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Metro 2033 (Xbox 360) artwork

Metro 2033 (Xbox 360) review

"We see human communities in which everyone contributes, everyone does their part and everyone looks out for one another. We see people sitting around fires, sharing drinks, and playing music. We see soldiers risking their lives for their comrades. Not all good things have been lost, and these frequent reminders are what keeps Metro 2033 from becoming as oppressively bleak as its spiritual brethren."

Fallout 3 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. are both excellent games by any measurable standard, yet the thing that they both do exceedingly well – the gloomy, haunting portrayal of an apocalyptic wasteland following nuclear devastation – is, oddly enough, what ultimately prevented me from truly enjoying either title. These are big, sprawling sandbox titles, the kind you need to invest yourself in if you want to make the most of them. But that’s the thing: I don’t want to immerse myself in a world like this, where everything is grey and dirty, and what isn’t dead is sad, and what isn’t sad is ugly and wants to kill you. Atmosphere is what these games do so incredibly well, and yet it’s the one thing holding them back.

Atmosphere is also what Metro 2033 does best. The setup is similar: Nuclear war has reduced Moscow to ruin and mutated many of its inhabitants, and the surviving humans now make a living in the subway tunnels beneath the city. Much of what you do in this game is unpleasant: walking through post-apocalyptic cityscapes, looting bodies for spare gasmask filters as your visor fogs up, being forced to shoot people who have decided that humanitarianism no longer cuts it in a world like this. But Metro 2033 is also a short, linear game, and this allows the developers to control what we see and experience. We see human communities in which everyone contributes, everyone does their part and everyone looks out for one another. We see people sitting around fires, sharing drinks, and playing music. We see soldiers risking their lives for their comrades. Not all good things have been lost, and these frequent reminders are what keeps Metro 2033 from becoming as oppressively bleak as its spiritual brethren.

The game was based on a novel by a Russian fellow whose name I can’t spell, and developed by a team called 4A Games. This was their first project together (it was founded by people who worked on S.T.A.L.K.E.R., which was good practice), and their inexperience, coupled with the game’s relatively low budget, shows. The physics are wonky, the controls aren’t as tight as they could be, invisible walls are everywhere, and the game isn’t especially pretty. Metro 2033 carries the mark of developers who are passionate but haven’t fine-tuned their act yet, and wouldn’t have the resources for a triple-A production anyway.

Metro 2033 asset

But they know things. They know that it’s awkward and unnecessary for a game that isn’t action-centric to suddenly erupt into mayhem in its last act for the sake of feeling “climactic.” They know that, say, a nerve-wracking platforming sequence to a very high location would be more fitting, and that the reward for completing it – a lovely view – is just as satisfying, in its own way, as seeing the body of a massive boss you've just killed. They also know that when an enormous and virtually unassailable flying monster swoops out of the sky to attack us, a loud noise or jolt on the score isn’t required. All it takes is the soft flapping of its wings, and the stinging realization that the sound was way too close, to scare the living hell out of us.

Metro 2033 is technically a first-person shooter, but to call it that does it a great injustice. In fact, the instances in which the game digresses into straightforward action are its least remarkable, such as when we’re forced into the frontlines of an ongoing war between, yep, the Nazis and the Reds. (The protagonist, Artyom, notes that even the apocalypse hasn’t stopped people from killing each other over ideology.) Despite the fact that you have a gun at nearly all times, combat is often the worst course of action. When you’re overwhelmed by mutants, the screen shakes violently and the visor of your gasmask sustains damage that limits your vision. If Metro 2033 really is a shooter, then it’s one of the few in which you feel genuinely vulnerable at all times.

At one point, I was tasked with infiltrating the Russian State Library and was confronted with a large apelike creature simply known as a “librarian.” I used up most of my shotgun shells before I finally brought the thing down, and the act of defeating it felt like a tremendous combat feat. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that the remainder of the level was inhabited by several dozen more of the creatures. Some attacked me on sight; I ran. Some were sleeping, eating, looking the other way; I didn’t stop to ask for directions. I didn’t know where I was going and I didn’t have time to pause and look around. There was almost always a librarian in pursuit, and almost always another one waiting around the corner. I felted panicked and disoriented and the only thing I could do was continue running. That’s horror, my friends.

But labeling Metro 2033 simply as survival horror is, again, too narrow-minded for a game that covers an awful lot of ground in the ten or so hours in which it holds your attention. Often, the developers don’t seem interested in either scaring us or thrilling us, but rather in showing us more of the fascinating world they’ve built. When a friendly explorer guides us through a tunnel that’s believed to be haunted, we see awe-inspiring things that must be supernatural, until he reminds us that we’re simply living in a new world now. Some of these anomalies are dangerous, but are they “evil”? No more so than, say, fire, he tells us.

Metro 2033 asset

We tend to think of “atmosphere” as being a non-interactive element of gaming – the sights, the sounds, etc. – but it plays too big role in Metro 2033 to be called that. Even the smallest touches have an effect on the way we play. The game’s currency system, for example, has players trading various types of ammunition. This makes sense in the context of the game’s world, because ammo is scarce and it’s among the most useful things a person can have, since simply surviving is the greatest goal a person can aspire to. But it also feeds that ancient survival horror emphasis on the conservation of valuable items, since you’re essentially losing money every time you fire a shot. It’s an interesting dynamic.

Metro 2033 also has a moral choice system, but don’t get the wrong idea. I’ve grown accustomed to games forcing us to be starkly good or evil with no middle ground, where neither accurately reflects the persona of the player. 4A Games did it right, because every time I was faced with a moral dilemma, I had to think long and hard about which direction I’d lean if I were in Artyom’s position. It’s usually a question of how charitable you’re willing to be in a world where survival is the only thing on anyone’s mind, where “every man for himself” is an understandable mindset. Do you accept the gift from a woman whose son you saved – you do have an important mission, and any aid is appreciated – or do you decide that her family needs it more than you do?

The game isn’t intrusive about this; not much attention is brought to each choice you’re confronted with, and there’s never any indication that Metro 2033 is keeping track of your actions. And while there are two endings, even the “bad” one is satisfying enough that it doesn’t feel like a lazy effort on 4A’s part to boost the replay value. But those who make the right decisions will be even happier with the conclusion they’re given: If you can still find the time to be benevolent in such a cruel world, the favor might just be returned to you at the most unexpected moments. It’s a surprising and remarkable footnote on an altogether surprising and remarkable game.


Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (August 20, 2011)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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If you enjoyed this Metro 2033 review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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honestgamer posted August 20, 2011:

This was a terrific review that makes me want to play the game. I've heard general rumblings about it being overlooked, and I remember there was a lot of excitement when the Wii U sequel was announced, but mostly this seemed like a game that wasn't likely worth my attention. I still may not play it, resources being what they are, but now I can't kid myself into thinking that I'm not missing anything special if I don't experience it someday.
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EmP posted August 20, 2011:

Look who shows up on my 5/5 week. I'm on to you, Micheal.

I finally picked Metro up the other day. You just bumped it up my list.
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Suskie posted August 20, 2011:

"Micheal," eh? Is that how they're spelling it these days?

I sympathize with you, Jason. I rented this game earlier this year when I wanted something to play and there were no interesting new releases at the time; otherwise, it probably would have slipped past me completely. I was very pleasantly surprised by it, and since all of my attempts to review recent games have failed (Shadows of the Damned, Dungeon Siege III, etc.), I figured I'd give this one its due. I'm glad you enjoyed the review and I hope you get around to playing it.
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SamildanachEmrys posted August 21, 2011:

Nice review. I was already slightly interested in this game, and now I'm much more so. I disagree about Fallout 3, but that's beside the point.

One thing though: I don't think you mean 'compassionate'; I think you mean 'passionate'.
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Suskie posted August 21, 2011:

Yep, you're correct about that. Thanks for the catch.
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Lewis posted August 23, 2011:

This is an absolutely stonking review. Ultimately I found the action-centric-ness is what made me enjoy the game a bit less than you, but you hit all the right points, and in an elegant way. STRONG!
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Suskie posted August 23, 2011:

Thanks, Lewis! I'll consider myself proud of my work every time I manage to pull you out of hiding.

I actually read your review shortly after I finished the game myself (this was months ago) and was a bit surprised you didn't enjoy it more. I'd say the reason I wasn't more frustrated with the shooting segments was because the game rarely seemed to settle on them for very long. The only area of the game that really tested my patience was the part in the last act where you had to get your AI-controlled partner safely through a hive of those amoeba things. Escort missions are tricky to pull off, and indefinitely respawning enemies are a no-no under virtually any circumstance.

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