It's been a tough couple of weeks. Straight from reviewing S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, Tom drafts me in for a hands-on trial of another dark nuclear slaughterfest: THQ's newest shooter: Metro 2033.
Not that I'm complaining. Playing games for a living is a great result in almost anyone's book, and the fact is I've thoroughly enjoyed both titles. All the same, I could do with some sunshine and a bit of fresh air.
Like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (be prepared to see that a lot over the next couple of pages), Metro is a post-nuclear disaster horror-shooter with RPG elements, based on a successful Russian novel. It's grim and grimy, full of browns, greys and splashes of vivid red gore.
Unlike S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Metro is set in a whole world where everything has gone melty and unpleasant, rather than just a sward of Ukrainian landscape. The only apparent survivors in Moscow, and to all intents and purposes the world, are those lucky enough to have been travelling on the city's extensive Metro network when the attacks took place. These deep tunnels sheltered a tiny sliver of humanity beneath the surface, along with just enough salvageable resources to keep them alive.
Stations are the cities of this new world. They're where pockets of refugees eke out a living in terrible, cramped conditions, doing whatever they must to prolong a nightmare from which the only release is death. Social order begins to emerge as communities arm themselves and conduct salvage trips to deeper parts of the Metro network, gathering the materials and equipment necessary to make their first tentative steps out onto the ruined surface.
But remember, this is a game, and a post-apocalyptic one at that. Nothing's going to be that easy.
So the mutants turn up. Horrible, drooling bastard monkey-wolves with a nice line in biting your pancreas out. Russians are tenacious types, though, and not easily turned, so they fight back. People and stations are lost, tactics and lessons learned.
A stalemate of sorts is reached, with the remnants of society able to just about hold their ground against the bubbling horde. Then something new starts to stalk the tunnels, a mysterious force with the power to attack minds. Something darker, more dangerous and even more dribbly than the monkey-wolves.
That's where you come in.
The game's protagonist is a young man called Artyom who leads a relatively unremarkable life in the slums. Until, that is, he's suddenly lumbered with the task of saving civilisation from certain destruction. Bang goes that quiet Sunday morning in the local underground pub with the papers, then.
Saddling up with a home made SMG and a dynamo-powered headlamp, you jump on the first handcart out of your home station and into the tunnels. But that's not how the game starts. Instead we're treated to one of those increasingly popular flash-forward doodads featuring some clever Modern Warfare 2-style integrated event scripting. Without giving too much away, there's a hefty cliffhanger to consider when the clock is swept back 8 days to the beginning of Artyom's adventure.
It's a specific time-frame and it's a testament to Metro's focussed, linear story-telling style. This isn't a game of free-roaming exploration and open-world mission structures. Developer 4A has chosen a distinctly scripted approach to the tale - perhaps a legacy of its literary roots. The self-contained levels are very much start-to-finish affairs, with no hubs or destination choices. It's an effective choice as the story unfolds in a thought-provoking style, if one which is a little loose.
Early sections of the game are very tunnel heavy, with the sort of corridor funnelling which this provokes, but there are larger areas to poke around in on the surface. You'll also find plenty of blind alleys and dead-ends in the underground which hold valuable stores of weapons and precious ammunition. Post-war production facilities are extremely limited, both in terms of machinery and materials available, so human ingenuity has become the most important resource in the chain of manufacture.
Guns are often makeshift, homebrew affairs such as the curiously effective pressure rifle or the arrow-launching Poseidon pistol. Even bullets are inferior in the Metro, with the occasional caches of pre-war munitions doubling as currency if you're economical and skilled enough to keep them out of your clip. Get yourself in a tight spot and these cartridges can be fired to great effect, but you'll be costing yourself a fortune for every kill.
This sense of soldiering on a budget is increased by the hand-pump dynamo which powers your headlight. The battery on this, often your only source of light in a pitch-black, mutant-infested crawlspace, never runs completely flat, but it does run low - meaning your light source dims considerably, narrowing to a dull beam which barely illuminates the floor in front of you.
The lighting model is, in fact, spectacular and this idea shows it off well. Each lightsource is dynamic and switchable - offering plenty of options for stealth when approaching the encampments of enemy humans.
These humans bear an uncanny resemblance to many of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s, although I suppose there are only so many ways you can dress in fatigues and a gas mask - probably why I found Band of Brothers so confusing. They offer a different challenge to the fast, melee-only mutants, using tactical nous and a variety of weaponry to snuff Artyom. Encounters with these bandits tend to be piecemeal, guerrilla engagements, in stark contrast to the mad-rush assaults of the mutants.
Humans also set traps: trip-wires and grenade bundles very much in the Fallout 3 tradition. These need to be noticed and defused before they're tripped, as failing to do so is often instantly lethal. Alongside the explosives and spiky logs are the good old schoolboy cans on strings, sounding alarms which bring bandits running. Broken glass or porcelain underfoot can give the game away too.
If it all sounds a bit derivative so far, have faith; there are some nice individual touches here too. Heading above ground, or through an area of bad air, means donning a gas-mask, replacing filters as they begin to choke on radioactive dust. Above ground, the lenses of the mask will begin to frost up too, warping lines and silhouettes in ways which suggest the skulking movement of mutants extremely accurately.
Checking the filter condition is done via the your wristwatch, with a timer keeping track of the current mask's life expectancy. The watch also features a traffic-light LED to indicate the state of your cover, showing red when an enemy can see you. The map is a physical affair too, which you pull from your pack and illuminate with a lighter. Having no pause when checking directions in a twisted and dark basement certainly heightens the tension, especially when the bastard son of a gibbon and a jaguar is likely to attach itself to your jugular at any moment.
It's very much a game of scares and suspense, perhaps even jumpier than the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series ever was. Enemies are fast and aggressive, often as not pouring from grates in the ceiling or walls. It's easy to become surrounded, in the dark with nothing but an automatic BB gun and a knife to hand, and running is often the most sensible option. Panicking usually led me into trouble, though, as flapping ham-footed through even a brightly-lit and well-signposted Victoria can be confusing. At least the mutants there sell coffee and pastries.
There's definitely more of a sense of the surreal here than in most games, with reality sometimes fading into hallucinatory events and chilling daydreams. Often haunting without being hokey, these events are an important part of the linear-model which 4A has chosen, carefully unpicking pre-conceptions and conventions and slipping uncertainty into their seams. This dreamlike quality promises to be woven quite closely to both the plot and Artyom's fate.
Many of the team working on this are part of the core team which went separate ways from GSC after S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl crawled out of development, and there are enough sly references and in-jokes to make the similarities seem like a respectful emulation than a direct copy. The fact that this is a ten-hour, linear experience, coming on 360 as well as PC indicates a very different ambition from any of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, despite many shared aspects - and many of the best things about GSC's series are present here too.
The line between homage and plagiarism is always fine, but in the games industry it's thinner than most. 4A is clearly on the right side of that line - borrowing and improving in addition to creating. And after all, who doesn't love the feel of a dusty gasmask in the dark?