Rain washes against the glass like it was alive, changing direction constantly as if trying to find a way into my mask. Its last owner who I'd come across not ten minutes ago had been a smoker for sure but given the air outside my temporary shield would kill me in less than a minute - I'll take the passive smoking. "Keep moving" I suddenly uttered to myself, the Watchers had already given me their location with that incessant howling but that was five minutes ago, they could now be anywhere.
I’d learned quite fast that stealth wasn't really possible when carrying all your worldly belongings with you but still, I didn't want to invite a pack of mutant dogs the size of cows to an all you can eat buffet courtesy of my limbs. I wove through the broken cars and rubble heading towards the old library, this was where I'd told my team of Rangers I'd rendezvous with them and it was just visible now through the sheet rain and fog. The wind was pushing me so hard now it felt like I was led on my side and gravity was taking the day off, maybe this was going to be my excuse for what happened next. It hit me from behind, 'sneaky fucker' - it's almost like it knew I was day dreaming. The winged Demon managed to get a grip around my arm and for a surreal second everything seemed quiet as my inner ear told my brain we were now rapidly ascending. I wasn't sure what the Demons play was but I didn't plan on finding out, a shotgun blast to the underside of its head did the trick and I was immediately released. I screamed one continuous word on my return journey to earth which was cut off abruptly when I hit the swamp and instantly realised I'd been lucky: solid ground would have killed me for sure. I scrambled onto the bank and started sprinting for the library, for a second I forgot about the whole demon circling to kill me situation and mused how the attacker had in fact dropped me off right where I'd been travelling to.
The door was ajar, not a good sign - Rangers would have secured their perimeter better than that. As I continued to sprint my legs were burning on pure adrenaline, but something was wrong. Then I saw the huge crack in the top of my mask, poisonous vapour now crawled down my throat like it actually hated me. Just feet away from the door I risked one look behind to track the Demon but there was no sign of it as I pushed through entrance. Three things happened in quick succession, the Watcher that had presumably killed my team was now closing the space across the library interior between me and it, I reeled backwards falling over a fallen bookcase and the Demon now missing a good piece of its jaw erupted through the large window above me snatching the Watcher out of the air. I quickly retrieved a working mask from a fallen comrade and quietly snuck away as the Demon violently eviscerated the unfortunate Watcher. As I descended into the tunnels of the Metro I had to laugh, another smoker and another smelly mask, life was hard down here but I was alive and for now that was enough.
I like stories that challenge you in ways you didn't expect, concepts that get deep into your psyche and push buttons you didn't know you had. One film that stands out in my memory that did this was Seven, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. I won't fire any spoilers in here but let's just say a happy ending we did not get and that was good because it would have ruined the entire film.
With games it gets a little more complex because we the player have (or should) a say in moving the game to it's ultimate conclusion and thus if the game ends badly we may feel like we did badly. However if the balance is well considered the player can still feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction even if it's not the happiest of endings. This is one of the reasons why I rate the Metro 2033 games so much and why I think everyone should at least give them ago.
The setting is a post apocalyptic Russia where the nuclear fallout has made the surface uninhabitable and driven the surviving humans down into the underground network of tunnels beneath Moscow. These tunnels are a mix of sewers, old utility pipes and as the title of the game suggests the Metro. Life is now a daily struggle with every conceivable resource in limited supply, even the air you breath can kill you. If you have seen films like Twelve Monkeys or The Matrix you will get an idea of the pickle humanity now finds itself in and yet through the desperation and sheer will we linger.
This review actually covers two games, Metro 2033 and Metro Last Light, the latter is a continuation of the story in the first and I would strongly recommend you play both back to back. My first impression of Metro 2033 was before the Redux overhaul, I remember playing for an hour and losing interest due to what seemed like a very disjointed combat system and poorly optimised graphics: to be fair I never gave it a chance. Sometime in 2014 I saw a video of the Redux reworking where the developers had gone back over both games and given them a massive lick of paint - many parts of the games (especially the first) have been rebuilt entirely. New 3D models were designed for enemies such as the huge mutant dogs (Watchers) which act as one of your main enemies. They now look fantastic, they crawl down walls and when you finally take one down the excellent physics act upon the corpse as they would in real life which leads to a sense of physicality from your weapons and environment.
There are plenty of comparison videos out there which show how much the visuals have been improved, all the sky maps, all the texture work and character models have been replaced with far more realistic iterations. The post processing and weather effects have all been worked - many of the visual tricks from Metro 2033 Last Light have been added to the original giving a more coherent experience when you play through them both. The way you can wipe blood and rain from your mask was not actually in the first game but now it is. There has also been some chopping and changing with how the first game was put together, so the general flow of the game feels far more satisfying.
The light sourcing and shadow mapping must be given a special mention as they are currently the best I've ever seen. There are so many examples to give but the only way to get across how much this adds to the atmosphere is seeing it running for yourself. Light is so important to this game and it affects everything differently. The mist that hangs over a swamp or smoke that fills a burning train cart all gets illuminated by light. Headlamps will beam into the darkness like overweight lightsabers and shadows are formed perfectly from everything including yourself. More than once I passed a lamp and jumped at my own shadow - it really is that good. Sometimes as you gaze over the city scape the fading sun will catch the water and dirt encrusted to the outside of your cracked mask. The longer you are exposed to the elements the more ice accumulates on the outside, I would urge anyone who suffers from claustrophobia to be wary of playing this game.
The NPC faces in the whole looks great, in fact it's a testament to the attention to detail that not only the main characters look individual but also many of the standard patrols seem to have their own look. It's bizarre but even the corpses you pad down for supplies seem to have their very own art department with varied states of decay and apparent grizzly ends.
Don't jolt my displacement.
As we know games don't just pop into existence, even the smallest titles take many months if not years of hard graft and are usually crafted across many platforms from art programs, 3D modelling packages and of course coding software. The point I'm making is that they are built in pieces and then put together, we can often see the places they are joined up like loading screens, breaks in animation and so on. For example in some games once an NPC has finished their role they will run away and vanish. We assume the NPCs don't have personal teleporters, it's just the game getting rid of assets it's finished with and we have to accept that. One thing that really stands out in Metro is that the developers have spend a considerable amount of time filling in these gaps with well animated and fluid movements. In one section I remember rescuing some prisoners and instead of just vanishing or just staying put, they wander out of their cell and start rummaging around for gear. In the second game you spend a good few sections working with an NPC and it's incredible how fluid these segments look, the game will seamlessly move between cut scenes and game action - all done in engine and all without breaks or loading screens. When your friend pulls you through a gate or starts building items from rubbish lying around it all happens in a fluid way, this to me is one of the ways the game keeps you locked into the experience. There are so many examples I could give but the best way to see what I'm talking about is to play it yourself or watch a few videos on YouTube.
So while there are plenty of well animated games on the market developers who spend time on unnecessary animations (while not neglecting other parts of the game of course) I applaud them for this as it makes the game worlds seams invisible and adds so much to your suspension of disbelief. Every chapter of the game is riveted together by excellent in engine cutscenes that then transition into the live gameplay, it's just one continuous adventure that really never lets you down or takes a short cut.
Take your breath away
The surface of the earth is now a never ending sea of ruin, cities crumbling into oblivion with nothing but the elements and the mutated ecosystem for company. To spite mankind establishing themselves underground there are times you have to pull on a gas mask and ascend into the death shroud of the surface. As the sheet rain and hurricane force wind beats against your mask you do feel isolated and vulnerable, your vision becomes obstructed by rain washing down the glass that is keeping you alive. Mud and blood in equal measure obstruct your view which you can wipe it away for a temporary clear view before it's covered again, you are constantly reminded - this is not your world anymore and you are not welcome. As the filters in your mask expire you can hear your breath start to wheeze and rasp, only changing the filters will grant you more breathing time and it's here I found one of the most atmospheric parts of the game. Often I found myself on my last filter, surrounded by hostiles and with no clear route, fighting the urge to panic and run for it: only when I reached relative safety do you realise you've been holding your breath for the last five minutes. It terms of creating tension and atmosphere I literally cannot think of a game that does a better job.
The equipment you use to survive all adds believability to the many ways humans now struggle, everything that requires power is now charged off a hand pumped dynamo. As your battery gets low so does the flashlight and night vision goggles. You also have a built in Geiger counter and even use your trusty lighter in a pinch: the flame also flickers in the air flow to give you a general direction and will burn away spiderwebs to reveal secrets long lost to anyone but the bravest explorers.
Packing bullets and Prozac
As you progress on your quest you are constantly reminded of what was before, the obliterated cities and lost tunnels are littered with relics from what was before. As you search for ammo and mask filters you come across some truly upsetting sights, in one tunnel I ventured pretty far off the track and found three skeletons - two adults cradling a smaller skeleton. You never have much time to reflect on what you see but long enough to feel the despair this world now holds for every living person. Even when you make it to small towns and settlements it can feel a little overwhelming seeing the way we now live, in makeshift boxes made from scrap and corrugated metal. You can also hear conversations between the people that occupy these shelters now, in one I heard a Dad who was trying to catch fish with his young daughter and I was caught off guard when I heard the little girl ask 'are we going to catch cancer like mommy?'
Guilt, anger, betrayal, friendship and love: I have experienced all these emotional states while playing Metro 2033 and Last Light. Not all players are the same of course and some of the subtle nuances will not jump out like they did to me. As I have covered the game stands up on it's gameplay alone but I personally think if you were to play this game and not breath in the heady atmosphere you would be missing one of the best parts.
It is not clear as you start your quest with Artyom that your choices do have consequences, however the game is watching how you act in certain situations and the end of the game will reflect these choices. Kill or incapacitate, share or survive, give or take, trust or shoot: you must make these choices and then reap the consequences. There are a few more ways you moral compass comes to bear in the second game as you become the guardian of a young being (for spoilers I won't say any more) and as you act the child watches and will learn from your actions: like so many aspects of this game, it is not always black or white.
I've played plenty of games that try and add a human element to the enemies you must kill (or incapacitate), some do ok while other it seems contrived and obvious. This is one of the best examples I've seen, when you listen to some of the conversations from the dark it can give you pause for thought. These people are your enemy but they are also people with needs, fears and family: most games don't like to take on these concepts but Metro totally relishes making you squirm. It terms of enemy AI I really enjoyed going up against it in fights. The various hostile humans do a good job of hearing sounds you make and investigating accordingly, the aforementioned lighting system makes this far more tense than it would have been. Even the various critters that seek to remove the flesh from your bones are well designed and move around the environment with frightening speed and agility. The spider like creatures in particular will attack from behind and then scurry away into the many holes and crevices before attacking again. When covered in spider web, low on ammo and your flashlight starting to flicker out these situations can really get your heart pounding.
Is it PC?
If you have just splashed out on a new PC and are looking for a game to wow your mates or even your disapproving other half this could be one such title. The Redux revamp was also brought to current generation consoles and it looks great with decent frame rates for the most part but on PC the game really does shine. With blistering high FPS and textures that are some of the best in the industry this game really does deserve to be played with the realism on maximum and there is only one place to do that. I have already talked about the graphics but it's just worth saying this game is stunning on PC and does the platform proud. The graphical options are fairly basic and many are turned on by default so if you do have an older system this might be worth considering.
When the first game was released in 2010 it was given a positive reception but pulled down a great deal by some AI problems and graphical bugs: these were in the main addressed and fixed in the update. Now Metro 2033 and Last Light do feel like one continuous experience although the latter games does have the edge in terms of set pieces and wow factor. We now see Steam sales fairly often and these two games usually appear at some point but I would recommend them even at full price if you can't wait.
If I had to compare this game to something else the title that comes to mind is actually Half Life 2 with it's almost overbearing sense that the world is out to get you. Comparisons to the Stalker games are far easier to make but there's no denying that Metro has its own style. Very early on there are some amazing set pieces and you really start to trust that the game will not let you down because of the high quality of pretty much everything you come across. One minute you are using stealth and shadows to take out squads of enemies, in the next you could be racing down a train line in a high speed gunfight or backing away in horror as the shadows of the dead try and break your very sanity. This is one aspect of the game that really does make it so good, you are not doing the same thing all the time, the experience is constantly flipped on it's head and it seems that the developers were fearless when implementing new ideas.
I am always trying to keep a mental list of best RPG, best RTS and for atmospheric first person experiences this is up there. If you're looking for a game with tonnes of visceral weight, salt and grit you will have to go a long way to find a better game. I cannot help but applaud the team of developers who made these two games, not just for the initial works but for the amazing job they have done of reworking the first game and melding both into one astounding adventure.