Ukrainian outfit 4A Games’ Metro 2033, based on a Russian hybrid novel/underground Internet experiment of the same name, is Yakov Smirnoff’s answer to the Fallout series. According to Fallout, war never changes, but in Metro 2033’s post-apocalyptic Russia, war changes everything into a Doom 3-style corridor shooter. What a country!
In a nutshell, Metro 2033 is the untold story of what happened to the other guys during the aforementioned Fallout era. (Technically, Fallout’s “other guys” were the Chinese, but you get the idea.) After the “Mutually Assured Destruction” thing totally lives up to the hype, Russia as a whole gets a lot more Siberian and a lot more radioactive. The only human survivors are those lucky or smart enough to seal themselves within Moscow’s subway system, which like the rest of Stereotypical Fantasy Russia was built to withstand everything short of the Earth’s eventual spiraling descent into the Sun.
Metro 2033 picks up a decade or so into Russia’s nuclear tribulation. Humanity has managed to survive so far, apparently eking out an existence on whatever pigs, canned goods, and ammunition were being moved through Moscow’s public subway system the day the bombs fell.
The subway is divided into several underground fiefdoms, one of which starts noticing a higher-than-average rate of incursions from the radioactive monsters at the gates. This, of course, is your station, and you, of course, are called on to save the last vestiges of humanity from a quick and honorable death fighting the mutant hordes and deliver them into an indeterminable period of suffering and waiting to die—I mean, save the day. Right.
Describing Metro 2033 without resorting to a list of comparisons is a difficult task. Over the run-and-gun “Fallout meets Doom 3” heart described above lie varying layers of borrowed gameplay in varying intensities. When a group of enemy survivors are working together to outflank you, it becomes Far Cry. When you douse a few lights and stealthily eliminate them, it shows signs of Thief-dom. And when all that inexplicably gives way to ghosts and Nazis (wait—Nazis?), you find yourself against all odds in a Wolfenstein fan-fic.
There’s a distinctly Eastern European charm about Metro 2033 that I can’t help but enjoy. It’s like a well-kept Kalashnikov; it’s not by any means the flashiest thing in the world, and it’s obvious unto ridiculousness about its influences, but by God is it ever reliable. It’s a sturdy thing, a game that goes about its business with grim, unrelenting precision. “This is game, da?” it says. “You play for many enjoyments!”
Think about that for a minute before you partake, though. Is a representation of a mutant- and bandit-infested subterranean Golgotha—accurate enough to include a banal sense of doom—really something you want to subject yourself to?
This question has caused a bit of debate amongst Metro 2033’s audience. Some people say the bleak, oppressive ambience and its equally bleak, oppressive gameplay make it a bad game. These people are wrong, and if you agree with them, you’re wrong, too. It’s not bad; it’s an utter bastard. Yes, there’s a difference.
You see, bad games wear their poor quality like an ill-fitting suit. They’re a series of discordant elements clashing together in a self-destructive bid to outdo one another. Metro 2033’s badness (if you want to call it that) goes straight to the core, a contiguous thread of desperation and frustration that is nothing but intentional.
You may be a seriously outclassed halfwit armed with the worst weaponry a post-apocalyptic society could possibly cobble together out of sewer pipes and soda cans; you may be trapped in a series of bland, lightless corridors (with a few bland, snow-blindingly white surface jaunts thrown in for flavor); and you may be doing battle against waves of giant mutant circus bears and superhuman sharpshooters who can see in the dark and curve their bullets toward your head with their mind powers. But that’s kind of the point. It’s despair-inducing to be sure, but it’s harmonious despair, meticulous in construction and just plain correct in execution.
So yes, Metro 2033 is what the layman might call “bad.” It’s bad, it’s real bad, it’s frustrating and annoying and sometimes painful to play, and it should be lauded for actually getting that right. Remember, these aren’t the green fields of Elysium we’re talking about here. Oppression, scarcity, dreariness, doom—despite a few better-known counter-examples, Metro 2033 proves that these are the names of the post-apocalyptic game.