If you play videogames, there are things you’ve probably done an inordinate number of times, like storming the beaches of Normandy, defending the rebel base on Hoth and tripped AT-ATs, and wandering a holocaust-stricken landscape, shooting mutants and wearing a gas mask. There’s also a good chance you’ve spoken with a Russian accent. This familiarity is what makes A4 Games’ Metro 2033 so easy to overlook. Well, that and the way it plays.
Based on Dmitry Glukhovsky’s cult novel of the same name, Metro 2033 is a story-heavy post-apocalyptic shooter in Half-Life mold. From the first-person perspective, you’re guided along a narrow path dictated by triggered scenes and dialogs. You are Artyom, a 20-year-old man who was an infant when the world ended, forcing the people of Moscow to live underground. One day, your father gets a visit from his friend Hunter, a Ranger from the opposite end of the Metro settlements. Hunter helps you defend your home station, Exhibition, from marauding mutants (gray beasts that look the evil gorillas from Congo) and the Dark Ones, evolved humans looking to wipe out the last surviving homo sapiens. Hunter charges you with traveling to the Ranger base Polis to solicit help in saving Exhibition from the Dark Ones threat. Then you’re off on a one-way trip across the train system.
The premise and setting are far and away the game’s best parts. The Moscow Metro really was built to act as a massive nuclear fallout shelter for the entire city, and Metro 2033’s vision of the transit system fulfilling that role is, supernatural elements aside, convincing and engrossing. The few populated stations you visit are filled with non-player characters just going about their lives. The place feels lived-in. When you have to go to the surface, the frozen, dead city feels lonely and scary, even though it’s such a familiar image from other media. The opening and closing thirds of the game have settings worthwhile enough to help you slog through a boring middle that has you facing off against warring factions, the Reds and Nazis.
Here’s the problem: the shooting, the only real game in Metro 2033, is broken. Human and mutant enemies take tons of bullets to fell, and you often can’t tell you’re even hitting them. Mutants are fast and rush in close, which is a problem since there is no standard mêlée attack. (A4 and THQ tried to address this with an alternate control screen patched into the game at launch, letting you quickly access your knife. The knife is about as effective as a spork, even on the easiest difficulty.) The game is great when you’re quietly wandering the world, listening to yourself breathe in a failing gas mask, but great story and atmosphere aren’t enough to carry a game.