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SummaryReal wastelands don't have no fancy Cola drinks
The GoodFirst of all, let's get one thing out of the way: Metro 2033 is nothing more than a shooter, and make no mistake about that. A glorified shooter at best, what with the whole survival thing and its fairly decent stealth and whatnot, but it's nowhere near as complex (and certainly not as big) as S.T.A.L.K.E.R., to which the comparisons are inevitable since it's where the developing team comes from. Furthermore, in a strict shootery-shooter sense, it's not really that good either.
That said, though, there is one thing that Metro 2033 nails masterfully, and that one thing makes up for any of its flaws: Immersion.
Immersion in Metro 2033 can be broken down in two basic aspects: First, as it could be expected, there's the atmosphere. You know, the ability of the world itself to draw you in.
If you ever played one of these Post-Soviet games you know that, despite any of their faults, they sure know their way around building a deep, haunting, and often unique world. We've seen it in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., The Void, Pathologic, Cryostasis and even the universally maligned You Are EMPTY. If nothing else, the world in each of these games is a pleasure to get lost in (a masochistic pleasure more often than not, but pleasure nonetheless), and Metro 2033 honors this tradition.
There's something about the way these guys put attention to every detail that make their games unlike anything else out there. There's a story in a traditional, cutscene-powered style, but there's also a story in the buildings, in the stuff scattered around, in the background chatter of the NPCs --it's all over the place if you're willing to pay attention.
Secondly, and much more impressive in my opinion, there's the way the gameplay itself is inextricably entangled with the world.
As much of a plain, linear, by-the-numbers corridor shooter as it is, Metro 2033 nails the concept of “survival” in a way no other game has in many, many years --and yes, I am thinking about Fallout: New Vegas' so much talked-about “hardcore mode”. You see, the Metro 2033 guys hit the nail that Obsidian missed olimpically (and I do know Bethesda missed it even worse before, don't start with that, plox): That if you plan on making resource management a core part of gameplay, the player shouldn't be able to hoard stuff like a packrat. What's the point of having your character suffer from thirst or hunger, or having weapons degrade with use when you stumble on food, clean water and repair kits with every second step (and even if you're not paying attention to your surroundings you have so much money you don't even need to check the prices anyway)?
In Metro 2033, whenever you're told to gear up for a mission you might want to take that to heart, and give some serious thought to what you'll be taking with you too. Failing to prepare properly means you're not surviving your next mission. Simple as that. And once you're out there, you better search every nook and cranny thoroughly, because each bullet or air filter you can scrounge will count like you wouldn't believe.
But even if you're reasonably well prepared and you grab everything that's not nailed down, resources are scarce at best, so proper management of whatever you have is of major importance.
For instance, every now and then you go up to the surface, where the air is toxic, so you need to don your oxygen mask. The mask has limited filters. As each filter gets dirty, the mask becomes fogged up and your vision is compromised. So, what do you do? Do you swap the filter for a new one so you can actually see with clarity, but at the same time risk getting one step closer to running out; or do you stick with the filter until it's definitely dead so you take full advantage of its lifespan, but then risk running headfirst into a lurking monstrosity because you couldn't see it in time with all the condensation?
I think the only game in which every piece of inventory felt so vital and downright essential that it makes you wanna think three times before using it, was the first Fallout.
Things get even more problematic when it comes to ammunition. You see, the “pre-war military grade ammo” -the only kind of bullet that can actually make any serious damage- is also the only kind of currency in this world. And that has to be about the most brilliant idea in the history of shooters. Finding yourself surrounded by enemies and going through every clip in every weapon until you're finally forced to start using the good ammo!! is so indescribably desperating that it almost makes you wanna cry --you're literally burning money with every shot you take!! D:
Now, I've bitched about ammo starvation repeatedly in the past, specifically about ammo starvation used as a way of increasing tension by certain developers I took the liberty of codenaming “lazy-ass crappy horror game designers”; but in Metro 2033 it just fits. You see, this is a world that's being slowly rebuilt by a handful of survivors with whatever scraps they can salvage. Everything is scarce and in terrible shape. There are pneumatic weapons you need to pump between shots in order to keep them in good shape, the flashlight gets weaker with time and you need to fiddle with a manual charging device to recharge it, gas masks can be cracked and broken by hits and need to be replaced frequently, the so-called grenades are actually makeshift pipe bombs, and so on. Every thing you see has this hand-made quality to it, and it's all in the brink of breaking down or running out all the time. These guys built a world in which ammo starvation not only makes sense, it actually wouldn't make sense any other way.
It's worth mentioning that those maintenance tasks require you to actually fiddle with clunky, bulky pieces of equipment, performing actual, time-consuming maneuvers -as opposed to just clicking a magic button or walking over a floating icon-, so you better make sure you're in a relatively safe spot before doing anything. Even the closest thing to insta-healing involves jabbing a morphine syrette in your arm, a process that takes a good half of a second and leaves you completely helpless during that time.
Finally, the basic information you'd get from a HUD is cleverly implemented into the game world: You can see your objectives in an actual clipboard you carry around and bring up with a keystroke, your regular stealth-game-visibility-indicator is a colored led on your watch, in that same watch you can check the remaining oxygen --so you see, the immersion is even in the most basic gameplay mechanics.
Finally-finally, one extra cool point goes to a clever keymapping system where hitting a key and holding it down usually have different effects (for instance, hitting F switches the flashlight on/off while holding it down brings up the charger to power it up). It's a great way of saving hotkeys and it's much more intuitive and comfortable than you'd believe.
Oh, and I'm not much of a graphics whore -I care much more about design consistency, imagination and a decent framerate than to whatever visual bells & whistles a given game brings up-, but the graphics in Metro 2033 are really worth at least a passing mention. They're not the kind of creative stuff I personally like, but they're fairly impressive nonetheless, looking seven kinds of pretty even at the lowest settings, and running relatively smooth on any halfway decent gaming computer.
The BadSo, the survival mechanic is so good it makes up for the game's otherwise simplistic gameplay, its small, linear maps and even its rather lacking shooting --but still, a game so immersive would've been served wonderfully by more complex interactions with NPCs (and maybe a sidequest or ten); but given that we don't have any of that, then the shooting needs to have some serious work on. It's just not good. The controls handle just fine, the weapons are powerful-looking, the firing effects are good, the animation is great, in general terms the game would seem to be capable enough; but when it comes to it, it just doesn't feel like you're hitting the enemies (something that's especially noticeable when using melee attacks).
Metro 2033 is said to have been developed primarily for the PC, but, to put it bluntly, the shooting feels like a console port. Mind you, it is much lees consoley than the likes of, say, BioShock and Halo, but it's still way too consoley for my taste.
For me, Half-Life 2 set the bar for what a shooter should feel like, and anything that doesn't match that mark gets and F. Period.
The HUD-less gameplay is one of Metro 2033's greatest ideas, especially the way the information was integrated in the very world, but I think they should have gone even further with it than they did: There's still some info text being superimposed on the screen that should've also been integrated into the world somehow --specifically: ammunition count, remaining filters and morphine syrettes.
Furthermore, there actually is a somewhat perplexing, traditional-ish inventory screen that feels out of place, redundant, immersion-breaking, and, worst of all, completely useless: The only time you see it is when you switch weapons using the mousewheel instead of the designated hotkeys, but it just shows up for about a second; so even if you do want to give it any use, it's uncomfortable to access and completely impractical.
Speaking of stuff that doesn't belong, the unarguable awesomeness of the graphics take a pretty serious blow when it comes to human faces. They all have this strange, blank expression that looks all the worse with the unbelievably white eye sclera that everyone in this post-apocalyptic world has. Seriously, these people's eyes are almost fluorescent. It's like they got porcelain eyes implanted or something.
Finally, most of the enemies (this is, the mutants) are really nicely designed with some specific details here and there that made some of them particularly terrifying (there are a couple of flapping mouths that are bound to haunt your dreams for some time), but there is one awful exception: The amoebas.
Amoebas show up about two levels before the ending, and they're these translucent blobs that come out of some organic growths on the walls and floors and creep towards people, exploding on contact, making a big, deadly mess and whatnot.
These creatures are so incredibly annoying to fight, crappy in terms of design and simply generally useless to the game, that I can't understand how did they ever got a greenlight during playtesting. I refuse to believe there is even one person in the world that would go through the amoebas level and wouldn't think the whole thing should've been scrapped in alpha --while cursing like a deranged maniac too, because, man, are these things f'ing infuriating.
The Bottom LineSo there you have it. Metro 2033 is a basic but deeply atmospheric shooter in which immersion is not just painted on the walls, so to say, but in fact it's deeply tied in every gameplay aspect.
It's been many many years since I played a game in which each single bullet is so valuable that you might as well give them personal names, and I don't remember whether I ever played a game that managed to have such limitation make so much sense. These guys took the concept of “survival” and cranked the knob all the way up, and I'll just go with it. Metro 2033 is punishing like you wouldn't believe, but, oddly enough, it's incredibly enjoyable precisely because of that.
If you care about immersion, you need to play this. If you want to see just how far the concept of “surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland” can go, you need to play this. If you often find yourself complaining about how games have become insultingly easy in these days, you SO need to play this.
Metro 2033 has its share of flaws, you may even come up with some I missed or I didn't care to list, but just the uniqueness of the experience makes it all worth it. Simply put, they just don't make them like this anymore.