Games 3/23/10: Metro 2033, Calling, Perfect Dark

Metro 2033
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: 4A Games/THQ
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs, violence)

Give 10 nitpickers 10 hours each to run through “Metro 2033,” and each probably would emerge with a unique laundry list of missteps. There’s no multiplayer. The gunplay is just a touch off. Checkpoints occasionally appear before unskippable (and, upon failure to reach the next checkpoint, repeating) cutscenes. The running animation looks hilariously wrong. The voice acting cuts out when it shouldn’t. Human enemies have weird, sometimes amusing A.I. patterns, and they occasionally can withstand a perfect headshot and continue functioning like it’s a bee sting.

But a staunch dedication to atmosphere — and a willingness to do anything, even to the player’s occasional temporary detriment, to creatively make that ambience sing — is perhaps the one thing that makes grievances easiest to forgive. Despite dealing with themes (Nazis, Soviets, mutants, post-apocalyptic wastelands and subterranean warfare) other games have wrung dry, it’s this attention to mood that makes “2033” not only forgivable, but an arguable must-play.

“2033” doesn’t get terribly fancy with the basics. Mutant enemies act like rabid mutants, and soldiers, despite the aforementioned occasional A.I. disorder, act like soldiers. Controls, though a slight touch loose, are more than sufficiently solid, and “2033” rewards ammo conservation and tactical warfare over rushing and spraying anything that moves.

But “2033’s” setting, a modern society made post-apocalyptically archaic, trickles into those basics. The result of that infection is intriguing initially and enthralling once the full might of surprisingly cinematic story is felt.

If, for instance, those slightly loose shooting controls were an accident, they’re a happy accident that creates the sensation of using tinpot weaponry that still packs a punch. Gas masks are prone to visor cracks that can prove fatal if a replacement isn’t found in time, and the stock flashlight comes with a ridiculously oversized manual charger that players must pump with the right trigger. Pre-war, military-grade ammunition doubles as valuable currency toward the purchase of shoddier bullets in higher quantities — a must, given the scarcity of ammunition in general. Homemade pipe bombs substitute for grenades, “towns” consist of dingy subway corridors, and the sky is an object of legend more than a daily reality.

The mastery of atmosphere doesn’t hide the aforementioned quirks in “2033’s” gameplay, nor does it make the occasional bout of crushing difficulty any easier for casual gunslingers to swallow. (Tip: There’s zero shame in playing this one on Easy.)

But for every shaky patch, “2033” has a shining moment waiting nearby. An escort mission that finds players carrying a kid on their backs significantly hampers player aim with realistic kid-on-back physics, but it eschews the trappings that typically make escort missions so contemptible by not allowing the kid to wander into harm’s way. And the game’s centerpiece, an enormous mission that finds players separately infiltrating both the Nazi and Red Army front lines, is a spectacularly fun confluence of open-ended tactical warfare. “2033” rewards an achievement to players who kill every last soldier as well as those who sneak past both lines without hurting a fly, and the multithreaded design of the level easily allows for either possibility and numerous more in between.

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Calling
For: Wii
From: Hudson Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)

There’s a line horror games must toe in order to entertain players while simultaneously turning them into nervous wrecks, and despite doing some things pretty well, “Calling” stumbles and falls clean off it shortly after it sticks its foot out.

It isn’t all bad at first. In fact, “Calling” gets off to an interesting start because of how quickly its clever and unfortunate sides begin butting heads.

The first-person perspective, for instance, falls prey to the general messiness that ensues when using the Wii remote to control a first-person camera. But it’s also pretty cool to play a game that isn’t a shooter from this perspective, and the lack of full-body awareness lends some extra discomfort to an interactive ghost story that favors cramped rooms and dark hallways.

“Calling’s” interface and exploratory controls contradict similarly. Opening a door, for instance, takes two presses of the A button and a swing of the remote, while examining objects and interfacing with the game’s virtual cell phone is downright laborious. But the need to make deliberate actions in the unpredictable dark enhances the tension for obvious reasons, and where the game’s visual interfaces sometimes fail, its aural design — particularly with regard to that cell phone and the role it plays in the story — is excellent.

But “Calling’s” divergencies descend from interesting to obnoxious as soon as players find their characters endangered, and between the game’s inability to (a) translate that danger into exciting gameplay and (b) do anything but repeat itself ad nauseam outside of some very uninspired puzzles, the fight between clever and unfortunate quickly turns lopsided.

Every now and then, while traversing one of “Calling’s” vaguely designed levels — lots of locked doors and hallways that all look the same, to paint a picture — players will come under attack by one or more spirits. Allow too many hauntings to spike the playable character’s heart rate past a certain level, and it’s game over.

But rather than ratchet up the tension, all these chases do is trigger frightfully annoying exercises in which players must aimlessly scramble to find the one random door or hallway that goes somewhere and, upon inevitably getting stopped by a ghost while doing so, shake the remote furiously until it backs off. Scramble, get caught, shake, repeat, repeat, repeat.

The transgressions of “Calling’s” opaque level designs would be forgivable if breaking free of a ghost required some kind of skillful play, but it doesn’t: Shaking the remote aimlessly isn’t fun, and it’s a tiresome pain to do so every 20 seconds while reconciling the sloppy camera and deducing which door is the one that actually goes somewhere.

Worse, once players find that door, all that awaits behind it is more of the same until the game ends — or half-ends, at which point “Calling” deals out a fake ending and makes players replay the whole thing to see the entirety of the story. (No joke.) Nothing about the storyline justifies repeating these exercises once, and Hudson has lost its mind by demanding players repeat the repetition to see how “Calling” ends.

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Perfect Dark
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Rare/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, violence)
Price: $10

No piece of entertainment of any kind has aged as gracelessly as older first-person shooters, which look like cave drawings next to their modern counterparts and often play just as unflatteringly. It’s with that in mind that the blissfully nostalgic return to “Perfect Dark” with a level head, lest their memories of 2000’s best shooter undergo harsh tarnishing. “Dark’s” story holds up reasonably well by today’s standards, and some of the things it does with regard to special enhancements — remote-control spy cams, unique weapons with creative alternate fire mo
des, unlockable mods for a multiplayer suite (four players locally, eight online, with combinations of the two allowed) that’s faster and looser than most modern-day counterparts — are unique enough to still be special. But even with a new dual-stick control scheme, “Dark’s” aiming mechanism and oppressive reliance on auto-aim feel really archaic, and players looking for a lean button will be dismayed to discover they can’t even jump. The smooth framerate and high-definition sheen are welcome upgrades to “Dark’s” rough visual exterior, but neither is nearly radical enough of a makeover to hide the engine’s age, and the overriding level design — lots of identical corridors, doors and elevators — would never fly in a brand-new product.