31 January 2014

Post Thoughts: Metro 2033

I finished my playthrough of Metro 2033 today and had to write up my thoughts ASAP lest it be forgotten along with a few other 'Post Thoughts' posts I've got lined up in draft form back here in the editing room. As usual - spoilers from here on out!


Don't you just love industrial decay?

Being based on a book series the story and backstory in Metro is pretty fleshed out. In fact I think that the overall story in the game, though told in a very straightforward and simplistic manner, is perfectly suitable for consumption and I would class it on the level of a Hollywood summer blockbuster in terms of quality and intricacy. 

There's not really much to discuss about the story in and of itself as it is so simplistic and an almost classic "Hero's journey" - you set out on a journey through a call to arms by a mentor figure, overcome several obstacles, receive secret information and then achieve the final goal depending on how you, the player, ultimately decide things should play out.

The morality system (which I'll discuss below in the mechanics section) gives the possibility of two endings. However, only one of the endings is considered canonical as the sequel follows on from this: the 'bad' ending. Strangely though, it's easier to get more positive moral points than negative and, as such, just being a bit curious throughout the game will net you the 'good' ending, which I quite liked as that last scene gives you some agency in the decision. I think it's a bit strange that the canonical ending is opposed to the one that I would imagine most players experienced.

As for agency, well, despite having that morality system in place, the player doesn't get much agency at all. In fact there are many plot progression points that require NPC intervention and also many fire fights that will result in the same way whether the player participates or not. This is disappointing and confusing for the player because the design is very inconsistent on these two points and I don't remember a single instance of the current requirement being communicated to you.

"This time, I'll open it for you. Next time? Maybe I expect YOU to open it for me!"

An example of this is when you're with a group of NPCs that you're working with to travel through some tunnels. You proceed through several encounters whereby it doesn't make sense for the player to even shoot any bullets as all the enemies will be taken care of in a scripted manner (either that or the NPCs are invulnerable), but then the next encounter all of your comrades can be overwhelmed and killed... then, directly following that encounter, despite you being out in front, spotting the next single enemy first and shooting it enough to kill it, the script says that it has to dramatically pounce on one of your companions and kill him. It's a real mish-mash of player agency and I feel it really damages the game because of this inconsistency.

Other times you're waiting for NPCs to help you out of situations but then very rarely (and it is the exception) the player is expected to do something with no prompting (like shoot out a beam blocking a door that had magically closed itself as you approached)...


The character acting is the weakest part of the game - I think mainly because I would consider Metro a double A (AA) game rather than a triple A (AAA) title. Artyom doesn't speak except in the interludes between levels - which I actually think is a nice touch and allows the player to get into the head of the character they're playing - and the dialogues, motivations and lives of the other characters are largely opaque. That's not necessarily a bad thing as, travelling to a new place for a few hours won't get you that in real life either and it may be entirely on purpose to give the player a sense of being on a rollercoaster towards whatever end will occur and having no way to change the events that will occur... which actually makes the 'bad' ending make much more sense.

This guy is still trying to contact people out in the wastes! How many years has it been?

The game world is also pretty heavily fleshed-out, with the stations having a good amount of logic and character laid onto them. You see actual families, (children, women) authority and clerk-type figures as well as food production, bartering and political systems that would be needed to sustain some semblance of a society in this situation. A lot of love went into filling the spaces of the stations out and it shows.


Metro 2033 has a lot of interesting design decisions in this area. The first is having the 'old world' bullets as currency is very interesting - they're also more powerful than the reconditioned ammo that the denizens of the metro stations make in their stead. Though, I have to say that I never really noticed much difference in practise... However, that might be due to the second interesting design decision: difficulty settings.

The difficulty settings are rather strange in this game - there are three normal style difficulties, with a twist, and two 'Ranger' difficulty settings.

The normal difficulties decrease the amounts of consumables in the game (i.e. bullets and filters) but also increase the amount of damage that everyone does. So, interestingly, easy might provide you with lots of ammo and let you take a lot of damage but then, so too, do the enemies. Normal and Hardcore then switch the settings around making you more vulnerable to damage whilst increasing the enemies'. The Ranger settings are completely different in game style - these make damage output very high but make everyone very fragile whilst also increasing enemy alertness and reducing the amount of consumables in the game compared to the equivalent normal setting.

I played on the Ranger Easy setting for this playthrough and found it mostly at about the right level of difficulty and gameplay preference.

Back to that 'bullets as currency' thing. It's an interesting concept but one that probably on the face of things doesn't hold up to thoughtful scrutiny. First off, there's a lot of fighting going on down in those metro tunnels. I highly doubt that using good ammo as currency would last for very long before being replaced by something else. Secondly, there really isn't a lot of reconditioned ammunition in the game. Yes, you can buy a lot from vendors but otherwise you don't pick up that much and I would think that the ratio would be much higher than it was for me. Overall, it doesn't really affect the game that much on the difficulty I chose to play on - it might on the normal difficulties due to enemies being bullet sponges

Next up is the gas mask and filters. There are areas of the game where the air is toxic (such as on the surface) and, putting aside the fact that this doesn't really make much sense as air mixes and the metro stations and tunnels are not and could not be sealed, the player must put on their gas mask lest they suffocate and die (well, it may not be suffocation but the player hears noises that are exactly like someone suffocating in a lack of oxygen so...). The gas mask muffles sounds, increases the loudness of the players laboured breathing and requires an active filter to work. Now, filters run out and need to be replaced. You can replace them manually but there's no reason to do so since Artyom will replace them when they are really necessary himself. 

The time limit on a filter is fairly short and it seems like (though I wouldn't bet on it because of the situations this would occur under) the filters are used up faster if your activity is higher - like when you are sprinting. The annoying thing is that the game has lots of Half Life 2-esque cutscenes whereby the player is trapped but wherein the countdown timer for the current filter is still going. Even more annoying were the bugs associated with filter use that I encountered on the current Steam version of the game (outlined in the Bugs section) and the fact that these short time limits never seemed to bother the other characters in the world!! So it was one of those do as I say and not as I do things that developers seem to love so much that scream of inconsistency in the game logic.

The gas masks themselves could be damaged and needed to be replaced - no longer protecting you from the harmful effects of the atmosphere. This was a good mechanic and, as long as you didn't hit an enemy wearing a gas mask in the fact and damage it you could retrieve it for yourself (as well as finding spares around the environment from time to time). The problem with this was, if you had hit the person in the head and damaged the gas mask, the filter was automatically damaged as well and, not only that, even if you didn't hit them in the face, the attached filter did not count as usable anyway. This led to several frustrating situations where I was having to restart the section of a chapter due to being unable to get a new gas mask filter.

The final mechanic was the overall removal of the traditional HUD. I liked this a lot but ultimately it was mostly useless. The first thing was that the players watch provided them with a time-frame for how long their filter would last, however, what this did was harm the player during the times when they had to switch out filters during an encounter and then had to wait out this un-interruptible sequence whereby you re-set your watch timer. I consistently thought during those moments, "I'm in a god-damned firefight - SO WHY THE HELL DO I CARE HOW MUCH TIME MY FILTER HAS REMAINING IF I CAN BE SHOT DEAD RIGHT THIS SECOND?!!". 

"What the-?" Sometimes a HUD is a useful thing!! Also, turn around once in a while!


Secondly, I found it a bit indecipherable and noticed no difference to the timer setting when putting in a partially used filter and a brand new one. Combined with the automatic changing of filters, this mechanic really didn't add anything to the game at all.

The other elements of this mechanic were the electric charge and the ammo amount in your clip. You had a personal charging device that you needed to flick out every now and again to see how much you had left and recharge it by furiously clicking on the mouse button. I liked that a lot as it was 'realistic' in the sense that you had this consumable that you had to manage and it encompassed things from your flashlight to your night vision goggles.

The ammo amount was less consistently handled and, for modes where the HUD is removed completely (Ranger Hardcore) I think it's quite difficult since there were no animations or ability for the player to manually check the clips on any of the weapons. For the metro-constructed weapons, they very often had open clips that had easy visibility but for the old-world weapons, most of their ammo was out of sight of the player, leaving you at the mercy of the bullet indicator in the HUD. I think that, ultimately, leaving the ammunition count HUD active was the right choice in the absence of a real system for monitoring your remaining reserves. Though, in a future game I would like to see this design principle taken to its end-point.

Technical issues/bugs:

The game was pretty bug-free though I don't know whether the following is truly a bug or just bad design:
Whenever I was using the gas mask the number of spare filters was constantly reduced (not through use - haha) but from dying and restarting from the last checkpoint again. I would find my filter amount not reset with the rest of my ammo and consumables. This made those sections that required the gas mask incredibly tricky in some instances because constant retrying would leave me with only one filter and the only other option was to quit the game and restart the whole section to get those filters back.

This 'bug' was only made worse by the way the game was designed in many areas whereby the correct way to proceed was not particularly clear and the player had to rely on trial and error.


It'll all be alright in the end... A feeling of hope despite all the grim-dark reality we've experienced through the game.

I feel a bit conflicted over this game. Did I like it or not? I'm honestly not sure and it's not often I find myself in this sort of absence of overall opinion. I think the game has merits, that it's flawed and that the developers put a lot of effort of bringing the world of Metro 2033 to life in the game. I also found it to be very frustrating in parts, due to poor design and/or bugs. It was definitely worth playing through to its conclusion and I'll be certain to pick up the sequel at some point and have a bash at that. So I guess this is a tentative recommendation.

Backseat Designing:

The first thing I would do is alter the gas mask mechanic completely. I fully understand what the developers were going for: to instil a sense of danger and urgency into the outside world and to force 'interesting' choices on the player for how they interacted with those enemies they met in the overworld. However, combined with the bug I mentioned above and the propensity of the developers to have long-winded in-game cutscenes that did not stop the timer on the gas mask usage (I died in a few of them!) the mechanics just aren't fun and, IMO don't really work all that well.

My change would be to make the gas mask filters last much longer and also their timer would be suspended during cutscenes wherein the player is unable to progress naturally (since they are being artificially held in place anyway). We're talking about something of the order of a whole outside mission can be sustained on one filter... However, I would make the gas mask much more claustrophobic. It's one of the defining things that people who have had to wear those types of gas masks say about them - your perception is severely limited. So this would require having a large in game FOV, providing the player with a much better sense of their surroundings when not wearing the gas mask. Having worked in industries that use masks with filters (though not specifically a gas mask like the one they use in the game) I can also attest to this feeling of losing a portion of your senses - at least where it pertains to vision, as I never had my ears covered the sound was fine. What I would also add is that they are very heavy - those filters on the front really weigh down your head/neck and unbalance it to an unnatural degree. So, adding to the increase in length of time, I would also make it so that turning of the camera/player's head takes longer and has more of a momentum to it, making you less accurate in aiming. 
The developers already have an instance similar to this in the game when you choose to help a young boy get back to his station/family.

That kid's heavy but not as bad as the stupid filter system!

The second thing I would change is the ending. Take out that choice at the end, take out the morality system but leave in the decisions anyway since they make the game world a more interesting place. Instead I would have the positive ending in place, with the dark one saying it wants peace, but with Artyom unable to act in time to stop the act of war from occurring due to the mental struggle he's had with the dark one. Coming to the realisation that the wrong thing is about to happen because of your actions and being unable to stop it through the actions and struggles of the person/entity trying to stop you is a more powerful ending than either current finale offers.

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