If we asked you to name the largest nuclear fallout shelter in the world - what would you choose? Some remote coal mine in the Welsh hillsides where the cabinet goes into hiding? A secretive US silo in the wilds of Nebraska, exclusively reserved for Mister President? Perhaps an ex-Soviet bunker hidden deep beneath the frosty surface of Kazakhstan?
The real answer is none of these, but secret response number four, the Moscow underground Metro system. Designed to shelter the Russian populace from a Western nuclear attack, the Metro was built 65 metres below street level, reinforced with steel and concrete, sealed by high-pressure blast doors and served by an extensive underground railway network. The ultimate in state-planning, it's not only a staggering piece of engineering, but suddenly makes you wonder why Baker Street doesn't boast similar facilities.
No doubt you're thinking a history lesson in Russian state planning is a strange introduction to a gaming preview, but bear with us because at the time of writing that's exactly where we are, standing deep underground in State Object 65, a vast shelter accessed via an anonymous apartment building in a back street of the Russian capital. We're here to see Metro 2033, THQ and 4A Games' shooter which promises to be one of the more intriguing PC shooters of early next year.
Based on a best-selling SF novel by Dmitry Glukhovsky (published in English for the first time this month), Metro 2033 imagines the Russian capital thirty years after a nuclear holocaust. No-one knows how or why the original bomb dropped, but with the surface ravaged by a nuclear winter, the survivors huddle together in claustrophobic settlements centred around each Metro station. In between, the connecting tunnels form a strange and deadly world, inhabited by desperate human scavengers and deadly predatory mutants, creatures warped by the surface radiation.
Even before you launch into the full game proper, it's an impressive backstory and for the first couple of hours we played, Metro 2033 certainly lives up to this initial promise. You're cast as Arytom; a young, sub-surface dweller who's never journeyed beyond his home station, seen daylight or even trod on the surface of the world above. When an old comrade of your father's asks you to help him, it launches you on a journey to the very heart of the Metro system, to find Polis Station and warn the inhabitants of a grave new threat posed to humanity's continued survival posed by a brand new threat, homo novus, the mysterious Dark Ones.
Despite the rather hoary old 'save the world' premise, once you take your first faltering steps into Metro 2033, you'll soon forget any reservations. The game drips with atmosphere and the proprietary engine and clever use of first-person and point-of-view techniques quickly immerse you into the grungy, underground purgatory which has become mankind's last refuge. The memorable characters, grim humour and meticulous incidental detail of the human settlements contrast starkly with the dark eerie tunnels and brief bursts of savage combat in between, and quickly make Arytom's struggle your own.
With such a strong narrative base, Metro 2033 is big on ambience and immersion but its pacing is equally enjoyable. Although it's essentially linear, the dour, though equally captivating game world is fascinating to explore with a good mix of free-form combat and set pieces keeping the story rolling at a good lick.
One moment you're racing along in a handcart, pursued by a howling pack of mutie dogs, the next being hurled into weird hallucinatory dream sequences as the dark ones make their presence felt, and finally, when you mask up and take your first tentative steps out onto the surface, you really do share Artyom's sense of awe and trepidation.