Friday, December 3, 2010

Metro 2033 (video game)

Platform: X-Box 360, PC
Developers: 4A Games
Genre: Survival Horror, First Person Shooter
ESRB Rating: Mature
Release Date: March 16th, 2010

Post-apocalyptic futures aren't exactly the norm for video games, or at least they weren't for the longest time. Sure, the Fallout games have delivered it, but they don't exactly play it straight; dark humor is the order of the day in those games and the outlandish isn't out of place there. So here comes Metro 2033 - based off a Russian novel - to help fill the void.

After nuclear war ravaged the world, survivors in Moscow retreated to the metro tunnels beneath the city. Unable to live on the surface, they made a life for themselves there, with different stations all through the metro becoming like underground cities, interacting with one another through the many tunnels. But the nuclear war had other effects. Monsters now roam the tunnels, threatening the stations. Your own station, Exhibition is besieged by a new threat, the Dark Ones. When encountered, those who survive the encounter are left broken, their minds scarred. Your station now on the brink of annihilation, it falls to you to traverse the tunnels - and occasionally the irradiated city topside - to get to Polis station for help. It won't be easy.

Despite the presence of monsters, anomalies and ghosts, the game feels relatively realistic. Part of it has to do with game mechanics, but another part of it is that it feels like what you might expect to happen after a nuke or two was dropped nearby. The metro tunnels are the only habitable places - at least for a good long while - and they still carry danger, while even a short jaunt up to the surface world is always an ordeal. Even the currency speaks to the dangerous world your character inhabits; pre-war military grade ammo serves as money to the denizens of the metro and while you can fire it, firing money is probably not the greatest plan ever devised. It feels like a world that's been sent to hell, with what survived struggling to etch out a living in the fiery flames.

That it feels this way is important, because it adds a lot to the experience. The game shoots for an immersive package and on the whole it manages to achieve its goal. Things like checking your objectives, for example. Instead of an objectives screen, you bring out your personal journal - while the gameplay is still going, I might add - to check them. Need more light to read it? Good thing you've got your trusty lighter. Going into irradiated areas - or going up to the surface, where the air is toxic - requires a gas mask, which is as important as a gun in this world; almost everyone, especially people outside the stations, has one on hand. HUD icons aren't even necessary here. Need to check your filters or how hidden you are? Simple as pushing a button to bring up your watch. Want to know where to go? Good thing your journal has a handy compass. You don't need to pause the game to do much of anything; almost everything is done in-game.

In what seems like the pink elephant of game design these days, the developers decided to make this game level based. You're continuously moving forward on your path to save your home station, overcoming hurdles as you run across them. There are towns along the way - almost always a converted metro station - but each is akin to a breather along the way, allowing you to exchange your ammo for weapon upgrades and other tools you may need to survive. While the structure may be a bit more traditional, you don't have to worry about play time. This is still a relatively beefy game, containing seven chapters and a prologue, with the majority of them having five to seven levels including "towns". I thought it was a good design choice, if only because it keeps the story moving and that most major console games seem to shoot for a sandbox style of play these days.

Some of what I liked best about the game are the little things. The gas masks in particular require that you find filters, allowing you to stay topside longer. When a filter gets low, your mask is fogged up before a fresh filter is placed. The gas mask can also take damage; and if broken while in toxic areas, you have twenty seconds to find a replacement or you're screwed. There's also a charger in the game, used for charging your batteries. Both the night vision goggles and the flashlight use the batteries, so when power is low, you need to pull out the charger to boost it back up. The more you charge, the brighter your flashlight becomes. Your enemies are also as vulnerable to the environment as you are; if you're outside and you knock their mask off their head with a well placed shot, they too will eventually die from the toxic air. When you escort a child by carrying him on your shoulders, the aiming speed and such change to simulate the extra difficulty. Touches like that are just cool.

Levels are mixed up just enough to keep things from feeling stale. With levels involving human targets, you can opt for the stealth route rather than Rambo tactics. With some of them, it's probably a really good idea; not just to save ammo, but also because eight or nine Nazi's sending a hail of lead your way is a pretty reliable way to die. How the hell Nazi's were in Moscow when the bombs hit is anyones guess, really, but the pricks tend to hit you in groups. Some levels are even of the "rail shooter" variety; you'll typically be riding shotgun on a handcart, trying to keep monsters from overwhelming the cart.

On the whole, there isn't a lot wrong with the game. The controls are of the standard variety layout for First Person Shooters, but they're responsive and feel tight. I saw few to no glitches, which is a very welcome thing in an era where games are dumped to shelves with numerous bugs. Really, it's just a great game; one that proves that making a great, lengthy game can be done with the old fashioned method of "levels". Seems like a foreign concept these days, doesn't it?

The Score: 8.5 out of 10

This is probably my surprise of the year in gaming. It's great from top to bottom and is well worth your money. I definitely recommend it.

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