The difference between clever and cunning.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Metro 2033

          Let’s get things rolling with a review of an atmospheric, Ukrainian made number that came out earlier this year.

          Metro 2033 is a first person shooter, descended from the Half-Life and Bioshock schools of design and world building. As the human race does periodically in book, film, and game, we have all but wiped ourselves out with a nuclear war. All that is left are a few thousand survivors hiding from a freezing and hostile surface, huddled deep underground in the Moscow subway system. Food, light, space, and ammo are all limited and precious commodities, travel is difficult and dangerous at best, and the hordes of ravenous mutants infesting the tunnels may be the least of our problems.

          “Sounds like Stalker and Fallout 3”, I hear you say. The game certainly has stylistic similarities, especially with Stalker, but let’s gets one thing clear. This is not an open world game. You are not free to pick a random direction and head for the horizon. Gameplay is a series of linear, tightly scripted encounters.

          That isn’t a bad thing, and is entirely appropriate for the setting. You are not in a giant open world. You are in an underground subway system. There is no escape.

Into the Tunnels

          The setting and atmosphere are very strong, but let’s discuss gameplay. Metro is a shooter and an action game, and the action is diverse and well paced. In one scene you’re holding the line against hordes of mutants, in the next you’re picking your way through dark abandoned tunnels. Then you’re sprinting across the surface, fighting for breath, before jumping on a rail cart for a shooter segment.

          You never do any one thing long enough to get bored with it or for gameplay to get predictable. The pacing is good. Just as soon as I was getting used to one segment, along came the next chapter with something new in its presentation.

          The surface sections deserve special mention, as they show what a hostile place the planet has become. The surface is a frozen, radioactive wasteland where the air is not safe to breath. You’re forced to wear a gas mask to stay alive, dependant on a limited supply of filters that act as a time limit. More can be scavenged from the ruins, but you need to keep moving. Between the lethal environment, and the powerful winged mutants that swoop down and attack without warning, it’s actually a relief to get back into the dark, cramped tunnels.

          The gas mask is well implemented. You need to pull it on when you hear yourself start to choke on poisonous air, but it limits your vision and hearing. Taking damage when wearing it makes it increasingly cracked and damaged, and it fogs up as the filter wears out and needs replacing. The gas mask serves as an effective way to increase tension and make sections more challenging without feeling cheap, and it reinforces what a dangerous place the world of Metro is.

          The environments, while still largely a series of underground tunnels, stay visually interesting and distinct. They’re full of little touches: from the moldering skull of some unlucky traveler in the corner to the odd little bio-luminescent plants clinging to the walls. The game looks good. The human characters manage to avoid the creepy “uncanny valley” look some modern games suffer from, and you can tell their weapons and equipment at a glance. The game is actually a bit of a system hog, though it still looked good and played nicely on medium settings on my machine. Slowdown only cropped up once or twice, and never during an action sequence.

World without Sun

          And really, it is the subterranean environment of Metro that is the star of the game. There is a vivid and immersive sense of place that runs through every part of the world; from the moment the prologue throws you into the story, to the rolling of the credits. The few friendly stations you visit are especially cool, little oases of humanity and light in an otherwise very hostile world. The inhabitants grow mushrooms and pigs, drink, trade, raise children, argue, and try to keep their machines running and defenses up just a little longer. There are plenty of conversations for you to eavesdrop on that flesh out some extra bit of story or setting.

          The minimalist interface goes a long way towards helping the immersion. You get an exact numeric count of your ammo and other necessary supplies, but this only pops up on screen when relevant. Everything else displays in a contextual “in universe” manner. When your screen is going red around the edges you’re injured. When your gas mask has numerous visible cracks, it’s time to replace it. You charge your flashlight by manually pulling out your charger, checking the meter, and pumping it by hand. You even track your objectives with a notepad and compass you physically pull out and look at, rather than it appearing on a HUD. Some sort of inventory or supply summary page would not have gone amiss, especially for comparing stats and add-on for your weapons, but the information you need is generally on screen when you need it, and in a way that keeps you in the game world.

          Metro’s gameplay is full of small tactical choices that keep things interesting. You can switch between high and low quality ammo, but the high quality bullets are the currency you use to buy everything. You spend wealth with every shot you take and every item you buy uses up valuable ammo. You can manually charge up your flash-light and night visions goggles at any time, but are vulnerable to attack when doing so. You regenerate health slowly, but can use your limited supply of healing items for quick boosts. It’s a good combination of regenerating and consumable based health systems.

          Combat, while varied, can feel clunky. This is not the best first person shooting you have ever seen, though it isn’t terrible. Human opponents tend not to be aggressive, preferring to stay behind cover and poke their heads out to take potshots. Between your scoped weapons and regenerating health this can turn them into sniper bait. To be fair, they are not brain dead. Human enemies try to escape grenades and move when they are taking hits, but hanging back and picking at them when they show themselves can usually clear them out without much trouble.

          Mutant enemies are much more aggressive, rushing you in a mass of teeth, claws, and leathery hide. Many chapters featuring mutant foes are desperate “hold the line” style battles, as you and AI allies fight to fend off a rush of monsters. These can be frantic struggles for survival, but they can also get comically chaotic and confusing. Your teammates' pistol whip the swarm of mutants clawing at them, while the ragdolls of creatures you shoot flip and flop awkwardly off surrounding characters.

          The mutants do display a nice range of species and behaviors across the game. Rat creatures leap to ambush from narrow burrows, flying gargoyles dive bomb you as you cross open spaces on the surface, and powerful apelike beasts stalk slowly forward until your turn away or open fire. Observing new creatures and understanding their unique behavior and weaknesses is always rewarded.

          You are frequently accompanied by AI teammates and allies, and they are ably handled. They do not get lost or stuck, and you never need to babysit them. Much of the time the “mission critical” characters are invulnerable, and when they are not they can still defend themselves in combat. NPC chatter and advice is a good source of information and atmosphere without becoming annoying.

          The game has a good sense of humor for such a grim setting. As one would expect with a game set in the Moscow subway system, made by Ukrainians, it’s a very Russian game. The translation and dialog is spot on, and a few of the comments and conversations from other characters made me laugh.

Alone in the Dark

          In many sections, particularly those featuring human enemies, you don’t need to fight if you don’t want too. The game has a workable stealth mechanic. You can turn off your flashlight, pull on your night vision goggles, and go skulking around Sam Fisher style with throwing knives and silenced weapons. You can put out lights in the environment and the watch on your wrist gives you an idea of how visible you are. You can frequently overhear interesting things you would miss when shooting your way through.

          The stealth is not poorly implemented, but it can be unforgiving if you want to remain undetected. The game does not have a quick save, though this usually isn’t a problem. Checkpoints are well paced and frequent. When attempting a stealth section this means one screw up leaves you with the choice to just shoot your way through, or restart from a checkpoint.

          To be fair it makes sense. Hardened post-apocalyptic bandits aren’t going to peacefully resume their business after hearing shots or finding their buddies dead, but one mistake and your cover is blown for good. It is also very easy to walk over broken glass or into one of the many noise-making traps, and one noise has the whole enemy force on high alert. Sneaking is always the player’s choice, but it requires patience and close observation. You CAN simply shoot your way through, but it’s frequently harder to sneak than fight and you’ll likely end up fighting a lot anyway.

          It is nice to have a choice of how to try to get through a challenge, especially in such an otherwise linear and scripted game. It bears repeating, but Metro is a very linear game. There is no back-tracking, and not a lot of optional areas or side quests, though there are plenty of ammo caches and other goodies tucked away in corners for the observant. This may disappoint open world game fans, but this decision let the designers pour tremendous care and energy into the areas the character does visit. You will never see another mutant nest/trading post/bandit camp with the same modular layout as the last three. Each area is unique, atmospheric, and often quite memorable. I certainly won’t be forgetting the section where you carry a child on your back out of a mutant overrun station.

          Metro is not a traditional survival horror game, but it does have some truly chilling sections. I’m not talking about the parts where you’re blasting swarms of skittering mutants. These aren’t “something toothy lunges at you” scares. They’re much creepier. Without giving too much away, know that there are tunnels that have been abandoned by human and mutant alike, where you want to keep your flashlight fully charged. There are forces at work in Metro that defy normal explanation, and aren’t bothered by bullets. You will know them when you see them, and won’t forget seeing them after you do.

          Metro has no multiplayer component, but it does not need one. Its focus is on the single-player story and the underground world where it takes place.

Reasons to Play: Immersive gameplay. Atmospheric world. High level of polish and quality.

Reasons to Pass: Very linear. Slightly awkward combat. No multiplayer.

          In conclusion, Metro 2033 is worth playing if you’re a fan of post-apocalyptic shooters or atmospheric, polished games. Multiplayer action junkies and open world sandbox  fans may not find as much to interest them. Metro is a tunnel crawl where the only way out is forward, but what you see and experience in those tunnels will stay with you long after you leave.


Hello, and welcome to my new PC gaming focused blog: Azeroth to Zork. We have a lot to talk about.

Azeroth to Zork will feature reviews, discussion, and commentary on games and gaming, old and new. We will review new games, both mainstream and indie, and look back on older classics. Everything from MMO's to independent mods are on the table. We will discuss a range of topics, from what makes games enjoyable, to what can make them nightmarish exercises in eye-gouging frustration. Larger issues and trends affecting genres and the industry as a whole will be examined.

On rare occasions we might also feature bits of humor, short fiction, dice-and-paper RPG modules, and whatever cool stuff we can dredge up out of the web, but this is primarily a PC gaming blog. Comments, feedback, and discussion are always welcome and encouraged, but use common sense and keep it classy, or I swear I'll turn this into a sprite comic about two guys sitting on a couch spewing out word balloons.

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