Metro 2033 Review

By Paul Semel - Posted Mar 19, 2010

Based on a Russian sci-fi novel, Metro 2033 is a post-apocalyptic first person shooter with a scary vibe. While it has some good ideas behind it and good mechanics in it, the game is just not as scary -- or solid -- a shooter as it should've been.

The Pros
  • Rich post-apocalyptic vibe.
  • Good mix of scares and shooting.
  • Fun bits of cat & mouse gunplay.
The Cons
  • Could've been scarier.
  • Should've been a better shooter.
  • Would've benefited from more typical controls.

When done right, a bombed out city -- especially if said bomb is atomic -- can be an evocative and engaging place to set a video game, one that can add a real air of dread and loneliness.

Such is the case with Metro 2033, a post-apocalyptic action game made by 4A Games, a Ukrainian game studio founded by former GSC Game World employees who left that studio a year before GSC released S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow Of Chernobyl in 2007. However, while the game has a good mix of scares and shooting, it sadly doesn’t do either as well as it could.

Metro 2033

Monkey Business

Based on the 2002 science fiction novel by Dmitry Glukhovsky, (which may or may not have taken a cue from Terry Gilliam’s 1995 movie 12 Monkeys, a movie which, perhaps not coincidentally, was partially set in 2035) Metro 2033 is set in Moscow after that city, and the rest of the Earth’s surface, is rendered uninhabitable by an atomic holocaust. Well, rendered uninhabitable by humans, that is. The persistent nuclear radiation has created some unfriendly mutants, and they like the surface just fine.

Unfortunately for you, they like where you live as well. You’re name is Artyom, and you’re a young Muscovite who’s lived his entire life underground in the Exhibition metro station. That is, until you’re asked you to deliver a message to a different subway stop. And with that, you toss aside your friends, your family, and your guitar to run a fool’s errand that will probably get you killed. Though really, where would videogames be without fool’s errands?

At its core, Metro 2033 is a first-person shooter. But anyone expecting a never-ending series of gun battles will be sorely disappointed. Instead of being an action-packed gun-blazer, this is actually closer to Doom 3, in that it spends as much time trying to scare you as it does trying to kill you.

When you do get into a gunfight, however, the game can vary greatly. In face-offs with mutants, the action is pretty straightforward: shoot anything that moves, since it’s probably coming at you with its claws at the ready. Things are decidedly more interesting, however, when your enemies are fellow survivors. Most of your encounters with unfriendly humans occur in areas that aren’t well lit, and you can use that to your advantage. As a result, these more stealthy shootouts feel like tense games of cat & mouse. There are also some engaging if typical on-rails shooting, and we do mean “on-rails,” since they happen while you’re in a trolley car that’s moving along some old subway tracks.

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Now, some might complain that your guns aren’t as powerful as their counterparts in other games, which can be a problem since ammo isn’t especially plentiful. But this not only fits the game conceptually, it also forces you to think stealthily, strategically, and conservatively when people are shooting at you, as you may notice in human vs. human encounters. Though it’s irritating that you don’t automatically switch weapons when the one you’re using runs out of ammo. While most of the action is of the shooting variety, there are other elements at work here, including some minor platforming, having to scavenge for supplies, and rare side objectives.

But the most interesting of these is that there are places -- spots underground as well as everywhere you go on the surface -- where the atmosphere is toxic. But while you have a gas mask, you still need to keep moving since, like everything, fresh air filters are in short supply. These scenarios add an air of immediacy that’s a nice change from the game’s normal slower, exploratory pace. Though it all becomes moot if, while wearing it in a battle, your mask gets destroyed.

“And Just When He Starts to Make You Nervous / Suddenly He Starts to Cry”

Despite all the great moments of tension-building, Metro 2033 still comes up short. It’s not a bad game, but it could’ve been much better. For starters, the game isn’t as scary as it could be. 4A’s team don’t do much with the sound design -- the cornerstone of a great horror game -- and even less with the side and/or back speakers if you have a surround sound system. Which means that, unlike such frighteners as the Silent Hill series or Dead Space, you won’t have any problem playing this late at night. It’s a genuinely blown opportunity.

Metro 2033

It also falls short as a suspenseful shooter. While some of the gunfights against humans are interesting for having the aforementioned stealth element, they’re sometimes undermined by poor A.I., which turns what should be games of cat & mouse into games of cat & broken chew toy. Still, fighting people is more interesting than fighting mutants, since most of those latter gunfights aren’t especially frantic. Sure, they sometimes attack from all sides, but usually they just come straight at you, and never in big numbers, which makes these battles feel like shooting galleries.

There are also some control issues. The game boasts a number of different button configurations, but none are optimal, especially if you play a lot of first-person shooters and expect the buttons to be mapped a certain way. Option #4, for example, uses old reliable “X” for reloading, but the unfamiliar “Y” to crouch and the awkward right bumper to jump. But the least understandable (albeit also least detrimental) issue is that, despite its literary roots, Metro 2033 lays out its story terribly. This is especially problematic when things start to get kind of trippy for reasons that seem to have been left back in the original novel.

Metro 2033

Le Dernier Métro (The Last Metro)

Ultimately, how you feel about Metro 2033 will really depend on your expectations. If you’re looking for a Fallout 3-style epic adventure, you’ll think this is a shallow shooter. If you’re looking for a Modern Warfare 2-ish adrenaline rush, you’ll think this is slow. If you’re looking for some Silent Hill-esque frights, you’ll think this is tame. But if you’re looking for something in between, you could do a lot worse. It’s just difficult not to think some things could have been better in Metro 2033.