Monday, April 26, 2010

Metro 2033

S.T.A.L.K.E.R : Shadow of Chernobyl won rave reviews for its unique setting, intense gameplay, vivid, open game-world and exotic storyline. It was the darling of the press and gathered a number of fervent, devoted fans. It was held up as proof that the PC still was a viable platform for computer gaming.

I did not like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

It failed me on so many points; each problem, taken by itself was not a deal-breaker but in combination it ruined the overall experience. The "wide open" game world was inexplicably bound by uncrossable barriers and tied together with load-points. The "artificial life" AI felt more unreal than the most tightly and unwavering scripting found in most games and plagued by over-enthusiastic spawn points. The setting was novel but the story was poorly paced and even more-poorly delivered. The gun-play was hampered by inaccurate and underpowered weapons and was completely unforgiving. Ambitious and unique, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. failed in the one area that was most important; it was not a fun game.

I mention all this because, at first glance, everything I just said about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. would seem to hold true with Metro 2033. Not only are the settings similar (post-apocalyptic Russia) but the gameplay shares many similar concepts. In fact, the two games even share similar developers (Oles' Shyskovtsov and Oleksandr Maksymchuk of 4A Games worked on the X-Ray engine used in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. before taking off on their own). It was only the allure of the setting that prompted me to purchase the title, despite all my misgivings.

Well that I did, for the detailed, moody environments transcend any faults in the actual gameplay. Many titles play on gamers' emotions with cheap jump-from-the-shadow scares; few games achieve the melancholy hopelessness that pervades Metro 2033. Mankind, it is easy to believe, is on its last legs as it struggles against the hostile environment (and even more hostile inhabitants) of the post-apocalyptic Moscow subway system. I certainly felt vulnerable as I crept through the dank, claustrophobic tunnels, even if I was armed with a remarkable assortment of high-powered weaponry. Armed to the teeth and still shitting my pants; achieving that sort of atmosphere takes skill.

Although the game ably convinces you that you are exploring the darkest corners of the Underground, you never truly leave the beaten path; the game is steadfastly linear. This is both its great strength and weakness; Metro 2033 assures you of a well-paced and strongly woven story but at a cost to the player's freedom and the game's replayability. But even as you are cunningly led by the nose with little ability to turn aside, the well-designed levels convince you that a wider world exists just beyond those insurmountable barriers.

Beyond the exploration, there is the combat. Like its predecessor S.T.A.L.K.E.R., it is a mix of stealthy combat and high-paced gun-play. The AI is not overwhelmingly clever - the nastiest monsters are most dangerous only because of their tendency to spring out at you from dark corners just outside your field of vision- but the incoming fire is deadly and rarely do enemies come at you in only ones or twos. And while most foes go down with a burst of machine gun fire, ammo is scarce and -as it doubles as the game's currency- the more you shoot, the less likely you are to afford the good guns later on. Stealth is an adjunct to the combat, mostly used to sneak into perfect firing positions. It is possible to sneak by many encounters (where's the fun in that?) but its effect is lessened by the eagle-eyed enemy; once you make your presence known, there's no hiding from them again.

Technically, the game is an impressive piece of work even using DirectX 9 graphics (it supports up to DirectX 11 graphic embellishments; alas, although my hardware is willing, my OS is weak). The levels are well-detailed with high-res textures, numerous objects and excellent lighting effects. The sound is equally impressive, with a low-key soundtrack. The stilted voice-work may put some people off, but I felt it added to the game's charm. The engine was well optimized and the game ran very smoothly even at its busiest.

Metro 2033 is not a perfect game; it suffers from many of the same problems as S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: linear levels, sometimes unforgiving combat, and a problematic storyline. But unlike its predecessor, it succeeds stupendously when it comes to the game's atmosphere, and on this alone it surpasses its ancestor. The gameplay is passable, but it is the setting that you will remember for years to come.

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