I didn’t know what to expect when I booted up Metro 2033. I had a vague idea of what the game was about, but I was excited to try a cult classic. After playing Metro 2033, I can see why it has a niche appeal. The best way I can describe it is that the game is an unpolished gem. It has a rough exterior: a handful of bugs, some mechanical missteps, and a lack of polish. But with a little refinement, this could have been a truly phenomenal game. It harbors an engaging atmosphere, tense environment, and an immersive gameplay loop.
You play as a young man living under Moscow after a nuclear war. The metro stations under the city have become one of the last bastions of civilization. Each station serves as a community, and the tunnels connecting them are the lifeblood of the few remaining people on the planet. People have separated into different factions and humanity has descended into tribalism. The radiation has caused new life to evolve, and these new monstrous beings are threatening the few communities that are left. The main character is tasked with traveling through the metro to inform one of the main factions that the threat of monsters is rapidly escalating, and something must be done.
Metro 2033 is both a survival horror game and a first-person shooter. The game has a heavy emphasis on limited resources. Gas mask filters, ammunition, and med-kits are the primary tools that you are going to need to survive. Mask filters in particular are critical: if you spend time in an irradiated area you need to have a working gas mask. You cannot purchase extra filters outside of the first station in the game, so you are obligated to scrounge and scavenge to survive. This is when the game is at its best. Creeping through dark and claustrophobic environments, not knowing what awaits around the corner builds tension and anxiety. There is a desire to move quickly, as to not waste precious air on your current filter. But you also want to be vigilant to collect any ammo and filters that may be lying around.
The feeling of tension permeates Metro 2033. You want to be stealthy and avoid enemies as to not waste ammo and med-kits. But go too slow and you may run out of filters. There is a brilliant dynamic at play. The seesaw between preserving filters and preserving other resources is rarely balanced, and depending on your current state in the game you may favor one thing far more than the other. During the starting sections of the game I took my time, avoiding enemies like the plague as to not waste precious ammo. As the game progressed, I accrued a small arsenal of ammunition but I was running out of working mask filters. I started to move more quickly, making use of my scavenged ammo to dispatch foes rather than avoid them.
One of the best aspects of Metro 2033 is its immersive nature. The HUD is fairly minimalistic, and only appears when it needs to. The setting, despite being a bit sci-fi, feels grounded in reality. The subways beneath Moscow were genuinely designed to act as shelters during the Cold War. The fact that factions have sprouted and are vying for control of the metro feels realistic and prompts me to wonder more about the game’s world. The scarcity of mask filters, the importance of ammunition, and a few other mechanics also immersed me in the gameplay. Instead of having a menu to display objectives and important information, the character keeps a journal that keeps all of those details. Light also plays an important role in the game. While you have a flashlight at your disposal, it must be kept charged. If you don’t have an opportunity to recharge it then you can always rely on the lighter to illuminate a small area. Metro 2033 is just filled with these minor details, but combined they equate to a genuinely immersive experience.
I loved the atmosphere and world of Metro 2033, but I wanted way more of it. As you travel through the metro you rarely spend more than a brief moment at each station. There is very little to explore or interact with at these hubs of human activity. I wish I could converse with some of the NPCs at these locations to get a deeper understanding of the game’s world. I would’ve loved to learn the ideology and genesis of each station’s community. Yet instead they act as fleeting seconds of respite between the dingy and claustrophobic tunnels between them.
Despite this game having some great ideas, they are buried underneath some frustrating technical issues. One particularly insidious bug was one that would stop text and dialogue from displaying, or cut it off short. While it was annoying to miss flavorful conversations because of this glitch, it was far more irritating when it led to me missing critical information. There were four instances that the game never displayed info that it was supposed to. It never showed how to charge the flashlight, it didn’t have text to prompt the player to use the lighter to burn cobwebs, and it never displayed the information on gas mask filters and how to change them. After a quick google search all of these things were supposed to be in the game, but just never initiated for me for whatever reason. Interestingly I played the game on the ‘Redux’ version, which is supposed to be a remaster. I’m not sure if this version causes this bug, or if it was something present in the original.
This same glitch led to my most aggravated moment while playing. In one part of the game, a character is supposed to tell you information on a new enemy type and how to deal with them. This new monster apparently can be avoided by staring them down, after a few seconds they will back away. However, if you look away or shoot at this enemy, they will immediately go on a rampage. I never got this important bit of info. The conversation never triggered. So, I fought these enemies as I would any other enemy. But these foes have enormous health pools and kill the player in a single hit. I would legitimately empty hundreds of rounds of precious ammo to no avail. After brute forcing my way through this section, I found out how it was supposed to be played. It was disappointing because I actually now think that these were an interesting enemy. They build anxiety and tension as you stare them down. But my experience was marred by a bug in the game.
My final issue with the Metro 2033 is that the game occasionally drifts away from its strengths. Most of the game can be played as a stealthy scavenger, but there are moments that just devolved into standard FPS gameplay. Metro 2033 is at its best when it is tense, gritty, and anxiety inducing. But it turns into a generic FPS when having to partake in extended firefights. Luckily this didn’t happen too often, but there were enough examples of this that I have to talk about it. The game’s actual FPS mechanics are passable, but they certainly aren’t its strength.
Metro 2033 is a lovable mess. Sure, it has plenty of technical issues, an unfinished world, and a few mediocre sections. But it also fosters some genuinely immersive gameplay and world design. The game attempts to make the player feel like they actually are the main character. It’s odd how such minor and seemingly important things can make a game feel so much more genuine. The diary, lighter, mask filters, minimalistic HUD, and flashlight all seem like they are just minor things but they are critical to making Metro 2033 feel immersive and realistic. Despite the game being a bit messy in its execution, I did enjoy my time with Metro 2033 and I am excited to play its sequels.