The lights are on
Metro 2033 is one of those games that you just couldn't have expected, primarily because it barely had any PR before THQ finally published it. It was another game set in a post-nuclear war world, this one so grim and dark that the only habitable locations are buried deep underground. The question was, and for the readers asking me to review this, is simply if the novel turned game actually works.
It does, but they find a way to trip up anyway.
This review is for the PC version of the game.
Odd that a Russian would quote Dick Cheney's entire life philosophy.
I really wanted to love Metro 2033. It does so many things right, for the first two acts of the game. It creates a world unlike most I've visited -- it feels real. It makes the original Bioshock look cartoonish, it does such hard work at characterizing it's world, gameplay, and stories that it's all the more heartrending when it tosses them all away for a cheap finale that would be better suited for a lesser action game franchise like Army of Two or NeverDead. This game's story is a tragedy, in more ways than one.
You are Artyom, born and raised in the Russian metro system, which helped keep people alive while Moscow and most of the world was bombed out in the third world war. Your metro station is under siege from what are called "Dark Ones", or at least it appears that way at first. You are sent to find help, going through the majority of the metro in order to get in contact with an old friend's faction, the cowboys of the underground known as the Rangers.This road trip has you going up against Nazis, Communists, monsters, the environment, equipment failures, and an ever-present need for bullets as you fight to save your people, and at some turns, just to stay alive. This is not a game for the faint of heart.
You will see executions, KGB police grabbing people left and right, thieves, children begging for food, numerous companions die before your very eyes, and entire stations under siege from the various plaguing monsters that walk about in this new, twisted reality. And it sells you so much, because whenever it does anything, whether stark and depressing or just casual and mundane, it makes it all fit within the world and it's context. Whoever wrote the adaptation of this game's script clearly had enough know-how to create a thriving world, as there are dozens of stories all over that you can find amongst the hardships. This constant yet realistic contrast of light and dark makes the first two acts of the game quite enjoyable.
The narrative isn't without flaw though. Artyom goes to the Joseph Capelli school of silent protagonists in that he loves to talk or at least grunt in a cutscene/loading screen, but never says a single word in gameplay. The game tries to keep us in his shoes constantly, but at some points suddenly we can see in third person and even view Artyom's face in two such cutscenes. He also seems surprisingly lifeless and empty when held up to characters who have only a tenth of his screen time. Khan in particular is only present for a few scant chapters yet is so much more memorable that I honestly wish we could play as him or someone journeying with him instead.
The game also does the cardinal sin of assuming you're invested for a good portion of the third act. Not invested in the world or anything, just in the reason you're journeying. There are entire sections that get you so far off track, yet those are some of the best. The main narrative of deciding what to do about the Dark Ones -- and you can only decide if you get enough "moral" points, with no meter or gauge for them -- is just handed to you as an excuse to go on this adventure to begin with. After it's established, a lot of it is either explaining why you have to go somewhere else before getting to the Ranger Miller, or it's just another story you happened to walk into the middle of, and then leave before you see the end.
Or we could just go down the -other- direction in the tunnel.
Not knowing the end to every story is actually great, as that leaves an opening to sequels in the good way. The people of Cursed Station would be a fantastic new angle to cover. Or that little boy you save in another section of the game -- what's his story after he stops sounding like Episode I Anakin Skywalker? Anything but Artyom's main course is worth taking at least a moment to hear, and often it's the when the world just lets you breathe and experience it that it works best. This applies to the level design as well.
While there are quite solid linear sections in the first two acts of the game, there are just as many non-linear sections. One topside section In Moscow was terrifying as I ran around helpless and gasping for air as I tried to find a new gas mask I could wear. The world often rewards exploration, along with having a great deal of aesthetic variety despite the simple two settings of nuclear winter Moscow and the metro system. Color is properly used to help distinguish what's truly important.
The real point of contention for most people though will be the gameplay. I for one loved the more survival horror style shooting, but hated the economic systems in place. You see, instead of playing like every other game, Metro focuses on unique quirks on standard weaponry and only offers things like iron sights if you spend a hefty amount of bullets (which are currency in the game). It takes Killzone's three weapon system, offering slots for pistol size, shotgun size, and rifle size weapons. You also can carry two bombs and a ranged variant of your melee knife. The guns all work great and some are standout, like a pneumatic crossbow, a shotgun where you can shoot and reload each barrel independently, and a electrified rifle. The only problem is the economy built around them.
And by that I mean, lots of people die here and respawn at the checkpoint. Philosophy plus 4th wall broken.
Monetary bullets are only high condition bullets, which for the most part (if not entirely) are made for the main assault rifle. I never once on Normal felt the need to use them for anything other than cash. They're slightly more effective against enemies, and only seem to be useable by rifles, so if you're sticking to pistols and shotguns like me, you don't even really use them. I only resorted to spending a few at the game's climax, at which point you don't really need to worry about spending them anyway. Most guns cost-way too much, and those that don't you could just get free off an opponent. Stealth players will have even less reason to spend money on anything besides knives and the few silencer-enabled weapons available, most of which also can be found freely about mid-way through the game. The developers seem aware of this, as at the end, you get pointed to an armory and basically told "go nuts you crazy bast*rd".
Stealth in of itself isn't bad, but I agree with the general assumption that it could be done A LOT better than it normally is. The sheer lack of any progression for that playstyle outside of one pistol mod and two rifles doesn't help the game's case. Still, some sections are so much easier if you just cautiously sneak by that it'll save you fifteen checkpoint reloads. Thankfully, the awareness of the player in stealth isn't yay or nay for everyone. If someone' out of earshot, they won't expect you. There are a few traps here and there, but only the bomb trip wires are worth nothing, and that is to note that they are a pain, but also a free supply of grenades.
I'd like to think on harder difficulties like Ranger Hardcore, you can't always find as much free things, as that was a big problem for me. I rarely was on a low stock of supplies, which made most other store vendors useless too. It'd be nice if healing without a medpack were less ambiguous as well, in addition to the fact that apparently not a single gasmask filter, no matter how brand new, never fills up to the maximum of fifteen minutes. You also can't manage your filters, you just change them when Artyom starts to weez, which removes almost any incentive besides immersion to check your watch. Just wait for the noise, then swap for the latest one. And could we be allowed to swap gasmasks without the one we're presently wearing being utterly broken? And if it is broken, could we see a more subtle impact than either breathing fine or being seconds from death? And why are so many of the puzzles just a matter of finding a glowing object?
Still, most of these complaints were nitpicks for the first two acts. I'm saying it right now, the beginning and middle would get a solid 9/10 rating from me if that's all there was. Except, there isn't. There's the third act, where everything goes down hill. Perhaps they were low on budget, or just trying to follow the novel, but 4A Games really blew it here. It's like they were trying for the silver medal in the Olympics instead of the gold, and realized they were doing way too well for the first two parts of the story.
-get jiggy with it?**
Suddenly everything becomes even more linear than before, you're stuck with a bunch of generic military goons who have little personality beyond: the funny one, the funny one's friend who is more serious, the big macho leader who takes no BS, and the scientist who you have to inevitably protect. If this reminds you of Infinity Ward's epic shooter franchise, you aren't alone. While there's a little added tension from the new pacing, most of it just seems to just remind me why I don't play the standard shlock of shooters. If I just wanted a few connected box rooms with tons of things to shoot, I'd be playing Doom.
Metro's a game where a single creature smashing your mask in is a game over, and one particularly frustrating and opaque section with jello-like orb spamming mutated... wall... things? had me so irritated I turned the difficulty down to EASY. It seems perfectly practical in this section to just run forward, but unlike one part of the game, your comrades present are not invulnerable, and instead of following your lead, your ally in this section slowly plods along, taking numerous unnecessary hits. Perhaps though, this is not Metro 2033's most damning aspect. That goes to what may be one of the worst endings I've ever experienced.
The ending reminded me far too much of the conclusion in the Tomb Raider reboot's tower of repetitive motions and rehashed moments, along with a sequence oddly seeming to have been ripped clean from Dishonored stuffed in at last minute just to remind you that "oh yeah, the Dark Ones". Except it's presented in such a way to remove the ambiguity and make them absolutely seem like a threat, oddly validating the fact you can only choose your different endings if you meet a bizzare list of criteria to gain enough points to your morality to grant you the twenty second window to choose whether or not to try to wipe the Dark Ones out. You'd have to be just as willing to go out on a limb for just trying to get that option to see if you can save them, not that it really matters as the default choice is apparently canon.
And then it ends. That's it. There's no resolution on what happened to your allies, if anyone survived, or anything like that, in either ending. The only difference is the state of the Dark Ones, who you hardly see in the entire game. This just left an awful taste in my mouth, as the rest of the game was so solid. For casual gamers, I'm not sure if they'll make it past that, but for those who stick out the whole ten to twelve hours of the campaign, you get your fun first, and then the bitter pill. I wish I could just cite favorite moments like crossing a war zone with stealth or riding solo in an rocketing train cart, but that's not what a review is about. It's about what's saying what works and what doesn't*.
In Neo-Soviet Nuclear Winter Russia, Ghost Hunts You!Dasvidaniya,Paradigm
Next Up: Iron Brigade
P.S. I'm gonna keep tweaking the end titles for a bit, FYI.
*Would I be making a reference to another review of Metro 2033 that glazed over the third act like it was barely there? Never...
**I hate text cut offs like these in cutscenes. It's lazy, and annoying for when taking screenshots.