I recently built myself a new PC, which always warrants the immediate application of a snarling, resource-hungry beast of a game that I never dared to run on my old PC. One of the games I’d been saving to place inside the new wizard box is Metro 2033.
Metro 2033 is a game delivered from the heart of the Ukraine, described by its developer 4A Games as “a love letter to PC gamers.” I took the letter in my clammy grip, opened it up and set it, immediately, to “RANGER HARDCORE”. This may sound suspiciously like a category on a Lord of the Rings slashfic website, but it’s actually a difficulty.
The Ranger difficulty modes were a later addition to the game that strip away useful things like the HUD and plentiful ammo, replacing them instead with the glowering assurance of your own imminent death. It makes the game-world seem more earnest in its premise; you’re embedded deep in the tunnels of a post-apocalyptic Russian metro system. Bullets are taken in lieu of traditional tender – you use low-grade ammunition as currency with which to garner weapons, healthpacks and more sought-after ammunition. Whenever you go to the “surface” the sound of your laboured breathing through the gas mask’s filters, of which there are a limited amount, works as a countdown to your own death while assorted vicious monstrosities loom in snow-swept ex-offices. It all amounts to a situation that lends itself quite well to you having a bit of a hard time. The desperate scavenging for ammo that arises from its scarcity is a very singular feeling that I have been actually quite shocked by. It’s scattered around, inside mugs, underneath tables and (of course) on the bodies of the fallen that lace your path, but you must truly comb an area to come up with the goods in a way I haven’t seen or felt in any other game. It’s a very powerful mechanic.
While the HUDless life you lead isn’t unique to the game, it certainly increases the impact of its broken world. Where I currently reside on the timeline, I’ve made an alliance with a furry faced gentleman but the necessity for me to madly stare into every corner of every room on my endless quest for ammo means I often lose sight of my friend, the only beacon in the darkness, and with no radar to help me cut a path toward him there’s a very real sense of panicked desolation.
Alongside the ranger mode, there’s also an option to play the entire game in Russian with English subtitles, which I leapt upon immediately. It whacks the authenticity-levels up by several notches, hearing those cyrillic shapes falling out of the mouths around you. There’s a bit of a trade-off in it, though, because only storyline-specific dialogue is translated at the bottom of the screen – the minutiae of day-to-day life in the tunnels that is stumbled across in various markets & hold-ups goes by the wayside a bit and leaves you feeling pretty isolated, even in places that seem like they could vaguely approximate something homely. Side-chatter in videogames very rarely seems organic, though, and this perhaps disguises that. In most games it feels like you’re accidentally inside of the Truman Show, with people waiting for you to walk into their general proximity before initiating their inane conversations. When you walk up to idling Russkis leaning against walls or looking searchingly at pigs, they will invariably offer some sound, incomprehensible advice and I always feel guiltily obligated to stand there until they stop talking.
Weirdly, and partly for this reason, the game struck similar chords with me as backpacking through the Balkans. People are more immediately likeable when you don’t know what they’re actually talking about because you can imagine what they’re talking about – it’s like looking into the face of a dog and assuming you know its endearing intentions. Well, not really. But kind of. Another symptom of this genuine feeling of being transported is that I feel bizarrely compelled to take photos of the place – I walk around the somewhat-safe-havens, lining up screenshots of the locals like an irritating tourist. The thing is, it all looks so incredible. It’s rare that I will stand still in a game at regular intervals and for extended periods of time just to watch dust float around a room, and when I say “rare” I obviously mean that I have never done that before in my life, but I did it here. The pictures on this page are all click-through-able and I advise you go into each of those rooms and check out some fucking dust.