Tuesday, February 8, 2011


I nearly passed on Metro 2033, assuming it to be no more than a hobbled, "suitable for a broader audience" S.T.A.L.K.E.R. knock-off. If you too have avoided it, please let me counsel you to step off a foolish path. Metro 2033 is one of the most pleasant surprises I've had in quite a while.

While I've certainly discovered games I've never heard of and found them to be pleasing, it's rare that I'll actively peg something as worth missing and be so totally off the mark. Thankfully, during the zenith of "best of 2010" round-ups, a number of smart people (e.g. Tom Bissell on Slate) kept talking up Metro 2033 and a convenient Steam sale sealed the deal. Michael Abbott almost made the same mistake, so please, let us guide you, as we were so guided!

There's a distinct flavour a lot of Eastern European games (and Metro 2033 was made by Ukrainian developer 4A Games) have and it's quite to my taste. One common characteristic is they seem to believe games should be fair, but difficult. And the more time you spend with a game, the more difficult it should become. This stands in pretty stark contrast to most recent games, where near the end, the player has become an unstoppable tempest of ruin, dispensing swift death with nary a glance. A few titles manage to make this seem intention and poignant (like the enduring Far Cry 2), but most merely let the player waltz past the end of the graph.

Even though I certainly enjoy Fallout from end to end, my favourite portion of those games is the first three to four hours, when you're hopelessly under-supplied and counting every bullet, barely aware of your surroundings and feeling every single encounter is survived just by the skin of your teeth. Metro 2033 feels that way for the entire game. It never, ever lets you feel comfortable or in control.

Metro 2033 is also quite clever (perhaps intentionally, perhaps not) in making their world feel much larger than it would if the game cleaved to normal FPS conventions. Johnathan Blow made a relatively workaday, but important, observation when talking to Eurogamer back in December. He observed the catch-22 that it's increasingly expensive to create content 3D games with tremendous visual detail that is barely noticed by players:

"The first example was in a first-person shooter - there's all this stuff that's gotta look good, but really you're just running through and you're not stopping to look at anything because the game design doesn't want you to stop and look at anything."

Like Jon, I don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with that. But I feel for the people who have to make games with tremendous visual fidelity knowing most players won't really see the details, but they'd most certainly notice if that detail was absent. If you look at the level of detail in a recent Call of Duty title it is staggering, but at the same time, the best way to play that type of game is to see the environment only in terms of cover and lines of fire. The details are just noise.

But the tremendous scarcity of resources in Metro 2033 means you'll be noticing every detail because you'll be scouring every nook and cranny for more ammunition or air filters. Rather than dotting the spurs off the main path with terrible, pointless collectibles, exploration in Metro 2033 is tense and dangerous, but necessary. Without scavenging at least somewhat, you will run out of bullets.

While I have tremendous respect for the Bioshock series, I do find myself a little disappointed that due to the tremendous amount of pick-ups in that game, upon entering a new area, I find myself rummaging through crates and garbage cans, spamming 'E.' The structure of pick-ups in Bioshock means it takes a conscious effort to stop thinking in terms of utility and just look around and appreciate the fantastic and stunning space I'm in. Metro 2033 seems not to suffer from this, as the items are so rare and their locations are not fixed (there are no cabinets to rummage through), you can't help but notice the bizarre ruins of the Moscow underground. And those mise-en-scène microstories that were so pleasing to stumble across in Fallout work just as well in Metro 2033, even though it's far more linear.

Metro 2033 is probably the pleasant surprising gaming-wise I had last year. I really do recommend you check it out. And there's probably no better time to do so! THQ's online store has the PC digital download version for sale for just $10 USD. Technically this deal is "US only" but all that really means is non-Americans have to put a bunk US address in the form and pay via Paypal. At $10, the game is a steal.

Oh, and as Michael recommends (and says plenty of other smart things), play with the Russian dialog and English subtitles. It really is vastly more appropriate.



Blogger Unknown said...

I absolutely love the attention this game is getting recently. I actually picked it up close to release mostly because of the "no hud" system (similar to Dead Space). That and hearing about the gas masks in the game, which you have to keep track of time yourself, really appealed to me. Then everything you mentioned about scavenging for supplies and not feeling in control really set an interesting tone for the game that felt very different from other first person shooters. I give a mighty thumbs up to this game and to this post!

February 8, 2011 at 10:45 AM  
Blogger Jacob Clark said...

I will be honest I passed the game up on the first time due to poor reviews and I feel bad for judging a book by it's cover. That aside It seems right up my alley since I am tired of the going for one fire fight to the next with Call of Duty: Black Ops. The new DLC maps are exploding with detail it is just amazing but you can never notice them since your being fired at all times. Berlin Wall was striking which featured a vinyl record store with detailed records all different. The amount of time it took to do that must be frustrating.

I agree with you that games are usually more memorable in the first hours. Borderlands is one of my favorite games and Gearbox has done great work with it but towards the end you do get bored just because of how powerful you have become. This is why I am still playing Super Meat Boy because just like Metro 2033 the game never lets you feel like you are in control.

I'll take the advice from you and Alli893, and buy the game.

February 8, 2011 at 2:53 PM  
Blogger Mr Durand Pierre said...

Well said. The abundance of supplies in Bioshock and Fallout was probably my biggest gripe with both those games. Metro doesn't get enough credit for limiting your rations.

I especially liked how I wasted all my clean ammo on some larger thugs late in the game before realizing I could run right past them. Smartly, the game still gives you ammo right before that bit with the exploding jellyfish things i.e. the worst part of the game by far. Kudos on that.

I tried the Russian v/o with English subtitles, but my feeble mind can't read and fight at the same time. Ah well. Maybe I'll try that again if I revisit the game.

February 9, 2011 at 1:30 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Alli893 Yeah, exactly. There's something very tactile and appreciable about a game that makes all the typical game stuff endogenous and part of the game world itself. The eternal Far Cry 2 does this really well also.

@Gaming in Public Excellent! Curious to hear what you think once you've dug in a bit.

@Mr Durand Pierre The "load o' goods" was a slightly different problem in Bioshock vs. Fallout (I found the former a little distracting from environments, the latter ended up just with too much freakin' stuff to manage) but yeah, in both cases I wish there had been a difficult setting to, rather that make the enemies harder, make your supplies more scarce. Huh, that might be an interesting way of approaching difficulty now that I think about it ...

And oy, that jellyfish orb bit was awful. It was late in the game, so I guess it didn't get tested much, maybe? Shame that's basically the end because it sorta leaves things with a little bit of a sour taste.

February 9, 2011 at 8:57 AM  
Blogger FelixIncauto said...

I used to belive that the linearity of Metro 2033 was only for setting a sort of claustphobia into the player, but now I see that it also helps to enchance the details of each level.

I'm really looking froward for a Metro 2034.

February 9, 2011 at 4:35 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@RASS Yeah, it should be interesting. Doubly so that it's also based on the novel. I'm actually somewhat curious about the books themselves and would like to read them, if I can ever carve out the bloody time to do so.

February 10, 2011 at 7:29 AM  

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