Moscow, 2033. The surface world has turned into a wasteland; the air is barely breathable, some areas are radioactive, and various creatures have mutated into horrific monstrosities. To try to survive these terrible conditions, people have moved down into the Moscow metro, starting colonies within the various stations. While this has allowed people to survive the post-apocalypse, it has also led to various factions forming within the metro, causing tensions between the people down there.
Living in a station within this dangerous metro is Artyom, a young man who is about to leave his home for the first time ever in an effort to save it. This journey sends Artyom on a perilous journey through Moscow’s metro system, encountering bandits, monsters, allies, civilians just trying to get by, and even his own destiny.
The story setup is simple, and so is the execution. Unlike so many games of its generation, Metro 2033 rarely uses cutscenes to tell its story; you are stuck within Artyom’s eyes for the majority as the story events unfold around you. You only leave his head and enter a cutscene at a couple points in the game, and I think that works fine. Even in loading screens, you technically stay within Artyom’s head, because that’s when you hear his inner monologue, commenting on things that just happened and what he’s anticipating for the next section. The storytelling isn’t very flashy, and rarely does it call attention to itself, which I like. It fits very well with Metro 2033—at its core—just being a tale of survival. Yes, I love overt storytelling like in The Last of Us or Spider-Man, but I don’t think that would’ve necessarily worked for this game. It’s an atmospheric journey through the unknown, just one guy trying to do his job.
This is also what Dmitry Glukhovsky’s book does so well. Being a book, it of course has plenty more nuance and detail in its storytelling, being pure descriptive text rather than being based on atmospheric visuals. Even though the story is a bit more in the forefront of the book, the game still manages to capture the vibe of the book’s storytelling excellently. It embodies the dark, oppressive feeling Glukhovsky goes for so well, emulating its world and themes beautifully. Now, the game does make some changes to the story and characters to make everything fit better as a game, but it’s a generally faithful adaptation of the source material. It probably helps that Glukhovsky was very supportive during the development… but I do think the devs still deserve credit for making the game feel true to the novel.
While Merto’s storytelling is really good, the gameplay is a bit of a mixed bag. At the start it seems alright, a first person stealth action/horror game with limited resources, featuring a protagonist who isn’t Colonel Shootsalot from Call of Duty: Man Go Bang (wait, this sounds like it could be really awesome). At times, the gameplay is quite exhilarating, resulting in shootouts that feel very visceral and somewhat realistic (compared to other shooters). Working with your limited resources to take out enemies can be oh-so-satisfying, and stealthing around is positively thrilling in its suspense. However, the issue here lies with enemy awareness. Let me explain.
Imagine you’re sneaking around; you’ve got throwing knives out, ready to put one of the suckers into the skull of an unsuspecting enemy. You locate one such victim, you cock your arm back and THROW! AND MISS! And now every bad dude in the station is on your ass! The same happens if you try to take out some slightly more armored enemies. Most games allow minor screwups, letting you have a very brief second to take out this one dude you missed. But whatever, you raised the alarm, maybe you should at least be able to hide and figure out a strategy—not quite. They are on you immediately, there’s nowhere to hide. For some, this might sound fine, but for me (and a few others I’ve seen) it can be mildly frustrating… like equipping a Terminator with a Soliton Radar. And with gunplay not being the smoothest and Artyom having relatively little health, this turns battles into a double-edged sword. On one hand, they’re tense and exciting. And on the other… see the aforementioned point of frustration.
Okay, so the shooty-bang-bangs are a bit of a mixed bag, but in the grand scheme of things I won’t call them bad, just a little janky. Competent, if a little unpolished. But let’s talk about other aspects of the design, such as how you’re stuck following NPCs for a good chunk of the game. And it’s not just that they tag along; they lead, open paths, and cause a lot of progression… not you, they. This can make certain sections feel like a bit of a slog. At one point towards the end of the game where you get mobbed by infinitely spawning enemies, you have to keep yourself and your progression-pal alive, all while trying to not waste your very limited resources. I don’t mind having an NPC helping out like this once or twice, but when it’s practically the majority of the game, it does sour the experience quite a bit. Maybe it’s to simulate the importance of friendly faces in an otherwise desolate and hostile world, but in execution it instead proves worthy of a good eye roll.
Before we move on from gameplay, I do have to give some props to certain aspects of the design. First off: the use of gas masks with limited air containers is brilliant and really makes the world feel extra dangerous, forcing you to think about how and when you use the mask and when it’s best to switch out the air filter. Second: military grade bullets. For context, you generally have two types of ammo in the game. The regular, somewhat dirty ammo that gets you by just fine and the polished, military-grade ammo that does more damage. Being able to switch between the two on the fly is already a fun little thing, but then the developers added one little cute thing to it that I adore: the military grade ammo doubles as currency. In some stations you visit, you can find merchants who sell ammo, weapons, and other resources. This means it’s completely up to you to decide if it’s worth saving your military-grade bullets for the next station, maybe being able to get a fancy new gun and some ammo for it, or if you should just spend it to deal a little bit of extra damage to mutants or hostile humans. It’s a beautiful mechanic that is a big, shining star in an otherwise unpolished gameplay experience.
Let’s slow down a bit from exploration and bloody violence to talk about presentation. Where the gameplay can be hit-or-miss, the presentation helps elevate it. The people responsible for textures, lighting, and other fancy graphical things did a damn good job making the metro really feel like a lived-in real place. They gave it such a unique and eerie presence that I haven’t seen anywhere else in gaming. Even in the few sections when you visit the surface of Moscow, it doesn’t feel like most other apocalypses I’ve seen, even though it has a lot of the visual hallmarks of most post-apocalyptic environments.
Metro 2033 is also full of details that beautifully call back to Glukhovsky’s novel. The images of the environments that were in my head as I read the novel lined up pretty well with what ended up in the game. The devs really managed to capture the feel of the novel wonderfully in this sense (though with more action than the book had).
Now, where the graphics and world design are A+ material, especially for the relatively low budget and inexperience of the crew, the same can’t be said about the sound design. Now, some of the ambient noises of the metro tunnels are pretty good, decently eerie, and atmospheric. But then you have the sounds of the guns and mutants, which are all very stock. I get it; these guys worked within limited means to make this game, but all the stock sounds feel a little out of place when compared to the rest of the presentation, which sometimes could take me out of it a tiny bit—but only a tiny bit. The rest of the presentation is so good that it mostly makes up for it.
As for the music, it’s good. It’s an emotionally resonant score with various kinds of instrumentation for the various kinds of situations Artyom finds himself in. It’s great stuff.
However, what’s most impressive about this game is that it was the first game that Russian game studio 4A Games ever developed. Now, a decent chunk of the crew had worked under different management prior to forming their own studio, but it’s still impressive that a new studio with such a small crew working on a relatively low budget could create something this impressive (if slightly unpolished).
If you’ve read through this properly and not just skipped to the end, then you probably figured out that I am somewhat mixed on this game. I think it’s a good game and a solid debut from 4A Games, even though it’s let down by certain elements of the gameplay and sound design. But while it stumbles a little bit as its own game, it succeeds beautifully in being an adaptation of Dmitry Glukhovsky’s novel. It manages to capture the atmosphere and vibe of the novel in a way that few adaptations have with their respective source materials. Metro 2033 really is an intriguing and unique case of being an alright game but an excellent adaptation. Usually, games of this ilk tend to be the opposite—fun gameplay experiences but not the best in terms of story adaptation.
So do I recommend the game? Yes, yes I do. It may be clunky and unpolished, but it’s still a solid game with excellent atmosphere and a clear, loving dedication to its source material.