by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
03/23/2010 | 02:03 PM
The Fallout gaming universe needs no recommendations. The first two games of the famous series became the icons of the post-apocalyptic genre and the third game, although dramatically different from its predecessors, enjoyed a warm welcome from the gaming audience as well. Fallout 3 is often criticized by hardcore fans for digressing from the canon and having a too short main plot line, but anyway. Following the success of this series, many developers tried to strike gold from the post-apocalyptic mine, but it turned out that the survival on the ruins of civilization after a global catastrophe could only be fun if there was some special feature in the gaming universe. The difference between Fallout and the numerous attempts at mimicking it was that Fallout showed a strangely addictive, even though gloomy, world with unique culture and aesthetics. Most of the clones just couldn’t offer that.
Not all of such attempts failed, though. One of the more successful ones is the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series which builds upon the disastrous Chernobyl story, the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic novel, and the famous Stalker movie by Andrei Tarkovsky. Despite a very long time it had taken to develop (started in 2001, the first game was completed in 2007 only), S.T.A.L.K.E.R. gained enough recognition among gamers worldwide. Its example seems to prove that a post-apocalyptic game has to build upon a solid cultural background to be a success. This made the trick for Fallout and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Will it work for the 3D shooter Metro 2033 we are going to review today?
The game is set in Moscow, 2033. The fire of the worldwide nuclear war started by China quickly embraced the entire planet and consumed all major cities, the hearts of civilization. The civil defense systems reacted quickly and effectively, Moscow residents evacuating underground into the intricate network of the Moscow subway system. (As a matter of fact, this feature has indeed been implemented in the Moscow subway since the Cold War times. Under the threat of a nuclear attack, the stations and tunnels can serve as bomb shelters with filtering and ventilation utilities, hermetic gates, etc. Of course, the Moscow subway is inferior to the famous Vaults from Fallout in terms of comfort and security, but people being evacuated wouldn’t care much about comfort anyway, we guess. And as opposed to Fallout, no inhuman government-sanctioned experiments over the saved people are supposed to be carried out there. Although, who knows?
The Metro 2033 novel by Dmitry Glukhovsky narrates that about 40-50 thousand people have survived by the year 2033 out of the originally saved 70 thousand, which may be viewed as the author’s endorsement of the protective properties of the Moscow subway. At the moment of the attack, the single network of stations was split into multiple segments by the hermetic gates. As a result, in the decades of life underground, the isolated subway stations have transformed into mini states with various goals and ideologies, from communist and liberal to fascist. People keep on living by any means possible – growing edible mushrooms, breeding domestic animals, fighting rats and each other. Trade has developed, using the pre-war military grade bullet as currency. This is the background for the book as well as for the game inspired by it.
The book and the game have the same protagonist called Artyom. And his goal is just as simple as that of most other heroes – in Fallout, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and now in Metro 2033. He must save the world. Living at the VDNKh station, the hero has to make a trip to a kind of the capital of the subway system that is called Polis and occupies four stations. This is where the cultural, military and spiritual elite of the underground world is. Besides everything else, they are busy studying pre-war books since one of the stations of the Polis is the Lenin Library. The primary goal of the hero is to find out if the Polis people can help VDNKh with the problem of the Dark Ones – mutants that are making attacks on the neighboring station. The mysterious Hunter goes first on this mission, getting Artyom’s word to go to Polis if Hunter himself doesn’t turn up the next day. It also transpires that Artyom was the cause of the Dark Ones as he had accidentally opened up a hermetic gate separating the neighboring station from the rest of the word some 10 years ago. Radiation breeds aggressive mutants – that’s the rule of the genre established by Fallout and carried on by S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
The Hunter doesn’t return and Artyom joins his friend who’s going in a party to the Rizhskaya station to lay out a phone cable and negotiate on joining it to VDNKh. Odd and inexplicable things occur to the party members on the way, Metro 2033 resembling the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series with its anomalies here. Still, the hero gets to the goal of the journey where he is asked to serve as a guide to the Sukharevskaya station. And then the story begins to unfold rapidly. We won’t tell you the whole plot. Suffice to say, the original novel released in 2005 has been a bestseller translated into dozen languages and published in over half a million copies. This makes up for a huge background worthy of a video game. The author Dmitry Glukhovsky hadn’t planned anything like that, of course, when he was contacted by a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. developer who suggested to use Metro 2033 as the literature source for a post-apocalyptic project. The writer agreed. The resulting game was officially released on March 16 in the USA and Germany and on March 19 in the other regions of the world.
Besides conveying the book’s original atmosphere, the game developers focused on technical innovations. Metro 2033 runs on 4A Games’ proprietary multi-platform engine codenamed 4A. It has nothing to do with the X-Ray engine installed into the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series projects and offers a broad range of features including:
That’s impressive indeed and we wonder if today’s GPUs can handle all this stuff. We’ll check this out soon enough. Right now, let’s learn more about the engine. Besides the advanced graphical capabilities, the 4A engine implements a complex physics model based on PhysX technologies. It can use any means possible to calculate physical effects: CPU cores, Ageia accelerators, Nvidia’s GeForce series cards. The following features are supported:
So, the developers have something to be proud about here but the brave experiments with the physical model can bring Nvidia’s solutions to their knees by utilizing some of the GPU resources for physical computations. We will see in our practical tests if this is indeed so.
Metro 2033 is positioned as a survival shooter with RPG elements, but in a few minutes of playing it we realized that the game did not have much RPG, actually. In fact, it is a regular first-person shooter, although without such typical elements as health and ammo indicators. This makes the game more realistic, but still you do get all the necessary info when you need it, including subtitles. There is a small crosshair sight which is enough to aim properly. The visuals are impressive, especially the fanciful play of light in the dimly lit underground stations. Despite being a multiplatform project, the PC version of the game has highly detailed textures, as opposed to many other multiplatform games whose developers reduce the quality of textures without any scruples.
Alas, Metro 2033 has linear levels because it follows the novel closely. The subway system itself does not give you much freedom: your movements are naturally limited by the tunnels and stations. Occasionally, the protagonist goes up to the surface to take a look at the dark sky of the nuclear winter.
You won’t find sunlit lawns in Fallout 3, either, but Metro 2033 is an even gloomier world, which is another point for a survival horror game. It abounds in stealth opportunities. You can destroy any light source that prevents you from moving stealthily. When in darkness, you can easily kill all the enemies who cannot see you unless equipped with night vision devices.
You won’t be able to carry lots of weapons with you as you did in the good old Doom. You can have a gun, a knife, one of the more serious weapons, grenades and custom-made weapons. Again, there is little of RPG in Metro 2033 but a lot of traits of a well-made post-apocalyptic shooter.
We now only have to check out how demanding this shooter is in terms of hardware. Its Xbox 360 version is simpler, but the PC one is not, despite the developer’s claim that weak configurations are supported, too. Let’s check this out right now.
To investigate the performance of contemporary graphics accelerators in Metro 2033 we put together the following testbed:
The graphics card drivers were set up to deliver the highest possible quality of texture filtering and to minimize the effect of software optimizations used by default. We enabled transparent texture antialiasing. As a result, our ATI and Nvidia driver settings looked as follows:
The game officially supports regular MSAA antialiasing modes, but the current version of Metro 2033 game gets extremely affected by them: the performance immediately drops by more than half, so that even Radeon HD 5970 can’t ensure comfortable gaming fps rates. Therefore, we decided to runs the tests in Very High detail mode with enabled anisotropic filtering but with disabled FSAA, especially since in this case the game does apply some “analytical antialiasing” on its own.
Besides that, we also disabled “Advanced DOF” and “Tesselation” DirectX 11 options, because Nvidia solutions don’t support them and the tests must be performed in fair conditions.
15 modern graphics cards participated in our today’s performance test session. They can be split in three categories according to their price:
We ran the tests in all resolutions including only for the first group of solutions. The second group stopped at 2560x1600, and the third one, the slowest, - at 1680x1050.
Although the game displays detailed info about the features and functionality of its engine, there are very few settings in it: you can only change the overall image quality from “low” to “very high” using “Quality” option or enable/disable the above mentioned DirectX 11 options - “Advanced DOF” and “Tesselation”.
Metro 2033 doesn’t have any built-in benchmarking tools, therefore we used Fraps utility version 3.1.2 in the manual mode to record the average and minimal fps rate. As usual, to minimize the measuring error, we took the average result of three combined runs for further analysis.
Even with FSAA turned off, we can only get an acceptable frame rate across all the resolutions form the monstrous Radeon HD 5970 which is well known for its high power consumption and steep price. The more affordable Radeon HD 5870 is good up to the resolution of 1920x1200, so it is going to feel even more comfortable in computers with Full-HD monitors (1920x1080). We’d call the Radeon HD 5870 the ideal choice for playing Metro 2033.
Nvidia’s solutions are less successful in comparison with their opponents even though we disabled the DirectX 11 options for the ATI Radeon HD 5000 series. The dual-processor GeForce GTX 295, while successfully competing with the Radeon HD 5870 in average performance, can hardly deliver a playable bottom speed at 1680x1050. The GeForce GTX 285 can cope with this game at the highest graphics quality settings only at the resolution of 1280x1024.
So, the Radeon HD 5870 seems to be the optimal choice in the premium category. Its senior cousin Radeon HD 5970 is rather too expensive, hot and voracious (but you may prefer it if you want the highest performance possible today).Unfortunately, there is no good news in this sector for Nvidia’s fans.
We can see the winners in the more affordable category right away. These are the junior models of the Radeon HD 5800 series: the 5850 and the 5830. The former is almost as good as the Radeon HD 5870 in this game, except that its bottom speed is barely comfortable. But although we recorded 23 fps, we did not feel this affected the smoothness of gameplay. Considering its electrical, thermal and noise characteristics, the Radeon HD 5850 once again proves to be the most well-balanced graphics card of early 2010. The Radeon HD 5830, on its part, performs well enough for its price category, delivering a playable frame rate in Metro 2033 up to the resolution of 1680x1050. As we already know, the Radeon HD 5830 has larger dimensions (in some versions) and higher power consumption (due to the higher GPU clock rate) than those of the Radeon HD 5850, but the latter is faster. However, the more appealing price may counterbalance those drawbacks. Besides, the Radeon HD 5830 is still far more economical than the Radeon HD 4890 and, unlike it, is a full-featured DirectX 11 device.
Although not as brilliant as the more advanced solutions, the Radeon HD 5770 copes with Metro 2033 at the highest graphics quality settings if you play the game at the lowest resolution. Besides, this affordable graphics card is actually faster than the more expensive Nvidia GeForce GTX 275 whose speed bottoms out to below comfortable even at 1280x1024. The GeForce GTX 260 is even worse than that as its average speed is barely playable while the bottom frame rate is too low for comfortable play. Alas, this is one more defeat of Nvidia in the struggle against the new technologies and architectural solutions implemented by AMD’s graphics department in the ATI Radeon HD 5000 series.
It is easy to give recommendations in this product category. The Radeon HD 5850 is for those who have $350 and the Radeon HD 5830/HD 5770 are for users with smaller computer budgets. The former card can run Metro 2033 at any popular resolution including 1920x1080 and 1920x1200 at the highest graphics quality settings. The other two cards can be used to enjoy the game at the highest settings but lower resolutions. The Radeon HD 5830 looks more appealing than the Radeon HD 5770 but is also considerably more expensive.
The results of the mainstream graphics cards suggest that Metro 2033 is not really designed for them. Even the Radeon HD 5750 at 1280x1024 is not fast enough to deliver a playable speed. The rest of the cards in this category are no better than 15-20 fps, making you lower the graphics quality settings or discard such products altogether. The GeForce GTS 250 should be given credit for keeping a good pace despite its respectable age, but the only feat it is capable of is to beat the obviously low-end Radeon HD 5670 which is not positioned as a really fast gaming solution. The graphics cards like Radeon HD 5570 and GeForce GT 240, let alone GeForce GT 220, can only act as hardware accelerators of a beautiful slideshow in this game.
So, there is only one graphics card you may want to try to play Metro 2033 on by lowering the graphics quality settings. It is the Radeon HD 5750. The rest of the mainstream solutions are hopeless here.
The results we have gathered so far indicate that Metro 2033 is a demanding application, nearly as difficult on the graphics subsystem as the notorious Crysis and Crysis Warhead. At the highest graphics quality settings you can only achieve a playable frame rate with the most expensive and advanced solutions, mostly from the ATI Radeon HD 5800 series. It is clear that Nvidia’s current products, including the GeForce GTX 295, find it hard to compete with AMD’s top-end cards. Even if their average speeds are comparable, Nvidia’s products usually have a lower bottom speed.
Now, we will try the game at different graphics quality settings and also see how much the CPU contributes to the performance of the system in when running Metro 2033. We will also check out if Nvidia’s cards can be used to play the game somehow. We took two popular cards for this test: a Radeon HD 5850 and a GeForce GTX 285. Both cards were tested together with Core i7-975 Extreme Edition and Core i7-920 processors. We ran this test at a resolution of 1680x1050 to avoid being limited by the graphic card’s performance.
For each of the five quality profiles we were recording the instantaneous performance with the Fraps 3.1.2 utility for 60 seconds. As usual, we tried to make the test scenario as variegated as possible but that was not easy due to the tunnel-like design of most of the game’s levels. Anyway, we captured a few screenshots that can help us evaluate the difference in image quality between the game’s settings profiles.
Here are the results:
First of all, we can see that FSAA does not work well in Metro 2033. It blurs the textures. Moreover, 4x FSAA leads to a 50% performance hit, which is perfectly visible in the instantaneous performance graph. The Radeon HD 5870 may even be as slow as 25fps – at a resolution of only 1680x1050 pixels! The GeForce GTX 285 is quite hopeless. Most of time its performance is below 25 fps irrespective of the CPU model, which means that the graphics card is the bottleneck. With the Radeon HD 5850, replacing the Core i7-920 with the Core i7-975 EE does improve the performance as the average frame rate grows up from 34 to 39 fps and the top speed from 48 to 56 fps. The bottom speed remains at 25-26 fps with both CPUs, though.
The Very High quality mode without FSAA delivers the best visuals although the edges of polygons are jagged as you can clearly see in the screenshot showing the primus stove with wire handle. We guess the detailed textures make up for this shortcoming, which is not conspicuous at high resolutions, especially considering the semidarkness reigning in most scenes of the game. The frame rate is overall higher here. The GeForce GTX 285 is but occasionally slower than 25 fps. The Radeon HD 5850 has no problems at all as its speed is never lower than 35 fps whatever the scene. The CPU influences the resulting performance much less than in the 4x FSAA mode. In fact, there is no influence: the results with either card are the same irrespective of whether they work together with the expensive and hot Core i7-975 EE or the more affordable Core i7-920. So, we recommend the Very High mode for all users of top-end graphics cards.
In the High mode there is some loss of detail in textures and some of the touted special effects seem to be turned off. For example, the soldier in the first screenshot looks less “glossy”. The lighting model is simplified noticeably, which can be easily seen in the bonfire screenshot, but not too much. What about speed then? Well, the diagrams suggest that there are no performance benefits in this mode. The Radeon HD 5850 was fast enough even in the Very High mode whereas the GeForce GTX 285 only speeds up from 22 to 24 fps in terms of bottom speed and from 54 to 64 fps in terms of top speed. The CPU affects the result more than in the Very High mode, but the Core i7-920 is for some reason faster than its senior cousin when working with the Radeon HD 5850. This CPU’s instantaneous performance graph looks smoother than the other CPU’s with the GeForce GTX 285, too. It must be due to the inaccuracies of the manual method of testing or, more likely, to some background services always running in the Windows 7 environment. This is the price you have to pay for enjoying multi-tasking. You can only avoid it by transitioning from the PC to game consoles.
When we choose the Normal mode, the textures lose more details and the lighting model is simplified further. This is quite clear if you compare the static screenshots scrupulously, but the difference is far from obvious in the hot action going on in the semidarkness of subway tunnels. This lowering of graphics quality settings saves the day for Nvidia’s solutions: the GeForce GTX 285 is in fact not slower than 35-40 fps in the Normal mode. There’s no point in using this mode for the Radeon HD 5850, of course. As for the CPU’s influence, the fluctuations you can see in the diagrams are largely accidental and due to the test method inaccuracies.
And finally, the Low mode is the worst-quality one in this game, yet we cannot say it is far worse than the Normal one, especially during actual gameplay. The frame rate of the game does not grow up much in the Low mode, so we don’t think it is practically useful, even for graphics cards slower than the GeForce GTX 285. The CPU’s influence is minimal and does not justify the replacement of a Core i7-920 with a Core i7-975 EE. Purchasing a Radeon HD 5850 or a Radeon HD 5870 is going to have a much stronger effect, but you wouldn’t want anything other than the Very High mode then.
Summing it up, we can note two features of Metro 2033 that you should know about to achieve highest performance and maximum image quality. First, you should not use traditional FSAA. Besides provoking a 50% performance hit, it blurs all textures. FSAA is useless in this game. And second, if your graphics card cannot deliver a comfortable speed, you should switch to the Normal mode to increase the frame rate. There is no point in choosing a lower quality mode since there is no significant increase in frame rate, especially with Nvidia’s cards. On the other hand, the game’s visuals do not degenerate much, either.
Metro 2033 is a well-made and pretty-looking advertisement of Dmitry Glukhovsky’s eponymous book. It is a visually advanced project that uses cutting-edge technologies including tessellation for DirectX 11 solutions. Its system requirements are high, especially if you want to play at high resolutions and maximum graphics quality settings. Alas, the game is nothing more than satisfactory in terms of level design and gameplay. Perhaps the fans of the survival horror genre can find their fun in crawling along dimly lit underground tunnels and shooting gigantic mutant rats, but we guess the gameplay is rather too linear and monotonic. On the other hand, we can’t say it’s the developer’s fault because the game was not conceived as a freestyle adventure with multiple endings. Instead, it rather accurately follows the events of the novel. The level design had to be restricted as well because of the same reason. As the result, the Moscow underground in 2033 is not as diverse as Fallout 3 which gave you more freedom to travel about. So, despite some cultural background, the game is not a new Fallout. In fact, this niche has long been occupied by S.T.A.L.K.E.R. with its community that has developed its own language, memes and other attributes of a full-featured subculture.
It is easy to make graphics card recommendations for Metro 2033: if you want to comfortably play at the highest level of detail and high resolutions, you should choose one of the Radeon HD 5800 series cards. The senior Radeon HD 5870 is going to perform well at resolutions up to 1920x1200. The Radeon HD 5850 makes the same resolutions playable but at a lower speed. The Radeon HD 5830 allows playing comfortably at resolutions up to 1680x1050. The expensive and noisy Radeon HD 5970 can only be recommended for users of large 30-inch monitors who want to play at the native resolution of 2560x1600. The relatively inexpensive Radeon HD 5770 will be optimal for playing at 1280x1024 and 1600x900 whereas the less advanced graphics cards will call for dropping the level of detail down to the Normal mode. The same goes for nearly all of Nvidia’s solutions, including the GeForce GTX 295 which cannot deliver a playable frame rate at resolutions higher than 1680x1050. Alas, we don’t have any good news for Nvidia’s fans who want to enjoy Metro 2033 fully. And we are not expecting any until the release of the GeForce GTX 400 series.
Like in most other games we have tested, installing a more advanced CPU cannot be of much benefit in Metro 2033. We could only observe a positive effect from that in the Very High mode together with FSAA. But as we’ve said above, FSAA is no good in this game, leading to a performance hit without improving the image quality. A Core i7-920 or similar processor on the Intel LGA1156 and AMD Socket AM3 platform is going to be just fine for this game. Instead of upgrading to a faster CPU, you should instead spend the money for a better graphics card like Radeon HD 5850 or HD 5870.
Summing up our experience with Metro 2033, we can say again that is makes a good advertisement for Dmitry Glukhovsky’s books. Developed by the same folks who created S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the game’s engine delivers pretty visuals but has high system requirements. The gloomy atmosphere of the original novel is conveyed brilliantly but Metro 2033 is no Fallout in such features as nonlinear gameplay, level design and in-game events. It is even inferior to the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series in these aspects. The fans of the survival horror genre are going to appreciate the new game, but RPG players will surely stick to Fallout 3 (whose add-ons have much lower system requirements, by the way).