I guess I fell out of love with the first-person shooter.
I remember I lost myself in City 17, playing a man turned myth becoming legend. I remember I found joy in dismembering necromorphs aboard the USG Ishimura and tried not to think too much about the plot. I remember I crossed the Volga River with hundreds of other Russian soldiers and headed into the crucible of death that is known as the Battle of Stalingrad. I remember I fought the Covenant on an artificial ring world and tore through the Flood.
But in the last few years, I’ve found it hard to find similar enthusiasm to play a modern first-person killer. I found Dishonored (Arkane Studios, 2012) compelling because it was an echo of Thief (Looking Glass Studios, 1998) not because it let me kill just the way I like it. Somehow, the gun-toting cleaner got old.
Was I missing out? Did bullets now fly about in better ways than they did ten years ago? Time for an experiment. The post-apocalyptic Metro 2033 (4A Games, 2010) had been on my radar for some time, a game that seemed to bottle the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (GSC Game World, 2007) aesthetic genie in a linear FPS. Reviews were mixed although Michael Abbott wrote "the things that make Metro 2033 unique and worth playing are the very things routinely overlooked in most critical accounts of the game."
A few months ago I had a gap in my game schedule and inserted Metro 2033 into it. The experiment was on.
The first scene in Metro 2033 foreshadows the end of the game. A group of soldiers are making a run for some tower across a desolate landscape. It seems to be winter, which is pretty much all the seasons after a nuclear holocaust. The player gets to take part but mutant creatures overrun the group and it’s seemingly all over for our happy band of rangers.
It apes those blockbuster films which open with action, to give you a taste of what is to come. On one level it works, letting players know what the game has in store for them after they've been broken in. But on another level, it's a wee bit of a problem. Often, the early stages of a FPS is a testing ground where the PC player is tweaking graphical and controller performance while getting to grips with the FPS' physical profile - whether the protagonist feels agile or heavy.
I recalibrated the opening battle several times because as soon as I broached the outside environment, the framerate crashed and I played something less 21st century shooter, more Harryhausen stop-motion animation. I couldn’t shoot anything even if my life had depended on it which, being a shooter, it really actually did. Things lunched on my leg as my aim weaved around shooting at random targets, like rocks. This frustrating setpiece filled me with dread for the later stages of the game, achieving the opposite of what was intended. After the initial play session, I left the game lie fallow for a good week. Did I really want to put myself through this?
The real beginning of Metro 2033 follows the failed battle. Eight days earlier, the protagonist Artyom emerges from his quarters. He lives in an underground shanty town built into the Russian Metro station of Exhibition. It's a place of overlapping conversations and makeshift civilisation that feels confident and more real than the average FPS people space. I don’t think anyone hates on Metro 2033’s introduction yet I’m reminded of Adrian Chmielarz’s recent broadside against the opening of The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013). The opening was so strong, he noted, that the rest of the game suffered. Hey, reader, remember this because I'm going to bring it up again.
The plot then compels Artyom to seek out Polis, some sort of big HQ for the Metro survivors. The journey Artyom undertakes is quite the adventure. Surprisingly for an FPS, you spend much of this time with a companion, which means those periods in which the player is alone feel more hostile and lonely. Such as when I was separated from my first proper companion, Bourbon, while navigating the surface section known as Dead City. Each dash between ruined buildings was nerve-wracking, frightened that I might look up and see, through the thick visor of a gas mask, the distorted shape of one of those fearsome winged beasts swooping towards me.
Although Metro 2033 loves cutscenes it should be mentioned that there’s all sorts of clever storytelling here. When Bourbon is apprehended by bandits at Dry Station, you’re alone but it's clear someone else in the mix here: an invisible force fells the odd bandit or two. It's quite subtle and I was left wondering - did I really see that? Was that a glitch? No, it was no glitch. My fairy godsoldier turned up a little later to replace Bourbon who didn't make it out alive.
Despite this, I never really liked the shooting and some of the story stuff made me shrug my shoulders. Much is made of Metro 2033's "morality system" in which the game offers an additional ending if the gun-toting player has been nice enough. The twist is that the game doesn't make this overt and just gives the player the personalised ending they deserve without drawing attention to itself. Well, I wrote "personalised" but it's just a choice of two endings, which means this morality system is yet another binary good/bad wolf in sheep's clothing. I ended up with the option for the happy ending because I guess I was a good boy.
A system like this makes me wonder what we want from our "ethics" systems. If a game highlights moral decision points, they become cheap, something to be gamed. If the game hides them, then most players won't even know they are there and accept their linear experience as the only linear experience. We're not yet living in a world where games frequently alter their outcomes depending on hidden parameters. The system of Metro 2033 is, in the end, inconsequential, particularly as the sequel Metro: Last Light (4A Games, 2013) ignores one of these endings.
But we need to talk about Polis.
For most of the game, the player's goal is to reach Polis and deliver a message to the Council there. After mutants, Russian nazis, anomalies, overruns stations and even ghosts, the player eventually makes it. It's a wonderful moment and the game puts the player on rails for this special occasion. There's nothing for the player to do except look around and catch incidental moments.
Metro 2033 then dumps the player into a small office where the message is delivered. Now I thought it was strange that after being told to wait, there was a guy in this "immigration" room who was selling munitions and the like. I mean, it's an odd place to set up shop. I decided I'd wait until I'd concluded my official business and then explore Polis properly. After the strong opening set in Exhibition station (hope you remembered), I was expecting Polis to be the companion piece: a safe haven where I could explore at will and learn more about the world of Metro 2033.
More fool me. After a cutscene in which the Polis Council decides to abandon the fair people of Exhibition station as a lost cause, the game kicked me out of the station into the nuclear winter wonderland, ready for the next stage of the quest.
I was staggered. The game had cheated me. I knew it could have done better than this. I didn't give a damn about budget and I felt robbed. In a game stacked to the rafters with cutscenes, the reward for reaching Polis needed to be more than a safari through a pretty environment.
And thus the Metro 2033 experiment did reveal my opinions on first-person shooters. It turns out I want less action.