I remember the moment it happened with me and Metro 2033. I hit the Back-button to check my objectives and was surprised to see my character, an everyman named Artyom, pull out a physical clipboard with notes scribbled on it and a built-in compass. Not only did I need to pull the Right-trigger to look at it, I needed to pull the Left-trigger to ignite a lighter because the dim glow of the Moscow subway tunnels in which much of the game takes place wasn't enough to read by.
It was a little thing, but such a clear indicator that this was a game Ukranian developer 4A Games had put its heart in to and, in a sense, it gave me permission to put mine in as well.
Like anyone who's ever been in love, at first I found it hard to believe how much was right about Metro 2033. It's a world where the remnants of humanity have been driven underground by a cataclysmic event, but it's a far cry from the isolated feel of a Fallout 3. These tunnels and stations teem with life, almost to distraction. When you reach one of the few safe zones, you'll almost wish you could stop the conversations, songs and games going on around you, so you can take them in one at a time.
Though the writing and acting of the characters that Artyom meets in the tunnels isn't necessarily profound, it feels authentic to the world, and often quite funny.
The one accusation that I've really got no answer for? The shooting isn't very good.
Even when it's just you and a few dozen of the mutants you battle throughout the game as you try to save your home station from their advances, the incredible power of immersion in Metro 2033 is constantly keeping you engaged. Instead of bothered, I was charmed by the way I had to monitor the filters for Artyom's gas mask to protect him as he wandered the poisoned remains of Moscow's surface; and you'd assume I'd be annoyed by the occasional need to pump a hand-powered generator to juice up my night vision goggles or headlamp -- but I wasn't. These little touches don't have a huge bearing on the game, but their impact on keeping you invested in the world? Incalculable.
There's a similar amount of detail in Artyom's weapons and the world he occupies. Its color palette, which typically ranges from gunmetal gray to ash white, may not be the most inspiring, but it lends the game a somber almost peaceful feeling that you don't see too often in first-person shooters.
You have to reset this dial on your watch to keep track of your gas mask filter. No, really.
... Okay, so, I think I've gone far enough without admitting to you something that you might have already figured out: I don't usually fall in love like this with perfect games. Maybe that allows me to feel like I'm the only one who really appreciates a certain flawed game; or maybe my Baptist upbringing instilled me with a repressed self-loathing -- I don't know. But the more I played of Metro 2033's ten or so hours, the more I started to dread the "you just don't know her like I know her" conversations I would have to have in the coming weeks.
The one accusation that I've really got no answer for? The shooting isn't very good. Weapons feel criminally underpowered, and enemies seem to be impervious to damage during certain animations (doubly frustrating considering the scarcity of ammunition).
Also, the AI is sometimes terrible. It's not uncommon for a n enemy soldier that's a couple of feet away to completely forget what he's doing and just stand there, dumbly waiting for you to blast him to St. Petersburg.
Metro 2033 is also an unforgiving experience, even beyond the combat. Though I might argue that the game's propensity for blowing you up with practically invisible tripwire at inconvenient times is a great way to keep your attention on the game itself, I understand you may not see it that way when you've been reduced to a chunky-style, tunnel puddle for the third time in as many minutes.
Do you see? Do you see what I did there? The game's been out at retail for all of a few hours, and I'm already making excuses for it. But what can I do about a game that makes me physically pump a pneumatic shotgun for additional damage? How am I supposed to cast aside an in-game clipboard? It's just not within my power.
I can't excuse Metro 2033's failings, but I'm more than happy to defend how much it does right. And if you can't defend something you love, what's the point of falling in love in the first place?
Editor's note: This review is based on pre-release Xbox 360 review code provided by THQ.