A few months ago, I decided that the weeks leading up to the release of Metro: Last Light would be a good time to play 2033 again. I played through the game two full times when it was released; my initial playthrough, and then a more in-depth playthrough that netted me the “good” ending. I also played several of the missions multiple times, either achievement hunting or just because I enjoyed those sections. Unfortunately, that meant I was slightly burned out when they released the “Ranger Mode” content, so I figured this would be a good chance to give that a shot as well. This is a special mode that eliminates the HUD, limits supplies and ammo, and realistically alters damage and accuracy for all weapons.
For anyone completely unfamiliar with the series, the Metro games are set in a post-nuclear-apocalyptic Moscow where society is attempting to survive by taking up residence in the metro transit stations. The games follow the story of Artyom, a young man from an outlying station who leaves home in search of a way to stop the “Dark Ones,” a highly advanced race of telepathic beings. The games draw from the Dmitry Glukhovsky novels Metro 2033 and Metro 2034, which I haven’t read, mainly because the first one only became easily accessible in English earlier this year, and the second one still hasn’t been translated.
2033 tells a fantastic story in an exceptionally well-developed universe, and I do want to read the books to see how much of the world-crafting is the author and how much is the obviously exceptional team at 4A Games. The immersion I felt definitely goes to the dev team, as they created possibly the most atmospheric experience this side of BioShock’s Rapture. From the densely peopled “towns” in the stations, to the claustrophobic labyrinths of tunnels, to the vast emptiness of the dead city above, the world of 2033 is fully-realized and masterfully crafted.
The first few chapters take place in populated stations, which represent the only safe havens from the various monstrosities (both mutant and human) left behind in the wake of the war. The stations provide access to power and water, quick access to the tunnel system for trade and travel, and have a limited number of entrance points that can be guarded or locked down as need be. While the populace isn’t necessarily thriving, things have stabilized enough so that you will find children playing, men talking about work over drinks, and people just generally going about their lives.
Every time I play 2033, I am pleasantly surprised at the sheer amount of little, unassuming things Artyom can stop and pay attention to, or even participate in: Players can have a drink, take a hit off of a hookah, help those in need, tip street musicians, and get hustled by a prostitute, just to name a few. Stopping to listen in on passing conversation can deepen your understanding of the world, and even provide useful information about the area you are in, or what to expect in an upcoming chapter.
As Artyom soon learns, all stations are not necessarily equal; some are starved for supplies and defenses, while others thrive, yet refuse to offer assistance out of fear. The game’s narrative draws heavily on this disparity: Artyom’s home station Exhibition is an “outer” station, and the larger stations are reticent to offer aid, or even take the Dark Ones as a serious threat and not just a frontier tall-tale. Each station has its own internal issues to deal with, as well as contending with the outside; loose city-states have formed, some of them neutral or supportive, some of them more militaristic and idealistically aggressive.
Artyom comes across the frontline in a pitched battle between two such factions, the fascist Reich and the communist Red Line. These chapters provide an interesting insight into humanity’s apparent need for conflict, even in the wake of nuclear war. The world is also patrolled by an order known as the “Rangers” out of Sparta station, an enigmatic group of expert soldiers and survivors who act as protectors, explorers, caregivers and peacekeepers depending on the needs of those around them. It is a ranger named Hunter, and old friend of Artyom’s father, who comes to investigate the Dark Ones and tasks our hero with travelling to Polis station to secure aid for Exhibition.
Everything comes with a price, though, and some stations have found ways to profit from the desperation, and have become so vital to the survival of the bigger stations that no one dares to challenge them. By “profit” I don’t mean something like paper money or even precious metals, which have very little practical worth. In the world of Metro, survival is the name of the game, and the economy has evolved around the almighty “military grade round.” Specifically, these are Soviet 5.45×39mm rounds manufactured before the war, which are more powerful and reliable than the “dirty” rounds the station denizens craft for protection. Artyom can find them scattered in clips of five throughout the game, and is occasionally paid for jobs in slightly larger quantities.
Still, it can take a majority of the game to amass any substantial amount of rounds, and so scavenging is vital if you expect to survive. Unlike most modern shooters, 2033 is a study in conservation, especially in Ranger Mode. The world is full of little nooks and crannies where a spare clip or a few med kits might be hiding, and dead bodies become a kind of morbid treasure chest. Basic weapons are commonplace in the Metro, but nice weapons are rare and expensive, and upgraded ones are even more so; there are also a number of pneumatic devices that use make-shift ammo like steel bolts and ball bearings, which were more easily accessible than real shells in the early days after the war. I personally took every opportunity to conserve rounds by avoiding conflict, scavenged weapons from my surroundings whenever possible and only purchased rare things like new body armor.
As the body armor might indicate, conflict isn’t always avoidable, and it is here where we reach the biggest point on contention regarding Metro 2033 as a video game. Most of the gaming community at large joined reviewers in agreement that the gunplay is varying forms of “broken, unbalanced, awful, unplayable,” and so on. I personally disagree, on the grounds that each weapon feels and functions in a realistic manner with the established atmosphere. Hell, the most commonplace gun in the tunnels is called the “bastard” because of how unreliable it is; the double-barreled sawn-off shotgun isn’t something I expect to be accurate more than a foot in front of me; a companion character early in the game promises you his AK for accompanying him, and it’s a genuine reason for excitement.
The game has slots for primary weapon types: a pistol, a rifle, and a shotgun or special weapon. Each of these types has at least a handful of specific guns that fit the bill, and each of those has a variation or two after modifications. For instance, there’s a silenced pistol with a scope and stock extension that works well for sniping, opening the rifle slot up for something with a higher rate of fire. I tended to stick to the shadows around human enemies, and Ranger Mode only reinforced that desire, as the increased weapon damaged means Artyom can’t take more than a few solid hits before going down. Of course, stealth kills afford you the opportunity to loot foes without expending too much of your precious ammo in return.
Not all your foes are so easily avoided, especially when it come to the creatures that now populate Moscow’s ruins and catacombs. The ecosystem at play here is well-developed, as each mutant fills a certain role in the food chain: The rat-like lurkers of the tunnels occupy the bottom slot; the coyote-inspired packs of watchmen roam the surface at will; the nosalis roam the caves like a nightmare mixture of bears and wolves; and the winged demons prey on all those below them. Then there are the rare specimens, such as the seemingly intelligent, ape-like “librarians” that keep watch over the city’s lost archives, and the giant amoebas spilling out of their tumor-like nests in an abandoned reactor core.
There are also the unexplained supernatural phenomenons, which Artyom mostly encounters in the presence of a ranger by the name of Khan: A sentient ball of anomalous energy bobs playfully in the tunnels before burning away a pack of attacking nosalis; strange visions of the living city give Artyom a glimpse of the past; ethereal voices sing and cry out of lost tunnels like sirens; and ghostly shadows of lost souls flicker into existence under the glare of your flashlight.
This last encounter is one of the most haunting things I have ever come across in a game: While passing through a ruined station, Khan tells you to keep you light on and stay behind him. You must press through hundreds of these ghosts, all while they try and keep you there; Khan later explains that he was there trying to defend that station when it fell, and barely escaped, which is why he can navigate it.
Immediately after that, the two of you come across a station about to be overrun by lurkers and nosalis. Their numbers have dwindled to a handful, and their last hopes lies in collapsing a tunnel to block the creatures’ advance. Artyom undertakes the task of locating the deceased demolition team, venturing into the tunnel alone, and prepping the charges. He and Khan then help fend off the rush of attackers as the charges start to blow and sections of the station cave in.
Khan tells Artyom to continue on ahead, and that he must stay and guard the survivors until more help comes. The last conversation you have with him is very cryptic, and the last door he opens for you leads into a shrine for those lost at the station you just “saved.” When you turn around, the passage you have just come through looks fallen-in and disused. Upon inspection, the pictures in the shrine look a lot like the survivors you were just talking to.
One of the pictures, right in the front, looks exactly like Khan.
While some of these are tried-and-true post-apoc creature types and spooky otherworldly events, their execution here is original enough to make them terrifyingly memorable. The game takes several chances to force you into an up-close, fighting-for-your-life melee kill with the creatures, and each time it does so for a watchman, I am mortified by how human the face staring into mine looks. The story doesn’t dwell too much on where these things came from – your imagination should be more than up to the task – but it does ask the player to consider the nature of these “monsters,” even the menacing Dark Ones. How you respond can actually change the game’s entire ending.
After visiting Polis and convincing some of the rangers that the threat is real, Artyom and company set out to find the mysterious D6 military installation, a secret series of tunnels and bunkers below the Moscow main lines; imagine a mixture of Area 51, NORAD, and NYC’s lost subways. The hope is that there will be some kind of weapons left over from before the war that might be able to wipe out the Dark Ones in their nest at the botanical gardens. The team finds more than they could have ever imagined, and things better left buried start to surface.
The final chapters find Artyom and a few rangers struggling to reach the top of a television broadcast tower in order to use a missile targeting system. This creative section is a mixture of vertigo-inducing platforming, bare-knuckle escapes from demons and pitfalls, and psychedelic shifts in time and space as the Dark Ones try to prevent you from destroying them. The final moments of the game truly hinge on how the player’s actions have affected Artyom, and the choice to change the outcome only presents itself if that influence has been positive.
This is, in my opinion, where Metro 2033 truly leaves it mark on the player and the industry. Remember all of those conversations I said you could listen to, or the little acts of kindness you could commit, or the strides I took to keep from killing too much? Rather than taking a standard black / white / gray approach to morality and having players makes conscious choices, 2033 keeps tracks of little actions in an algorithm so complex that players still don’t agree on exactly what events trigger what outcomes.
For better, or for worse, the player’s choices change Artyom over the course of Metro 2033. Likewise, I like to think that my time with Artyom has changed me, and certainly done so for the better. This game may not be the best example of any one element, but I have found few examples of one that presents such a complete experience when taken as a whole. I am exceptionally glad that Last Light will give me more time in this world, though I can’t help but wonder if it will have the same spark as 2033. I will just have to hope in the possibilities stretched out before me, like an endless metro tunnel.
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