The creation of tangible atmosphere is arguably one area in which the videogame medium is best-prepped to excel. When a new world is lovingly and pedantically created in a game, it isn’t vastly difficult to become totally lost within it, and well-conveyed atmosphere is one of the many reasons that (for example) so many people began this year giddy with excitement at the prospect of returning to Bioshock’s land of Rapture. And it is also the reason that Metro 2033 is a game that simply has to be played.
It can’t be argued that basing a videogame on a little-known cult novel was something of a risk, but what 4A Games have pulled off here is nothing short of mind-boggling. Not only is the hellish, wholly convincing sense of place easily comparable with some of the finest movies of the past few years, but 4A never once lets Metro 2033‘s storyline become anything less than of paramount importance. It is just so confidently told, and if you’re the kind of person who rarely finds much to praise in any game’s narrative, then this is liable to excite you as much as anything since Half Life 2.
Aside from exceptional characterisation, with a constant flux of NPC’s whose interactions with your character Artyom are rarely less than totally believable, the story is drip-fed to you through some impeccably structured action sequences, as well as short passages (presumably taken straight from the book) of Artyom’s own diary entries. Voice-acting is excellent, and though the choice is there to play through the game in Russian with subtitles, because of the quality of the English voice-acting, there is no need.
Metro 2033 is a world that, even if it were bereft of the supernatural foundations that the story is built on, has its real roots based in the horror genre. It takes place in an environment populated by instinctive, pessimistic and self-serving people, the majority of whom have never lived any other way. Numerous healthy constituencies of angry young men have mostly drifted into opposing factions of Communism and Nazism, fierce upholders of both ideologies you’ll encounter on your journey to the city of Polis. If this universe was sloppily or cack-handedly assembled it would depress you, but here the overall intelligence of everything is genuinely invigorating.
Believability is basically Metro 2033’s modus operandi, and everything from the mis-firing sloppiness of the weaponry (all of it man-made out of the discarded parts of other guns) to the hand-cranked electricity unit that you’ll have to use to keep your torch shining brightly, to the lack of a HUD, to your objectives being scrawled on a map that you’ll have to illuminate with a cigarette lighter… all of it, even when it keeps you from the fundamentals of shooting, traversing and looting, serves to put you heel-deep into Artyom’s battered shoes.
The gameplay has elements of stealth, as you will often find yourself sneaking around rebel environments that are littered with strategically placed broken glass and hanging tin-cans, all intended to give away your location. There are also hints of survival horror, as weapon ammunition (which is used both for your own firearms and as a source of currency) is only usually found on the bodies of the dead, and is sparsely placed.
Our favourite sequence in the entire game, and one that beautifully illustrated Metro 2033 at its very best, sees you separated from your partner Bourbon, as you take separate paths to investigate the dank, misty grimness of a collapsing building. Some of the visuals will make your jaw drop, as will the use of sound (sombre mood music, plus your colleague’s distant yells and gunfire, plus the haunting and repetitive melody of a rusty swing in a nearby playground) but none of this is just for show. It is two more tools being shrewdly utilised to fully involve you in a cracking good yarn.
Metro 2033 is the first bona fide novel-to-game adaptation that hasn’t gone via a Hollywood slip road, and if this is anything to go by, it most definitely isn’t going to be the last. Lose yourself.
Watch the Metro 2033 trailer here…