From 4A Studios in Kiev, Metro 2033 brings players to the Moscow subway system to fight for survival in a stark post-apocalyptic world with mutant creatures and patched-together weapons. Following a young protagonist leaving his underground home for the first time, it may sound familiar on the surface, but does this thriller dig deep enough to stand on its own?
Metro 2033's plot is based on the 2007 Russian novel which is also being released in English this month. Twenty years after nuclear war ravages Moscow, what's left of the city's population survives in the Metro tunnels, struggling against toxic fumes, radiation, and mutant beasts. However, Exhibition Station faces a new threat from mysterious entities simply known as the Dark Ones, and your character Artyom must leave home to seek help from a more powerful settlement.
While Metro 2033 pulls from common post-apocalyptic themes, it does an excellent job of drawing you into its world. Crowded population centers feel surprisingly lifelike as you eavesdrop on private conversations, observe citizens carrying out their daily lives, and watch children scratch drawings into walls. Introspective journal entries introduce each sub-chapter, while ghostly imagery and hallucinations serve as vehicles for psychological thrills.
With such an emphasis on storytelling, it should come as little surprise that Metro 2033 leads you through a mostly straightforward path with plenty of scripted moments. While this usually helps build the story through tension and variety, things don't always go smoothly when the scripting requires player action. A lack of direction can cause you to stand your ground against an invincible monster or trigger random deaths just because you didn't run to the right spot.
Since survival is a daily struggle, pre-war military grade ammunition is the currency of the Metro, introducing a give-or-take mechanic to the game. You can load pre-war ammo into rifles for more damage or you can save it up as cash for new weapons and so-called dirty ammo. It's an interesting concept, but the execution is flawed. Swapping ammo is as simple as holding down the reload button for a second longer, making it easy to accidentally reload with cash and blow it all in the heat of battle.
When it comes to ammo consumption, Metro 2033 takes a page from survival horror, giving you limited resources and pushing you to search bodies for supplies. Likewise, the shoddy weapons you start with should be discarded as soon as possible. Shopkeepers will guide you if you're in a market, but if you're scavenging weapons on the go, there's no way to tell if a gun on the ground is better than the one you own without comparing it to pictures in the manual. The weapon selection stays mostly within standard parameters with pistols, assault rifles, and shotguns, but there are also pneumatic weapons that gain extra power by pumping up the air pressure, like the arrow-firing Helsing.
Metro 2033 takes an average of eight to 10 hours to complete with chapters broken into small chunks that make it easy to play in short bursts. There's also an alternate ending for players who pay close attention to the minor choices along the way.
Gameplay in Metro 2033 has a clear thriller influence with dark, foreboding tunnels and distant grunts raising tension before waves of beasts stampede. Many of the gameplay mechanics reflect a world living on spare parts and borrowed time as you periodically wind up batteries for your headlamp and don fragile gas masks to survive harsh surface conditions. Human encounters are a strong contrast against the rushing monsters and harrowing chase sequences. There are plenty of great opportunities to play stealthy, avoiding booby traps and throwing knives at unsuspecting victims.
Where the game takes a complete nose-dive is with its broken human AI that constantly makes you ask, "Are they really this stupid?" Soldiers are indecisive, running back and forth from cover to cover, often turning their back to you. They fail to properly run away from grenades, stand by unaware as a partner dies next to them, and often seem entirely reluctant to shoot at you. The chaos of soldiers wandering around like mental patients makes it hard to pick out which enemies actually are threats, and the whole experience suffers for it.
Thankfully, human encampments don't make up the bulk of the game, and fending off enraged mutants is a more satisfying challenge. However, we never want to relive the gauntlet of exploding snot bubbles near the end of the game.
The Xbox 360 version of Metro 2033 offers a mixed visual experience. In the tunnels, the game exhibits some truly striking environments with great lighting, smoke, and particle effects. Gas masks appropriately obscure your view with cracks inflicted by enemies and condensation that builds until you replace the filter. Station citizens are all engaged in subtle, believable behaviors, making cities feel more alive than in most games.
Above ground, the flat overcast lighting isn't nearly as impressive, natural structures like edges of ravines look chunky, and snow textures look very basic. The physics system for dead bodies also has a tendency to act up, resulting in amazing displays of corpse dexterity.
For purists, there is an option to play the game in the original Russian, but the English voice acting sounds good and subtitles only cover the main plot, so you'll miss out on the rich background conversation. The soundtrack is dominated by somber acoustic guitars, echoing the bleakness of the game's world and setting a fitting somber tone.
Metro 2033 is a game of extreme highs and lows. The fragile atmosphere of fright and wonder that starts the game strong is nearly crushed by idiotic human AI and design choices that don't quite work in practice. Like its roller-coaster chase sequences, it's worth the experience, but it will at times make you want to hurl.
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.