Metro 2033 isn't a great shooter, horror, or stealth game, although it tries its hand at each. Its shooting controls are too loose, its horror elements too sporadic, and its stealth options too limited. If we measure the game's value on its technical or face-value design merits, Metro 2033 probably deserves its 77 Metacritic score.
But Metro 2033 is like a pitcher who disguises a nasty cutter. Everything about the windup and delivery looks like a fastball...until the ball lands in the catcher's mitt and the batter stands helplessly at the plate muttering "What was that?"
Metro 2033 does the unthinkable among modern narrative games. It holds the player accountable for a battery of decisions made throughout the game, but it refuses to reveal an optimal path or permit the player to game the system by framing his actions as "choices."
In other words, the game offers its best ending only to players who genuinely earn it, according to the game's self-defined ethics system. The rules of that system are not imparted to the player via good/bad/neutral dialogue options, nor does the player receive behavior prompts from NPCs or reward/punishment for specific choices along the way. I like the way Christopher Thurston puts it on his blog Exit/Warp:
The solution to the game's macro-conflict is determined by the outcome of dozens of micro-conflicts, implicating any game with a push-button solution to an ethical impasse in a kind of hypocritical ambivalence. A man is not only entitled to the sweat of his brow, Metro says, but to the formation of his identity. Who you were before doesn't matter: what matters is what you do now. All of it.
And so in Metro 2033, you enter a world whose inhabitants live precarious lives, driven by altruism, greed, self-preservation, and fear. You are in the same boat (or, in this case, gutted Metro tunnel), and the game presents a variety of apparently inconsequential choices that, over time, define you. In the end, the game itself - or more properly, the world Metro 2033 enacts - determines whether or not you can be trusted to make peace. It's an especially startling and resonant ending because you never knew you were being tested.
In Metro 2033, stopping for a moment to strum a guitar - a simple act of beauty amidst dank chaotic suffering - will take you one small step closer to saving the world. Stopping to listen to a mother's plaintive cries (no button prompts, no exclamation mark above her head, no apparent feedback) is another step.
Sadly, the game occasionally marks these events as "Achievements," which diminishes the meaning of such moments. It's an odd, incongruous concession to the absurd assumption that every game, no matter its nature, must reward us like trained seals at regular intervals. Fortunately, most of Metro 2033's Achievements are tied to combat-related events ("Kill 30 enemies using revolvers.") rather than the quietly consequential choices made along the way.
Most games present NPCs as information kiosks for the player. Metro 2033's NPCs play this role to some extent, but mostly they seem to exist separate from the player's presence. Kids draw pictures on the floor, share half-informed stories about mutants, and worry that their fathers haven't returned. Refugees sit around makeshift fires, sing and listen to guitar music, and awkwardly joke about their circumstances.
Sure, if you look for the seams, you'll find looping dialogue and animations, but if you behave naturally and let your curiosity guide your movement through its environments, Metro 2033 will reward you with a rich array of characters and situations that seem impervious to your arrival. You're helpful, but you're no savior.
Metro 2033 leaves room for fear and doubt. A commander orders his men to take their positions, then follows with a quiet "I hate this so much." The artifacts of war, including shrines to lost children, are discovered along the way. The game communicates the human toll of war more convincingly than most. When you come upon the aftermath of a massacre, Metro 2033 unsettlingly expresses the moment. Something about the way the bodies are strewn about and disfigured. Disturbing.
A sergeant makes a stirring speech about holding the line against an advancing army of mutants. He exhorts the men to think of their children back home. They gird themselves for a fight...and they're immediately overwhelmed by a supernatural force. A few men survive, and as the mutants are about to arrive, one of the men begins to sing. It's a moment of fear and desperation few games manage to convey.
"Even the Apocalypse didn't stop us from killing one another over ideology." --Narrator
Late in the game, a philosopher named Khan observes, ""You reap what you sow, Artyom. Force answers force, war breeds war, and death only brings death. To break this vicious circle one must do more than act without thought or doubt."
This statement applies to the in-game narrative, but the player soon learns to appreciate its extra-game resonance as well. One can blast one's way through Metro 2033 and watch the nuclear missiles fly at the end. But if you want a different, more hopeful ending - and more importantly, a more meaningful experience as a player - you must pay more careful attention to the people and world around you. You must "do more than act without thought or doubt" - and that's an approach shooters rarely ask us to adopt. Metro 2033 turns our conditioned FPS expectations on their heads, but refuses to announce its intentions. In a game full of anomalies, it's a perfectly anomalous approach to game design.
We've seen games struggle to embed an ethical dimension into gameplay using all sorts of techniques: binary choices, branching paths, virtue points, etc., and I don't mean to suggest these are all silly failures. Games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age employ systems many of us have found engaging and enjoyable. Metro 2033 tries another way, and it's a refreshingly unexpected change.
We struggle to quantify the artistic value of video games because we don't have a reliable means for measuring intangibles, such as an uncommon authorial voice or an interactive system that conveys a distinctive ideological sensibility. Metro 2033 isn't just another genre mash-up FPS, but unless we account for these intangibles, it may seem to be just that - even to players who plow through to the end.
By the way, if you decide to try Metro 2033, I encourage you to choose the Russian voice-track with English subtitles. The Russian actors bring a gruffer, too-many-cigarettes characterization to their roles that enriches their portrayals. I found them more convincing than the English-speaking cast with Russian dialects, but both deliver solid understated performances.