At the rate video games are going, the future Russia is in danger of becoming stereotyped as some Chernobyl-like irradiated, mutant filled wasteland.
Granted, Russia would probably be a whole lot less interesting to gamers if it were portrayed as an idyllic fantasy land with happy pink bunnies and stuff. So it's a good thing that Metro 2033 sticks to the post-apocalyptic wasteland guns and kicks them up a notch.
Let's back up a bit and convince you that this isn't some fancy rip-off of Fallout 3. Metro 2033 is based on a book, first of all, written by Russian blogger-turned-novelist Dmitry Glukhovsky. In Glukhovsky's bleak vision of the future, the known world has been visited by a nuclear holocaust that killed and irradiated everything on the surface of the planet. The only known survivors are those that happened to be in underground places when the whole thing went down (hence the name "Metro"). In Glukhovsky's novel (which was originally published for free on the Internet), the story follows a boy named Artyom whose only vision of the world the way it used to be come from postcards he collects throughout the dystopian network of Metro societies.
The biggest difference that I can stress between Fallout 3 and Metro 2033 is the fact that Metro 2033 picks up only 20 years after the nuclear Holocaust. People haven't quite adjusted to the changes in the environment and weird, upsetting things are still happening on a daily basis in the Metro colonies. Strange "anomalies" occur deep underground that cause hallucinations and some ominous force known as the Dark Ones keep making off with or mentally corrupting what's left of humanity.
The story of the video game picks up at the point in the novel where Artyom leaves the safety of his Metro station, Exhibition, to go on a mission to Polis in order to stop the Dark Ones. Our first look at the game spans both a flashback to the early days of safety in Exhibition and a midpoint level where Artyom's almost reached his goal while travelling across the ruined surface of Russia.
The first thing you notice about Metro 2033 is the minimal interface. To keep track of health, weapon ammo and whether or not the air in your immediate area is safe to breathe, you've got to pay total attention to Artyom's first person view. You can see individual rounds of ammo in your cobbled-together gun and know that he's in danger of dying if his vision begins to go red or he starts coughing and choking.
Slapping on the gas mask in contaminated areas affords you a little more in the way of a HUD (though you also have to put up with condensation on this inside of your mask). For one thing, you know your mask isn't doing its job if cracks begin to appear in the faceplate or the glass shatters altogether. For another, you get a nifty watch that keeps track of how much air is left in the mask. But other than that, there's very little in the way of "game-y" stuff we're used to from other shooters – even your map is a physical thing that Artyom pulls out to look at in a first person view.
The minimalist HUD drives home how tough life in post-apocalyptic Russia is. Everything around you is broken or rotting, so scavenging for replacement supplies like spare gas masks is particularly stressful but completely necessary since there's not much that humanity can make down in the Metro to survive on. For example, weapons made down in the Metro system are crappy and break easily, while the old school weapons from the surface world are so rare and awesome that their ammo serves as currency. So this puts the player in a constant tradeoff between having the best ammo in the game that will actually kill stuff in a few hits, or having enough "money" to upgrade the crappy guns you can buy underground.
The second major thing you notice about Metro 2033 (and the second major thing I can stress as completely different from Fallout 3) is how expressive all the non-playable characters' faces are. In the early Exhibition level, Artyom encounters a whole host of dirty, disheartened Russians living underground in their little city from mothers with young children to feed to injured, bitter men who like to gamble. Faces are completely animated with no paralyzed chins or cheekbones or dead, vacant eyes that move right when you talk to them and bodies move in the ways you expect them to as NPCs open doors, talk to one another or climb aboard underground handcarts.
The only thing that you might not notice right away about Metro 2033 is the combat. This is either because you're too used to first person shooters or because you're not playing the PC version with its spiffy (and optional) NVIDIA 3D glasses. Indeed, when we first saw a shootout on the Xbox 360 version with some weird looking werewolf/rat things, we were sort of indifferent. But later, in an enclosed tunnel with 3D glasses on, those werewolf/rat things suddenly looked a whole lot more upsetting as they swarmed our handcart and made off with the limp bodies of other passengers.
Combat seemed even more visceral in 3D after entering a stealth section where we had to creep along with night vision goggles past enemy NPCs. An NPC would suddenly round a corner where we happened to be crouching and his 3D rifle butt suddenly seemed way too close to our actual face – never mind poor Artyom's. This compounded the stress level we were already feeling from having a cracked gas mask and knowing we had to go down into a contaminated tunnel to get past the rest of the NPCs.
However, it might relieve some of you to know that you don't have to stealth your way through Metro 2033. Apparently, there's enough ammo and combat leeway in the game to support Artyom going through an area with guns blazing. That's not the route our demo master went with, hence our sudden spike in stress when that NPC turned up too close for comfort. But it's nice to know there's a choice, there, since the linear game gives you very few others.
Metro 2033 is being developed by 4A Games which has among its number some developers from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games (which are also set in post-apocalyptic Russia) and will be out for the PC and Xbox 360 in 2010. A PlayStation 3 version isn't planned largely because the developer doesn't have much experience programming for it – so that could change with time if Metro 2033 the game is as much a cult hit as the novel turned out to be. Expect about 10 hours of solid gameplay and maybe look into getting yourself a PC rig that can support PhysX and NVIDIA DirectX 10 (maybe even DirectX 11, if NVIDIA feels like letting the developer go for it).
P.S. Yes, they're working on an English translation of Metro 2033 the novel – it might even beat the game to US stores next year.