Just finished Metro 2033,  the original that spawned its sequel. I got it for free during the last dying gasps of THQ, as promotional material for the sequel Metro: Last Light, which has just been released. Being a huge fan of S.T.A.L.K.E.R I really should have checked this out sooner, better late than never though! Here is what i thought of it.

Metro: 2033 has some awesome atmosphere, visually it is a step above Stalker but that probably has something to do with its narrower level design and later development cycle. From the moment you start playing, you feel the bitter struggle of the people within, it’s a hard, dark, desperate life and every location reinforces that message. There are some wonderful human touches to the residential tunnel environments, children playing, market stalls selling their wares and wary soldiers returning from patrol.

The abandoned areas are equally chilling, with dead survivors, dilapidated buildings and strange phenomenon which gives a sense of horror to the story. The voice work is excellent, the Russian language and accent really add to the flavor and the rather depressing musical score drives that emotion home. The story isn’t too hot though, while I sort of knew why I was doing what I was doing, the reason for killing the er…”psychic wierdos” got lost on me during the missions, and by the end they were suddenly the only protagonist which I had almost forgotten about for a while.

There is a good mix of human and monster enemies to fight, although it’s generally the human enemies that are the most dangerous early on, with the monsters only really providing a challenge towards the end. The various human factions you encounter as you progress seem to just exist, without you ever really learning much about them. I suppose for a shooter that’s fine, although I really wanted to know why there was a Nazi and Communist faction war going on in the tunnels, that seemed intriguing.

The gameplay has some frustrating flaws in its implementation unfortunately, ammo is scarce but enemies take more killing than I would have liked. This makes many of the guns feel rather wimpy and unsatisfying to use. The addition of custom made weapons that required “charging” as well as reloading started off as a novelty but ended up a chore. Especially during a fire fight, when you really didn’t want to be pumping a lever to charge your gun up for more shots.

You also have to charge your light source, via a hand pump which requires you to put away your weapon. Then you have your gas mask which is forever running out of filters, not to mention it can shatter or blur your vision while you wear it. There feels like too much to manage for the relative simplicity of the action, having to worry about air filters and light battery power and charging up your guns and finding ammo for your guns just gets a little bit tedious. I’m unsure if it is the simple overwhelming number of time limited mechanics or their implementation that is the issue.

There is also the incredibly cumbersome use of the objective clip board and compass, as well as the watch gas mask filter. I understand the idea, the developer wanted to avoid having a HUD to keep you “immersed”. Instead they force you to swap between knowing your heading, seeing, knowing how much air your filter has and being able to fight. Personally I didn’t appreciate it, too much faffing around, too many things to put in your hands that aren’t a gun, I like HUDs they get the job done. I’m playing a video game, you’re not fooling me by making it more cumbersome.

The controls also feel a little loose, aiming doesn’t feel as precise or accurate as in other games, this is particularly frustrating when faced with fast moving enemies that seem more challenging because of the controls rather than the danger they present. The ammo currency system is unique, but also confusing, I spent the early game not knowing which was my “money” and which was my ammo. Near the end of the game when I was desperate for ammo, I discovered one of my guns could actually use my “money”, which was a surprise to me and made me wonder if I had been told that before.

The lack of polish or perhaps intentional lack of precision in the aiming is a real negative, coupled with the sheer volume of consumable resources you have to manage ends up detracting from the game experience. Which is a real shame considering the outstanding quality of its presentation. Apparently there are two endings to the game, although I was oblivious to the “choices” you have to make to get the alternative. They are perhaps too subtle and only hardcore fans of the game would research this enough on the internet to really care.

Metro: 2033 excels at creating a believable and engaging world in which you play, where it really loses points is in the actual gameplay. For a first person shooter to have disappointing shooting is unforgivable. The fact that the game still manages to hold your attention is testament to its wonderful atmosphere. There are much better first person survival shooters out there though, the Stalker games being among them.