Thursday, May 01, 2014

It's An Apocalyptic Future! So I'll Be Killing Monsters, Then

I mentioned last week that I was playing a first-person shooter as well as a Sonic game. The time has come to discuss the shooter. I picked up Metro: Last Light over the winter, on the basis of a lot of positive reviews. But in the process of reading those reviews, I learned it was a sequel to a less-heralded game, Metro 2033. So I figured I better beat that first.

Metro 2033 takes place in a Russian Metro in, you guessed it, 2033. Humanity did the whole nuclear apocalypse thing, and what's left moved underground. Communities are now long-established in various metro stations, and people do their best to eke out an existence, using leftover military-grade ammunition as currency. Not because it's plentiful, or unnecessary, but because it's rare, and valuable for its killing power compared to the watered down "dirty" rounds they are able manufacture. While some of the threat is other people - besides bandits, the Nazis and Communists have revived their old animosities - but there are a lot of other things out there now as well. And those things just keep coming, gradually overrunning the various stations.

The main character is Artyom, a young man living in the Metro of Exhibition, where his father is the boss, but where his father also seems to be losing hope theyy can survive. When his father is visited by a Ranger named Hunter, Artyom is impressed by the guy's determination. Hunter heads off on a mission, and tells Artyom to deliver a message to a Colonel Miller in Polis related to some strange creatures called the Dark Ones if Hunter doesn't return.

Hunter did not return.

I expected the trip to Polis to be quick, settled early in the game, and for the majority of the story to involve Artyom running around with the Rangers, trying to carry out Hunter's ideas. In reality, I was over halfway through the game before reaching Polis. I think the point was Artyom had never been outside Exhibition, so this was a way for us to see more of the world as it was at the same time he did. That gives the player the opportunity to make some choices, and those factor in to how the game can end.  Still, at a certain point I began to wonder if we'd ever reach Polis. It seemed like Artyom would meet someone who would help him, we'd fend off a lot of monsters, the other person would die or go in a different direction. Then I'd meet another person, we'd fight some more monsters, they might die or go a different direction. Eventually I'd seen enough of people struggling to survive and killing each other senselessly.

The game is divided into 7 chapters (plus a Prologue), and the chapters all have multiple sections, missions roughly. Some of the missions can be very long, some are incredibly short. One mission was literally to walk around a Ranger base, talk to a couple of people, and grab as many guns and ammo as you could. Congratulations, on to the next section! So the pacing is strange. You can't tell when it's going to be something easy like that, or a level where you're stuck wandering through the slaughtered remains of a station, fending off what look like giant, shaved rats.

Along with all the first-person shooting, there's the occasional quick-time button-tapping thing, and a little bit of jumping and stealth action. I continue to not really enjoy stealth in a first-person perspective. The human enemies aren't geniuses, but they will notice if you make nose, and sometimes they notice if you put out a light. One annoying thing I found was if I die in a hail of gunfire, and the last checkpoint is near that spot, when I load and resume playing, the enemies behave as though they remember they just killed a guy there, and they really ought to go check and see if he magically reappeared. So I'm immediately under attack again. I ended up just starting an entire mission over in one case because the checkpoint I was stuck at left me kind of screwed.

The ammunition-as-currency idea is kind of interesting. If I play through it again, I'll probably hold off on buying any improved weapons. There are plenty of dead people with better guns out there to steal from. Plus, I ought to save the military-grade ammo for killing things, because the dirty rounds suck. I didn't really love any of the guns, honestly, both in terms or reload times and stopping power. Which means they were more realistic, but it's hard to see that as a good thing when you're being torn to pieces by something you've already shot 5 times in the head with a shotgun at point-blank range. Fall down already! It wasn't uncommon that I'd empty one gun into an enemy, and either it didn't die, or there were more right there, so I'd just pull out the next gun because there wasn't time to reload. And then the next gun, and then. . . I was out of loaded guns.

The other characters are not the deepest, but some of them are enjoyable. Ulman in particular, is the funnyman character, always pissing off his commander with stupid jokes. It's not whistling through the graveyard, so much as gallows humor. He doesn't see any reason not to make stupid jokes. Which does feel appropriately Russian somehow, that grim humor where they briefly acknowledge and then brush off their likely impending deaths.

Most of the time, Metro 2033 is a conventional horror shooter, where it's tense rather than scary as you try and retreat long enough to reload and kill the large creatures charging you, or you're waiting for the next attack. Occasionally it moves into creepy territory. A lot of that is the remains of civilization, both the things you'd expect to see (abandoned trains, corpses), and things you might not. Like ghosts. And then there are the things that came about after the apocalypse. Not the monsters -  those are freaky, but that's still that tense struggle to survive - but there's a glowing ball of something that roams the tunnels incinerating everything. No idea what it is. I actually wish it had shown up a little more often, randomly, just as a bit of flavor. Though after the fifth time it surprised me and I died, I'd probably change my tune.

The missions on the surface are maybe the perfect example. It's a world Artyom has never known, but what ought to be a better place to be than the claustrophobic tunnels full of monsters, is actually worse. There are huge winged creatures that land randomly and briefly attack you if you're within reach. Then they fly off. Why? No idea. There are pools of irradiated water to avoid, and the air is toxic. You have to wear the gas mask constantly, which means you have to worry about having enough filters for it, and make sure it doesn't get too damaged to use. Unless you're shooting at some screeching monster, the world is silent except for the sound of Artyom's breathing. It's an empty, almost completely hostile landscape. But the strangest part was on my first trip there, the monsters were everywhere, and yet I could repeatedly walk by them without incident. I couldn't believe they didn't notice, which made me wonder why they weren't attacking. Had these always been on the surface, and didn't know humans were something to eat? Was it because I didn't shoot them first? It really gives a feeling of a world I and Artyom don't understand.

I feel the scenes in Artyom's head are meant to work the same way, but they're less effective, mostly because Artyom doesn't comment on him. Admittedly, he never responds to anything other characters say to him - his only dialogue comes in the loading screen for each mission - but even there, he doesn't note the experiences, or the fact that he seems immune to these phenomena that render other people helpless. The idea of these weird occurrences works, like the references to strange stations we never see, for making the world seem larger and stranger. But the way the occurrences play out, don't work as well. Creepy fog sounds cool, but in practice, not as much.

It's an up-and-down game. Sometimes the atmosphere is really good, tense, the world feels real (depressing), and the shooting can be fun. Other times, it feels kind of silly or needlessly drawn out.

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