First, I'd like to point out that this game is one that really made me want to review it, because it is different from most run-of-the-mill standard first-person shooters out there. Also, it has some variation to it, in both a good and a bad way, and I find to to be a game with multiple facets.
Right, let's get started with what you see!
The game is really pretty, but then again every game is these days, so that's not reason enough to like or dislike a game, it merely is. The developers have clearly made as much effort on making a credible visual presentation as they possibly could, and it shows. What I did notice, however, was that a few of the textures were rather cheaply done, though not in the important places, but rather unimportant doors, hatches and the likes thereof. It wasn't a problem of low resolution, simply one of giving the impression that all doors and walls looked pretty much the same. Not a major issue, merely a small niggle, and one that's excusable since you can't have an infinite number of different door textures.
But textures and graphic features aren't the only things affecting how well a game looks. It's equally a matter of the animations. The way the characters move is good, if not excellent. It feels to me like the animations are the result of a developing team with competence in the field and a good eye for natural movements, but without the unlimited money supply to get all the state-of-the-art motion capture technology on board. Facial animations are rather standard, they are far better than the S.T.A.L.K.E.R games and on par with most mainstream titles, but they aren't all that articulated, and not particularly varied between individuals.
There isn't a whole lot to say about the gameplay in general; you turn, aim and press the trigger, at which point metal objects make your target dead. Therefore, we'll have to look closer at the specifics.
The controls are fairly good, if not excellent. To some degree, it feels like a game whose developers did not put particularly great effort into the aiming mechanics. It's fairly standard, but it doesn't feel as “tight”, or accurate, as, for instance, Call of Duty 2. The same applies to the mechanics of moving around the game world; they didn't quite nail the feel of a human being walking around. Again, it's nothing major, just a small niggle.
Where it deviates the most from the aforementioned S.T.A.L.K.E.R games, however, is in how you confront enemies. Of course, this game actually has a difficulty curve, rather than throwing you face first into a brick wall. You'll be sneaking around quite a bit, and charging headlong into a machine gun nest will turn you into swiss cheese, but a direct approach isn't as harshly punished, as pulling it off is by no means impossible, or even particularly difficult.
Now, the claim to fame of Metro 2033 is based on a couple of gameplay mechanics.
Firstly, we have the currency. Essentially, good ammo is money, which gives you the choice of whether to blow all your money in a firefight or on equipment. There is a problem with this, though; there is no point in the game where you actually have any need whatsoever for the pristine bullets in a firefight. Seeing as how they are generally worth five times as many regular bullets, you don't have to be a nuclear physicist to figure out that keeping the money and buying ammo for it is the most sensible course of action. Even more so if you like to use the electro driver, which more or less always one-shots enemies.
Also, and this ties into the earlier point, they don't do enough with it. Sure, having one single form of currency that always works is great and all, but when it's about ammo you'd think there would be different kinds of pristine ammo for different weapons, which there isn't. In the end, what it boils down to is bullets being another word for money, and the difference is really exclusively cosmetic. At most, the effect is one that adds to the atmosphere of the story, as it is indeed how currency is handled in the book on which the game is based, but nothing really to the gameplay itself.
Secondly, there is the gas mask. After all, you'll be trekking through parts of a nuclear wasteland, so you need a gas mask, because one of those will protect you against absolutely any environmental hazard in the entire world. But I don't think it would be fair to fault the game for that, as it is a clear representation of the environmental hazards involved. Anyway, unlike most games, which just let you put a mask on and maybe restrict your field of vision very slightly, in Metro 2033 you have a filter system where you need to replace your filter after awhile and need to scrounge for replacements to survive for any extended amount of time. It's also possible for your mask to become cracked by enemy attacks, forcing you to replace it. As if that wasn't enough, it ices over when you start running out of time on your current filter.
So, how well does this mechanic work? The way I see it, very well. Whenever you know you're in for a long journey out in the nuclear wasteland, you'll have to be pretty quick, and try to round up all the spare filters you can find. It adds a certain dimension of intensity to such parts of the game, which does wonders for the atmosphere. The fact that your mask can be damaged also adds to the atmosphere, in the same way that goo spatter and steam jets hitting Samus' visor in Metroid Prime does. Developers should really embrace this more; making the player feel like an active part of the environment can be very important, especially when that environment itself is dangerous.
[spoiler]As with gameplay, the story is overall not very different from many other stories in the world. The whole cliché of the one and only competent individual in your hometown going out to find some ancient weapon to save said hometown has been done to death, but then again every single storyline used in gaming has as well. But, again, the devil is in the details.
The way I see it, the story is presented quite cleverly. While there are moments that could clearly be defined as cutscenes, the developers seem to have taken the view that the story should take place in the game, as opposed to locked inside a room on the far side of Pluto (I'm looking at you, Final Fantasy!). This is by all means a good thing.
Alas, the further we get into the territory of good storytelling, the greater the risks seem to be. The particular problem of that kind in this game is the supposed “moral choice”-system, leading up to either the standard ending or a special, “enlightened”, one. While it does sound fascinating, it isn't so much a moral choice as a secret reward ending. Rather than having moral choices have some kind of consequences, all the good things you can do each represent one good point, and you have to accumulate eight (8) points in order to unlock the “enlightened” ending. So, not only have they boiled down moral choices to simple one-digit quantities, they also force the player to dig around for enough of those points in order for the character to understand something that the player figured out about halfway through the game.
In short, the game should be giving you a moral choice, as opposed to arbitrarily force you to dick around for hours to gather enough points for the game to hand the moral choice on a platter. Compare it to S.T.A.L.K.E.R – Shadow of Chernobyl, where the ultimate choice is yours to make, regardless of what you did previously, as you yourself are the main character. The moral choice in Metro 2033 had been helped considerably if the game had actually had dialogue options, or