Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Metro 2033

Post-Launch Review
Metro 2033
Developer: 4A Games
Released: March 2010

Metro 2033 is based on a novel of the same name by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. It's an FPS game with survival horror elements set in post-apocalyptic Moscow, where survivors are living in the city's metro (subway) system to escape the radiation, dust, and mutant beasts on the surface. You play as Artyom, sent by a Ranger to look for help when your home station is threatened by mutants and mysterious creatures known as Dark Ones.

At Launch
Metro 2033 earned Metacritic scores of around 80%, with the PC version scoring higher than the XBox version. Reviewers loved the story and the way that player choice was subtly weaved into the narrative without seeming like an RPG. They also loved the detailed environments and atmosphere of the game. PC reviewers were very pleased by the extensive features and considerations for their platform of choice, such as support for the at-the-time brand-new DX11. Some critics felt that the game didn't commit to the horror aspect enough, never quite being truly terrifying; while also noting AI and animation issues, as well as frame rate and graphics problems.

Post Launch
In September 2010 the Ranger Pack was released as free DLC for the PC version of the game. It included two new weapons, nine new achievements, and two new difficulty modes: Ranger Easy and Ranger Hardcore, where weapon damage is greatly increased (including enemies') but ammo and resource availability is greatly decreased.
The Good
4A created a very convincing world. You hear talk of living worlds that actually feel real, but Metro's titular stations are one of the best examples I've ever seen. They're packed full of people all having their own conversations, fire-lit, and bustling with activity. There's a kid asking mom to buy a pet rat; a group of guards sitting around the fire singing to the tune of a guitar; a couple arguing through a closed door; a bar full of people sharing drunken stories; a shopkeeper selling pork... the sheer density of people and functionality is ridiculous and really makes the stations feel populated.
On the other hand, you get a completely different feel from the abandoned tunnels, which are lit with cooler and sicklier colours, emphasizing the poor state and coldness of the passages. The standouts are the haunted tunnels, where the ghosts can kill you but there's no combat. You wander through the ghosts as your ranger companion tells you the stories of where the ghosts come from, and it's very creepy but also kind of sad.

Yet another unique atmosphere is found on the surface, where the world is ruined, toxic, and snowy. As the minutes tick away you have to be constantly aware of both the limited filters on your gas mask and the dangerous creatures — you want to move quickly to preserve filters, but slowly to avoid attention.
The plot has a very natural flow with a strong motivation to tie everything together. Your ultimate goal is to reach Polis station down the metro line to get help for your home station. You encounter obstacles along the way, but each of them is handled in the moment with a workaround that makes sense given that you want to make it to Polis as soon as possible. The personalities you encounter are varied and realistic: some are helpful, some are greedy, some are crazy, some are really bad people.
Metro has two endings. Both endings work very well and make perfect sense, but both maintain a degree of ambiguity as to whether you made the right choice. You don't get a “good” and “evil” ending; you get one of two morally ambiguous endings. What I like best is how the game determines which ending you get. Depending on the the sum total of your actions throughout the game, you get more/different information — but at no point does the game ever tell you where you are on a morality or completion scale. To me this is the absolute best way to have multiple endings and make them feel natural and organic. If you look up how to get each ending it's very easy to choose which one you want, but there's no in-game indication.
Metro looks fantastic on high settings. Smoke, particle, and lighting effects are excellent and do a great job of conveying the condition of the run-down, dusty, dirty world of the metro system and the ruined Moscow above. It also includes a great benchmarking tool (which you can find in the game's file directory). The game demands a strong system — I can only run on medium settings with DX11 enabled. The only downside is that you don't have much fine control over the settings in-game (you can select low, medium, high, or max, with a few controls for DX and stuff), but you can fine-tune things through the config files if you know what you're doing.
Bullets Are Money
Military-grade ammunition from before the surface's destruction is both much more powerful than the low-grade stuff produced in the tunnels... and currency. You can only buy weapon upgrades or supplies with military ammo, so if you take advantage of its increased power and accuracy in combat, you're literally shooting money at your enemies. You can trade 'dirty' ammo for gold bullets, but the exchange rate is quite low, and also depletes your ammo count. Unlike many modern FPS games where bullets are handed out like candy, you have to take care and watch your ammo count, balancing the need to be well-supplied against the need to survive in combat. If you're playing on easy or normal you could have a huge stock by the end of the game, but you may actually need it in the last couple of levels.
Metro has an already respectable selection of weapons, but also makes use of a modification system to increase your choice and flexibility. You can't modify weapons yourself, but in shops (and occasionally in the world) you can find weapons modified with additional components like stocks, scopes/sights, long barrels, or silencers. The revolver is the most flexible with many different combinations — you can get it silenced, with a long barrel, rifle stock/optics/long barrel, etc. But even without mods, the stock weapons have a good range of pros/cons. For example, pneumatic weapons have to be pumped up to max power, and the power decreases with each shot until you pump again; but they're very quiet compared to traditional firearms. You have five weapon slots: knife, revolver, automatic, shotgun/pneumatic, and grenades, so it's important to select your loadout carefully.
Ranger Mode
If Metro has a unique and challenging take on resource management, ranger mode takes it to the extreme. The ranger easy and ranger hard difficulty modes increase all damage (yours and your enemies') but make resources more scarce, so the juggling act becomes much more acute. Ranger hard is particularly punishing — unless you're careful with your gas mask filters, it's possible that you could run out at the wrong time and be unable to continue any further in the game.
There aren't very many enemy types in Metro, but the way the levels are paced and spaced mean that's not a problem. You don't get the repetitive feeling when there are entire levels with no combat, and the game also sometimes messes with your expectations, throwing you a different enemy than you expected in that environment.
Attention to Detail
There are a lot of small things that add up. Your gas mask fogs up more and more the longer you wear it, but it clears up when you change the filter. The automatic shotgun, which uses a revolver-style system, reloads a number of shells depending on which chambers are available and won't reload one into an empty chamber blocked by the plug, so you may have to reload two or three times to get from zero to full -- or you may not be able to reload that sixth round until you fire. Pneumatic weapons require you to periodically pump them to keep the pressure high to maintain consistent damage and accuracy. 
There's a certain enemy found only in the above ground library. Fittingly, they're called librarians. They look like big mutant gorillas, but the cool thing is that they're not inherently hostile. If you come across a librarian, it will approach to investigate, tilting its head in curiosity. It'll then put on a show, trying to scare you down, but if you keep your eyes (crosshair) on it and back away respectfully, it'll lose interest and wander off for a while. But if at any point you attack or turn your back to a librarian, it instantly becomes hostile — and they're pretty tough.
The Bad
Handful of Voices
There aren't very many voice actors, which means you'll be hearing the same voices from many different characters and enemies over the course of the game. Especially noticeable is the fact that every single child has the exact same voice. Not really a big deal, but kind of annoying.
Metro uses checkpoints instead of save-anywhere, overwriting your previous save. If you screw up too badly you either have to make do or start the game over (although that's mostly only applicable on Ranger Hardcore). I guess it does fit the challenge of resource management, but it would be awfully frustrating to have to start from the beginning after 8 hours because you didn't bring enough filters.
There are two escort missions in Metro. In the first you carry a child to safety on your shoulders, and while he does help by alerting you to enemies, he also makes your crosshair sluggish and unresponsive. It makes fighting even the weakest enemies in the game frustrating and a bit of a chore, especially when they're behind you.
In the second one you have to bring a ranger through a room infested with weird radioactive blobs that attack you or something. It's a small room but it's easily the most infuriating segment of the game at higher difficulties, as the blobs deal a lot of damage and are very difficult to control and kill due to large numbers and numerous spawn points. You can kill the spawners, but while you do so, the blobs keep on coming. Maybe I could have been more efficient, but I felt that there wasn't enough time to deal with every spawner between bubbles. On normal mode it's pretty OK; on my third playthrough of the game I was able to clear it on the first try. But on ranger easy I retried many, many times.
Graphics Problems
Some users experience vertical black bars all over the screen when playing in DX11. This can be solved by turning off DOF (depth of field) in the DX11 options.
There are some problems with screen tearing, and no in-game option to enable vsync. Apparently there's an issue where the game renders for 3D by default, meaning it renders two frames, realizes there's no 3D, and drops one. A way to solve both problems is listed here.
The Verdict
Recommendation: Play it.
Yes, I listed four negatives, but they're not serious. Metro is a uniquely atmospheric and reflective FPS that doesn't need to keep the action blazing to keep the game moving. There are entire levels where you don't need to fire a single bullet, but are still scary and suspenseful. Lighting, level design, writing, and voice acting all come together to give you a sense that this is a real world with real people who deal with life moment-by-moment.  

1 comment:

  1. I didn't get too far into it, and would like to restart/finish the game sometime this summer, but I really disliked the voice actor for the main character. He sounded bored with himself, and thus I felt the same way. I'll give it another try though, maybe I was too quick to judge.