Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Unquantifiable Metro 2033

Finished a playthrough of Metro 2033 on the 360 this week, and I pity anyone who had to review it. I don't know how in hell you give this game a score.

It's been while since a game inspired the kind of simultaneous engagement and frustration I experienced with this one. It is both remarkably well-made and infuriatingly poorly-made. The few reviews I've read mostly agree: the environments, effects, and UI are impressive, the shooting, stealth, and enemies are not. And since gameplay trumps all else, the game can't really be called a success. But it's an ambitious effort from a Ukranian studio, one that engages in the kind of risk-taking thoughtful gamers ought to encourage. I'm glad to hear Metro 2034 is in the works, so developer 4A can have an opportunity to correct the missteps of the first game, Assassin's Creed II-style.

Set in the subway tunnels of a post-nuclear Moscow and based on a Russian book of the same name, Metro 2033 interested me for a few reasons. Having studied dystopian literature in college, I'm not yet burned out on the apocalypse; I'm always interested in new visions of life after catastrophe, especially if they come from places and cultures I'm not familiar with. And what I'd heard about the game's UI intrigued me. Like in Dead Space, it was almost entirely diegetic, with innovations like having mission objectives written in pencil on a hand-carried clipboard and making bullets double as currency being terrific plays on the theme. It was clear this was a shooter that would take risks, which is much appreciated in this age of the annualized franchise.

In practice, though, the game has some serious flaws - not the least of which is a severe identity crisis. More on that in a moment. But first, there are so many things Metro 2033 gets right:
  • Sound design. You can anticipate tense moments by listening carefully to Artyom's (the protagonist's) breathing patterns. Low bass drones underline the tension of sneaking through the dark tunnels. A distinctive choking sound cues the player to don the gas mask, far more effectively than the visual cue, an indistinct greenish fog. The whipping of wind and plinking of water droplets have the right lonely quality to draw out the emotional contour of the setting.
  • Environmental art. Artyom's few forays up to the surface provide needed visual relief from the oppressive claustrophobia of the tunnels. More impressively, the tunnels themselves don't seem identical; most levels feel distinct, which is remarkable given the setting. While there are some issues with texture pop-in, it's easy to overlook technical snags given the richness of the art. I've heard the game is a joy to behold on a PC with the video settings cranked up.
  • UI/gameplay flourishes. Artyom's gas mask fogs with condensation when he's exposed to the open air too long and cracks when he takes damage. He pulls up his watch timer to see how long his current gas mask filter will last and illuminates his clipboard with a lighter shaped like a bullet. His flashlight and night-vision goggles need to be periodically juiced up by pumping a hand charger. And using bullets as currency is an idea I'm surprised hasn't been in post-apocalyptic games since the first Fallout. After all, it makes a lot more sense than bottlecaps. All this isn't impressive because it "adds to immersion," whatever that means considering one usually experiences said "immersion" whilst in pajamas on one's couch, but more because it's a creative way to approach delivering key game mechanics to the player.

Yet for all its successes, Metro 2033's flaws are equally glaring:

  • The protagonist could be interesting, but isn't. Artyom does the silent Gordon Freeman thing throughout the levels, but provides voice-over narration during locading screens. I guess this is a cool idea to keep us engaged while the game loads, but this trend is getting awfully tiresome. Like, even the other characters wonder out loud why Artyom doesn't reply to direct questions. The silence of the protagonist does not, repeat, NOT, "add to immersion," like some designers would have us believe. Most of us, I think, identify far more with a character who reveals a distinct personality through dialogue than a pathologically mute, possibly mentally-challenged, cipher.
  • Enemies are absurd. Accepting the bargain-basement sci-fi trope of nuclear mutants would be easier if they didn't look and animate like bargain-basement nuclear mutants. Fighting deformed gorillas in the Moscow Metro is silly enough, but when a Nazi soldier (yes, they're down there too) takes, and I was playing on Easy difficulty, SEVEN direct shotgun blasts before going down, you've got some serious balance problems. (And yes, I get the "dirty ammo" conceit, but it got downright laughable - after the initial cursing.)
  • The fiction falls flat. It's here especially that game reeks of unfulfilled potential. You can't talk much with the denizens of the subways; interaction is limited to overheard discussions, shopkeeper banter, and scripted plot events. From what I understand, the novel spends a lot of time exploring the ways in which people and society have degenerated into their basest state, illustrating how deeply selfish and petty we can become when survival is at stake. Yet you don't get to discover any of that in the game. I kept thinking how much richer the experience would have been had I had the opportunity for Fallout 3-style dialogue. And the story has a number of absurdities and gaping holes, especially toward the end. Limited resources, I know, but if the world is the selling point, you've got to give us more than shooting. Especially because...
  • The shooting is mediocre. Weapons feel very underpowered and inaccurate, as I guess they should in this setting, where proper maintenance is impossible. Feedback - damage indications on an enemy, for example - is largely ineffective. For a game that bills itself as a shooter, Metro 2033 doesn't encourage satifying shooting. Which means it has to compensate in other ways, leading to a schizophrenic feel.
  • Level design is alternately decent and horrendous. Naturally, the worst levels stick out. "War" and "Depository" were two of the most frustrating levels I've played in recent memory. In the former, because of extremely sensitive AI, I was unable to play through stealthily, as I think the designers intended. Yet the game checkpointed me essentially in the midst of firefights, meaning I had to endure being exploded by pipe bombs 20 times before finally escaping. In "Depository" - and in a few other levels - I wandered aimlessly, checking the same rooms over and over again for exits, attempting to follow the compass arrow and failing miserably, until I gave up and consulted a walkthrough. It struck me, playing through these levels, how elegant Valve's level design is; while Metro 2033 is in several ways an homage to Half-Life 2, including in its linearity, it fails to effectively lead the player along the linear path it sketeches out.
  • The worst offense: for a good portion of the game, it wasn't fun. And this is, I think, because Metro 2033 isn't sure what it wants to be. Is it a cover-based military shooter with stealth and platforming elements? Is it a post-apocalyptic interactive narrative? Is it a supernatural survival horror game? It tries to be this weird hybrid - an ambitious and admirable goal, but too scattered in execution to pull it off. As a result, I felt like I was fighting the game design more than overcoming obstacles. When defeating a group of enemies or traversing a difficult puzzle area, I didn't experience a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment so much as relief that an irritation had been removed.

I do feel genuinely sorry to level these criticisms against Metro 2033; the game has so many strong points that it feels small-minded to focus on the negatives. And I have to applaud 4A, again, for taking the risks that larger, richer, more established developers refuse to take.

Although often frustrating, Metro 2033 was a pretty instructive experience for me; it got me thinking critically about design, and reacting emotionally, in ways other games don't. How that translates to a Metacritic ranking, I have no idea. It's like trying to assign a student an SAT score by listening to a piece of music she's written. Good luck expecting that number to mean something.


  1. You know, I am beginning to get quite interested in these crazy-ass games coming out of Eastern Europe. STALKER, The Void, Cryostatis, etc.

  2. It does seem to be a hotbed area lately, huh? The Witcher, Mafia II, and the upcoming Bulletstorm have all gotten extensive press as well. Although these examples are pretty different from each other, I wonder if we're at the beginning of a new regional renaissance, where soon enough we'll be able to add "Eastern European style" to the lexicon.