Try to imagine living in a world where you’ve never gazed into a sunny blue sky, never felt a cool fresh breeze through your hair or even tasted clean, fresh water. Where all you’ve ever known is a harsh Morlock existence as humans eke out a meagre survival in the dark underground tunnels of a ruined Metro system – the last bastion of human civilisation; where the surface is a ruined wasteland and the very air and unfiltered sunlight of a nuclear winter kills those foraging for supplies unprotected; where you constantly battle hideous mutants and the next twisted stage of human evolution – psychic mutants known as the ‘Dark Ones’, who intend to see us go into extinction one bloody death at a time…
This harsh future is the backdrop for Metro 2033, the forthcoming FPS from Ukrainian developer 4A Games based on the novel of the same name by novelist Dmitry Glukhovsky. Perhaps it’s an interesting symptom of their chequered history, but it’s hard to find people that can spin a darker yarn than the Russians. Their literature of recent years, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, has proven a good source of dystopian science-fiction material for games. After all, they are a nation that underwent the turmoil of their own failed 20th Century utopian experiment – and still bear the scars.
When we asked Metro 2033’s creative director Andrew Prokhorov if he felt the game’s resulting dark tone might be a product of the post-Soviet condition during a recent trip to see it, he laughed, “That’s a question for the psychologists! How the Soviet Union, and the devastation of the Soviet Union have influenced it, I really don’t know. I started creating a scenario for a game set in a post-nuclear world, showed it to my friend, and he asked if I’d read [Metro 2033] on the internet. I read it and the same evening said to him, 'Let’s make a game.'” But Prokhorov admits Metro 2033’s world, with its tagline ‘Fear The Future’ certainly isn’t a happy one. “I have two children, and maybe my next game will be something bright and happy!”
In many ways Metro 2033 reminds us of dystopian Russian shooter S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow Of Chernobyl, and Prokhorov freely admits its influence. “The Ukrainian games industry is not that developed. It’s very incestuous,” he says. “In the amount of time that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was being developed, if you were a game developer in the Ukraine there’s a good chance you worked on S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. It’s one degree of separation and certainly not any more than that.”
But unlike GSC Game World’s open-world FPS/RPG hybrid, 4A Games is crafting a much tighter-focused linear FPS experience akin to Half-Life 2 and BioShock. In fact the developer cites them directly as influences, which is brave given the calibre of those titles, but it certainly rings true in Metro 2033’s atmosphere. PC gamers are in for a treat if 4A Games can pull off everything it’s trying to do.
In Metro 2033 nuclear disaster has totally destroyed the world, but fortunately that proudest of Soviet achievements – the Moscow Metro – proved to be an amazing bomb shelter, and it’s here that the remnants of human civilisation survive. The Metro has evolved into a system of station cities. Twenty years after the disaster, survivors still need to forage the poisoned ruins for supplies and ammunition that can’t be created in the Metro.
Metro 2033 casts you as Artyom, a young survivor of the disaster raised by his step-father in Exhibition Station. He’s a dreamer who can’t remember life before the disaster, but yearns for that lost age. Having never left Exhibition Station, he’s inspired when an old friend of his step-father’s, Hunter, arrives with a warning that the Metro stations have to unite to survive the genocide threat of the Dark Ones. When Hunter fails to return from a dangerous mission, Artyom decides to finish his work by going out to unite the Metro Cities – with the final goal of reaching Polis, the most powerful station.
We experienced several sections of his odyssey, starting near the game’s opening towards the story’s end, pitting him and a group of survivors against a huge number of mutants, before flashing back to just before he left Exhibition and seeing various combat set pieces throughout the game. We got a real sense of just how 4A Games is crafting a very tightly scripted set piece and story-driven shooter. To be honest the scope of the novel could have provided very fertile ground for an RPG, but according to its author – who was partly inspired by his time living in the constant bomb-threatened Jerusalem – a shooter fits his dark post-apocalyptic story rather well.
“Actually, if you consider the book formally it’s constructed like a shooter,” Glukhovsky told us, “even though it’s [written in] third-person, you follow the main character step-by-step, you know everything that’s happening in his head, so it’s a lot like first-person. It takes place inside tunnels, he’s fearing or fighting monsters, so thinking of turning that into a computer game is an automatic thing.”
That came across during our time with Metro 2033 and its combat is designed to immerse you into this world, so the developer has done away with the HUD. Everything you use is visually represented and must be taken out and used in real-time. Even your weapons show you their ammo stocks. In a similar vein, being on the poisoned surface of the world, you need to wear a gas mask with a limited filter. As you peer through its slowly fogging eye holes you continually need to peer at your watch, which indicates how much time the filter has left. Changing filters isn’t a mere inventory switch – there’s actually a whole canned animation.
If you’re on the surface in a fight and you reach that point, changing your mask can get you killed. “We wanted to create an atmosphere of panic,” explains Prokhorov. “If this happened in the real world, it would be like this,” he says of the survival-horror vibe both above and below ground. “The atmosphere is very believable.” While it’s still early days, combat can be a little unforgiving – especially when fighting the powerful mutants and psychic Dark Ones. Even your health packs are manually administrated, and the game’s pre-disaster weapons have long reloading sequences. Scarce ammo for these weapons in Metro 2033 is literally your life blood as you’ll not only defend yourself with it, but use it as a form of currency. So when you go up against mercenaries who skulk through the tunnels or rival Metro City soldiers, their bodies need to be looted – a whole economy revolving in the shadow of the gun.
We got a chance to experience that economy in the flashback immediately following the climactic opening battle, taking us back to Artyom’s preparation for his journey out of Exhibition Station. We very much enjoyed the Metro Station parts of the game – it’s here in the marketplaces and living areas that Metro 2033 most shows the promise of a unique experience. Life in the Metro Cities is very atmospherically presented. While we got to play some great combat set pieces, it was here in the remnants of human life that the ruined world of Metro 2033 particularly came to life. The developer has managed to capture some of the human spirit, and our ability to ‘normalise’ whatever situation we find ourselves in. It was the perfect counter-point to the game’s claustrophobic combat, and if all the Metro Cities are this well presented with the conversations and characters you meet, they could rival places like Half-Life 2’s City 17 or BioShock’s Rapture.
The team have also developed their own 4A Game engine to deliver the immersive world of Metro 2033. “I understand from a financial perspective why people would use pre-developed engines, but if you have the technology to make your own it doesn’t make any sense to do anything else,” executive producer Dean Sharpe explains. The PC is the lead format on Metro 2033, and that version of the game is looking beautiful – with the team stressing that this won’t be a console game just ported to PC. There’s the promise of something darkly special with Metro 2033, and certainly Glukhovsky, who was cautious about who he could trust to turn his story into a game, is enthused with the developer’s take on it.
“What I have seen from THQ and 4A is very original work, very authentic work, and very enthusiastic work. There’s an incredible feeling of atmosphere and the spirit of the novel.” We agreed, and with its PC-led development, tense claustrophobic action set pieces and fantastic atmosphere tied together by some very dramatic storytelling.