Metro 2033 is a survival horror first-person shooter game set in a post-apocalyptic Moscow, with meticulous focus on authentic eerie atmosphere and good, albeit linear, narrative -- backed up by solid gameplay. It is also, without an argument, a spiritual successor to the highly admired cult franchise, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
The story, based on the book by the same name, follows a young survivor by the name of Artyom who is being sent on a quest to find a way to stop a group of mysterious creatures named The Dark Ones from threatening his home metro station. Although Artyom is a silent protagonist, he does narrate the story’s progress from his point of view at loading screens. Throughout his journey, he faces many detours and ends up meeting various characters – some cool like Khan, but others rather generic and forgettable Russian stereotypes -- trying to help him and vice-versa. While the story is intriguing and appealing on the surface, it is more or less kind of straightforward. By the time the ending credits roll, you would have predicted one (the canon) of the two endings, possibly an hour prior to it. While the story experience is there, Metro’s story can feel unambitious at times, maybe because of the lack of unexpected twists and fully fleshed out characters. On the other hand, Metro’s narration is rock solid for an unashamedly linear shooter which it represents, and does not disappoint. Not a bit.
The gameplay literally plays like any other first-person shooter out there, however Metro 2033 does throw in a few stealth levels, which can still be approached in a Rambo fashioned style - although it is vastly unadvisable in these situations. Surprisingly, the stealth mechanic is functional and rather an enjoyable approach to taking down hostile human enemies in particular. The pace between shooting and stealth does help after all, and it is good to see a consistency in this aspect. It is a relief knowing the stealth was not something tacked on the last minute. Unlike other shooters, the game uses your bullets as currency, meaning that you have to be very cautious in how you “spend” them – whether that is wasting them on hostile enemies or buying new weapons or upgrades. This mechanic increases the challenge of the game, making it more tactical at times but nothing too substantial. And Metro 2033, even on normal difficulty, has a handful of challenging segments. For a true survival experience, it is recommended playing on Ranger difficulty only after completing the game once on an easier difficulty. Lastly, the oxygen mask is vital for survival and requires taking great care of it since it is damageable. Mask filters are also required to be scavenged and replaced from time to time. This creates another layer of tactic in the gameplay, and encourages exploration to a degree.
The greatest asset Metro 2033 can offer to the player is its mesmerizing artistic and technical prowess to atmosphere, level and sound designs. The underground metro, as well as the outside world, provide enough varied locations without ever feeling a sense of déjà vu. The metro itself is quite a unique environment in its own right. While from a technical point of view is not on par with Crysis’s standards pushed at maximum, it is nonetheless quite a remarkable benchmark. It is visually impressive from start to finish and satisfying to witness the amount of attention put into details. Audibly, it also never fails to create the sensation of anxiety (what could be lurking around the corner?) and creepiness. At one point, even your heavy breathing inside the oxygen mask will start scaring you; and that’s another example of a detail well executed. Owning a good headset will undoubtedly enhance this experience drastically. Taking inspiration from S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the metro stations are places where you wish you could just spend the entire day in them: walk around, chat, join your fellow survivors next to warm campfires and play the acoustic guitar. The atmosphere created here is a good contrast to the metro’s dark tunnels. It is believable and well executed. Where is my sausage and vodka, comrade?
Such a splendid game is however not without its fair share of problems. Firstly, Metro 2033’s main problems do arise from the poor engine optimization which can clog even some high-end computers, especially set on high video settings. Such issues can range from instable frame rate drops to a few minor visual glitches now and then. Could this be the price to pay for impressive visuals? No, and that is because other equally impressive games have done a better job delivering a similar visual experience (not identical) without compromising on optimization. At the end of the day, Metro 2033 is very much playable. However, the Redux Edition which came out four years later not only improved the visuals even further, but it finally optimized the game. Thus, pick that version.
As mentioned previously, the game can be challenging even at normal difficulty. This is good news for people looking for a challenge, however some of it can be a bit cheap especially in the station occupied by the Nazi faction. There you feel like the enemies never seem to stop showing up. The is AI competent, but there will be times where the enemies show up behind you and kill you cheaply without much time to counteract, especially when you are low in ammunition. So expect to reload a lot. The enemy variation is also acceptable, but the first few hours do feel like you are fighting against the same creatures/humans over and over again.
While this remains a personal preference, the game could have had more freedom when exploring the environment. Not because this has to be a standard nowadays (even back when it was released), but because it feels like a missed opportunity considering the great, albeit linear, level design; especially the opportunities provided in the outside world. Right from the start to the end, Metro 2033 forces you to follow this linear path with only moments of exploration being the close surroundings of these paths looking for supplies. And in general you cannot backtrack. It is obvious by design that the game was made in such a way where it focuses in telling a story rather than role-playing. It is story-drivern after all. So is it a railway shooter by these standards? Well, in many aspects, yes. Funnily enough, you do spend some time on rail carts when travelling from one station to another. But is this detrimental to the experience? Absolutely not. While it may be linear and lacking exploration, it is a fulfilling experience; boasting solid gameplay and authentic atmosphere, narratively well written.
In conclusion, Metro 2033 is essentially a linear S.T.AL.K.E.R. game with more emphasis in telling a story, and by level design it is similar to the Half-Life franchise. While the story might not be that ambitious, its top-notch atmosphere with enough scary moments, unique environments, solid gameplay and a well written narrative are sufficient to make it a great game in many people’s eyes. No Hollywood CGI cutscenes and flashy cinematography. And that is what Metro 2033 is all about after all: the game experience. A game which everyone must give it a shot at least once, if they own a performing computer and can accept some of its rough edges around the corners.