations or arguments. The dialog generally is well written and tells a compelling narrative of survival and desperation, and the voice acting effectively conveys such a story, at least as far as I can recall.

Many characters you'll have sympathy for, though others you'll want to throttle. Indeed, if the atmosphere nails the post-apocalyptic fantasy world in all its grim and forboding aspects, the characters are what animate it in such a convincing and engrossing way.

In my limited play with the PC version of Metro 2033, the gameplay is solid enough at least as it relates to basic action and shooting mechanics, but it's the art design and characters that make for a distinctive journey worth playing. On the basis of my experience thus far, I will consider picking up Metro: Last Light (release date 5/14/13).

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