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Metro 2033 (Xbox 360) artwork

Metro 2033 (Xbox 360) review

"Developed by 4A Games, a splinter of Ukranian studio GSC Game World, Metro 2033 is nothing like Stalker. That's one of the most important things to remember when entering its dismal tunnel network, or sprinting across its harsh, destroyed surface world. It may share some pretty heavy thematic elements with that series, and it might emerge from the same brains, but Metro 2033 is its own game: more bombastic shoot-'em-up than slow-burning, open-world survival."

Developed by 4A Games, a splinter of Ukranian studio GSC Game World, Metro 2033 is nothing like Stalker. That's one of the most important things to remember when entering its dismal tunnel network, or sprinting across its harsh, destroyed surface world. It may share some pretty heavy thematic elements with that series, and it might emerge from the same brains, but Metro 2033 is its own game: more bombastic shoot-'em-up than slow-burning, open-world survival.

"More" is the operative word there, as this is still not a game you can rush through at speed, blasting away with ease and reaching the finish line in one adrenaline-fuelled sitting. Instead, it's a carefully paced, crawling, often brutally difficult action adventure that takes you on a journey through the increasingly unsafe underground rail network of a catastrophic Moscow - and, occasionally, to the remains of what once sat above it.

Like Stalker, though, it's based on existing literature. The 2002 web novel by Dmitry Glukhovsky picked up several awards, and went on to become a Russian best-seller in paper form some years later. There's talk of a film adaptation, but it's difficult to imagine its harrowing tale being better presented than 4A's interpretation achieves.

This is a genuinely evocative world to explore: a bleak, desolate, relentlessly unhappy future that brings out both the best and worst of humanity. The few thousand Russians still alive have been driven into the relative safety of the Metro, but even that is now under attack from the hideous, mutated beasts that have taken up residence on the planet's surface. Meanwhile, a third great war rages between a reconstructed Nazi party and the Russian communists - a war fought both in the cold of the outside world, and the stretches of tunnels below.

The stations themselves are bustling with activity, with men, women and children pushing past one another, shouting to be heard over the chatter, and the banter, and the indescribably grotesque sounds that permeate the walls from time to time. Market traders sell food and clothes, but also guns and ammunition, which change hands for the price of shiny, high quality bullets. It's most reminiscent, perhaps, of 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam's 1995 post-apocalyptic picture: a culture driven underground, a new hierarchy of power forming. And the topside world is strikingly comparable to John Hillcoat's film adaptation of The Road: an unimaginably barren, grey landscape, devoid of even a hint of colour. The air's not safe to breathe outside, so you only ever see the decayed city through the frosted, cracked lens of a gas mask.

Unusually for a horror game, it's the open daylight of Moscow itself that holds the most scares. It's a lonely and desolate place, and although your passage through it is invariably linear, it creates a strong enough sense of space to feel incredibly isolating. Through the 12 hours of Metro 2033, the developers never feel the need to rest on cheap startle tactics. Its frights hit home on a deeper level, a continuous sensation of absolute panic that reaches its most breathtaking heights out in the open.

The tunnels provide their own thrills, their metal creaking as gusts of wind channel through the network. The game quickly falls into a familiar structure, albeit a believable one. As Artyom, a long-term resident of Exhibition station, you're in search of a man who, you're told, may be able to find a way to make your home more secure from the impending mutated onslaught. The quest takes you much in a straight line through the Metro, with a couple of diversions when two stations aren't directly linked, or when your route is otherwise blocked - by an explosion, or an unpassable group of enemy forces.

The tunnels aren't just occupied by mutants and soldiers, either. Between stations, mobs of bandits have rigged traps, designed to reveal your whereabouts ready for a high-powered assault. Resources are scarce, so much of your time is spent scavanging the bodies of fallen comrades for ammunition, gas mask filters and first-aid kits. Even then, there's rarely enough, so remaining undetected is usually the preferable option.

That's not often possible in practice, though, which gives way to one of Metro 2033's biggest problems: its gunplay feels somewhat untested. Aiming is difficult on the 360 pad, the left stick seemingly stuck on hyper-sensitive or barely-registering, depending on your settings. Switching between weapons and reloading is an agonisingly slow process, and certain human enemies absorb a frightening amount of ammunition before they finally hit the ground. Even in the clearly predefined stealth sections, the chances of avoiding combat entirely are slim indeed, and in a game so focused on shooting - albeit the careful, considered kind - it's a sticking point that regularly leads to frustration.

It wouldn't be so bad were it not for an irritating checkpoint system, which has a tendency of saving your game at the absolute worst times, and inconsistently at that. There are several lengthy stretches of astonishing difficulty where no checkpoints appear at all, resulting in the same ten minutes replayed ad nauseum until you're finally hit with a lucky break. Elsewhere, checkpoints are triggered right in the middle of an action sequence, saving your game just as you're about to be repeatedly shot in the skull.

It's an odd decision for the developers to make, given that it feels very much like a game that would benefit from a save-anywhere system. There were times when I backed myself so irreversably into a dead-end that I had to reload an earlier level from scratch, since exiting one area prevents your return to the previous one. Each level is forgivingly small in this respect, but it gives rise to another problem: in a game that works so hard to keep you immersed in its extraordinary world (there's only a minimal heads-up display, much of the necessary information instead provided diegetically), it's crippling to the atmosphere to see a loading screen every few minutes.

It's a confident, creative and utterly compelling game that really could have done with a little more refinement. Graphical glitches occur regularly, too, with fallen enemies vanishing into thin air and, at one point, two of my weapons appearing in the same hand at once. Your travels under and across Moscow are filled with memorable moments, but it's not a smooth enough journey to compete with the more accomplished shooters on the market.

And that takes us back to the start, because that's kind of where Metro 2033 pitches itself. Go in expecting the polished spectacle of - say - a Call of Duty game, and this is going to feel distinctly clunky by comparison. Expect something more akin to GSC's recent titles, and the absolute linearity may feel restricting. Importantly, though, Metro does enough to remain captivating and unique despite its influences. It's just a shame it wasn't more rigorously tested and tweaked prior to release.


Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (March 25, 2010)

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honestgamer posted March 25, 2010:

This was a great review that convincingly argued on the game's behalf while giving me the information that I needed to know that my suspicions--that I probably wouldn't enjoy this game--were correct in spite of a few of the game's triumphs. It's good to see you continuing to contribute the odd review over here in spite of your commitments elsewhere.
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Lewis posted March 26, 2010:

Thanks Jason. Enjoyed writing this one. The game made me swear at the screen more than any other in ages... yet I kept playing. It was that kinda experience for me.

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