I recently got the opportunity to murder packs of ravenous mutants in the hollows of Moscow's metro system. Well, more accurately, I engaged in said subway monster-slaying during a demo for THQ's and 4A Game's upcoming story-driven, first-person shooter Metro 2033. Sure, plenty of run-and-gun romps toss out the “story-driven” descriptor in their marketing , but Metro 2033 damn well means it. The game is based on a popular Russian novel of the same name, which will soon see an English translation. Not only does the game stick to the events of its page-turning source material, author Dmitry Glukhovsky even holds a position on the design team.
Taking place in -- you guessed it -- the year 2033, gamers are put behind the gun-clutching hands of Artyom, a young man who lives underground in the metro system. Moscow has been leveled by a nuclear blast and the few survivors have made a new life for themselves in the city's vast network of subterranean tunnels. Like Artyom, many of the subway dwellers have lived their entire lives below the surface, safely sheltered from the nuclear winter above. While the subway supports a thriving community, complete with small businesses, villages, and some assemblage of government, all is not well. In addition to murderers and bandits who've splintered from the makeshift society are monstrous creatures, mutated by the nuclear fallout. Unfortunately for the humans, they are always looking to the metro for fresh meat. An even greater threat comes from the Dark Ones, evolved and irradiated humans, though their motives aren't as clear as their terrifying ability to literally steer the survivors into madness.
While my demo opened with a brief above-ground firefight that saw me unloading clips into rampaging hordes of wolf-like attackers, I was soon kicked back to a preceding time period in the metro system where Artyom's story begins proper. It's immediately clear the developers are serious about crafting a compelling narrative, complemented by immersive atmosphere and characters worth caring about. As Artyom makes his way through his village, we see children -- who know no other life -- laughing and playing, vendors peddling their goods, and chatty folks gathered around fires. The brimming-with-life community feels like the real deal, giving players a sense of what they'll soon be fighting for.
Things go from friendly to frightening fast, though, as Artyom enters the medical ward; here, among the wounded who've likely lost their limbs to mutants, soldiers robbed of their minds by the Dark Ones ramble aimlessly while staring into space. These scary sights and sounds certainly stirred my nerves, but did little to prepare me for what would come next. In a nearby room, I'm taunted by the haunting sounds of sharp-clawed intruders. Violent scratching can be heard, and an NPC suggests that “they” can smell the blood from the medical ward. Soon enough, I see snarling, four-legged creatures -- like the ones I briefly defended against in the prologue -- pushing against metal grates along the ceiling. The panic among the other villagers in the room is almost palpable as they brace themselves for the inevitable. Armed with an old pistol, I begin firing frantically as mutants spill into the dark, claustrophobic space from all corners. My NPC allies and I fend off the beasts up-close because they're quick and clearly have an appetite for our faces during the frenzied battle.
I'm able to turn the creatures into bloody, pulpy piles, but not before witnessing a few of my friends' throats being torn out. Although brief, this fight served as an excellent example of Metro 2033's ability to spike your adrenaline with a perfect storm of atmospheric auditory and visual cues; from the character's panicked expressions to the sound of claws scraping metal, this encounter shot more than a few chills up my spine.
The title's FPS controls, while not bringing anything new to the genre, did offer a comfortable familiarity that also helped me remain in the nerve-racking moment. A4 is aiming to add some innovation to the lock-and-load formula, though, with a promising ammunition-fueled economy. You see, bullets serve as the game's currency, and their value depends on their quality; pre-apocalypse ammo from the surface is worth more than the shoddy stuff manufactured underground. The kicker is that the good stuff also does more damage, so in theory you'll be faced with the decision of shooting your “money” for ultimate survival, or spending it on upgrades and other items. My time with the game really didn't afford an opportunity to see how well this was implemented. However, if done right it certainly holds some game-changing potential.
The player's dependency on gas masks on the surface and in hazardous underground areas also poses some serious promise. Enemies can break masks, which is displayed with some sweet real-time cracking effects. Air will deplete, making oxygen as valuable as ammunition. I actually found both of these commodities in too-short supply, but hopefully some further tuning and balancing will alleviate the frustration of being sent back to the last checkpoint because of an empty clip or starved lungs.
Metro 2033 appears to be treading a similar path to story-over-shootout entries like BioShock. While many of it elements, like the mind-melting Dark Ones -- seen only briefly as shadowy figures in a quick cutscene -- offered only a terrifying tease, I look forward to heading back underground. If this title’s gameplay mechanics can ultimately match its storytelling and atmosphere, Metro 2033 could prove a compelling alternative to all those mindless trigger-pullers cluttering game store shelves. Look for it on the Xbox 360 and PC March 16, 2010.