The Ghost in the Tunnels
HIGH Successfully sneaking all the way through a war zone.
LOW Killing the endless stream of Lurkers in Hole Station.
WTF What, exactly, are the librarians eating to get that big?
Shortly before the world all but perished in nuclear fire, a boy named Artyom was born in Moscow. He was not saved by a well-prepared vault, but rather by a last-minute retreat to the city's vast Metro system, which became an ad hoc shelter for thousands of survivors. Twenty years later, as the tunnels decay and bloodthirsty creatures besiege the survivors, Artyom must leave his home in order to save it. Metro 2033's beautiful depiction of a harsh, bleak future for mankind compels the heart but not the mind. The game's systems and setting at times create a compelling emotional experience, but frequently defeat the game's immersivity.
Artyom's home station, Exhibition, has come under attack from strange monsters—"Dark Ones"—that can drive men insane. A wandering soldier comes to aid the defense, but when he fails to return from his reconnaissance, Artyom must travel through the Metro to get aid from a larger, more powerful station. Artyom himself knows too little about the tunnels or the surface to survive this trek, so he spends much of his time in the company of guides, like the scoundrel Bourbon and the mystical soldier Khan, who are better equipped and better trained.
Superior training is of great value because the crumbling tunnels of the Metro are a dangerous place, inhabited by monsters and strange, even supernatural, phenomena. Encounters with hostile creatures tend to be frenetic affairs, with many monsters swarming Artyom simultaneously. Combat against hostile humans, in the form of bandits and warring factions (like the curiously Germanic Nazis), tends to play out at a slower pace, with a greater focus on stealth. But the stealth mechanics rarely allow for even a single mistake, and scripted events often cause Artyom's sneaking to blow up in his face. Having no allies nearby in a firefight is an extremely lonely and frightening feeling in Metro 2033, especially early on.
The escorts' superior equipment is also a boon because quality arms are rare. Most of the guns available are makeshift weapons crafted in the Metro itself after the war, poorly made and inaccurate, which tends to compound the difficulty of battles against the fast-moving mutants. The weapons that have survived from the pre-war era suffer too, because most of the available ammo comes in the form of "dirty rounds" made in the Metro with adulterated gunpowder. Normal rounds are more powerful, but so rare that they are used as currency. Most of the weapons are extremely weak as a result, an effect most notable in the shotguns, because these are traditionally power weapons. In most encounters Artyom cannot deal out anywhere near the DPS his enemies can.
The weakness of the weapons is obviously intended to create a feeling of being overmatched, and to an extent it succeeds. Unfortunately, it detracts from the game in another way, because the weakness of the firearms transforms combat into a kind of comedy. At one point, while exploring a library, I shot a creature between the eyes with an arrow and it continued to attack me heedlessly. Such an encounter simply can't be taken seriously; the sheer absurdity of the sight of this creature howling at me, arrow protruding from mid-brow, jarred me completely out of Metro 2033's world. A similar feeling emerged every time I emptied a whole clip from an AK into an impervious Nazi soldier, or unloaded six shotgun blasts point-blank into an apparently unaffected monster.
The swarming attacks of the mutant beasts themselves also damage the fiction. In Hole Station, with a child perched on my shoulders, I fought off an endless stream of scavengers that for some reason were more interested in killing me than in feasting on the dozens of fresh, tasty dead bodies laying around. For a while, facing the seemingly endless onslaught of these creatures, I was tense and nervous, but after a while I just got tired and bored. The sheer number of these creatures, and their ceaseless dedication to attack, argued against the plausibility of their actually being scavengers or indeed of their actually being hungry. Each moment made them more obviously artificial and fictional. I eventually grew to have similar feelings about all the creatures in the game—with so many large predators about I began to wonder what the hell they were all eating. More economy in the monster encounters would have made the world much easier to accept.
The plot of the game also loses the thread once Artyom fights his way through the tunnels to his destination. There, a master soldier named Miller concocts a plan to defeat the Dark Ones by firing a missile at them. The narration states that Miller's plan fills Artyom with hope, but I felt myself brimming only with confusion. What had transpired in the game before that moment, I wondered, that suggested the Dark Ones were vulnerable to a missile strike? I had heard no talk of a Dark One base, and the fact that Artyom had set out on this journey at all was due to the death of the only person to attempt a reconnaissance. As it transpires, an enormous base is visible from a tower later on, but who had seen any sign of this place before Artyom climbed up there? A story can remain immersive, even if it is stupid, so long as its moment-to-moment logic is seamless. Metro 2033 falls apart because the plan that motivates the final third of the story hinges on facts the player has not learned and has no reason to suspect.
Perhaps more damaging to the illusion is Artyom himself, or rather, his lack of self. He narrates short introductions to each level slowly, without evident emotion, like a man who has been hypnotized, and almost never speaks otherwise. This is not to say that others do not speak to him—his silence in these encounters becomes faintly ludicrous after a while. It's clear that he communicates with his comrades at some point, but for whatever reason this always takes place off screen. The belongings in Artyom's room at the beginning suggest a reflective, intelligent character, but his muteness prevents that from coming through.
One also wonders about Artyom's physical existence—although his hands are almost constantly visible, they only rarely interact with the world. Although elements that would customarily be part of the HUD or menus, such as a light indicator and objective list, exist as physical objects in the game world that Artyom must handle, valves, switches, and doors seemingly move on their own. The monsters get in on the spirit, too—on several occasions they appeared to jump straight through me. The sense of embodiment, of presence, exists irregularly, if at all, which becomes all the more frustrating later, when first-person platforming starts to dominate the gameplay.
Of course, all of these problems are present in other games where I have not minded them so much, but Metro 2033 is such a short, focused experience that the cumulative impact of its flaws is significant. Although the game frequently succeeds in creating a palpable feeling of desperation and want, the methods it uses to create those emotions ultimately undermine its immersive power. There were moments when I was alone on the cold, poisoned surface, when Metro 2033 almost had me. Yet, I could never fully accept the underpowered shooting, nor escape the feeling that I was only a ghost drifting through this tombstone world.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 23 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 2 times) on "normal" and "easy" difficulty settings.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs, and violence. Many of the combat scenes can be extremely intense and frightening. There are some scenes of heavy drinking, and hookahs can be used on occasion (it is implied in one instance that Artyom vomits as a result). There is a great deal of cursing in both Russian and English.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The game has some essential audio cues. The first warning that the player has failed at stealth is usually that his enemies whistle. Additionally, the hissing sound of a burning fuse is often the only warning of a nearby grenade. Players who have difficulty hearing may therefore suffer some surprise deaths. Subtitles are available for most of the story-related dialogue, but not for the often wonderful ambient conversations.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.