Monday, November 12, 2012

Review of Metro 2033

Metro 2033 is probably one of the most frustrating games I've ever played.  First, because it seeks out the finest of all fine lines between "horribly unfair and tedious" and "brilliantly intense and realistic," walks it drunkenly, and throws in the sort of bugs and mechanical glitches you'd expect from an open world RPG, not a linear story-driven FPS.  And second, because it's a linear story-driven FPS, with scripting out the wazootie.  And it stubbornly remains that way even when everything about it is crying out for something more.  But it's also sometimes brilliant.  The marriage of unforgiving survival and FPS action is often top-notch, the visuals are beautiful and evocative, and the claustrophobic world is as detailed and immersive as any of STALKER's wastelands.  It's a game that's impossible to dismiss... but at the same time, it begs to be.  There are moments where everything clicks, and you get a glimpse at something truly special.  And then there are moments where literally nothing clicks, and you wonder if it's worth all the frustration.

This hand charger gives your flashlight a boost and powers your night vision.
   
To be fair, I was playing on the hardest difficulty.  "Ranger Hardcore Mode."  Where ammo is incredibly limited, you (and your enemies) die in a few hits, and there's no real HUD to speak of.  So I did expect a certain amount of obligatory thwarting on the part of the game.  I was not disappointed.  Metro 2033 may be wrapped in the guise of modern handholding shooters, but it has no problem letting you screw yourself over.  If you don't plan ahead and make intelligent use of your resources, you will fail, and you will be forced to roll back to a previous save.  And yeah, some of the game's ever-present frustration comes from this.  But it also creates a very real sense of danger, and makes obsessive scavanging a necessity.  I loved the fact that I seldom had the luxury of a full clip or a pristine gas mask.  I loved that my victory wasn't assured with countless mechanical fail safes.  I loved that firefights actually felt like...well...firefights.  And I loved how the brutal difficulty and very visceral danger made your constant upgrading feel necessary for survival, and made your weapons feel like dear friends rather than cold, impersonal tools.  And in general, Metro does an uncommonly good job of making you feel like a wasteland survivor... someone who is scavenging and improvising, not dashing through with Schwarzenegger-like ease.

Well, at least it's cheerier than rotting tunnels.

But the game also has some really irritating parts.  Really irritating.  Like the stealth, for instance.  Whenever you encounter human enemies, Metro allows you to choose between going in guns blazing or sneaking through with minimal (or no) violence.  And in Ranger Hardcore, the brutal difficulty of gun battles makes staying hidden all but required.  Which is unfortunate, because actually staying hidden can be nearly impossible.  The enemies are so sensitive.  One glimpse is all they need to go into full alert mode, and one enemy in full alert mode will instantly inform every other enemy of your location... and, of course, put them into full alert mode as well.  And the kicker?  There's no way to go back into hiding once you've been spotted.  Everyone develops the ability to see through walls, in the pitch dark, without flashlights.  Add in a checkpoint-only save system and you have stealth that's easily comparable with the trial-and-error tedium exhibited in Soldier of Fortune 2 or Red Faction.  And then there's the filter system.  It's confusing, possibly bugged, and extremely unforgiving.  Yeah, I know I just finished emoting about how much I love being able to paint myself into a corner through careless resource management... but having your survival in at least a third of the game dependent on you loading up on filters at one particular store near the beginning?  That's perhaps going a little too far.  And forcing you to sit through extended in-game dialogue and scripting while you're running out of precious oxygen?  That's just poor design.

A scripted encounter with an anomaly.

As I already mentioned, Metro 2033 is unapologetic about its linearity and its scripted storytelling.  This approach isn't necessarily bad... but in Metro it feels forced and out of place.  So ill-fit to the setting and gameplay.  I can't imagine why anyone thought having an explosive on-the-rails turret segment in the middle of a game about oppressive atmosphere and realism was a good idea, nor can I imagine why they felt that scripted quicktime events would add to the ambiance.  And for the love of Pete, whose idea was the 5 minute unskippable ingame train car ride where LITERALLY NOTHING HAPPENS?  Because yeah... that was a horrible idea.  In fact, there are a lot of times like that.  Times where you're simply left waiting around for something to happen.  Oh, and your character is mute.  Which can kinda work in games that are built around such a limitation, like Halflife.  But being based on a book, Metro 2033's plot is not built around such limitations.  Indeed, it hinges on the main character delivering messages to people.  So there are a lot of times when the game refuses to show you important conversations or events that would involve Artyom speaking.  It just fades out and jumps ahead in time.  And the story often feels rushed as a result.  And, eventually, meandering and directionless.  But the game does really nails its ambiance.  The world is unique and very well-developed, and the story remains engaging because there's always an ominous sense of impending doom that hangs over the entire metro.  And the sense that there's always something unseen lurking in the deep tunnels, just out of sight.

I quickly learned to rely on my trusty revolver w. stock.

The visuals certainly do a lot to help this.  They are, in a word, gorgeous.  Some of the best I've ever seen as a matter of fact.  The art direction is incredibly detailed, and it's obvious that close attention was paid to the layout and lighting of every single area.  Every room is a little atmospheric marvel in its own right.  The HUD is also a highlight.  There isn't one, you see.  At least not in Ranger Hardcore.  So you're left consulting an actual ingame journal to see your objectives, keeping an eye on your character's watch to know when to switch filters, and having to keep a mental count of whether you've shot 5 bullets or 6.  The death of complicated HUDs is one aspect of contemporary gaming I love, and Metro is a shining example of how to properly murder them.  And also, the game is a graphical powerhouse.  Everything is crisp, the lighting pops off the screen, the textures exhibit sharp detailing, there's motion blur, physics, depth of field, god rays, lots of fancy DirectX features I don't understand... only some minor corner-cutting where dynamic shadows are concerned evidences the fact that Metro is a cross-platform game.  These are the sort of graphics that can hold up to detailed examination.  However, it is also a powerhog.  Metro 2033 has a lot technically speaking, but it also seems to have a few optimization issues.  It will eat lesser computers for breakfast, and will still encounter a few framerate dips even on powerful machines.  Worse, it's a rather shoddy console port as far as graphical tweaking is concerned.  The FOV is set at 45 by default, and can only be changed by editing 2 seperate config files (one of which is hidden in the Windows Appdata folder).  Same goes for Vsynch, which is off by default.  And although the game menu shows the details of every graphical setting, you're forced to choose from 4 presets with no option for customization.  So it's a good idea to make sure your computer is well within the recommended specs before buying the game.  Oh yeah, and prepare for some quirky little bugs.  Like a screen that goes completely blurry if you look at your watch while holding an automatic shotgun.  Or movement that inexplicably remains slow if you put your journal away while crouching.       

...that is, until I discovered this freaking gigantic automatic shotgun.

If this review seems a little confused, it's because my whole opinion of Metro 2033 is confused.  It's neither good nor bad, but almost equal parts both.  There are just so many pros and cons, and for every pro there is a con, and vise versa.  And I really can't decide what I think.  I suppose some of these frustrations could be avoided by playing the game on a less draconian difficulty.  Stealth wouldn't be mandatory, filters would be more useful... but then, you'd miss out on many of its strengths, too.  Ammo would be plentiful, combat would be less realistic... victory would be assured.  And it's the ammo limit, the brutal combat, and the threat of real failure that all keep Metro from just being STALKER through the eyes of Call of Duty.  And I'm not sure the tradeoff would be worth it.  I guess the upshot of the matter is that I didn't enjoy my time with the game... but I deeply appreciated it.  What's more, I will certainly be getting Metro: Last Light.  Because if nothing else, Metro 2033 is immensely interesting, and full of potential.

2 comments:

  1. I think this is the most negative review of this game I've read...

    I've always wanted to give this game a try, but S.T.A.L.K.E.R. always scared me so much that I figured wouldn't be able to play Metro for very long.

    Maybe it's time to give The Zone another chance.

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    1. I don't really mean it to be negative, per se. I try not to think of games in terms of "this is a good game" or "this is bad game." That's why I don't give a numerical score or a "ranking" of any sort. Rather, I try to cover what's good and bad about the game from my perspective. Naturally, I also cover how I felt the game worked as a whole, and whether I liked it or not. But I consider that of secondary importance.

      Metro 2033 certainly has a lot of strengths. The ambiance really is something special, the survival/action is unique (if sometimes confounding), and sometimes it has moments of true brilliance. And some of the biting difficulty I experienced is due to Ranger Hardcore, and could probably be avoided on a lower difficulty (but as I said, you'd then miss out on all the interesting stuff that's a result of the difficulty). But the stealth is not fun, the over-scripting becomes tiresome and feels forced, and the game exhibits a lack of polish that's forgivable in more open titles, but can really hurt the experience in something this linear. I came away from it feeling polarized, and unsure of how much fun I really had. But as I said, I appreciated it. I like what it tried to do, I like how it tried to approach it, and I think there were some people involved with its creation who know a thing or two about atmosphere. It just needs some tweaking. And, in my opinion, it needs to be a little less confined.

      Also, it's significantly less scary than STALKER. Sometimes intense, and the atmosphere is very unsettling, but it never really gets into terror land. So you might have an easier time with it.

      And on a related note, if Shadow of Chernobyl is too much for you, you could give Call of Pripyat a try. It's much more relaxed, while still maintaining a lot of the STALKER charm. Just be warned that it can be hard to go back to previous STALKER games after playing it.


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