This Stalker-meets-Doom shooter arrived late last week, and made quite the change from shepherding around tiny armies in that bizarre glut of real-time-strategy games which have marched onto our hard drives this month. 4A's sci-fi/horror FPS is arguably the biggest-budget, highest profile Russian/Ukranian game to date, a real break from the eyes-bigger-than-their-stomach fare we're used to from that neck of the woods - which makes it a fascinating moment in time. Is it worth the ride down its menacing, ultra-graphicked train tracks? Join me do.
I’m struggling for an introduction for this one. That’s because I can be a bit of a boring bastard at times (just be grateful I didn’t kick off with another cat anecdote), but I think my brain-failure in this instance is pretty telling about the game too. It’s a well-put together ghost train ride, a technical tour de force, a triumph of game-world atmospherics and most probably the best work out your graphics card will get this year, but at the same time it’s about as inspiring as a tour of a paperweight factory. Paperweights are pretty, but they don't make me want to tell stories.
And there we go, an introduction. I am the best. Here’s another one: this is a first-person shooter, set in Moscow’s bleak’n’brutal, monster-infested underground system a couple of decades after the bombs dropped. Yeah, those bombs. The ones that killed the world, and turned rats into eight-foot bipedal horrors. As with Stalker, Russia's approach to the post-apocalypse is not the nearly-cheery wild west gadgetry of Fallout, but grim, bleak, paranoid, defeated, and tinged with supernatural threats that are accepted but never explained. You play as Artyom, an orphaned young lad who has to travel through this claustrophobic place and death and mistrust in search of answers. And checkpoints. Bloody checkpoints.
Metro’s made by some of the guys behind the original Stalker (and there’s even been an online scandal of sorts, wherein the devs were accused nicking bits of Stalker’s engine), but it’s about as open world as a battery farm. It’s a tunnel shooter, set mostly in tunnels, and concerning people and creatures who live in tunnels. This isn’t a problem, so long as you going in expecting it – it means the action and the environments can be that much more directed, and it paces itself with fine sights and intense fights.
This is a game of survival rather than mindless brawn, with odds always against you, resources scarce and the environment itself as murderous as your enemies. It’s perhaps not great at dropping you into especially memorable setpieces, but the lavish look and the punishing combat means you’re not ever going to be bored.
But you might be annoyed. Instant death traps, widely-spaced checkpoints and scarce ammo and gas masks guarantee frustrating repetition. Metro’s a game that’s simultaneously incredibly slick and bewildering backwards. I get the sense it’s poured all its energy into its impressive look, and being so knackered after all that technical tinkering and environmental elbow grease that it didn’t have a whole left to spend on making the action grade-A. The guns feel puny, many of the enemies barely react to being shot, and some of them take longer to die than Sean Connery in the Untouchables. It’s a little like Far Cry, in fact, but with the crucial difference that the mutanty things are a much more convincing and welcome part of the world.
That said, there are several really smart ways in which the look and the feel genuinely blend, and for the better. The map and objective list is a leather-bound notepad with a built-in compass which you pull from a pocket, and illuminate with a lighter. Guns are designed in such a way that their ammo is always visible, so you can judge how soon reload o’clock is due. Your oh-so-precious gas mask visibly cracks as it degrades. Your watch displays how much air you have left, and how clad in darkness you currently are.
Metro goes to incredible lengths to ensure its interface largely exists inside the game, rather than as a bunch of numbers floating magically on top of it. There’s a palpable sense of there to Metro 2033, backing up all the incredible amount of incidental detail drizzled over the world with stuff that’s genuinely important to surviving your grim journey.
‘Journey’ is an appropriate word here, even if it does make me immediately start humming that song from Glee yet again – while it’s doing something a little different to the standard get to the end and shoot the bad guy structure. It’s based upon a big-in-Russia novel, which means it gets to pull concepts and backdrops from an existing fiction. So we get to visit places - the peaceful survivor enclave packed with makeshift pig pens and beaten-down families, the paranoid Communist-governed station, the murderous Nazi enclave (as opposed to the lovely, friendly Nazi enclave, obv) the ghost-haunted tunnels, and the bleak beauty of the icy, dead surface. Kieron’s prone to mocking me about my regular whining about other games’ failure to create believable places in favour of attractive killing arenas, but this is a game that does it. It’s dripping with obvious love for the world it's built.
If it weren’t for that, Metro would be, I fear, entirely forgettable. Though it tries to make its face-shooting interesting with upgradeable weapons, precious ammo and oddball mechanics such as pumping-up pneumatic guns, structurally it’s just too much of an A-B slog of killing everything that moves until you reach the next door. I’m starting to worry that I might just be bored of shooters' straightforwardness now I’m in my 30s and have played so very many of them, but I don’t /think/ it’s as simple as that in Metro’s case.
What should be pounding tension when a horde of hideous giant rat-like things are lobbed at you is instead just a bit of a grind of slow weapon reloads, infuriatingly limited ammo and hard-to-hit enemies that rush at your ankles. Work, not play. But it does support the survivalist fantasy concept: after all, being Serious Sam wouldn't exactly suit 'miserable struggle for existence in a hole under the ground'.
Where Metro really threatens to sing on occasion is the option for stealth. The systems to support this don't entirely seem there, but buy the right armour ugrade, fit silencers to your weapons and avoid dangly cans and crunchy glass, and it's entirely possible to avoid some of the scraps with humans. Stalking around in the dark, flashlight off, jumping at every sound - these things feel right. It's much more interesting in these moments, a hint of a subterranean, alien Thief. There are even non-combative stretches which are purely about putting the willies up with with immaterial, indestructible threats, heavy with menace and sadness alike. Inevitably, it can't ultimately keep away from being about shooting monsters in tunnels - its bread and butter, but also the aspect it's least accomplished at. It's a much better game than Doom 3, but it it's definitely hanging around on the same street corner.
I like Metro 2033, but I wish I loved it. I can't help but want it to be a curious cause to get behind, as with Stalker. It’s one of very few post-Half-Life 2 games that really understands and acts on why people dug that so much, and despite the infuriating checkpoint thing, it’s just obtuse and pleasingly fiddly enough that it feels like a PC game first and foremost. (It is on console too, and Jim tells me the need for precision in the shooting makes it a much more arduous experience there). It looks incredible, bar a couple of toy-faced NPCs here and there, and I find myself poking around in it for the sake of poking around – but then getting mildly annoyed when I have to fight something. I suspect I’d enjoy the game more if I could just wander through it unmolested.
I realise, uncomfortably, this has sounded pretty negative, but let me stress that it’s a different type of negative, not a sneery-lipped dismissal. I like Metro 2033, and I criticise it not because the game is bad, but because there’s a jarring disconnect between the excellence of its appearance and the adequacy of its action. It’s a good enough shooter, but it /looks/ like it should be a phenomenal one. In a perfect world, there’ll be a mod that fiddles with the balance, maybe ups the human count and lowers the mutant count, and definitely leaves a few more gas masks lying around.
Metro’s a competent shooter in what have been, surprisingly, rather dry times for them of late, so you'll probably want to take a look, and you should. It's beautiful, it's tangible, it's left the bugginess and brokenness of Stalker far behind, and it’s a bright promise of just how slick this next generation of Russian and Ukranian games are going to be. What worries me is that it’s also a dark promise that we might lose the glorious wildness of their last generation as a result.