Metro 2033 is a game that gets its atmosphere right. While the narrative is entirely forgettable and somewhat trope-infested, the design and the mechanics managed to make the player feel ill at ease all the time. With almost no HUD, a feeble headlamp and weapons that need to be manually pumped/recharged or offer the choice between ‘somewhat more useless ammo’ or ‘expensive but little more powerful ammo’, I never felt like I was on top of things.
Among the most disorienting experiences are the sequences when you forced to use a gas mask, unless you want your character to slowly suffocate within 45s. Use of the gas mask drowns out environmental sounds, which are usually a cue for enemies, especially non-human ones. Instead, you are forced to listen to the sound of your own breath, getting rustier the more the filter in your mask runs down. And while there are some filters scattered throughout most levels, there is never an abundance of it.
Simply knowing that filters and therefore time are extremely limited already makes these sequences quite stressful. The gas mask impairs the field of view quite a lot, but the worse your filters get, the more water condenses on the inside of your mask. You could of course change the filters early and improve your view, but then you’d shorten the time you have left.
If you happen to be on the outside, you are probably completely lost by now. Surrounded by pits with radioactive water and the odd flying demon casting its shadow over you, how do you find back on track? Unlike Fallout 3, whose PIP-Boy 3000 interface is a pretty standard (if awkward) RPG interface disguised as an in-world artifact, in Metro 2033, in-world artifacts are your interface. Want to know your objectives and the direction? Put your weapon away and take a lot at your notepad—and do not forget to use your lighter if it is dark. There is no map, there is just a compass. Lost in the dark? Use your lighter to look at the notepad.
In some of the more open levels, this all comes together and adds up to a quite impressive experience, especially in the open-air chapters Dead City 1 & 2, Outpost, Alley and the multi-route underground level Frontline. But under all their clever disguise and disorienting design, the levels are entirely linear, and there is very little interaction with the world per se. Plucking guitar strings here and rescuing some soldiers there, finding a hidden stash or looking out some window collect points towards the ‘good’ ending, but nothing you do has an influence on the game world—and even if it did, you could not go back to check, because there is no way back.
The point were this realization is most terrible is when you enter Polis, the destination that you originally set out to reach and that shall hold salvation for you and your tribe. You are driven through a large underground Metro station and all those people are walking around, so many people to talk to, so many things to discover, but you cannot move. All you can do is move your head during those precious seconds where the game seems to promise to open up, only for a fence to close behind you. Then there’s a little room, a short scripted sequence with only the slightest hint of why things would not go the way you want them to, and then off you go, the next dark corridor, the next poisonous stretch of destroyed city awaits.
When I wrote the original post, I remembered Alley, the walk down a derelict part of the city towards the library as one of the more tense parts of the game. Since Alley itself is reasonably short, I selected it as a benchmark level, without giving much thought to the enemies. As I found out after countless runs with different hardware and different settings, the whole level is just smoke and mirrors, exquisitely crafted to freak you out. As it turns out, just running through the level does not get you killed((probably not true at hardcore difficulties)). The Nosalises turn up at always the same positions, attack a couple of times and disappear again, not even bothering to attack the other characters in the level. This makes it possible to finish the whole level in less than 60s, as opposed to the multiple attempts that I needed when I first played the level.