It's the year 2033, 20 years since nuclear holocaust ravaged the earth, rendering the surface uninhabitable. When the city of Moscow raised the alarm, its citizens had 7 minutes to make it to safety and head to the only place strong enough to face both the blast and the fallout. Today 40,000 survivors exist in the subterranean world of the Moscow underground system; built by the communist regime to double as a giant nuclear bunker for the people and the military to survive in.
Now every station on each line exists as its own mini-state under local rule be that democratic, fascist, anarchic or unspeakably devoid of any kind of remnant of humanity whatsoever. They survive in this dark world in a makeshift fashion by engineering whatever they need from the supplies already down there and scraps gathered from the toxic surface during the short, gas mask-clad visits they dare to make. This is the world of Metro 2033 and where this excellent looking cinematic survivor first person shooter is set.
The story of this game, the setting and all the characters are the creation of Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky, who wrote the book of the same name, and this Xbox and PC title set for release on 19 March is all the richer for it. All too often, games inspired by fiction are usually from films and usually to cash in on Hollywood success. Coming direct from a novel and the wealth of detail therein, Metro 2033 becomes so much more than a FPS glued together with a loose plot and a series of uninspiring cutscenes.
The protagonists have personality and charm, the context of each level makes perfect sense and the story is the gaming equivalent of a page turner. It's perhaps the only shooter we've ever seen that's almost as enjoyable for the spectator as it is for the player.
From the levels we played of the preview code, Metro 2033 offers an excellent mixed approach to this genre of gaming. The first real stage of action takes place with three survivors plus you, the hero, Artyom, beginning a journey to the centre of the underground to warn all the stations of a scourge of mutant creatures capable of psychic attack on the survivors.
For one reason or another, you end up taking the spooky service tunnel where the Dark Ones, as they're known, attack (surprise surprise) and the game turns quite literally into a rail shooter where you get to open up both barrels off your sawn-off shotgun. There's still plenty of crouching down in rooms full of crates shooting at men in uniform for the more traditional FPS action, but what the game seems to do well is mix it up quite nicely with the story scenes which are both playable, to a degree, and thoroughly entertaining too.
The real joy of the game, though, is the total immersion in which you can play it. The post apocalypse world of Metro 2033 is utterly believable and you get a true sense of the life in the new underground that the book conveys. The atmosphere is created by more than just the odd monster jumping out to surprise you. The soft shadow detail, the drifting semi-transparent dust and real-time reflections in glass and water are an excellent addition courtesy of the 4A Engine on which the game runs. There's the odd jerky piece of action and miss-rendering of objects relative to one another in some of the cutscenes, but not during the action levels.
The sounds in the game were probably the highlight for us though. The moaning and creaking of the pipes of this weathered underground world twist beautifully with half-heard conversations of horror bending down the train tunnels and into the darkness. It's a perfect accompaniment to the hanging mists in the half light and the calls of terror when the monsters attack.
Throw in some excellent almost Steampunk style weaponry - including the side loading Bastard Gun famous for its terrible aim, constant jams and over-heating - a wrist watch for timing how long you can spend up on the surface, and some enjoyable, if ever so slightly dodgy, Russian accents, and you've got what looks to be a really good game. It will work with Nvidia's 3D system, if you fancy, but from what we saw it doesn't really add anything to the experience - except a bit of a headache from going cross-eyed at the gun situated front and centre of the field of view.
There's still a little way to go before the final version arrives, but what we've seen rather knocked our socks off and should do the same for even the more jaded first person shooter players. The story is nothing short of compelling, the game play challenging, enjoyable and varied enough to keep you interested, and the look and feel is as good as you'll find anywhere. Even the Dark Ones have an originality of movement about them that seems to separate this game from more run of the mill offerings.
Once you add on the extra GPU power of running Metro 2033 on the PC, then it'll probably be as smooth throughout as it deserves to be. As one games journalist at the preview said "It's got 'sleeper hit' written all over it". We'd have to agree.