Friday, 23 March 2012

The most Underrated Games I can Think Of: Metro 2033

"There can be no shitty games, only not enough money"

To kick off what I hope will be a regular thing where I dole out some love to games that didn’t quite get the praise they deserved, let’s examine Metro 2033.

The mind of a video game aficionado is funny and infuriating for everyone involved. When you think about it, game snobs will shirk and abhor a mediocre but functional AAA title, despite all the money and effort that went in to produce it. But unfortunately, people like us will always favor the game we found in a bin at FutureShop or whatever; or at least, that's how I feel about Metro 2033 against other gritty shooters.

Yes, I did find Metro 2033 in a bin at FutureShop, and I completely understand why it was there. The enemy AI seems to be programmed to “Yell the same line over and over again while standing still” mode, the NPC models are uncanny as fuck, many of the levels and environments look kind of samey, and many of the fringe gameplay elements are arguably 100% vestigial to the overall experience. So yeah, that sounds like a real turd on paper, but if you go into the game with the right mindset and the right research, you’ll be presented with a game that oozes charm out of every pore for the most immersive, albeit short, experience that you’ll find among the Xbox 360 exclusives.

The first point of interest about Metro 2033 is that it’s based off of a novel by Russian sci-fi author Dmitry Glukhovsky. I’ve never read this book myself, but I think it’s interesting that a popular novel got adapted to the medium of video games rather than film. It presents a possible paradigm shift, and the medium is finally getting some much-deserved recognition from an older artistic medium. When you look at novel-to-film works such as Night Watch or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it provides a pause for thought and juxtaposition about whether or not video games can serve as a potentially more viable option when deciding to bring a piece from pages to pictures (or rather, pixels.)

Metro 2033 tells the story of Artyom, a young man born shortly before the world had a whoopsie and was forced to flee to the underground Moscow metro. It is here and only here that humans can be safe from the toxic radiation on the surface. 20 years after the blast, horrible mutants have started to outnumber the metro-dwellers, and are slowly becoming the dominant species in the new, irradiated world. Thus, humanity is slowly trickling away- soon to be completely eradicated from the Earth, which now favors the hideous creatures wrought from the destruction.  In this world, Artyom must embark on a foreboding quest through the dank, dangerous metro tunnels to investigate how he can preserve the lives of his friends and father back home.

Home Sweet Home

The basic presentation of the story is fairly straightforward and simple- which in my opinion is the best course of action. Metro 2033 goes about the Fantasy Apocalypse setting akin to the Fallout series, I Am Legend, or Reign of Fire over the imminent cataclysm method like many games and movies have been using for cheap, easy shock value. It’s easy to get someone emotionally invested with the destruction of the world at stake, but it has been overdone to the point where most global cataclysms have become hackneyed and riddled with plotholes.

Fantasy Apocalypse tends to feature monsters and other unexplained creatures; they are sometimes rationalized with bioweapons or nuclear radiation, but it doesn’t really matter. The dark approach Metro 2033 features shows the slow, choking death of all mankind. From his own hubris, he has created a world that he can no longer dominate, and now must suffer as his unintentional Frankenstein monsters violently and mercilessly inherit the new world of pain, hopelessness and vitamin D deficiency.

From this setup, the player can easily emphasize with Artyom- but this can be achieved by simply reading the novel. What does the medium of video gaming do to really help the player get into his shoes?

As soon as you are given free rein to explore the actual station, you’ll probably find it to be immensely frustrating. The corridors are too narrow, the rooms are tiny and have nothing of value in the time, there only seems to be one path to follow through what you’d think to be a “sandbox” level and for fuck’s sake, will any of these people shut the hell up for a few seconds?! That’s called immersion, and Metro 2033 has it in spades. It really fits the theme of squalor and oppression when you need to shift and squeeze past all the faceless crowds just to get to the shops. All around you people are living packed shoulder to shoulder with only enough to survive. They talk to each other at full volume so they can hear each other through the ever-present rabble making your ears sore while you try to decide whether or not you’ll need the silenced SMG for the next mission or not.

Artyom is a silent protagonist, but we do learn a bit about him as time goes on. We know his father loves him and that he has friends who care about him. Other than the fact we know Artyom collects postcards of famous pre-blast landmarks and he can play the guitar, we never learn much about the man himself. This could remind one of Half Life, where we are projected *into* a character as opposed to *onto* a character. The game presents a hypothetical scenario where they sit you down, hand you a dossier and say, “You are part of *this* world, you have *these* skills and you will be recognized and fit into the society. How will you react/feel?” 

The Postcards on Artyom's Wall

Metro 2033 is one of the few examples of a game being improved by realism; this is mostly due to the game’s central tone of being the weakest in any and all potentially dangerous circumstances. Artyom is equipped with crude, homemade firearms and airguns, while all antagonistic organized groups are equipped with AK47s and mounted turrets; mutants are either incessantly tough or uncomfortably numerous, placing strain on a fairly modest supply of ammo compared to most shooters; and if the environment is devoid of enemies, you can guarantee that there will be radiation, the threat of falling into an abyss or just the cold, lonely wasteland, only livened up by howling winds and the roars of flying mutants in the distance.

The levels allow for scavenging and exploring- that’s how Artyom’s people can survive in the first place. This feature raises the question on whether or not Metro 2033 was meant to be an open-world situation like STALKER or Fallout as opposed to the linear experience it turns out to be. On the surface, the idea of having to spend military-grade 5.45mm (assault rifle) bullets on new weapons or extra supplies seems like the incorporation of an RPG element or paradigm; You find them all over the place, and society treats them as their main currency. I, however, like to think of the MGR as a unique gameplay system in and of itself. If you break the shops down into their base concept, you have a mode for acquiring upgrades. Without some form of economy or other system to directly relate the functionality of in-game currency to real-world currency, a money/shop system is no different from the system used in say, God of War where you use the souls you harvest from killing enemies to upgrade your favourite toys. Alternatively, you can choose to use your upgrade points as a temporary damage boost that can only be replenished through more exploring.

This works perfectly fine on paper- we’ve seen similar ideas in many games before this one, even if we haven’t made the connections. The point is: if the player CAN upgrade, they need to be able to acquire the means in one of two ways:

1) The core experience
2) The fringe gameplay elements

Scavenging is not part of the core experience, it merely contributes. If the core experience is to defeat enemies and follow a dark, miserable storyline; the player can achieve both organically from the gunfights and the setting. By using the exploration elements, the player can facilitate both by taking the time to scrounge and scrape up every bullet they can. The gripe I have with it, however, is that modded weapons can also be found through exploration. This doesn’t sound like a negative thing, but if you treat weapons as items rather than upgrades, it defeats the purpose of having MGR (military grade rounds) in the first place.

"Bullet Exchange!"

The only time it is ideal to actually spend your MGR is when given the opportunity to buy one of two unique armor upgrades, one of which unlocks a completely different style of gameplay. Because you can find your AK-2012s and awesome crossbow-minigun things, you never feel the need to actually spend your money on the more mundane upgrades, and the shops merely serve as a pre-adventure pit stop to make sure you have what you want before you move out.  For me, it devalued gold ammo, and I had a good 200-300 bullets just sitting there, making my bandolier look awesome (not really.) You can also spend bullets on extra provisions such as medkits or gas-mask filters; but because your health regenerates, and the game can’t force you into a situation where you can’t continue.

This is all so much fringe gameplay that is great to brag about, but is more suited to a game with a bigger world and overall, longer experience. Then again, the system does contribute to the overall charm and aesthetic, but it feels as though the developers didn’t get the opportunity to make the game they really wanted to make. To me it seems like Metro 2033 suffers from problems relating to the initial scope. It seemed like the development team was divided on the best way to convey Artyom’s experience to the player: a STALKER-inspired open world action RPG, or a focused horror-shooter with a linear plot and staged encounters.

Fortunately, Metro 2033 is getting a sequel; Metro: Last Light scheduled for 2013 with no hard date. Show some love and appreciation for a unique game with a lot of heart and go buy it. It’s available on Steam for $19.99 USD, or over XBLA on games on demand for $29.99 USD; if that’s too much, consider that you’ve probably paid a lot more for a lot less. If we show a budding development team enough support, maybe their resources will be able to expand, and with any luck, we’ll see their vision of creating immersive experiences flourish into some great titles.

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