Boy, these Ukrainians really love their nuclear-survival-horror themed shooters, don't they?
We're all aware of the flawed-but-fabulous S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise of course; Shadow of Chernobyl, Clear Sky, Call of Pripyat. Prior to the release of Shadow of Chernobyl, a collection of the original dev team from GSC Game World split off to start work on Metro 2033 - a (you guessed it) nuclear-survival-horror themed shooter. With this worryingly morbid take on the future, anyone would think the entire population of the Ukraine grew up in the aftermath of some terrible nuclear accident.
Not unlike a safety inspector at a Soviet-era nuclear facility, we haven't heard a great deal from this title. We're used to being hammered with all sorts of fluff from corporate spin machines, invariably promising everything from a universe in a box, to providing us with yet another opportunity to disregard anything Peter Molyneux says ever again. And whilst being hammered with fluff might sound like an average Tuesday evening in Henderson, it tends to become conspicuous by its absence. Which means we're now very interested indeed in Metro 2033.
The game is set in Moscow - more specifically, underneath Moscow, in the near future (possibly between 2032 and 2034). The premise is based on the factual evidence to suggest Stalin was actually a tyrannical badger - prior to, and during the second world war, the Moscow metro system was expanded and used as an air-raid shelter, with some underground stations located deeper than eighty metres below the surface of the city. Metro 2033 presents the suggestion that everything above ground has been trashed, so mankind has taken up residence in the underground system until the hangover passes. A concept anyone caught out after closing time on their London OE will be familiar with.
Our demonstration consisted of a look at the underground environment, and a brief sojourn topside to examine the radioactive aspects of gameplay. Our THQ representatives, being the hopeless romantics they are, opted to present the game with spoken Russian dialogue and English subtitles, and I can see why. Moving between each confined dugout listening to dishevelled figures lying prostrate on makeshift bunk beds, or hearing the hum of a dozen residents in a ramshackle bar speaking in their native tongue brings the game to life, and drops you right into a convincing world, elevating you to a position of implied importance. Such as it is, I suspect cruelly injecting English dialogue with a heavy Russian accent would quickly ruin the immersion, particularly when after a while I'd probably just picture them all as Borat in a mankini. Other people do that too, right?
Your navigation around this collection of human suffering is performed with two items - your clipboard (containing quest/mission information) and a compass that swings in whatever direction is required for you to complete your objective. Other interactive objects include a detection meter with a collection of lights that alternate between red, yellow and green, depending on whether you've been spotted by a enemy combatant, or worse, something decidedly non-human. You can also equip a gas mask which has the unnerving yet realistic habit of fogging up, thus affecting your field of view.
Our wanderings eventually lead us rail-side, where we were tasked with making it to another station a short distance along the track. Our vehicle was a kind of flat-bed unit with a couple of seats, and the latest in muscular controlled velocity enhancement technology. During the trip, our three companions laid out some of the narrative for us, before we were all overcome by a spinning blue orb, became unconscious, cut to a white-out scene with various dream-like images, then awoke to discover mutated dogs chasing our rail car and attempting to eat us. We did mention this game was made by the same people as Shadow of Chernobyl, didn't we?
Happily, the weapons pack a punch, and unloading both barrels of a 12-gauge into a dogs face is a pretty sure way of giving it a one-way ticket to canine heaven, along with putting a little back into the local economy in the form of dry cleaning costs. Bullets here are the base of the economy - you'll trade them, find them, steal them and give them away to homeless people during rare moments of altruism, one of which earned our THQ rep an achievement.
After our introduction to the subway system, and silently admiring the advanced technology employed by the Russians in the 1950's compared to our own railway infrastructure, we ventured out of one downtown environment to another. Heading to the surface, we donned our radioactive gear and prepared to move from building to building in order to achieve various objectives, bathed in the radioactive snow from the nuclear winter. It's here that you really begin to see the FPS elements come together, as wave after wave of mutated creatures appeared from the wreckage of the fallen city, each with an eye to seriously ruin your afternoon. Conservation of bullets is paramount - this isn't a run and gun - what we witnessed involved discipline, nuance, and extremely powerful weapons.
So what is Metro 2033? Is it S.T.A.L.K.E.R. for the console? Pripyat in Moscow? Yes, and no. It's undeniably similar to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. You'd have to be mad to not spot the lineage. But it also plays homage to other great titles such as Fallout 3, and the immensely popular Thief series. Hell, if you squint hard enough you can even see a bit of the Stalingrad campaign from Call of Duty in the outdoor environments. The Xbox 360 version looked and played smoothly, but for my money a game like this, with this sort of background would have to be played on the PC for maximum effect. Particularly if the DirectX 11 and 3D support ends up adding anything productive to the mix.
It's always tremendously difficult to judge a game based on a press demo, particularly when that game hasn't had a great deal of pre-release information spammed out to gaming communities. But I'm hooked, I want to see more - it's too intriguing to pass up at this stage, and I haven't said that about a strictly single-player game in quite some time.