Metro 2033 is one of those games that sounds great on paper (a first person shooter set in the underbelly of a near-future post-apocalyptic Moscow? Awesome!) but when you actually sit down and start playing it, all the potential seems to evaporate, and what’s left behind doesn’t fit together that well.
Metro 2033’s set-up is pretty solid: In 2013, nuclear war rendered Moscow uninhabitable, and only a handful of people managed to survive, eking out an existence in the Moscow Metro. You play as Artyom, a young man from the northern frontier of the Metro, whose home station is under threat from a race of psychic boogeymen called the Dark Ones, supposedly the next stage in human evolution, who attack mentally rather than physically. Between Artyom and his goal however, are a couple of armies – one communist and one Nazi – miles of tunnels, bandits and a few dozen mutants.
Artyom’s character or lack thereof, is problematic. While the idea of the silent, empty-vessel style protagonist isn’t exactly new in first person shooters, Metro 2033 takes it to new heights. Artyom doesn’t ever speak, except to deliver the overwrought voice-overs that introduce each stage, and any significant decisions are usually taken out of his hands, either by circumstance, or by one of the game’s major characters. You spend much of the game following more capable and better equipped NPCs around. These are technically escort missions, because if your ally dies you have to go back to the last checkpoint, but it’s made very clear that you are the follower and they are the leader.
On the relatively rare occasions you are on your own, you feel underpowered and unusually fragile, even considering the setting. There’s a disconnect between the game that the developer seemed to want to make, and what it actually made. The world of Metro 2033 is pretty clearly meant to be a tense and dangerous place where a single mistake can cost you your life – and usually does – and all the gameplay elements, like having to be careful not to damage your gasmask and remembering to keep your night vision goggles charged, seem to support that – but you’re never really given the tools to manage this situation effectively.
The core shooting gameplay is much too simple; there’s no option to lean or go prone and the weapons don’t seem geared towards caution. At first this seems like a heavy-handed method of encouraging stealth, but stealth isn’t implemented very well either. You have a light meter and weapons like throwing knives for silent take downs, but regardless of the precautions you take, if you mess up even once, every enemy in the vicinity knows where you are, and no amount of hiding seems to change that.
Even the game’s good ideas backfire thanks to strange design decisions. One of the best ideas that Metro 2033 has is that ammunition – specifically pre-war military grade ammunition, which is better made and more powerful – is used as currency. It’s an interesting mechanic and adds some much needed depth to the combat, forcing you to make a choice between your short term goals, like surviving to the next checkpoint, and more long term goals of buying new weapons and armor. The problem is that to balance this, the regular “dirty” ammo is by comparison laughably weak, with regular human enemies sometimes taking half a dozen close range shotgun blasts to kill, and the majority of the mutants being even tougher still.
It all adds up to create a feeling that your progress through the game is as much due to luck and persistence as it is to skill. Whether you succeed by replaying a section over and over again until you eventually beat it, or just manage to stay alive long enough to make a mad dash to the relative safety of the next check point, rather than feel triumphant when you clear a particular tough part, you just feel relieved.
Metro 2033 doesn’t even tell its story very well. Artyom’s home station is a bustling, cramped place, but you’re given little time to establish an emotional connection with it before you strike out into the tunnels. The game’s main overarching narrative is about finding a way to deal with the Dark Ones, but even with the strange interactive cutscenes where the Dark Ones reach out to Artyom – who for some unexplained reasons is immune to their attacks – their impact on the story always feels relatively minor compared to the more obvious and immediate Nazis and mutants the game has to offer. The game frontloads a lot of information about how terrible the Dark Ones are, but it never really communicates the idea past that initial exposition.
Bottom Line: Metro 2033 has a ton of really great ideas, but not only do they not fit together well, they actually compete with each other, sucking all the enjoyment out of the experience.
Recommendation: If you really like post-apocalyptic shooters, Metro 2033 might be worth renting, but you won’t miss much if you skip it.
Logan Westbrook has been talking in a bad Russian accent for days thanks to this game.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game