Metro 2033, while flawed, was one hell of a satisfyingly hardcore kick up the arse. A bleak-but-beautiful post-apocalyptic FPS-cum-survival-horror-cum-stealth-game-cum-survival-sim-RPG, it was as unapologetically demanding as it was viscerally and emotionally satisfying. It didn't always execute its ideas well enough to be the monster hit it could have been, but it was one hell of a refreshing break from the auto-piloted, scripting-obsessed killing-by-numbers that has typified much of this generation. But the best bit?
The best bit is that it's spawned a sequel, coming to PC, Xbox 360 and PS3, that's looking better in every way. I know because I've seen it. Here's why it's shaping up to be the palate-cleanser that the CoD-weary have been thirsting for.
Playing on auto-pilot will send you into a nose-dive
In most mainstream FPS, the biggest piece of tactical management you’ll have to deal with is deciding whether the mob of surging mooks in front of you warrants a shot from the grenade-launcher or not. Think in such a single-mindedly gung-ho way in Metro and you will die quickly. And most of the time it won’t even be direct combat that will get you killed. Like the first game, Metro: Last Light is as much survival sim adventure as it is shooter. Moreso, in fact. Thus, you’ll have to manage yourself and your equipment like an F1 pit crew manages a car, via constant reappraisal of your situation and your actions on a moment-to-moment basis.
Particularly dark tunnel coming up? Better make sure your torch battery is charged. By the way, doing so requires the pumping of a manual hand-crank, which takes the place of your gun when in use. Plan your juggling wisely. Making a trip across the poisonous atmosphere of the surface? Better stick your gas mask on. But keep an eye on that timer on your wrist. It’ll tell you how long the current filter is going to last before you have to install a new one (provided you’ve found a spare). And keep an eye on those cracks in the visor. If that thing breaks you’re screwed.
And you might want to be careful about getting too shotgun-happy up-close. Blood spatters on the visor will block your view this time around. You can manually wipe them off, but it takes time. Time you might need to reload. Or fire. Or change a gas mask filter. Oh yeah, and make sure to pre-emptively burn away those big spider webs when you spot them. If one of those suckers gets on your visor, that’s another thing you’ll have to deal with. While reloading. And changing a gas-mask filter. And wiping blood off your mask.
This is a real journey, not a checklist of locations
Call of Duty plotting, let’s face it, is now much more reminiscent of the blue-screen scene from Wayne’s World than anything resembling an actual causal narrative. A stream of unrelated locations fly past as unrelated things explode in unrelated ways, giving the story the same jumpy, schizophrenic feel of a particularly militaristic episode of Family Guy. (“Peter! This is just like that time we took down the Ghanaian militia after blowing up that Antarctic missile silo!”). CoD might be one of the best-travelled series in history in term of geographical area covered, but there’s never any sense of an actual journey.
Metro aims to be the antithesis of that. It understands that the journey itself, with its sense of progress, discovery, personal accomplishment and growth, is why travel matters. You don’t get half as much out of going somewhere unless you actually experience getting there. Thus, while it won’t cover seven continents in six hours, Metro will make every step of its journey matter by putting you on one, long, continuous voyage from its start of the game to the end. In terms of making Metro a significant experience, that will have a much more powerful effect than you might expect.
It goes for poignancy, not hollow spectacle
Speaking of powerful, at this point I need to highlight how differently Metro looks to treat the big cinematic moments (such as they are). Consider the psychic flashback protagonist Artyom suffers while exploring the wreck of a crashed aircraft. We suddenly find ourselves high in the sky in the cockpit of the pre-smashed plane. The cabin is packed with the previously fleshy, living breathing versions of the present day charnel piles we’ve just walked through in the current timeline. All is going well (for Metro’s shit-heap world, anyway) for a few moments, but then suddenly there’s a flash.
The plane’s instruments and controls go resolutely to cock and the craft’s nose starts to dive. After a few moments ploughing through the blinding, dirty cotton wool of the cloud layer we burst through and finally witness the cause of our plight. The entire cityscape of pre-apocalypse Moscow is spread out below us, but amongst its opulent towers now stand thinner, glowing spires, made of the flame and vapour trails of a salvo of missiles launching into the sky as the city makes its last stand against an incoming nuclear strike.
There’s no explanation for any of this. No known enemy to rail against. No dramatic build-up. Just the sight of the inevitable playing out ahead of us on a grand scale. The plane continues to dive. A mournful, ambient soundscape begins to build as we continue to fall. There’s no Michael Bay gosh-wow factor here. No rousing catalyst for a big third-act fight back. Just an overpowering blend of the awe and fatalistic sadness. And then the scene ends, and we’re returned to the quiet, mundane greyness of the present.
But despite this, don’t expect Metro to be a game of glorified cut-scene gameplay and auto-playing set-pieces. Because…