From Russia with ... mutants?

Metro: 2033 is a little rough around the edges, but still impressive and haunting

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Metro: 2033

(4A Games, THQ); Xbox360, PC

GAMER Ukrainian developer 4A Games is a minnow in an industry dominated by krakens, so it's heartening to see a small, Old World studio deliver engrossing product in the form of Metro: 2033. Based on a novel by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky, Metro takes place in a postapocalyptic future. Nuclear winter has driven the population of Moscow underground, into the city's vast subway system, and the survivors are beset from all sides by Communist fanatics, neo-Nazis, and bloodthirsty mutated beasts.

4A's homebrewed game engine is a little rough around the edges, but it does an impressive job rendering the junk-strewn, densely populated Metro stations and the haunting, pitch-black tunnels that connect them. The title makes good use of the source material to create a convincing, cohesive atmosphere, drawing on local voice actors and maintaining a firm commitment to first-person storytelling reminiscent of Valve's Half-Life series.

The voice-acting is just one component of the game's excellent sound design, which cannily reinforces the eerie atmosphere. Whether it's the unexpected howl of a mutant leaping at your throat, the off-key singing of a Communist guard about to get a throwing knife in the back, or the cacophony of haggling voices that welcome you a populated station, the game's auditory cues can be almost as important as its visual wizardry.

Working in concert, audio and video can make Metro: 2033 a terrifying experience indeed. During intermittent visits to the city's bombed-out surface, the player must wear a gas mask. Spend too much time breathing Moscow's toxic atmosphere, and you will soon notice your character's ragged, wheezy breathing as the air filters start to give out. If you're attacked while wearing the mask, it will crack, impairing your vision, and soon you'll find yourself battling enemies while staving off asphyxiation, unable to see them through your cracked, foggy gas mask — not for the faint of heart.

Unique touches like the gas mask, the hand-powered generator that juices your flashlight, and the pneumatically-pumped silent sniper rifle add convincing weight to the game's dystopian world. The latter is particularly useful due to the game's heavy emphasis on stealth — running and gunning through the Metro is a good way to get killed. This is partly due to a design decision, and partly due to the game's wonky shooter mechanics. Some enemies require an exorbitant amount of ammo (which is doubly frustrating — ammo doubles as in-game currency), and it's often difficult to tell whether or not a shot aimed at a fast-moving target has hit or missed. But these and other qualms are eminently forgivable in a first-time developer. Despite the game's flaws, 4A definitely hits the target.

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