I expected Metro 2033, which casts a fragmented Russian society into its underground system after some sort of big nuclear scuffle, to constantly tease the player with the idea of going to the surface. My money was on your character briefly popping his head out into the big wide world as an end-game showcase, a grand bit of scene-setting for a potential sequel down the line. I was wrong. Metro 2033 opts to start with your character fighting for his life in the hostile outdoor conditions of a Russian nuclear winter.
Maybe it's an early game thing, I thought; a bit of va-va-voom to rev your engine and get you pumped, the developers deciding it might be nice to show instead of tell about how horrid the world's become. All things considered it's a ghastly place, and that's before you take into account the many mutants, with ravaged architecture and bleached colours only viewable through the fractured glass of a scavenged and overworked gas mask. Over the course of a two-hour session with the game I'd popped up to the surface a second time, only now outside of the comforting arms of a friendly opening sequence and in the game good and proper - where you need to keep looting filters for your gas mask from the bodies of the dead, meaning you always need to keep moving - the world seemed even more inhospitable. This isn't a Moscow for humans anymore: the mutants have most definitely taken over.
The mutants have done a pretty good job of taking over the Metro system, too, leaving the human survivors low in number and splintered off into various factions. There's no form of government, and instead each station forms a series of uneasy alliances with their fellow survivors more intricate than a map of the underground system itself. At the far ends of the political spectrums are the stations housing fascists and communists, these areas littered with enough shady nooks to facilitate any decent shooting title. Phew.
And shoot you will. While the game has been frequently compared to the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, its only real similarity is in its ability to conjure up an environment well and truly flattened by disaster. There's no open world elements tied together by a complex series of AI routines, for instance; Metro 2033 is about as linear and scripted as they come. Your only respite from pumping bullets into faces - both of regular human and gnarly, distorted mutant variety - comes from brief jaunts through friendly stations, perusing the catalogue of shattered, broken souls that cling on to existence in these dilapidated shanty towns. And also the odd bit of shopping to upgrade your guns.
The game's based on the cult Dmitry Glukhovsky novel of the same name, and the author is more than happy to see his universe crossover: "when you start imagining a world, and then you see people getting interested in this world, as readers, then you see people getting so much interested they want to dedicate, like, five years of their life to fulfil it, to draw it, to make it a game. It's incredible. And when you finally, after several years of wait, see all that becoming a real visible, tangible, visual world, a real world, to live in - that's an absolutely incredible feeling."
It's a cruel world. Artyom is an orphan in his twenties, born on the surface just before the catastrophic nuclear attacks but too young to remember what the world was like before everything went to pot. The game tells us how he yearns for a world outside of the confines of his home station, which I'm sure everyone who commutes on a daily basis can at least partially empathise with.
Like many post-apocalyptic works, there's a sense of Metro 2033 being driven by contemporary politics. "Back in Russia", explains Dmitry, "over the last decade, we've got a feeling we're returning back to the Cold War. We've got this new arms race with the US; all the missile defence shields being installed in the former Soviet Republics, which is quite threatening. We're not developing our nuclear arms any longer, we don't have plans to invade Europe anymore - and still we're getting surrounded". It's a situation that could, in Dmitry's mind, "go off at any time". Crikey.
Despite the woe, the game pictures the surviving pockets of humanity, or at least the ones that aren't desperately trying to kill everyone else, as a society bound together with camaraderie: groups of people sit around telling stories, playing instruments, knocking back dodgy brands of vodka and engaging in lively banter. One of the early cut-scenes has a character musing over the near-certainty of humanity's imminent extinction, declaring he'll survive for as long as he possibly can. How Russian: if the game were set in smouldering ruins of the Hammersmith & City Line I doubt its inhabitants would be able to muster up such enthusiasm for soldering on.
The highlight of the first few levels is a trip to a neighbouring station. For a game set predominantly in an underground rail network it's more than a little ironic to see that one of society's major problems is transportation: people ferry themselves around, with great difficulty, on little handcars. Artyom's role is an armed guard, so you're lucky enough to get to sit back and watch a hitchhiker push the car up to a checkpoint, where the group is diverted through a tunnel and inadvertently into some spooky goings-on. Ghosts of dead children stride past, everything gets a little ethereal and then the whole group is knocked unconscious by a swirling blue anomaly. As you wake up, you realise you're being attacked by swarms of mutants and need to carefully manage a bevy of shotgun blasts to navigate your way to safety.
The shotgun's novel in its approach to double-barrels: pull the left trigger to let rip the left barrel, yank the right to unload the right or wham them both down to unleash hell. Metro 2033's weapons are, for the most part, custom pieces built from the scraps of salvageable items found from the surface that, in terms of functionality, fit the standard shooter moulds of pistol/submachine gun/assault rifle. When a character entrusts you with his prize AK further into the game, you'll cling onto it tighter than a Buzz Lightyear toy circa 1995.
Ammo conservation is vital to prolonged survival as it's bloody hard to come by. You'll find yourself looting the corpses of everyone you kill for poxy handfuls of rounds, and it's often a little bit annoying that the game refuses to automatically pick up ammo for you. There are also stealth elements - with the game sporting some crafty AI - to consider, and while it's more than possible to channel the spirit of Duke Nukem and put the smack dab on all kinds of ass, the general lack of bullets forces you to play the game with a little more reserve.
The feeling such mechanics evoke tends to swerve from a desperate, nail-biting struggle for survival in a world that clearly hates you to general frustration. Sometimes it feels like a bit more of a hindrance than it's worth, and in a few instances I was reloading from a checkpoint only to find myself lacking the sufficient amount of bullets and gas mask filters to get to the next. Your last resort is the knife, but it's a bit useless so you won't want to be forced into having to kill anything with it.
Such scarcity does help represent the significance of the game's shiny golden bullets. These are vintage pre-war ammunitions, and they're so valuable they're used as in-game currency alongside their ability to dish out extra damage when shot out of your guns. It's disheartening to be forced into firing them, especially when you're trying to save up for a sweet-looking scope for your rifle.
Publishers have a habit of putting out games based on blockbuster movies and action-packed TV shows, but titles based on books are still a bit of a rarity. "Getting your book turned into a computer game is actually very beneficial for the book", Dmitry reminds us. He has a point: anticipation for the game's release has finally allowed his novel to be translated into English for the first time.
From what I've seen so far, Metro 2033's intriguing setting looks like the game's standout feature. This is a dystopian world steeped in the same kind of quintessential otherness that made Rapture a compulsory destination a few years ago, which certainly bodes well for the game's prospects. Metro 2033 looks like a traditional shooter romp through an entirely unique setting, and a journey that looks like it might be essential.
Thanks to Dmitry Glukhovsky for taking the time to talk to us. Metro 2033 is released for 360 and PC on 19th March 2010.