The world-building of Metro 2033 marks its greatest strength, even as the precise history of that world is left rather vague. There is a brief cutscene on the title screen, which details a violent atomic bombing, devastating Russia and forcing its inhabitants to retreat underground, living in the tunnels of once-derelict train tunnels, now improved and made livable – these oppressed citizens congregate in the Metro, far from a comfortable existence, but an existence none the less. The frame narrative here is fantastic and intriguing, this intrigue only increasing as bitter feuding between two rival factions – the Nazis and the Reds – is discussed. Theirs is a conflict of barbarity and slaughter, many of it for reasons arbitrary; the Metro is a hostile space, made crueler and harsher by the presence of the mutated dark ones, warped descendants of the unfortunate few. But beyond this world-building, the narrative proper falters, matters and objectives becoming almost directionless, as this incredible lore is mostly left underutilized. The plot becomes increasingly straightforward and uninspired. Artyom, the playable protagonist, is dispatched from his home station in search of assistance for his oppressed countrymen, plagued by the encroaching dark ones. This sees navigation through various tunnels, populated both by human and mutant. Occasionally, there are ventures to the surface, which are high points in the narrative, but I never felt as though my actions were of any great importance, even as the gravity escalated rapidly as the narrative reached its conclusion, the stakes becoming exceedingly high. As it stands, the narrative is frustratingly flawed, even as many attempts at emotional resonance are attempted, a handful of secondary characters meeting a violent end within the gaze of Artyom, who is himself rather devoid of personality due to the lack of voice-acting, save that which plays between chapters and loading screens. Supernatural elements emerge, too, which contribute to a destruction of the more grounded, human aspects and potentials in the narrative. These supernatural sections, while tinged with atmospheric horror, are silly rather than intimidating, greatly destroying the intended tone.
The starting area of the game, Exhibition, genuinely feels lived in, varied citizens gathered around the fire, conversing, making the best of a terrible situation, a situation they have admirably accepted and adjusted to, though still clinging to hopes for a peaceful return to the surface. There are bars and vendors, and despite the claustrophobia implied by the environment, somehow the world seems dense and bustling. There are many ways to interact with the environment, and while strumming on a guitar really achieves no purpose, it is a neat inclusion. The attention to detail overall is astounding, Artyom’s room being scattered with books, posters, and post cards; it is excellent and highly atmospheric. Leaving the tranquil comfort of the station for the tunnels, tonally things change greatly. Removed from the leisurely and forced to travel through hostility, the bleakness of the world is made evident; hope seems to be lacking in these cavernous tunnels, with no light and no pleasure; all is darkness. The impressive attention to detail persists, with astounding graphical effects, which only heighten the atmosphere. Thick, wispy fog hangs in the air, floral overgrowths and vines somehow finding their way below ground, this nature eagerly and desperately encroaching on the society of the Metro, pointing to the wild, untamed nature of the world above. Lighting is similarly spectacular, with lanterns believably illuminating corridors, while Artyom’s head-mounted flashlight casts a faint glow, also piercing through the darkness. These tunnels are initially very novel in construction, made especially impactful at the opening of the game, where a certain contrast can be observed, when comparing them to the stable, tranquil Exhibition. One place is characterized by hostility, another by calm. As the game progresses, though, these environments become very repetitive; excellent lighting, textures, and fog effects cannot salvage what are oftentimes mere corridors of blackness, with but a few branching pathways; the game is overwhelmingly linear, though in certain scenarios there is an illusion of openness, revolving around the trips to the surface of dilapidated Moscow, highly compelling ventures.
Environmentally, the surface is astounding. Snows flitter violently in the wind, while ice and cold have overtaken all, thick pillars clinging to the destroyed, abandoned buildings. There is a seeming largeness to the map, though upon investigation, it is abounding in invisible walls, while rubbish and debris funnel the player in a certain pre-determined direction. While aboveground, Artyom and his companions are forced to wear gas masks, as protection against the damning radiation which saturates the buildings and environments. Managing the duration of these filters becomes a key objective whilst exploring above, a survival-game element emerging. Scattered about the ruined streets of Moscow are corpses, oftentimes festered upon by rats or insects. Approaching them, usually there is a filter or two in their possession; they are not in abundance, though, so the tension persists, and there is this perpetual fear of their absence at a critical moment, spelling an untimely doom. Still, despite their rather limited quantity, I never died because of limited resources – the threat seems magnified over the reality, every second seemingly precious. Connecting back to this survival aspect is the consideration of ammunition. In very short supply at the beginning of the game and throughout the majority of the narrative, towards the ending I had stockpiled a sufficient amount, though certain weaponry consumes ammunition at an astonishing rate. Looting corpses again becomes a necessity; while often containing but a bullet or two, or a pair of shotgun shells, it was always an exciting and relieving sight to cast a gaze upon them, curious of the resources they possess. Besides this basic, firable ammunition, there is a secondary form of ammunition, which exists as a currency of sorts. Given this it is exceedingly valuable and can be exchanged with various vendors in the stations, primarily for weapon upgrades, though secondary objects like knives, grenades, and health kits are also purchaseable. It is fairly scarce throughout much of the narrative, and I was always quite hesitant to spend what I had acquired throughout the campaign. Linear and basic as the game is, there are no quest systems of optional objectives, which in another game would have as reward this currency. Totally lacking this secondary content, currency acquisition is slight. Frustratingly, when I finally amassed a considerable stock of this currency near the end game, all opportunities for its expenditure are gone; no vendors are accessible. It is a minor gripe, but more experimentation near the conclusion would have been refreshing and rewarding.
The arsenal within the game is not exhaustive or large. There is a slim assortment of assault rifles, a handy revolver, shotguns, and more imaginative weapons, like a pneumatic rifle, though even when considering the other weapons, quantitatively the roster is slim. But in terms of design, they can be rather creative, though this creativity exists on a spectrum; a traditional, commonplace AK-47 is far from exciting. But a revolving shotgun with six chambers, fashioned out of bicycle parts – that is very intriguing, and the attention to detail persists even here. I was unable to try all of these guns, which is unfortunate, and if I do replay the game, I would like to increase my level of experimentation. There is present, too, a mentioned upgrade system. Even while lacking profound complexity, it is an appreciated inclusion, giving some depth to the combat or at least furthering tactical considerations. Some upgrades are more radical, transforming a double-barreled shotgun into one with four barrels. The revolver can be fashioned with a stock and grip, transforming it into a long-range weapon. More commonly, though, the upgrades center around more mundane things, like sights or suppressers. Despite this relative diversity and creativity, the gunplay is quite terrible, though part of this failing revolves around the enemies encountered in the game. The dark ones make up the majority of foes, and there are but a few variants in their design, and the tactics required to defeat them are also slim and repetitive. Most ubiquitous are a charging type enemy, whose only method of attack is a full-on rush to the player. Dealing devastating damage, they are frustrating to fight, and whatever enjoyment factor might persist is totally destroyed as they have the cheap tendency to surround the player; they are slogs to fight through, and the shotgun, very efficient in their slaying, ultimately occupies a permanent place in one of the critical weapon slots; disappointingly, only three weapons can be wielded at any one time. Beyond the creative design of the weaponry, their sound design is also stellar, the shotgun releasing a massive boom, with a noticeable visible impact, the victim sent sprawling backward violently. But excellent sound-design and animation cannot save what is fundamentally flawed and boring. Besides the dark ones, there are human enemies encountered, bandits at times, other times the better-equipped, sometimes armored Nazis and Reds. They are more enjoyable to fight, nowhere near as cheap. In many engagements, stealth is a viable option. While very basic, relying almost exclusively on line of sight, I appreciate the relative flexibility on offer here. There are the expected takedown animations, Artyom slitting a foe’s throat silently, though silenced weapons and throwing knives also factor into the mix. It is not quite a sandbox, as the levels are rather small and tight, but the slower pace is excellent, and it is far more satisfying to dispatch enemies quietly and preserve critical ammunition than to engage them directly. I wish they were encountered more frequently and wish especially that these stealth sections were more numerous, too, as the mutants are simply unfun to fight. Movement options are limited, while overall speed of locomotion is also low. This makes for some needlessly frantic encounters, and there are even some scenarios with infinitely respawning enemies, which should never exist in a game. While the stealth is tolerable, the unsatisfying gunplay may be the game’s greatest failing, worse even than a directionless, unfocused narrative.
This combat is most disappointing precisely because of how generic it is; it contributes to a destruction of the game’s originality, transforming it into nothing but another cliched shooter. This missed potential is infuriating; an incredible world exists here, abounding in compelling lore. Environments are incredibly well-designed, totally unique. And yet, there are prolonged turret sections and chase scenes, instances of wielding a flamethrower, violently pursued by the dogged, persistent dark ones. The game, then, is at its best when it is quiet, when there are no enemies or few enemies. In one encounter, a young boy is come across, hunched over his death father’s corpse, crying, unable to accept or understand his father’s death. Artyom promptly places the boy on his shoulders, lowering realistically his movement and turning speed. There is a basic platforming section, the plucky youth all the while speaking of the wonders of the sky, as the pair go increasingly higher and higher, before reaching the safety of the metro. It is a truly excellent moment, one of the highlights of the game. Similar feelings are evoked when exploring the metro, though some mistakes are unfortunately made here. The primary objective for much of the game is to reach the station Polis, to ask the denizens there for assistance. It is continuously hyped up as this place of total grandeur, a place with beautiful architecture and a last bastion of learning and knowledge. Arriving there, the architecture is indeed immense and beautiful, with a central canal running throughout, a man with fishing pole standing before the drop, line in the water. Given the detail present within Exhibition, and the glorified reputation of this place, I am sure I could have spent hours exploring. But no. Unless I missed something, this one sprawling vista is all that is visitable, the location left promptly. Incredibly frustrating, there is within Polis a missed opportunity for further world-building.
There is another memorable instance of the game excelling – and failing – in slowness. In one venture to the beautiful, ice-covered surface, Artyom and his companions are tasked with visiting an ancient library. A tome within its archives has instructions for operating a missile system, meant to eradicate the dark ones and reclaim for the people the world above. Direct assistance denied, that becomes the ultimate objective of the narrative – to totally destroy the dark ones. But while exploring the library, all the while managing filtration time, a new enemy emerges, suitably called the librarian. Massive, hulking beasts, very well designed creatively, they are intimidating beasts. Always howling menacingly they are interesting enemies, especially when considering the change in tactics required to best them. Completely impenetrable to regular bullets, and possessive of overwhelming strength, they must be avoided rather than confronted. To avoid provoking their aggressiveness, they must be gazed upon for some tense seconds, before turning away and slinking off to the distance. There is the potential for true greatness here, a possible expression of what the game could be – in these encounters, I detect what the developers were going for, an eerie atmosphere. But it totally fails. The AI is terribly inconsistent. In one moment, everything works as intended, the monster retreating, before remerging a short while later. At other times, even when performing that exact same action, they attack. Flawed as all this is, the enjoyment factor is lessened. Hearing their wails and the scuttling of feet as they climb around in the rafters of the library – this is incredible, not frightening, but tense. If the AI worked properly, this could be an enduring scene, something lastingly remarkable. As it stands, it merely represents missed potential, which can characterize many aspects of the game.
For every enjoyable moment game, there were two or three overwhelmingly disappointing moments. The immersion factor is undeniably high, the game never breaking from first person. The animations are incredible, Artyom wiping his mask clean, injecting himself with a curative, or pumping a pneumatic weapon. At the ending of the game, he deftly ascends a tower of sorts, climbing even as everything around him is gradually destroyed, a ladder falling away as he nears the summit; it is tense, the immersion palpable. But for the most part, the gameplay feels like a failure, a failure punctuated by periodic successes. Exploring tunnels and stations, or aboveground libraries and desolate wastes – these are great things. But any time combat commenced, I felt myself groan, wishing for the engagement to end. As a fair portion of the game is spent in combat, my negative perceptions proliferate strongly; the bad seems to drown out the good, though admittedly, the stealth sections, basic as they are, provide welcome alternatives to the uncompelling gunplay. Incredibly atmospheric, the game would have benefitted strongly from a slower pace, rather than embracing the cliched bombastic. Similarly, the narrative is flawed and uninteresting, even as there is rampant death and violence, a world abounding in potential, and rather endearing voice acting throughout. The ending is satisfying, the ultimate objective achieved, the dark ones seemingly eradicated, and it is intriguing to consider the precise results of this calamitous action, no doubt elaborated upon in the later games of the series. But if these titles are similar in terms of gameplay to that which is offered here, I am far from excited.