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.
Labels: Metro 2033