Based on a Russian novel by Dmitry Glukhovsky, Metro 2033 is a FPS more concerned with atmosphere and worldbuilding than anything else. That leads to a bare-bones story, filled with paper-thin characters, that ends with an anti-war message that ultimately rings hollow and naïve. It succeeds where it tries to, but that is far from enough.
The world of Metro 2033 is its selling point. The setting is a post-apocalyptic Russia, where people were driven underground by hordes of devilish monsters and demons. They live in the subways, with scarce resources, and under constant attack of creatures and other desperate humans. The surface is radioactive, and the underground tunnels are dark and dangerous.
The protagonist is Artyom, a young Russian who is tasked to deliver a report about mysterious beings called “the dark ones” to a man named Miller. To that end, he must travel through the tunnels of Moscow’s metro system and escape the creatures that roam the place.
Artyom barely has a personality to call his own. In cutscenes, he almost never speaks, leaving all development to his narration at the beginning of each mission and the journals you find on the way. He is that type of character who is nothing but ordinary until his routine is shaken by an unfortunate incident that propels him to action. As Artyom explains in his narration: “Life was never easy in the tunnels, but it was our home. There was comfort in its routines, in seeing the same people day after day, but since the mutant attacks had escalated, fear ruled the station.”
During his travels he has to pass through dark, eerie tunnels, go back to the surface and try to survive the dead city of Moscow, and deal with other people in different stations. However, even with this promising setting, Metro 2033 falls short in the narrative department.
The games problems are easy to spot. The other characters Artyom meets are even blander then he is. They have no personal struggles or traits that standout. They are all of the same type: the rough soldier who doesn’t fear the monsters but end up being killed by them anyway. Their deaths, therefore, are meaningless. Whereas Artyom narrates that losing his companions shakes him to the core, the player is left with nothing to feel. Even their names start to fade away, and any player that manages to remember who Bourbon was by the end of the game deserves a silver trophy for the achievement.
The theme of Metro 2033 is a simple one: war is bad. The game shows a pessimistic view on human kind, depicting a species that is in constant battle with itself. While other stories use monsters as a common enemy that unite men despite their differences, Metro 2033 tells a story in which the monsters are a nuisance that doesn’t stop humanity from waging war against itself. As Artyom puts: “Even the apocalypse didn’t stop us from killing one another over ideology.” The demon threat helps making the act of fighting your peers seem foolish, but the problem is that the game’s narrative also starts to seem foolish when it decides to illustrate its point by inserting Nazism and Communism into the mix.
In Metro 2033’s world, there are Communist and Nazi settlements fighting each other underground. The narrative never goes deep in how this happened, though. To explain how their ideologies can survive in a demon-infested world is not one of the game’s priorities. The Nazis, for example, defended the idea of a pure race in a society based on eugenics. But discarding “lesser” individuals in a world where humanity is in the brink of extinction seems not only immoral and cruel, but also now devoid of any logic whatsoever. The game doesn’t deal with that because it doesn’t care about any ideology discussions at all: it only wants do demonize them. Artyom, for example, equates Nazis and Communists, telling he couldn’t see a practical difference in them: “The Reich is supposed to be a complete opposite of the Red Line… But why does it look so similar?” Later the protagonist even makes an absurd comment about both of them: “They are places that deem culture, art and science useless,” he says, basically neglecting the fact that culture, art and science were important tools used in both regimes.
To make matters worse, by defending the thesis that fighting over ideology is a bad thing, Metro 2033 actually – and I hope that is by accident – condemns fighting Nazis. The narrative doesn’t make exceptions in its “every war is bad” message, which even includes the monsters at the climax. For the game, ideology is not a thing worth fighting for, basically saying “Forget politics, let’s all just love each other”, without realizing that what it preaches is in itself a political message – and a very naïve one at that.
However, if the game falters when it comes to its story, it excels in atmosphere. The underground tunnels are dark and scary, filled with spider webs and eerie disembodied voices. There are tunnels no one dares to enter and others with dangerous, mysterious lights. The survival horror aspect of Metro 2033 is well done for the most part, with scarce resources and monsters that are quick and ferocious, making each level a frightening experience. When in the surface, players must also keep an eye on their air filters, for even breathing is deadly in Moscow, and thus search for more filters in the scattered bodies of the deceased becomes essential. Unfortunately, there are several shooting galleries spread throughout the game that break this horror atmosphere, besides obviously going against the whole “scarce resources” thing.
Metro 2033 is a FPS that wastes its potential, building a strong atmosphere that is ultimately sabotaged by a mediocre narrative and underdeveloped characters. Its setting is promising, but it can’t carry the whole game by itself.
March 16, 2019.
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