Metro 2033 Review: Notes from the Underground

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Sometimes, the best sci-fi ideas find their roots in the real world. Take the setting of THQ’s new first-person shooter Metro 2033. Moscow’s Metro public transportation system was not only built to serve the purpose of ferrying people around a big city; it was also built to shelter citizens in case of nuclear attack. So, the game’s story occurs in the bowels of that system and presents a different kind of post-apocalypse, where Russian society retreats underground into the metro stations after a nuclear war. Though it might seem like a retread idea or a riff on Fallout 3, the game’s actually based on a novel of the same name.

And, surprisingly, that book’s sensibility shines through to this interactive adaptation.  From the very first scenes, the game’s set dressing is festooned with relics from the recent retro past: typewriters, vinyl record players and CRT TVs. Metro 2033 has a great opening with atmospheric music and sad, effective voice-acting. The non-playable character you encounter communicate the idea that these people have lived underground for twenty years and that it’s a grim, tense way of life. Since the war, various species of mutated lifeforms have been ruling the scarred surface world, occasionally attacking the metros. In addition to that, the Dark Ones—described as Homo Novus, the next step in human evolution– have been exerting their power of mind control to thin out humanity’s ranks even more. In the middle of all of this gloom, you’ll be controlling a lead character named Artyom, who’s never known a pre-nuclear world. Postcards from the old world–the Pyramids of Giza, the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower– are on his wall and stand as stark contrast to the endless grey concrete you’ll be skulking through as he fights his way from one metro station to another, trying to ensure his own–and mankind’s–future survival.

If the best thing about Metro 2033 is its brooding, quasi-literary atmosphere, then it’s a double shame that it can’t sustain that feeling through its gameplay. I kept on waiting for a weapon or a play mechanic that would feel eminently suited to this world, but I was left wanting. The only thing that comes close is the gas mask. You’ll have to having to don a decrepit rebreather whenever you go to the surface you’ll need to keep an eye on Artyom’s watch and listen to his increasingly labored breathing to figure out when to change the mask’s filters. Again, the emphasis here is on creating mood, rather than in delivering something that’s actually fun to play. The same flaw cripples the gunplay, too. While you’re given to understand that the guns aren’t really effective because they’re mostly repurposed from the Cold War, that doesn’t make you feel any better when it comes to the frustration of actually having to use them. Regardless of explanation, the guns all feel pretty generic and the enemies, while sufficiently gross-looking, stop being scary after a couple of hours. They’re either big feral nasties or bat-winged flyers that seem to absorb bullets until they decide to fall over. Even if the developers at A4 decided they wanted Metro 2033 too be harder than your average FPS, it still seems like it could’ve used another round of balancing.

There’s some alternate-reality bits, like a power struggle between Nazi and Communist political factions, that fail to really gel in any kind of compelling way. They mostly seem there to give you other humans to shoot at. The other interesting elements, like having the same ammo you use to stay alive be the game’s barter currency, don’t do much to bolster the punishing difficulty of the action.

Still, it’s the vibe of the world and protagonist that will keep you playing. Arytom doesn’t feel particularly brave or tough; he just feels resigned to and, maybe, a little bit curious about this world he’s inherited. There aren’t any real “oh, $#!+!!” moments up its sleeve, but should you finish Metro 2033, you will feel like you got a full story. That can’t be said for a lot of the more successful shooters out there.

Official Techand Score: 7.0 out of 10