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THQ flies us to Moscow for its reveal of 4A Games' post-apocalyptic shooter, Metro 2033...
At the risk of sounding arrogant, we've been to some pretty extravagant game reveals in our time. The Epic Mickey reveal a month or so ago was one such occasion, where artists had been hired to paint murals of classic Disney characters and interviews with Warren Spector took place on a privately hired London bus. This is the reality of the modern games industry, which decadently launches games by cavalierly throwing more money around than the Grab a Grand booth in Noel's House Party. Our latest game reveal experience pretty much takes the biscuit though.
For a start, THQ flew us off to Moscow for the event - a city now plastered with advertising billboards, Western brands labelled in their native Latin alphabet, and more McDonald's restaurants than you can wave a leftist docufilm at. Moscow is also a place where the state health department won't allow visitors off their planes before they've had a laser contraption beamed in their ears to scan for swine flu (not the best first impression of a country we've ever had to be honest. We shudder to think what would have happened if we'd been a suspected case).
But as if that wasn't enough, THQ had something altogether more incredible for the actual event itself, which was set in Stalin's nuclear bunker of all places. The big man would've turned in his grave to think that a bunch of Western videogame journalists were schmoozing in his post-apocalyptic nest egg, but to the victor go the spoils, aye Joseph? All joking aside though, we've got to thank THQ for the opportunity to see Moscow and sample 4A Games' debut title, Metro 2033; a reworking of Dmitry Glukhovsky's 2002 novel of the same name and a story that investigates a post-nuclear holocaust Moscow where survivors live in the city's expansive underground Metro system.
That's the premise behind the post-apocalyptic world you'll find yourself in. The story itself revolves around protagonist Artyom, a young adult who's grown up in this network of underground Metro stations, never before seeing the light of day. Of course, it wouldn't be much of a story if there wasn't a catalyst forcing Artyom away from his daily routine and, ultimately, out into the ruins of Moscow itself. This comes initially in the form of mutants that attack humans through the underground network, and then from a new threat to the survival of mankind.
Our preview wasn't quite long enough to gather any spoilers on this new threat, although we did find out that they're referred to as The Dark Ones (or Homo Novus) by those living throughout the Metro. Folk tales paint them as the next evolution of humankind; superior beings who're set to snatch the torch of progress from humans and leave them trailing their wake. And they appear to be pretty aggressive too. Our only glimpse of them came while Artyom was having a bit of a psychotic episode where he saw visions of a long gangly figure (a Dark One), silhouetted in front of a bright light, and depicted in a style reminiscent of alien abductions from The X Files.
As you'd probably expect then, this post-apocalyptic wasteland wasn't exactly barren. In addition to the mysterious Homo Novus, there are also base level mutants referred to as Nosalises. These look like feral Irish wolfhounds with mangy black fur, but perhaps a little bigger. We also came across similar mutants with gargoyle-like wings later in the game that were a bit more of a challenge to kill. So, to recap, Metro 2033 appears to be part Fallout 3 and part Resistance: Fall of Man. The preview section we played through was certainly more FPS than RPG, although 4A Games has admittedly thrown some survival horror and RPG aspects into the mix for good measure. Whether or not these features are well balanced at this stage in development is another question altogether though.
The elements of survival horror, for example, are present in the usual visual tricks of dark level sections and an all important torch in your inventory, while psychological thriller elements are added with scenes such as the Homo Novus one mentioned above. Ammo is also scarce in the game, although it really was a little too scarce in the preview build we played. Default ammo load-outs at the start of levels were rarely more than 20 to 30 bullets, while opportunities to scavenge ammo were also few and far between. Because of this, we had to use Artyom's knife to fight off the Nosalises on far too many occasions, which quickly became thoroughly irritating, particularly as the melee attack was as bog standard as they come.
While this sort of problem is easy to rectify with the amount of development time 4A Games has left, it's a bit worrying that the problem is there at all to be honest. Having said that, the developer has integrated a novel economy by allowing players to swap bullets for money and vice versa. Ammo is the currency across the game's Metro stations (which is understandable given its rarity and the amount of mutants that are hanging about), while merchants who buy and sell bullets can be found in the hub sections between Metro 2033's levels. This money is then exchangeable for better weapons etc., although this feature wasn't up and running in the preview build that was on show in Moscow. All we saw was a prompt at one of the merchant's stalls, so hopefully 4A Games will include the feature in the final game.
These Metro station hubs were dotted between the game's levels and are essentially the transport for Glukhovsky's story. They present the bleak surroundings and atrocious quality of life in this post-apocalyptic underworld, which is peppered with mentally unstable characters and scrawny livestock to explain how the inhabitants don't starve to death or eat each other (exactly how the animals got down there in the first place is another question altogether). The hubs are moody and atmospheric enough to keep players entertained for the most part and it's good to see them being used to flesh out the story a little bit.
Further elements of RPG gameplay were also applied with some player choice, such as a boy asking us if we wanted help getting to our next objective (in exchange for some bullets). If we paid him, then he took us to the man we were seeking; if we didn't, then he ran off and called us names. And the gameplay choices didn't end here, having found harmonious accompaniment with some stealth/assault options during a few of the game's better set-pieces. Silenced guns and knives were used to keep the noise down in these sections (if we choose the stealth route), while timed patrols were on hand to keep us moving. Subtle touches like broken glass on the floor and tripwire traps also added considerably to the experience, although we do have a few questions surrounding the AI at this stage.
As far as gunplay is concerned, Metro 2033 appears to tick all of the well beaten FPS boxes. We played with the basic pistol, machine gun, and shotgun weapons, all of which operated as expected. There was a bit more of a makeshift feel to the guns, reflecting the fact that they've been cobbled together by post-apocalyptic refugees in underground train stations, although a few of the purchasable weapons hinted at some more satisfying firepower including a Gatling gun and various assault rifles (even though Artyom's lack of dosh meant that we were unable to test them). Regardless of each weapon's various strengths and weaknesses though, they're all infinitely preferable to the lacklustre melee option of the knife.
As we've said, elements of survival horror were then applied with the inventory items, which included a gas mask, map, and the previously mentioned torch. These were presented a little more imaginatively than other features in the game, with a torch that had to be charged manually using a pump, a gas mask with replaceable filters that only worked for a limited period (timed on Artyom's wristwatch), and a map that was illuminated by Artyom's lighter (the flame of which then pointed in the direction of the next waypoint). There were some balancing issues here as well though, such as a confusing waypoint system that directed us to trigger points rather than an objective and a gas mask that broke under repeated melee hits. That last issue wasn't a problem per se, but when the game forced us into regrettable battles of attrition with a knife and then punished us for its own mistake with a damageable gas mask, it became a different matter.
At least 4A Games has applied a half decent visual filter for when the gas mask does get damaged, which shows cracks and dinks across the mask's screen. This is one of quite a few filters that the developer uses to denote damage to Artyom, including the all-important bleed-out filter, blurry vision when Artyom is choking, and a not so impressive filter for when he stumbles into a hotbed of radiation. Where that last filter is concerned, we've never seen anything quite so ugly since we tried to play Wolfenstein 3D on an early-90s PC that wasn't VGA 16 colours compliant. Put another way, if pixelated vision and fluorescent colours is what happens to people with radiation poisoning, then 4A Games has nailed it.
Despite the balancing issues that Metro 2033 suffered in the preview build we played, there's still a lot of potential here. The setting and concept are novel (no pun intended) even though the game itself sits on foundations of the well mined post-apocalyptic FPS sub-genre. If 4A Games can expand upon some of the more promising parts of Metro 2033's gameplay, such as player choice and the hub sections, then there's every chance that it can perform more impressively than a mere by-the-numbers shooter.