Combine Half-Life 2’s cinematic flourishes and overall brevity and linearity with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s post-apocalyptic atmosphere and horror, and you have Metro 2033. That’s my argument and I’m sticking to it. First-person shooters don’t often have a seminal work that shows up and reinvents the genre—like Half-Life—or one that turns the genre on its head thanks to sheer brilliance, like BioShock or Portal. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when I picked up 2009’s Metro 2033 on a $5 Steam sale and found it a predictable but filling shooter experience.
The setting is the real selling point to the game. Imagine Russia following a nuclear, biological, and chemical war that ravaged the planet. The survivors took shelter underground in the Metro subway system, and have eked out a living—a society—in the wake of nuclear winter. They face off against mutants and strange anomalies that live in the darkness between Metro stations, until the day the protagonist must set off on an epic quest to save his world. You crawl through the old subway tunnels, littered with debris, florescent fungus, and the remains of unlucky looters, strapping on your gas mask to survive on the frozen surface world.
The design and graphics are vivid, depicting the run-down squalor of the outnumbered, could-be-the-last-survivor stations. The weapons and equipment are all jury-rigged, unstable devices built by the survivors with the materials they had available—crude submachine guns, pneumatic firearms, a heavy-machine gun cut down into an automatic shotgun, a Van Helsing-style crossbow gun. There aren’t that many of them, but they have their own unique look and feel. The design of the characters and their environs perfectly fits the image of apocalyptic world—motorcycle helmets are used as impromptu armor, rickety old trolleys are hand-built and maintained to allow inter-station trade.
Besides the mutants and setting which owes quite a lot to the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise—and by proxy, to Fallout and Roadside Picnic—a number of other elements have been pulled off, seemingly willy-nilly, from the FPS resource shelf. There’s a group of secretive, extra-special-force “Rangers” living deep within the system that you later get to join. There’s a war going on between hardline Communists and “Nazi” Fascists. There’s the strange floating light anomalies, and the giant fleshy Lovecraftian monsters near the end. And there’s a recurring subplot about some “Grey”-style aliens, mutants, or the next step of human evolution.
As a game, Metro has a number of frustrating features. It starts off easy enough, until the difficulty ramps up to sheer heights at the later levels. Level design is painfully linear, leaving no room to explore and precious few secrets to discover. It’s short—I clocked in at just under 13 hours on normal mode, after getting caught on two abusive stages. If you rushed it, you could get by in eight or nine hours, fifteen tops if you died a lot. There’s not much diversity in weapons, or scenery, or enemies—whose AI is passable, but not great. Worst of all was the horrible camera angle: you can tell this is a console port because your view is intentionally narrowed down to a thin strip. It breaks the game down into pure twitch shooter territory, if only because you can’t see what you’re shooting at.
Most of all, it’s just never explained. None of it. The anomalies, the return to Stalinism and Nazisim, the apocalyptic war, even the game’s ending just exist in a void without explanation or resolution. There’s what goes on outside the linear Metro corridors, and then there’s what goes on within Metro 2033, and never the two shall meet. Life inside the Metro is vivid, intense, and atmospheric, but ethereally insubstantial—it leaves you satisfied but filled with unanswered questions. Perhaps the book Metro 2033 originated from will answer them. But in giving up the open-ended exploration of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. for a more cinematic, movie-like approach, shouldn’t the filmmaker at least tell the lead actor what’s going on? A riddle for the ages.