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.
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15 thoughts on “Polis”
I’ve been waiting eagerly for you to get to Metro 2033, because it’s very dear to me.
Yeah, Polis is a bit of a rude surprise, isn’t it? After all the talk about its importance, and the vastness of its central chamber as you enter in the not-quite-cutscene—for that to be all of it that you see is underwhelming. It feels wrongly paced too—by the time you get to Polis, you need more time to breathe.
But then most of the populated stations in 2033 are the same: with the exception of Exhibition and Riga, there’s little to do or see beyond a shop. It’s a failing that Last Light does a little more to address, but its stations, though larger and freer, are still mostly void of purpose.
“If the game hides [its choices], then most players won’t even know they are there and accept their linear experience as the only linear experience.” I disagree that such a design makes the choices inconsequential. If the game has adapted in some way to your choices, it doesn’t matter at all if you are aware of that or not, but only that the result you get believably connects to the way you played. If you end up thinking a game is linear when it’s not ( e.g. http://playersdelight.blogspot.ca/2013/10/beyond-two-souls-most-unique-feature-is.html ), I don’t think that’s a problem for the play experience—though it might be so for criticism.
I also disagree with characterizing the endings of Metro as good/bad. I’ve argued against that on my blog ( http://backslashn.com/post/32005930396/morality-in-the-metro ), but the gist is that the endings are literally portraying good/best.
I could say a lot more, but I’m running out of lunch break!
I disagree with the notion that the morality choices in either Metro games are inconsequential simply for being binary. Because both games obfuscate the relationship between action and result, unexpecting players are not allowed to game the system; there’s a very real link between the way a person acts and the judgement the game gives.
On some or another Youtube video, people were complaining that, despite sparing Pavel and Lesnitsky, in “Last Light”, the game still gave them the bad end. Despite one or two moments where the game says “running or sneaking is the right thing to do”, players could not see massacring hundreds of enlisted soldiers as being bad. Interpret that as you will.
It’s a simple choice, but don’t confuse that with being meaningless, is what I mean to say. Though, to be fair, I got the bad end in the first game because the stealth system was quick-save fueled rubbish.
My big complaint with both games is that they rely on suspension of disbelief, but then reward you for playing it like a game. Say, ignoring a super-important objective in favor of scavenging the background. Or the immigration desk in Polis. And god-forbid you should find the railgun that *literally* one-shots librarians.
Hey Andy. I could easily have drilled down into a few other topics but the Polis incident stood out the most. In the end, I didn’t get really involved in the game although there were plenty of interesting setpieces; I wasn’t nearly as bothered by the control being taken away from me as others were (in fact I found it a relief, it meant I was safe for a moment).
Yes, I’d remembered there was another station earlier on just after you left Exhibition (that’s where you meet Bourbon, right?). There seems to be the seed of a really cool game in here in which you undertake supply/courier missions between the stations and engage with the Metro survivors. Metro 2033 is a road trip movie through strange places – and seems less about an ongoing crisis with the “Dark Ones”.
My little jab at the moral choices thing is definitely the most contentious point. I didn’t realise there was any moral system until I did some last-minute research. This isn’t strictly true – because I’ve definitely read your piece Morality in the Metro which you published a year ago. I just forgot about all that when I played it.
I think it’s important that I acknowledge that Metro 2033 is no longer a recent game so what seemed revolutionary at the time might feel less so now.
You suggest that it doesn’t matter to know that the ending changes – I wonder if that’s true. When I played it, I was deeply unsatisfied that the whole game had been suggesting the Dark Ones want to play nice and then I got this “stupid” moral choice at the end – blow them up or not. Well, duh. And that’s what I took away. A good/bad choice at the end of a game that didn’t seem to earn that moment.
My reaction to this “personalised” ending is why I’m not blown away by Metro’s morality. It plays like a cast-iron linear shooter with no consequences; so why would I think the ending is tailored to me? I saw a single bifurcation to a linear experience. (How stupid of me not to recall that Beyond: Two Souls piece when I wrote this! I’m in the hater camp on that; if everyone think the game is a linear experience then that’s a value judgement on what they got out of it – but I’m hopeful that it just means we don’t have enough games switching pieces behind the scenes like this… player education, new conventions)
Even now that I am aware of Metro’s judgement on player actions, I just don’t feel the two endings are particularly… interesting. In the end, perhaps it’s just down to how much we bought into the game itself. And I was never convinced by the mechanics nor the story – the individual incidents were interesting, but the overall Dark Ones story came across like an excuse for an FPS adventure.
Nonetheless – I am glad Metro 2033 has kept 4A Games alive. This is a great FPS and the team certainly tried.
mwm, looks like we crossed the streams there, but I think I’ve jotted down enough response in my reply to Andy. I don’t know how I ended up with the “choice ending” in Metro 2033 because, to be frank, I thought I killed everything that moved.
Those fucking Librarians. At first I though I’d figured them out but then after a while they seemed to follow and follow and follow until they got mad. That’s when I ran out of patience and started shooting them. Must admit, I’d prefer it if there had been just one invincible Librarian rather than lots of strong Librarians.
I liked the librarians, lots and lots. They’re very scary and compelling when played “properly”. Sadly, it’s a section that does not pay any particular attention to the incredible threat of failure.. I know only too well the frustration that they bring.
Which gun did you end up using against the librarians? I’ve found the railgun (Ranger DLC) able to one-shot them, and the “dart-gun” able to drop them with 3-4 shots. Using one of the assault rifles, on the other hand, would take multiple clips.
I like the idea that a game could change itself based around players’ moral choices without informing them of this; it would go a long way towards dissolving ludo-narrative dissonance. I also like the idea that a game could form around a players’ ideals, agree with and comfort their sensibilities, then eventually be shown as a sham; a fun way to tell cynics that they’re cynics, and vice versa and etc.
Well, I like the idea, but I can agree that it’s cheesy in Metro 2033, what with offering you the last-second “blow them up or not” choice. Last Light is a little classier in that regard. Last Light is also a more personal story, and thus easier to give a shit about.
Also worth mentioning; the moral choices are a little closer to understanding/pragmatism than good/bad… Proof once again that Picard is better.
HM – When I first played it, I didn’t think the game was at all clear about the intentions of the Dark Ones (in fact, I didn’t get a clear sense of identity of them, and thought it was just another name for nosalises for quite a while!). That many (most?) of your encounters with them require you to run away or die didn’t suggest to me that they were friendly at all. And quite naturally, I got the canonical “blow them up” ending. And it fit with what I understood of the story.
So I suppose my opinion of it is coloured by my experience of playing it through that first time *without* understanding that peace was viable. Having realised that there was an alternative ending (because of the achievements, but not certain how to get it), the second time through I had to play more attentively and thoughtfully. And yet I still got the same ending, because it didn’t occur to me at last that shooting the laser guidance thing was possible (and then I checked gamefaqs to see what I did wrong). But I was playing in Ranger mode, which hides almost all UI elements and such. So I don’t know: does the game draw attention to this choice? Or does it still require you to put two and two together at the last minute?
I feel that the ending choice is justifiably earned, but only because you’re never the one making big decisions until then. You start by running this errand to Polis for Hunter, and then get caught up in the plan to use D6’s missiles to destroy the Dark Ones—you don’t get a say in that plan at all (both because the other characters aren’t interested in your opinions, and because the game systems don’t allow you any way to express them). So it’s really that this final moment is first time you have a chance to act on your conclusions.
But then, I did buy into the story. As I did with The Walking Dead, which functions similarly with respect to choices and their consequence (or lack thereof). I don’t suppose either will work very well if you don’t have that engagement.
mwm – Yes, understanding/pragmatism is a good way to describe the different endings. However, I actually think Last Light’s ending is cheesier and less justifiable (at least as regards the story). But let’s hold off discussing that here until/if HM plays it.
It’s funny that the game – which is remarkably faithful to the book in a lot of ways – deviates significantly in the matter of Polis. Artyom doesn’t exactly spend a year there, but his visit is actually punctuated by the very downtime reward that HM sought here.
It may be that Metro 2033 tried to serve too many masters. A linear action shooter based on a slow, philosophical novel and influenced by an open world tactical RPG… seems a bit much for a debut game. All in all Last Light was a better, more polished experience, but I’m not sure your reservations would actually change much, HM. As much as I love a good balls to the wall shooter, and a good slow thoughtful first person adventure, Metro 2033 was neither. I enjoyed the game for its atmosphere, its retelling of Glhukovksy’s story, and its technology, but it dealt out many frustrations large and small alongside that.
It may be time for Pathologic after all, Harbour Master.
I liked the librarians until, somehow their behaviour broke. I don’t know if it was me. But they kept advancing while I was in small spaces backing me into a wall. Then they’d get mad. I can’t remember the gun I used I think I emptied shotguns into them – they did not go down easily.
I’m not altogether sure how I feel about the dual moral track in the game. It bothers me that again it’s an A or B ending rather than a more give/take with the game as it goes along. I think that bothers me more than the good/bad dichotomy.
As for a game changing itself according to your choices – well, Cart Life. But there it works because you feel something is going on, you know the game is reacting to you, and you’re not sure in what way. It seems… pointless in Metro, why bother putting in the work to make a hidden choice? The only people who really care are critics/criticism readers. I guess my gut reaction is – take out the moral system and hardly any player would have noticed. You can’t feel it, it’s not an aesthetic which feeds into the subconscious. It’s a binary switch which you see on one setting and not the other.
I remember giving away bullets to beggars, maybe that’s what gave me the choice ending.
It’s possible I read the intentions of the Dark Ones more clearly because I was playing with an English soundtrack? I had hoped to bring up the Russian narration but I couldn’t find an option to do that. But it felt obvious from very early that the Dark Ones were trying to contact me. The game was building towards a revelation, or a twist of some sort. When I’ve got Hunter on repeat going “if it’s hostile, you kill it” from my POV it was overdone, because I’d already got the message that we Just Need To Talk To The Monsters. I find it curious I found this message literally overpowering.
When I approached the laser guidance thing (let’s acronym this thing LGT) I already knew I was supposed to make a choice. So I knew I had to do something to the LGT. I blasted it off first time; I went back for the alternative ending second.
I don’t know if I’m going to do Last Light or not. I liked a lot of Metro, but I didn’t fall under its spell. Too many fights that I found frustrating rather than fun.
Yeah, I’m not sure. The game just didn’t gel for me and I really, REALLY, wanted to love it. I was hoping it would cure my increasing aversion to FPS games. Maybe I’ll break out something populist like Dead Space 2. I think it’s the sheer length that annoys me these days, that they overstay their welcome.
Pathologic, agh. Don’t torture me with things I want to do.
That’s no bug in the Librarians’ AI; Miller explains it as such in his “this is how deal with librarians” speech. It’s easy to miss though, what with the heavy breathing, accent, and the player likely being on the other side of the room looting corpses.
Last Light isn’t a particular advancement *except* in its combat and stealth mechanics, so don’t avoid it on that basis. Well, I should say… I dearly hope 4A never makes another boss fight.
I’d suggest skipping Last Light then. It does add to 2033: a few tedious boss fights; ludicrously easy stealth; some sunshine and rain and greenery to the outdoor sequences (Spring still comes after Winter); some fun new enemies to fight and some awful ones; a button to wipe water or blood splatters off your gas mask; a rather hamfisted plot with a trite ending; a lot more of the supernatural elements (in my opinion the best parts—some are wonderful). It’s very mixed.
Last Light feels like its left foot is continuing down the atmospheric, philosophical tunnel that 2033 looked into, while its right foot is following the mainstream shooter road. It doesn’t hold together very well, despite its moments.
Oh mwm I stared out the librarians and kept backing away slowly, but I found – outside of the lowest level – quite difficult to keep that up in the claustrophobic and hole-spattered spaces of the upper floors.
Andy, maybe I will skip Last Light. Eric is trying hard to convince me to play through Bioshock Infinite, because he thinks it is important to know how bad it is as a package. But, damn, I have to pay money for a bad game I don’t think I’ll enjoy?
Wow, these comments are still open!
So I finished Metro 2033 last week. The joy of being so late to the party was that I was able to play the Redux version first so no doubt there were many differences to what most of you experienced here. I’m going to list the things I really didn’t like:
The mute protagonist that only expressed himself during the loading screens and in badly written notes. I remember one instance where Khan asked me something and I responded with silence (naturally), and he said something back along the lines of “Ah, silence. You’re turning into a proper Ranger now.” No mate, I’ve been a mute protagonist since this game started if you hadn’t noticed.
The badly written notes. I swear these got worse as the game wore on. And even in the Redux version, where they overhauled pretty much everything from what I gather, the typos were just horrible.
The stupid notes system that encourages you to ignore anything apparently pressing “Quick Artyom, go into that room and power up the generator!” “Uh, no,” Artyom said in his head “I’m going to look for notes written by myself, inexplicably placed in places that I’ve never been before so I can read them back to myself.” Not to mention, some of these notes alluded to things that were about to happen, but hadn’t actually happened yet, like Bourbon being let off the hook at one of the stations he was in trouble with.
Taking control off me for no good reason. I’m thinking of the scene where you raid the archives for the D6 documents. I’d been raiding the environment since the game started, why do it for me now? And dude, the case was called ‘D6’, check for that one first before ransacking the place. Not to mention, Artyom thought that it would be a good idea to loudly throw the security boxes on the floor while Librarians were sleeping in the room directly below him.
The final ‘choice’. I got the scorched earth ending because as much as the game was banging it over my head that I shouldn’t just shoot the Dark One (“If it’s hostile, kill it” as well as Khan’s spiel about killing breeding killing, and not doing things without out thought, etc., and the Dark Ones themselves hinting at all sorts during the dream sequences), the game didn’t give me one good actual reason not to. Were we going to hug if I shot the LGT? Were they going to say sorry? Where they going to tap their ruby slippers together three times and tell me there’s no place like home?
Those creatures that dash out of holes at you. Fuck those things.
The checkpoint system. It was a damn sight better than Infinite’s but a few times I found myself unnecessarily repeating the same actions because I kept dying a few minutes into the future (usually because of the (ass)hole creatures mentioned above). It also meant that, if I wasn’t careful, I’d end up being railroaded into scripted bits or finishing chapters before I’d done exploring, consequently missing several of those shitty notes.
The game nosedives after Polis, with the dip starting in that office. Good observation Joel with the merchants setting up shop in there.
What I liked:
The environments and sense of place. It looked really damned impressive in the Last Light engine.
The gunplay felt great and the (overhauled) stealth was satisfying and pretty convincing too, if a little easy as Andy says above. I loved that you could shoot out lights! Not had that in an FPS since AvP back in ’99. I was in heaven with my night vision and silent weaponry.
Something that doesn’t get brought up much is that the game tries to relay a lot of information without relying on the HUD. I applaud this. I didn’t play in Ranger mode (a minimal HUD mode) as I wasn’t sensitive to most of the subtle cues until late in the game but I can imagine giving it a shot in Last Light. I seem to remember as well there being a kind of slow white flash when conversations between enemies ended, as if the game was giving you the nod that you could now dispatch them without missing anything. Weird.
Yes I opened up the comments on many old articles to get PJ’s disaffected take on Starseed Pilgrim in. That has turned out to be thoroughly worthwhile seeing the conversation between him and Droqen.
I’m sorry your long comment is unlikely to lead to a big discussion down here! Posterity is a good enough reason, though. I don’t remember Metro very well now – that’s how much lasting impact it had. For example I cannot even remember “those creatures that dash out of holes at you”. I don’t recall problems with the narrative so much and I wish I could spar with you a bit more on those points.
I think Polis is typical of ambitious game development. They pour their heart and soul into the first underground village but once development reaches to Polis, money and time are running out: we’ve got to ship. Trap Artyom in a room with a merchant, that’s all we can do.
I need to get back to you on that Side by Side S2 list, right…
Ah, the ankle-biting creatures in Hole Station — yes, I share your hatred for them.
Ranger Mode in the original release of 2033 was more than just a minimal HUD: it also greatly increased the amount of damage you deal (and take!). So while you die more easily, so do your enemies. It felt a lot more in tune with the other aspects of the game: mutants felt more like flesh and blood creatures, not like bullet-absorbing videogame enemies.
The HUD-lessness is the piece of design I admire most in 2033: the guns are designed so you can see how many bullets remain before you have to reload; your watch is almost always visible on your left wrist, its green/yellow/red LEDs of its light meter showing how visible you are, and its timer showing how many minutes of gas filters you have left; your breath rasping more and your gas mask fogging up as a filter runs out and needs to be changed. Without a HUD floating on the screen, I feel a lot more embodied in the game world.
The white flash you remember though—that’s the “enlightment” indicator, as it were: listening to your would-be enemies demonstrates that Artyom has curiosity, patience—perhaps even empathy. (Although dispatching them once they stop talking might be evidence against the latter 🙂
Joel: Understood, it was a long time ago. I just had to dump my thoughts somewhere! While I haven’t read PJ and Drogen’s comments, seeing them has made me install SP. Hopefully I’ll be able to comment there too soon 🙂
Andy: Yes! Those were exactly the subtle cues I was talking about. I hadn’t noticed the watch showing how much time you had left on your filters — that would have been handy! At one point I cornered myself and had to start a chapter again because I’d spent too long exploring without finding fresh ones. The breath rasping was one of the first things I noticed along with the sub-machine gun mag jutting out the side. The lighter signalling which direction to go I discovered very late on, and only thanks to a loading screen tip. I’ve got to say, I did wonder why anyone would want to use it before that!
I think the Redux version had those damage buffs as well. I did try Ranger mode for the intro section, then tried it in normal, and realised I’d missed quite a lot of stuff, even with my keen eyes, so left it on that mode. I would have liked the option of the damage buffs with the ‘full fat’ HUD though. As and when I get round to Last Light, I’ll probably try Ranger there.
It’s telling though that for all the great strides in graphical and sonic fidelity, a lot of games fall back on to the HUD to relay information which could very easily be delivered ‘in-world’, so to speak. It’s worse that we’ve come to rely on it too and miss all these delicious little cues. As cheesy as Isaac’s health bar was on his back in Dead Space, it was nice to have it off-HUD, as well as the menu being a hologram he looked at.
Ah! So that was the white flash! I was going to add in my previous response that there was one instance in the game where a cluster of enemies were talking together (about five or six) and I had a choice of listening and possibly getting some more information indirectly, and inevitably having to deal with them one by one once they disbanded (and on the surface with limited gas filters too, no less), or tossing a grenade in there and striking while I had the chance. I struck while I had the chance, but I do wonder what they were going to say. I think that’s a pretty cool system though, because, it trades opportunism for… I dunno, perspective? Intel? Caution?
Oh, and it was only fairly late in the game that I realised you could knock out enemies if you got up close. I was a bit of a dab hand with the silent revolver and BB gun y’see.
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