We're going down, deeper down, into the abyss. There's something alive down there, and it means to make soup from our bones. Yes, the sound of the underground involves less girls singing and more the singing of machineguns. What could all this be pointing to? Well, it's not exactly a platform game, but it does have some trains...
It's... Metro 2033!
Jim: There's something extremely alluring about apocalypse. It's not a slate wiped clean, but a sort of catastrophic reset. The possibilities for the world have changed: things are different and there's no telling quite how different until you've begun to explore it. This is particularly true in Metro 2033, where the world is an existing world - the Moscow subway - and yet the things that define it are twisted and different: a poisoned surface, mutants, polarised, extremist factionalisation. It's one of the most interesting shooter worlds we've explored of late, even if that dark-brown, shadowy world is one that games have dabbled in for too long.
It feels traditional in many ways, and yes, it's a corridor shooter, as linear as a movie, yes, but there's so much going on in it that you can see why it's one of our games of the year: it's something interesting done with the linear form. It has hard edges, a powerful whiff of the post-Soviet attitude. It's just the sort of thing we hope that the Eastern studios don't lose sight of as they become more successful. A bold take both on apocalypse, and on the Western genres. If Pripyat is the most interesting of the open-ended shooters, and that's what drives you, then that's where you are going to have focused your attention this year. Likewise with New Vegas - if you want to explore and apocalyptic scenario with any depth, then that's the logical place to end up. But Metro 2033 has something else going for it: a strong story, and a set of survival mechanics that make your journey seem all the more desperate. The fights are often extremely difficult and violent, particularly against human enemies. You are hugging the walls, counting your bullets, desperate to get through, to continue, without getting killed.
I think the strongest contrast for me was between this and Mass Effect. Bioware's "guns and conversation" game is an attempt to do dark. It's an attempt to create a sort of morally grey Star Trek, and it works. But then you compare it to Metro 2033's nightmare claustrophobia and it really doesn't seem like they are trying all that hard. If you want to taste the poison of doomed futures, look East. Look to this. I can't wait to see what 4A do next.
Alec: One of the many humiliating moments of my published career was when a magazine sub-editor took a heavy scalpel to my overlong Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault review, and with such artless brutality that it ended with the mystifying apparent complaint that this shooting game had shooting in it. I looked like a goon, and I've raged about the absurdity of such of a claim many times since.
Then I played Metro 2033, a shooting game which I really do wish didn't have so much shooting in it. The action is often this mood piece's weakest link, thanks to greasy aiming, occasionally sadistic scripting and a smattering of insta-death QTEs. Those things are not the issue, though - the complaint's more that the need for gunplay and reflex interferes with the unsettling thereness of Metro 2033's deathly world. The moments that linger in my memory are simply looking around grimy, claustrophobic survivor camps - tiny places packed with dirty people, rusty machinery and, somehow, farm animals - and the occasional emergences into the unnerving, frozen grandeur of the topside world.
Just wandering, just looking. Ever-alert, ever fearful, ever awed. The awareness of potential danger, the lingering sense that I should not be here: this was far more powerful than any resultant encounter with a winged horror or hulking rat-thing. Fear forever trumps fright.
There's a profound difference in tone between this and Stalker, which is otherwise my absolute preference to its hyper-linear kissing cousin here. Stalker is only the Zone, a sort of dark holiday camp within what's presumed to be a better world outside. Its glowering menfolk don't have to be there; it's only some strange tug of pride and greed, a quest for wealth and status, that keeps them in it. Metro, though, convincingly sells the sense of that this is all that's left of the world. There is no reprieve from this. Where the Zone is a place to be conquered, Metro 2033's dead Moscow is palpably a place that will kill you eventually.
Its many moments of tension-building quiet are simply remarkable, lavishly-detailed documents of what happens when civilization gets completely derailed. That it doesn't quite manage to reconcile its harrowing beauty with also being a game about shooting all the monsters in the face doesn't ultimately matter a jot. Metro 2033 successfully took me somewhere else. That's all I ever really ask a game to do.