The world as we know it is over. Civilisation has fallen. All is crumbled and decayed. Massive radiation a constant threat as the mutated creatures it has created hunt us at every turn. The few of us that survive must struggle daily to scrape an existence and avoid sudden and merciless death in this most hostile of environs.
For many this situation is the stuff of nightmares, but for me, and countless other gamers, it sends shivers down the spine… in a good way…
With the Fallout series leading the way in sales figures for the genre many have not had an opportunity to enjoy any of other available post-apocalyptic options.
Perhaps chief amongst these is the excellent, and highly admired (by me anyway!), STALKER series of games, which present a far starker (;-)), darker and grittier post-nuclear survival experience.
But if ever there were a hidden gem of the genre it must be Metro 2033.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the Fallout series, but it actually stands apart from the other key games of the genre for 2 key reasons; Firstly it exists outside any strong fictional narrative, it is not based on any literary work of substance, and thus suffers from a lack of a true anchor or a real sense of place and time. Secondly it’s a light hearted world at heart and the very humour which serves it so well in providing an enjoyable experience to the gamer also further isolates it from what I feel are the masterworks of the genre.
So we come to STALKER & Metro 2033, brothers in arms in the arms race that is the post-nuclear survival shooter niche.
Firstly we must clarify that of course both have a rich and respected literary heritage, STALKER having its origins in the 1971 novel “Roadside Picnic” written by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, and Metro 2033 being founded on a 2005 work of the same name by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky.
There are obvious benefits to having a solid work behind the storyline of any game, and that both these games hail from such strong writing will come as no surprise to any player. They are rich in atmosphere, detail, substance and character. This again should come as no surprise as both sets of writers are of Soviet / Russian extraction.
Most interestingly, and a fact overlooked by the uninitiated, Roadside Picnic was completed long before the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl was even commissioned and actually featured the aftermath of alien visitation rather than any nuclear connotation (later adapted by GSC Game World to fit around the Chernobyl melt-down), whilst Metro 2033 is very much a post-Chernobyl work being created by an author who had grown up in the shadow of the disaster.
This comes through in the game experience and whilst STALKER offers more variety and freedom these are the very things that again, as with Fallout, serve to differentiate it away from the brutal, claustrophobic and ultra-realistic world of Metro 2033, and so we come to the crux.
It’s also important to note, at this point, that of course the STALKER series is accessible only to PC gaming stallwarts, whilst Metro 2033 can also be played by any Xbox 360 owner out there, greatly expanding it’s availability across the board. (Perhaps most exciting for all us Metro fans the forthcoming followup; “Metro: Last Light”, will be coming additionally to PS3, ensuring that all will be able to enjoy it regardless of which platform they favour!)
So, yes, I love Fallout for its humour, ease of play and excellent quest system. Yes I love STALKER for its accurate and expansive shooter mechanics, its cool artefacts and equipment and its detailed faction system. But neither of these have the feel of Metro 2033. Neither can compare to its claustrophobic sense of panic, its feverish ammo conservation, the cold fear it breeds within you as you creep down shadow-lit subterranean tunnels, or the pity you feel for your fellow survivors, particularly the young and old innocents. Fallout is a romp, STALKER is a life style but Metro 2033? Metro 2033 is cold, dark, raw survival. And boy is it sweet, sweet sorrow!
Whether you are struggling to find air filters to survive the catastrophically radioactive over ground world, or scrabbling in the dark for one or two bullets with which to protect yourself, or protecting your gas mask’s integrity in either situation you really do feel you are treading an extremely precarious line between your hard life and your even harder death.
For a game set in the most severe of nuclear winters it must most surely be the game which has caused me to sweat the most of all those I’ve played. Whilst at first the difficulty seems unforgiving it’s actually that you just haven’t entered into the true experience yet. You can’t just fire off a burst of fire from your gun, that’s just crazy in Metro 2033′s world; you’ll be counting each and every bullet like you would your own children. This is a seriously hard life you are embarking on. Serious but exhilarating. Every small step seems a victory and reaching the next milestone like an epic triumph. In all honesty this is the game which almost certainly most approximates what it would be like to really be there, to really experience such a catastrophe and to really try and survive in such a world.
I can give no higher recommendation than to say that I believe you haven’t yet truly experienced everything the FPS genre has to offer until you’ve played this game.
This is a game which can usher a player from boy to man, or indeed from girl to woman. This is real character shaping stuff. I sometimes recall playing it and feel grateful that I managed to survive. Not that I managed to “complete” or “beat” the game, but rather that I survived that part of my life, that time I survived a nuclear apocalypse, yes, really, I really, really did.
As awesome a place as that would be to finish this piece I can’t in all fairness conclude without a brief word about “Metro: Last Light”. This next chapter in the Metro experience, due 1st of August this very year, and bringing the franchise to PS3 for the first time (in addition to PC & XBox 360 of course) is certainly one of my “must play” games for 2012 and one I await with not only feverish anticipation but also an increasingly large hoard of gas mask filters… I hope you’ll be joining me… I could certainly do with the help… a fellow friendly face in the awesome and terrifying darkness…
- Richard “Rax” Burley