Last week THQ flew a group of game journalists out to San Fransisco to check out Metro 2033, their upcoming first person shooter. The game is based on a book by Dmitry Glukhovskyx which has sold very well in Russia and will be available in the US later this month.
Set in the post apocalyptic future the game covers the tale of those who survived the blast by hiding in Russia’s vast subway system. It is now two decades after the bomb blast and each station in the subway system has become a city state with its own political system and governing politics. The stations trade amongst themselves but relations are a bit icy given the diversity of world views as you'll run into everything from Neo-Nazi’s to Neo-Communists. For those of you who have never seen the Russian subway system it's a thing of beauty. Each station has it's own theme and artwork and is kept in near pristine condition. The stations are also buried deep underground so they could serve as a refuge against nuclear attack during the cold war. How deep you might ask? Well it takes you about 10 minutes via escalator to get from one platform to the surface.
You play Artyom, an orphan who was taken down into the subway after his mother and father were killed in the blast. Now a young adult he is finding out that he is a bit special. Like all games, you play the special character in the game because playing the guy who knows the special guy or the special guy's best friend isn't exactly a fun experience. The shelters have been under attack by the creatures who were mutated in the blast. Recently a race known as the "Dark Ones" has started to attack but instead of tearing apart the flesh of a person they attack the mind, leaving quivering bodies that rant and rave for three days before dying. Some of the survivors have called the Dark Ones the next version of humans but as one of the main mysteries of the game you'll find out why Artyom is the only one who is resistant to their attacks.
After playing for the game for about three hours I was left some definite impressions from the current build of the game. The first is how well written the game is. The characters feel fleshed out with real motivation that is expressed through fantastic dialogue. The world also feels rich and deep, even for a post-apocalyptic game. While Fallout 3 adds a bit of humor to the game to keep things light the world of Metro 2033 is bleak and depressing. There’s a real sense of hopelessness and oppression that permeates every crack of the game. Take the oppression of Half Life 2's City 17 and triple that if you're close to the level of gravitas in Metro 2033.
The second thing that stuck out about the game is how hard it is. I played the game on the Normal difficulty and hit several parts of Metro 2033 that were nearly controller throwing levels of frustration. At first I thought it was just me and that being up since 3:30AM for the early flight to San Fran had impaired my judgment but talks with some of the other journos and some of the PR folks confirmed that I wasn’t the only one having issues. Another indicator of the difficulty is that I couldn’t find anyone who completed the demo which is a bit odd as we were only given the first two to three hours of the game to play and four hours to play it in.
The biggest reason why the game is so difficult is because bullets serve as the game’s currency and are scarce in the early parts of the game. Sure you can scavenge it off some of the fallen enemies but it was a major shift in philosophy from most other FPS games where ammo is handed by the truck full. Instead of spraying and praying I found myself waiting until enemies were closer and I could guarantee that I would hit something rather than just pointing the aiming reticle in the general direction and praying that the bullets found their mark.
Complicating this is that there are two types of ammunition in the game. You have pre-blast manufactured ammunition which is of much higher quality and delivers more damage and is more accurate. On the other side is the hand made ammunition which is much more plentiful but not nearly of the same quality. There's a conversion system between the two but I didn't spend a lot of time trying to figure it out.
Difficulty is also increased because the behavior of some of the enemies in the game. When you reach the surface of the game you have to deal with large mutated creatures that hunt in packs. One alone is easy enough but if you don’t take them out quickly enough they let out a howl that summons friends. When those friends get they they call their friends and then those friends call those friends and soon you’re knee deep in them because you can’t kill them fast enough. Couple that with the limited bullets and you’ve got a difficulty curve like the Marianas Trench.
This is further compounded by the fact that that you have to stop to pick up ammo rather than just automatically picking it up when you walk over it. I know this is a more realistic approach to the game but it just gets in the way of the fun factor which was a bit of a downer in my opinion. In talking to some of the folks on hand they know the difficulty is an issue and will be working to make the final game less hazardous for wireless controllers.
The game also has a moral system built in where you'll be presented with some moral options. The one we saw in the game had a fellow survivor asking you to borrow a bullet so that he can get some medicine for his child. Given the ammo as currency situation this is a fairly significant choice you have to make. The decisions you make along the way will impact which ending of the game you get though so you'll need to choose wisely.
Graphically Metro 2033 looks solid and certainly what you would expect for a current generation title. Metro 2033 is using a proprietary engine the characters have a very Elder Scrolls:Oblivion/Fallout 3 look to them. The art design is oustanding as the architecture and design feel uniquely Russian. I would have like to have seen some more variety in some of the creature design but then again this was only the early stages of the game. There's an inherent claustrophobia to having a game that takes place mostly in a subway system and that comes through which is good as you'll be spending around 70% of the game below the surface.
The audio is also very well done as you've got the distinctive call of the feral creatures on the surface (something that still haunts my nightmares) as well as the basic atmospheric sounds like the sounds of you sucking wind in your gas mask. The voice over work is likewise solid as the Russian accents are distinct and don't come off as a series of Yakov Smirnoff impressions. The gravity of the situation comes across really well in the acting and further fleshes the game out.
From what I saw at the event it looks like THQ has the potential for a huge hit on their hands if the game is given a good dose of polish and love. The story and atmosphere pull you instantly into the world and are different from almost every game on the market. Metro 2033 is set to come out on March 16th and I really hope that the folks at 4A are given the time to do the game right and tweak it until it's just right.
Honestly I would love if THQ would push Metro 2033 back a month or so it's not lost in the March shuffle of high profile games as I think they have the foundation of a new franchise here. The book already has a sequel and if Metro 2033 is marketed right and delivers on the promise I saw last week I think gamers are in for a real treat.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
Hi, my name is Charles Husemann and I've been gaming for longer than I care to admit. For me it's always been about competing and a burning off stress. It started off simply enough with Choplifter and Lode Runner on the Apple //e, then it was the curse of Tank and Yars Revenge on the 2600. The addiction subsided somewhat until I went to college where dramatic decreases in my GPA could be traced to the release of X:Com and Doom. I have been a Microsoft Xbox MVP since 2009.