A Tunnel-full Of Words About Metro 2033

As always, you can click on the screenshots to view larger versions.

This one is late, as usual. I had originally planned to play Metro 2033 before its sequel, Metro: Last Light, was released. But I was in the middle of the Indie Platformer Marathon, and other demands on my time meant I wasn’t getting through games quickly enough. Metro: Last Light released back in May, and I’ve only finished Metro 2033 now, towards the end of August. There was a brief moment where I thought I might get lucky and actually have a semi-timely post, because Metro 2033 featured in the recent Humble THQ Bundle, but that window of opportunity passed me by too. Oh well. I suppose the timing really isn’t important anyway.

Metro 2033 first caught my attention because I have something of a fascination for Russian things. And Metro 2033 is a very Russian game.

Based on a Russian science fiction novel of the same name, Metro 2033 takes place thirty years after a nuclear war devastates the surface of the earth. Surviving residents of Moscow sought shelter in the Moscow Metro, which doubles as a bomb shelter. Forced to stay underground, the survivors took up residence in the various Metro stations, which developed new identities as the years passed. These “station-states” now engage in trade, politics, and even all-out war with one another, as their citizens struggle to eke out a living in the tunnels. An entire generation is born in the Metro, never knowing what life was like before the war. Life in the Metro is hard, and not just because of dwindling supplies; in keeping with the tradition of Russian science fiction from the late Soviet period onwards, there are stranger, more surreal things happening. Mutated creatures, bigger and more terrifying than anything that might arise from simple nuclear fallout, stalk the Metro, feeding on the unwary and sometimes even attacking entire stations. Travelers tell tales of ghosts and otherworldly anomalies in the abandoned tunnels. Up on the surface, many areas remain radioactive, but there’s also something worse: the air itself is poison, and survival is impossible without a gas mask. While some brave (or foolish) souls, known as Stalkers (a reference to Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s classic novel Roadside Picnic, which is also the inspiration for the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game series that I really should play), venture topside daily to search for treasures in the ruins of the city, such expeditions are extremely dangerous, for the surface is now home to the mutants.

A Russian setting and premise, then. But when I say that Metro 2033 is a very Russian game, I mean something more than that. It’s a game aimed at a Russian audience. Developer 4A Games is based in Ukraine (in fact, the studio was founded by programmers who had worked on the first S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game), but everything about their debut title is Russian. Players are meant to recognize the various Metro stations, and marvel at how they’ve been transformed into dirty, makeshift dwellings for the desperate populace. Players are expected to follow Artyom’s journeys through the Metro on the standard Metro map, and to know which parts of the city he’s passed underneath. Artyom doesn’t recognize the ruins of Moscow’s landmarks that he sees on his forays up to the surface (he was born only a few years before the war), but players are meant to; they should be as affected as an American player would be upon finding the ruins of the Statue of Liberty. All of the signs are in Russian, and there’s a distinctly Russian bent to the writing and characters. The voice acting was all done in Russian first, and the English translation even has the actors using Russian accents. Unfortunately, they’re not particularly good Russian accents, so I was glad for the opportunity to switch to Russian voices with English subtitles.

Metro 2033 received mixed reviews from the press, and while it certainly has some shortcomings (which I’ll get to later), part of me wonders if some of the negative reaction was born of entitlement. The vast majority of games target either Western audiences or Asian audiences, and these audiences are accustomed to being catered to. As a member of the Western audience, I find that games are voiced in my native English first, with translations to other languages tacked on later. Game stories are often designed specifically to appeal to Americans or British. Players in other countries get these games too, but must content themselves with secondary translations and plotlines that may not reflect their own culture. With Metro 2033 this trend was turned on its head, and I wonder how many reviewers played the game, laughed at the silly accents, saw only generic post-apocalyptic ruins when they should have seen famous locales, and then gave the game a middling score — never considering that the game simply isn’t for them. That’s an alien concept to many Western players.

I mean, if you play with the Russian voices, there’s even a whole bunch of dialog that isn’t subtitled at all. The important stuff is — the parts relating to the main plot — but much of the incidental dialog between other characters is left untranslated. Fortunately, I haven’t completely forgotten the Russian I studied in college, and while I certainly missed much of what was said in the game, I was usually able to get the gist. That guy is complaining about his nagging mother. The old man by the fire is reminiscing about the beautiful cities he’d been to before the war. Those confused enemy guards are shouting to each other that they can’t see me, as I crouch in the shadows and hope they don’t shine their flashlights into my corner. At other times, I was able to determine that the subtitles were a rather loose translation of the original colorful language, losing a lot in the process. The game really is better with the original Russian audio, and I absolutely recommend it if you have even a basic understanding of the language. Maybe even if you don’t. The Russian voices make a big difference for the game’s atmosphere.

And atmosphere is where Metro 2033 excels. Mechanically, it’s a corridor shooter, which is an oft-derided genre due to its prevalence in the market. Led by military shooters like Call of Duty, nearly every AAA game is some variant of corridor shooter, and players are getting tired of them, citing limitations like overly linear gameplay (hence the “corridor” moniker) and excessive scripted set-pieces. But players often forget that it was Valve’s Half-Life, one of the most critically-acclaimed games of all time, that kicked off the corridor shooter’s dominance. And what Half-Life did that games before it did not (with a few exceptions) was create an absolutely superb atmosphere. Metro 2033 follows suit. I’ve already mentioned the recognizable stations that have transformed into dwellings, but it’s worth mentioning them again. Dingy shacks lean against concrete walls, barely large enough to accommodate a single bedroll each. Open platforms provide space for pig pens. Crowds of people cram into makeshift markets, hawking simple cookware or bottles of mushroom vodka, their voices forming one of the most believable cacophanies I’ve ever experienced in a game. Travelers carrying huge packs line up to board the hand-powered railcar caravans heading to neighboring stations. Armed guards watch for signs of mutants, holding their makeshift firearms at the ready.

Speaking of which, the weapons in Metro 2033 are fantastic. Early on, when Artyom signs on as a caravan guard, he’s issued a Metro-built submachine gun, nicknamed “The Bastard” because it has terrible accuracy and tends to overheat. Little more than a wooden stock, a barrel, and a sliding rack-like magazine, it looks like something some guy built in a garage. Because it is, essentially, and it sure feels like it when Artyom has to use it to fend off some mutants. Later Artyom found a homemade double-barreled shotgun that was just a couple of pipes connected to a wooden shoulder stock using an old car spring. Other weapons are even less conventional, cobbled together from spare parts and using pneumatic pressure to fire lead balls or crossbow-style bolts. Brilliantly, these weapons need to be hand-pumped to keep their pressure up, or suffer dramatically decreased damage. Artyom carries plenty of other low-tech equipment too, including a hand-powered charger that he uses to charge his flashlight and other electrical equipment. Later, when Artyom managed to find an ancient, pre-war AK-47, it was like a dream weapon in comparison.

Since bullets are scarce, Metro residents have taken to re-packing spent casings into new, poor-quality ammunition known as “dirty” ammo. Pristine, pre-war military rounds are so valuable that they’re used as currency, although Artyom can load them into certain weapons when his dirty rounds aren’t doing enough damage. This is one aspect of the game that confounded many players, but I actually liked it. People in the Metro are struggling for survival, scrounging for whatever supplies they can, and that’s exactly what playing Metro 2033 felt like. I hardly ever had enough military-grade rounds to justify using them in combat, instead saving them up to buy more dirty ammo or maybe a new weapon at the next friendly station. In fact, I was usually low on dirty rounds too, carefully rationing my fire as I waded through packs of mutants and hoped to get out alive. It wasn’t until late in the game that I tried loading military-grade ammunition into my weapons, and it made a noticeable difference, tearing through mutants with a deep roar.

The sounds! These weapons sound absolutely fantastic. So many games have generic gunshot noises, modeled after those in action films, but the guns in Metro 2033 are loud. You know, like actual guns. Firing “The Bastard” for the first time was actually kind of terrifying. Mutants were leaping at the railcar, nearly upon us, so I pulled the trigger and unleashed a thunderclap of sound, piercing the stale air. The muzzle flash was blinding in the darkness, smoke from the dirty rounds filled the air in front of me, and I honestly had no idea if I’d managed to hit anything. It was a far cry from the standard experience of firing a gun in a first-person game, and, I imagine, a fair bit closer to what firing a gun might feel like in real life. Things were even scarier the first time I got into a fight against other humans. As if the constant mutant threat were not enough, there are plenty of human antagonists in Metro 2033, from bandits who prey on the caravans to the communist and Nazi armies, born anew in the Metro tunnels and fighting their war all over again. My first gunfight was against bandits, after I flubbed an attempt to sneak past their camp. I had managed to take out three of their sentries silently with throwing knives, but then I stepped on some broken glass and the noise alerted the three men by the fire. One spotted me, and they all started shooting. The noise was deafening. The bandits didn’t know exactly where I was, however, and I realized I had a line of sight on one of them, who was looking for me in the wrong spot. I drew a bead on him and started firing, but then all I could see was the muzzle flash and smoke. Had I hit him? Had he gone down? I couldn’t see in the dark, but dared not turn on my flashlight and reveal my position. My enemies had their own lights off for the same reason. I could hear some of them shouting, though, and soon I heard shotgun blasts slamming into the wall right next to me.

For all of that, the dirty rounds we were firing still managed to sound, well, weak. Their retorts were too high-pitched, too reedy, loud yet lacking in real oomph. When I finally tried firing military grade ammo, the difference was night and day; my weapon now let forth deep, rumbling blasts whose destructive power was palpable. I am by no means an expert when it comes to shooters, but all of this — the sound and feel of the weapons, the darkness, the enemy AI — made for combat that felt very different, and far more gripping, than the first-person combat I’m used to. It’s designed to fit the atmosphere of the game: dark tunnels, limited supplies, Artyom outnumbered and outgunned. But there’s a lot more to Metro 2033 than just the combat. Aside from the friendly stations, there are many other sections with little or no combat, seeing Artyom traveling through eerily quiet abandoned tunnels or creeping through ruined buildings on the surface, carefully watching for lurking mutants. And all of it makes great use of the first-person perspective. Many first-person games avoid displaying parts of the protagonist’s body, which I’ve always found rather odd; the result feels like playing as an ethereal floating camera instead of a person. Metro 2033 does not fall into this trap. When Artyom uses a military medkit, we see him frantically tear open the package, inject himself in the arm, and then hurl the empty syringe aside. In quieter moments, if he needs to check his objectives, he pulls out a leather-bound notebook with an attached compass, listing his current goal and pointing the way towards it. If it’s too dark to read, he illuminates it with his lighter. If Artyom is sneaking, he checks the light gauge on his wristwatch to determine how well hidden he is. When Artyom needs to don his gas mask, we see him place it over his face, and wind his wristwatch to set the timer for the filter (there’s even an in-game control to take a closer look at the watch to check the remaining time). When the mask is on, we hear his breathing getting ever more ragged as the filter wears out, and condensation builds up on the inside of the mask, partially obscuring his vision. These details do wonders for the feeling of immersion.

A common complaint about modern corridor shooters is that they are all dreary and brown, with no color to be found anywhere. Metro 2033 is not an exception to this trend, being pretty much entirely grey. But it does prove that a monochrome palette doesn’t preclude a beautiful game. The art direction is simply excellent. I’ve hinted at this already with my description of the stations, but even the dirty tunnels between stations look fantastic. Part of this is the proprietary 4A Engine upon which the game was built, which makes excellent use of light and shadow, as well as other visual tricks (many of my attempts to take screenshots of attacking mutants came out looking bizarre, because the engine makes subtle use of blurring effects when mutants pounce — it looks fantastic in motion but really weird in freeze-frame). But most of the credit must go to the artists, for crafting such arresting scenes. From old, decrepit train cars rusting in the darkness to the criss-crossing networks of mutant burrows that pockmark the once-pristine tunnels, every location in Metro 2033 was a sight to behold. Especially striking for me were the surface areas. Everything is covered in snow and ash, a harsh wind whistles through the rubble of concrete and rebar, and mutants howl from atop the husks of old cars. One can almost feel the poisonous air — this place doesn’t belong to humans anymore. In fact, the grey palette ends up fitting the game well. Metro 2033 is a bleak game. It’s about bleakness, about the struggle to keep hope alive in the face of despair, and the art is styled accordingly.

The world of Metro 2033, then, is a fascinating place to visit. The game’s story, however, is far less imaginative, adhering to overused science fiction tropes. From what I understand, this was a weakness of the novel as well; excellent world-building but somewhat bland plot. Author Dmitry Glukhovsky allegedly opted for a game adaptation rather than a film because it gave him more creative control, and he worked closely with the team at 4A Games. The result apparently follows the novel closely, but with a bit more emphasis on action. It’s not a bad story, per se, just a tad predictable, but there are some specific moments where it was executed poorly. A new threat to the Metro residents is introduced almost immediately, before players have had a chance to see what normal life in the Metro is like, leaving no sense of contrast. Artyom’s motivations for leaving his home station seem thin and hard to understand. Some parts of his journey begin to feel repetitive — follow this guy, now follow that guy instead — but, to be fair, other parts of the journey are real highlights.

Most disappointing to me was that, after all of the hints throughout the game that Artyom would be required to make a choice at the end, I found that I was unable to. The choice, as it happens, is only possible if players have earned enough “moral points” through other decisions and discoveries throughout the game. Frustrated that I couldn’t get the ending I wanted, I decided to play through again, this time with a guide pointing out which actions are required to qualify for the alternate ending. My frustration soon faded as I began to appreciate aspects of this system; it encouraged me to take more time to explore, and I found many places I’d completely missed the first time. The story also made more sense the second time through, and I found I was enjoying myself even more with a better understanding of the game mechanics and how to properly equip Artyom for every situation. In fact, while looking for guides to the alternate ending I discovered that some of the weapons I’d found the first time were actually added later as DLC (that’s “downloadable content” for those who may not know the acronym). I’m not sure why these weapons appeared in my game, since I certainly never installed any DLC, but I felt they spoiled the experience somehwat as they were very powerful and precluded carrying some of the other, more interesting firearms. For my second run I ignored these and stuck to the original arsenal, which I found to be more fun. Finally, I managed to get the alternate ending, but its implementation was rather clumsy; Artyom’s choice doesn’t come into play until the last possible moment, despite a far more appropriate earlier opportunity. Still, I was satisfied that my work had paid off, and it was a rare pleasure to spend so much time with a single game and really dig into all of its secrets. By the way, it is the “standard” ending, which is available no matter what the player does, that is canon for the sequel, in case you are curious.

Metro 2033 has some other shortcomings too. For all the great atmosphere, there are several immersion-breaking moments. One of the things Half-Life did that was so revolutionary was tell a story with no pauses and no separate levels, keeping the player involved in the drama from start to finish. Metro 2033 instead opts for isolated playable segments, interspersed with narration from Artyom as an older man. The result often feels like playing short scenes rather than a full story, and it fragments his journey in an awkward manner. The fantastic use of the first-person perspective that I mentioned earlier, during both playable segments and non-playable cutscenes, makes it all the more jarring when other cutscenes switch to third-person camera angles for no good reason. Quick-time events make an appearance, and are as annoying as ever, but they are thankfully uncommon. The worst offender, however, is the checkpoint system for saving progress. There’s an ongoing debate about whether a quicksave system (i.e., player-controlled saving at any time) or a checkpoint system is superior. Defenders of checkpoints claim that having to manually save the game all the time breaks immersion and can be abused, with players saving their progress every five seconds to undo any tiny mistake they make. Those preferring quicksaves cite the intense frustration of having to repeat big sections of gameplay after a failure, due to not having reached the next checkpoint. The solution, obviously, is to have both quicksaves and checkpoints; Half-Life 2 is a perfect example of this system. If someone really can’t resist the urge to spam quicksaves, just throw in an option to disable them. But, I always fall on the side of player choice rather than designers’ intent.

Regardless of how you feel about checkpoints, the ones in Metro 2033 are not well implemented. Dying often required re-playing significant portions of a given scene, which was especially infuriating in the stealth sections. It’s a shame, because overall I quite liked the implementation of stealth, requiring one to stay in the shadows and avoid making noise by stepping on broken glass or running into the the makeshift alarms made of empty cans hanging from a string. Enemies are best avoided completely, or dispatched silently if possible, but if Artyom is spotted things can go bad very quickly. Enemies are smart and will stay on alert, even if they don’t know exactly where Artyom is, and do an excellent job of tracking him once he’s given away his location. This often leads to his death, and therefore replaying a large section of the level. When I could easily, and repeatably, dispatch several enemies only to be killed later, it was maddening having to do it all over again, several times, until I found a strategy that got me past the final foes. I will admit, however, that part of my problem stemmed from playing the game on the “hardcore” difficulty setting on my first run. I find that I prefer the higher difficulty settings on most modern games, especially when I am unlikely to play them a second time, but apparently the Russian market relishes a stiff challenge; not only is the hardcore setting quite tough, but there are also the “ranger” difficulty settings — both normal and hardcore — that remove the HUD elements like crosshairs and ammo counters and make for an even harder game. I’d recommend sticking to the “normal” setting for your first playthrough, and upgrading to “hardcore” if you go through again as I did.

These issues will be significant for some players, but in the end I hardly minded them. Metro 2033 is definitely worth playing for all of the things it gets right, doubly so if you happen to have an interest in Russia or Russian culture. It’s a superb example of what a corridor shooter can achieve, and a refreshing change of pace for those accustomed to Western games. One of the first posts I ever wrote for this blog was a defense of bad games, or rather, an argument that sometimes interesting and imaginative content is more important than solid gameplay mechanics. I would certainly not describe Metro 2033 as a bad game, but it sure is an interesting one. So grab your gas mask and head down into the tunnels — you’ll be glad you did.

Metro 2033 is available for PC or Xbox 360. The PC version uses Steamworks, so it requires Steam to play, although it can be purchased from elsewhere if desired. The 4A engine is more demanding than many other games, and I had to make a few tweaks to improve the framerate: I followed steps B and C here to get the framerate up and also change the field of view to a better setting. The vsync option did not actually enable vsync but it did increase the framerate considerablly, and while I occasionally noticed slight screen tearing it was very infrequent. The FOV setting for the game is actually measured vertically rather than horizontally, but the default setting of 45 is too low; 60 worked great on my widescreen display but it does make Artyom hold his weapons rather high as can be seen in the screenshots of this post. After those two changes I happily played through the game (twice!) with no problems.

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