Monday, October 31, 2011

-REVIEW: Metro 2033-
a light in the darkness

Metro 2033
Developer: 4A Games
Release: $19.99 (PC, Steam)

Fear the future because let’s be honest, you don’t know how to shoot a gun

The hip thing to do nowadays is rag on shooters: they suck, they’re bland, they’re overdone, and they’re stereotypical, chauvinistic, and uncreative. They’re idiotic and simple, just like the people who enjoy them. There’s really no hope for them and they’re destroying what’s left of the integrity of video gaming as a whole. Shooters. What a waste.
But it’s actually this attitude that’s so wrong with shooters in the first place. It’s a form of racism. It’s as if a military simulator or a modern warfare shooter can’t possibly be good. It can’t possibly be deep, or complex, or sophisticated, or brainy, or emotional, or GOOD like what good seems to mean nowadays. Aside from the ridiculous assertions about what quality is in the current gaming age, this attitude that a shooter cannot be a decent game by virtue of it being a shooter is a sentiment that I simply don’t share, nor is it one that I think is productive when it comes to critiquing shooters. What is good and useful is an attitude that assumes possibilities in spite of realities and thereby is able to circumvent these unfounded stereotypes and hopefully create something that stays true to the gameplay while being something entirely different than what already exists.
It’s about art. It’s also about how art is made. Metro 2033 is Shooter Art.

It seems unfair to me to lay that statement on you without a bit of clarification on my part. I’m actually not arguing from thin air here (which would be the least appropriate way to compile an argument), but rather against an established sentiment that has rooted itself into modern “high gaming culture”. 
 The stance isn’t much more complicated than what I’ve presented in the first, but if I were pushed to elaborate I’d have to say that the sentiment is this: Shooters are too ubiquitous and therefore too easy to make, and therefore all shooters made in the modern age is either a rehash or derivative. There is no such thing as innovation in shooters, and therefore all shooters are not innovative, and therefore not good.

I’m probably simplifying the argument, but that’s basically because I totally disagree with it. It’s this kind of thinking that leads to conclusions like “video games are for kids” and “there’s no way that video games can be art.”  If it’s something we don’t accept from others in their evaluation of something we cherish, why would we let it infiltrate our own opinions of the media itself? Foolishness.
Shooters exist in the realm of video games, and the existence of bad shooters doesn’t automatically preclude the existence or possibility of a good shooter. It also doesn’t mean that a “good shooter” has to completely buck all the apparent tropes that are used and re-used in so many shooters out there. It’s actually the best compliment to say that a game is good because it uses those tropes to the best of their ability. This is what Metro 2033 accomplishes. And for this, it is good.

So while Metro 2033 does indeed plop us into the present (or rather, the hyper-present, better known as the “future”), it does a good job of doing it. While it does indeed outfit us with here-and-there, trite-and-true automatic rifles and long-barreled magnums, it does a good job of doing it. And while Metro 2033 does indeed employ the overused ESP-enabled protagonist obliviously born into an ESP-requiring situation, it does a damn good job of doing it.
Case in point, the gunplay in Metro 2033 is fantastic. So while you are indeed saddled with bland. uncustomizable modern-day assault rifles with a thoughtful and appropriate amount of post-apocalyptic grit on them, you get to use them in ways that have been incomprehensibly left out of previous shooters. Enemies adorned with piecemeal body armor can in fact have those pieces mealed right off, one bullet at a time.

The fidelity of the impact and effect of your bullets on everything from the weapons they carry, the gasmasks on their face and on their utility belts, and of course their soft, fleshy surfaces traverses on the believable, unbelievably. And even the effect of bullets on your soft, fleshy surfaces, in spite of being hampered by the unfortunate implementation of a forgiving regenerative health system, manages to look and feel more real than many games before it.
Of course, the implementation of effects like the cracked glass of your gas mask and the subtle buildup of condensation on surfaces as a response to weather could easily be gimmicky, but their avoidance of such is directly related to the believability of the story. Metro 2033 doesn’t disappoint here, either. As much as I have said things about narrative and its ilk and ills in modern gaming, Metro 2033’s narrative delivery (text and voice) and vehicle (the game) are used perfectly in context and with impeccable pacing.

It engages you right away, introducing the basic mechanics in a tense, yet manageable setting, only to lead to an enormous, ominous, and thrilling set piece that sets the stage for the game perfectly. And throughout the game, it manages the kinetic ups and downs and emotional highs and lows in a myriad of ways: coming to the surface for the first time in broad daylight is breathtaking, but completely and utterly horrifying, while moments underground, despite the viscous darkness surrounding you, can feel safe and secure. It masterfully employs everything from visual, aural, and verbal cues to give you the appropriate and necessary context for the situation you’re placed in.
 The entire backdrop for the game is also intensely realized: impressively bleak vistas above ground create a palpable contradiction to equally bleak corridors underground. And yet character interactions in both provide the strange, yet understandable paradox that drives the narrative forward. High fidelity set pieces make playing the game a visual delight, though some sections suffer from atmospheric overload via darkness. But the tie that binds this high-fidelity shooting simulation with this high-fidelity survival simulation is the story.

Sure, it’s yet another post-apocalyptic story based on yet another Russian author's work inspired by the barren radioactive remnants of his homeland, but it’s good. I hate to spoil anything, but it’s really the quality of the pacing that makes the story so enjoyable. Injecting nonessential dialogue into sections of restocking equipment (or “narrative lobbies”) keeps things well-rounded, but the magic is from the subtle narration that overlays each loading screen and how these touches make the soundless, player-controlled moments that match those words that much more meaningful. It’s a wonderful, effective use of game mechanics to create an engaging, impactful narrative without constricting the player.
What the story also does is provide a comfortable, if possibly necessary, amount of linearity to the game that, for me, was missed in games like STALKER and Fallout 3. And while I loved the openness of those games, they would have avoided much of their cumbersome travel and displaced pacing with a more scripted approach to the primary narrative. Of course, those games had different intentions, but Metro actually straddles both of these experiences by spacing out expansive open levels between claustrophobic corridor sections, and sprinkling a few on-rails sections to punctuate the experience.
Metro 2033 is worth playing. It is a shooter, yes, but it’s a shooter with heart. It takes the idea of shooting and it develops it, making it not something else, but in fact more what it ought to be. It’s an enjoyable, real, and serious contemplation of what shooting means, but it also manages to be thoughtful, entertaining, and easy to get into. Even if you’re not a fan of shooters, you owe it to the genre, and yourself, to play it.