Thursday, March 25, 2010

Metro 2033 Review

Metro 2033 is, so far, my favorite game of 2010 (Yes, I enjoyed it more than Mass Effect 2 and Bioshock 2). Here's why, originally published on Hooked Gamers.

The Russian Underground

Walking through a Russian metro station as lead character Artyom in Metro 2033 is an experience much like Gordon Freeman's introduction to City 17. You are given the impression that this is a living, breathing world, inhabited by people with unique stories and personalities.

But unlike City 17, the Russian metro contains less despair and oppression despite its claustrophobic nature: Two men listen to an old jazz record in their tight quarter, a married couple argue through a locked door, a father watches his young son draw colorful pictures on the concrete floor, and two women discuss flirtations with men while working in the kitchen. The crafting of such scenarios by 4A Games creates a palpable atmosphere in Metro 2033 that really immerses you in the game. In the case of metro stations, you are inundated by conversations and life from all sides. But outside these stations, the atmosphere is much more foreboding.

The tunnels that connect metro stations are solitary places, especially after the vibrancy of the stations. In the quiet darkness of these passageways, every little creak or piece of falling rubble creates tension, signifying the presence of nearby mutants. And that tension turns to frenzy when you hear their screams and see their dark outlines rushing towards you.

Stay With Me

Unfortunately, as much as 4A Games try to create a gripping atmosphere, they damage their efforts with immersion-breaking mechanics. Cut scenes in Metro 2033 inexplicably remove your control of Artyom, and sometimes even remove the camera from him altogether, giving the first-person shooter a third-person view. This can be especially frustrating during thrilling sequences in which you want to control Artyom as he is facing death.

Metro 2033, disappointingly, also incorporates stale quick-time events. If a mutant gets too close to Artyom in a certain situation, you have to pound a key to stab it with a knife. If Artyom starts to lose his grip on an unstable ladder, you have to pound a key to stop him from falling to his death. Not only do these events remove you from Artyom, they run contrary to the innovative and thoughtful mechanics that 4A Games has incorporated in Metro 2033.

Innovating Conventions

Given the game's post-apocalyptic setting, there are many places, including the surface, in which Artyom will need to use his gas mask. But this is no simple task. Wearing the mask distorts Artyom's vision, giving the immediate landscape a grainy effect and severely blurring his peripheries.

The mask's filter doesn't last forever either, as evidenced by Artyom's increasingly heavy breathing. Changing the filter when necessary is usually simple, provided you have an extra. But when you are fending off homicidal mutants and Artyom starts to breathe heavily, you will wish you were back inside with that quarrelling married couple. The gas mask can even crack beyond repair if Artyom takes too much damage, requiring you to quickly find another before it's too late.

When moving through dimly-lit areas, Artyom has the option of using a flashlight or night vision goggles. Unfortunately, batteries are scarce in the metro, so you have to periodically wind a hand generator to maintain power to the two devices. If the generator loses all power, the flashlight will barely light the immediate floor and Artyom's night vision goggles will cease working altogether. Much like the portable generator, pneumatic weapons must be pumped constantly to maintain adequate pressure. A fully pressurized gun can take down an enemy in one shot, whereas a pneumatic gun lacking pressure will have to be fired four or five times to do equivalent damage.

Such innovations are not revolutionary, but they really add to your immersion in the game world. Even a mechanic as simple as having to hit the reload key three times to fully reload the automatic shotgun deepens your experience.

Less Innovating Conventions

Not all of Metro 2033's innovations increase the game's immersion, however. The health system utilizes a combination of health packs and regeneration. Arytom's health recovers slowly, so when mutants blitzkrieg you, you will want to use health packs to quickly recover. But if you are severely injured after a heated battle, you can wait for your health to regenerate. There is nothing particularly wrong with the health system - it works well - but its reliance on shooter conventions is disappointing when compared to the unique flashlight and night vision goggle implementations.

The game's highly touted "ammo as currency" mechanic is also somewhat shallow. The Russian metro uses military-grade bullets as currency. These powerful projectiles can be used for quickly taking down mutant or human combatants, or buying better guns and other types of ammo. But therein lies the problem: military-grade ammo isn't the only type of ammo. You can easily treat the high-quality bullets solely as currency and fight exclusively with normal ammunition, thereby avoiding any interesting decisions that would've arisen were there only one item in Metro 2033 that completely encompassed both currency and ammunition.

Of course, all these innovative mechanics and tools are necessary to protect Artyom from the denizens of the metro tunnels and barren surface. As implied, you'll encounter two types of enemies in Metro 2033: human and mutant, both of which offer very different experiences.

Bandits and Mutants

Bandits and other human combatants provide very dynamic firefights. They are always heavily armored and use cover well, while also doing enough damage to keep you behind cover. They also keep you moving from cover to cover with grenades and well-timed flanks. As a result, firefights against other humans are very satisfying, especially on the surface where you can shoot their gas masks off and watch as they scramble to put them back on.

Mutants, contrarily, offer a repetitive experience. Your initial encounters with them are harrowing affairs: They can take a lot of damage and always swarm you - an effective tactic on their part given how slow Artyom reloads certain guns.

But after a few mutant encounters, you begin to see a pattern. Artyom almost always encounters mutants at the end of a tunnel or passageway, where he must survive wave after wave, and in some unfortunate cases, endless respawns.

Reaching the Bar

4A Games set the bar so high on Metro 2033 that when the game adheres to conventional gaming mechanics and doesn't find new, more immersive ways to engage you, you are left slightly disappointed. But that is not a denouncement; it is a testament to the superb quality of this game. Metro 2033 provides a phenomenal atmosphere through crafted experiences, alarming sound effects, and engaging visuals. Its subtle innovations to traditional shooter elements draw you into the post-apocalyptic Russian metro.

Despite its linear nature, you will want to play this game again and again to experience its sights and sounds. Metro 2033 is, so far, one of the best single-player experiences of 2010.

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