Masks, mutants and ‘the book is always better’: A Metro Review


Last summer I read Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033. Despite briefly playing the opening of 4A Games’ 2010 adaption some years prior to that, I recall little more than a survival shooter with some rather dramatic lighting. So the novel, invariably, stuck with me. An ambitious blend of horror, action, science fiction and political commentary in a lengthy — albeit poorly translated — literary package. I enjoyed its world building and conceptual premise. The idea of a post-apocalyptic world set within the Moscow Metro (or tube lines for us Brits); with respective stations operating under different regimes felt rich and well conceived. The rival factions, bandits, fascists and communists hypothesised how humanity would order itself when all is lost. It even touched upon how religion would explain and justify the end of the world to those who grew up beneath it. All whilst the protagonist, the confused and cynical Artyom, acted as an envoy for a reader trying to make sense of it all.

But Glukhovsky’s text had many shortcomings. It juggled the task of establishing this world whilst providing a coherent narrative arc. Artyom’s role seemed too eager to satisfy this: with his journey to Polis quickly detouring to other stations; to the surface and became increasingly like a tour-guide of the metro rather than anything particularly feasible. Although this world was fascinating — and I was eager to explore it — it became a little muddled and unrefined in its presentation.

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I have, however, recently completed Metro Redux on Xbox One. The award winning remasters of the original video game adaption and its 2013 sequel, Last Light. I played these on Ranger Difficulty and did so with only the knowledge of the original novel in mind. The experience I found was little short of breathtaking. A cinematic and immersive journey that was gruelling and rewarding in equal measure. It merged thoughtful gameplay with precisely that captivating world Glukhovsky built. It was also inexplicably terrifying at times. In fact, these titles struck me in a way that I did not expect. They not only excavated the better qualities of the source material but crafted something inherently better in the process. It is a living, breathing iteration of that very world. And it holds two cigarette-charred fingers up to ‘the book is always better’ mentality.

Various factors made up this ‘Metro experience’. Inevitably, the first title employs a number of changes from the original text. It premeditates Artyom gun-slinging prowess to accommodate a First Person Shooter and ramps up the combat accordingly. This is unsurprising, but it does so in a way that feels natural. Combat is tense; whether it be sneaking past Neo-Nazis or pummelling mutants on the surface with a twelve-gauge shotgun. Every encounter seems meaningful and narrative-driven. In fact, it endeavours to retain the plot points and environments that made the book so initially charming. And by giving the player a first-person view of this world, it negates a great deal of the novel’s linearity. Albeit wiping the sweat (or blood) from your visor or investigating mauled human remains: it’s an engaging platform. The more sandbox inspired moments — the ‘safe stations’ where one can purchase weapons, overhear conversations and buy drinks at the bar — represent this even better. They inject tangible life: noise, character and scent, to Glukhovsky’s finer offerings.


The core gameplay also maintains a mixed temporal pacing. It ranges from tense and frantic survival shoot-outs to moments of exploration and puzzle solving. The sequences on the surface, for example, require a filtered gas mask. One must change the filter regularly in order to survive — and finding those filters may present a challenge in itself. It’s immediately refreshing to feel vulnerable in this genre of video game. It is not a one-man-army shooter, but an adventure where one is frequently running away from enemies and scouring the landscape for supplies. On the Ranger difficulty, where bullets, filters and other commodities are even scarcer: it immediately forces one to rethink each encounter. Hell, the genius notion that ammunition becomes currency after the apocalypse further changes the tempo of combat. Whilst bottle-caps make for an endearing ‘gold standard’: the question as to whether one can afford to take a life is noble. Both in establishing the philosophy of the emerging story — note this was more pertinent in the book — but also in conserving the gameplay dynamics. Put simply, Stealth is most definitely on the menu.

The diverse level design and enemy types extenuate this. From claustrophobic mutant attacks in abandoned tunnels to tentatively avoiding armoured opponents; there is a multitude of routes and approaches to every level. From hidden vent-shafts to secret weapon caches: each environment has a sense of history and care to its design. Some are more frightening than others, but there are often easter eggs — guards talking about Artyom’s earlier escapades for example — that make for a richer landscape. The real magic of Metro, however, lies in when traversing it falls through. When your ‘Solid Snake’ efforts trip up and you’re forced to improvise an exit plan — attempting to drop as many Communist soldiers with your rusty piece-of-shit machine gun as possible — before immediately regretting how expensive that misstep became. Again, the emphasis on vulnerability is integral. Which makes for a more compelling, if not meaningful experience, all round.


In addition to this, Metro Redux is also a well written adventure. Given Glukhovsky’s input on the direction and dialogue, both titles have a blockbuster quality to them. And whilst I find it difficult to compare the two given I played them in succession, both games have slightly different focal points. Metro 2033 is certainly more survival driven where Last Light is more action-packed. Given the former is also tasked with establishing a world and characters, the sequel is notably more confident in its presentation. It seemingly learns from the limitations of video game narratives and have crafts a full-circle story without having to explain the wider context. It actually uses the factions, Dark Ones and the burgeoning issues from the previous game as its foundation. That said, those eager to learn more can scout out collectable diaries and NPC conversations that will flesh out different plot points. Which above else demonstrates what Metro does best. It presents a story, a well composed one at that, with the right blend of structure and freedom for the player to feel immersed. It offers enough combat to be entertaining but without descending into belligerent heroics. It has an orchestral-like quality: it rises and falls in succession all whilst pushing towards clear, logical objectives. It even rewards the player for exploring and embracing its world. The ‘Moral Points’ that one can earn from eavesdropping on strangers, helping the infirm and making decisions that brute force would not consider amalgamate to different endings. And whilst I shall avoid digressing into spoilers in this write-up, such endings feel powerful enough to add weight to your actions. It really ties together the package with a strong sense of resolve.


Above else, playing Metro Redux was something of a reimagining for myself. I fell out of love with narrative based shooters years ago — largely when my favourite franchises imploded into Call of Duty-like clones. But Metro offers a charming sense of fear, duty survival and politics that has long since been needed. It also does the original text immense justice by taking its strongest moments and capitalising upon them. It even handles the supernatural elements with more depth and creativity than I imagined. Which brings me to my final point. That the belligerent ‘book is always better’ logic is easily misplaced. Some of my favourite films have taken poorly written books to new heights (namely Blade Runner), but such an attitude continues to prevail, often without thought. I’m unsure if it emanates from snobbery or pure ignorance, but both mediums have their place. And Metro takes the heart and soul of the text whilst fashioning an inventive, intriguing level design and combat mechanic out of it. Exploring the tunnels at my own pace as I search for extra munitions felt like the definitive way to explore this story. It uses Glukhovsky’s gritty introspection for its darker, lonelier sections but couples it with that eclectic mix of character that can only be found by wasting hours at the bar. It’s truly a enchanting experience and genuinely exceeded my cynical expectation of it.

* * *

As Artyom is told in the final moments of Metro 2033, ‘Force answers force, war breeds war, and death only brings death’. But one can only hope that such force continues to provoke; to inspire this franchise to move forward and keep building. As it has proven to offer an experience that will undoubtedly entice and charm even the most ardent of critics. It is, ultimately, the best of both worlds. And I am certainly eager to visit the Metro again.



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