After years spent struggling to survive in the tunnels of the Moscow Metro, only venturing out onto the post apocalyptic wastelands above when absolutely necessary, Artyom and the Rangers of the Order have had enough. When rumour of lands plentiful with food, without the strife and turmoil of the Metro reaches their ears, it’s no surprise that they wish to grab it with both hands, setting out across the vast expanse of Russia to search for their dream.
Metro Exodus is in many ways the polar opposite of Metro 2033 and Last Light. Where it was poisonous in those games above ground, here it’s venturing below ground that will have you reaching for your gas mask and trying to keep a beady eye on your resources. That fact alone would give the game a much freer and more open feeling, but 4A Games have resolved to create a string of large open world sandbox areas to explore, blending them together with more linear levels. There’s definitely a certain flavour from the STALKER series that some of the team worked on prior to 4A being founded, but it still has more than enough of the feel and aesthetic of Metro to it, and it looks gorgeous.
As the Aurora armoured train arrives at the Volga with the Rangers on board, they encounter barricades and signs of life, and the spectre of invading NATO forces has them jumping at shadows. Naturally, it’s Artyom that’s sent out to explore, heading toward a church in the middle of a frigid looking swamp. Here he found a group of religious fanatics, decrying the use of technology as one of the evils that led to the world’s downfall, and very quickly turning into pantomime villains for this demo’s set piece, with a mother and daughter being held captive in the bell tower – hopefully their motivations are better fleshed out in the full game, but each area will have its own stories to tell and its own enemies to face.
You have to either fight through or sneak past them, making use of the returning stealth indicator on Artyom’s wristwatch, and there’s a real scarcity to resources that will determine how you decide to go about this. It’s less of a concern when stealthily working your way through a compound patrolled by hostile humans, but potentially deadly when you might face dozens of mutants and “humanimals” in an area. You’ll be doing so while sweating over every single bullet and Molotov you’re using, constantly trying to find a way to back off and switching weapons when necessary. Naturally, landing headshots will always help, but I still ended up on a couple of occasions bashing the last creature’s head in with the butt of my gun.
Thankfully, you can now craft while you’re out in the middle of nowhere with a new crafting backpack. It lets you combine a few elements to make new bullets for your weapons, and will be invaluable when the world is so open and you don’t know when you’ll next see a workbench. It’s at the workbench that the real crafting can occur, taking any of the weapons and mixing their attachments up to sometimes quite fundamentally alter their role. Stick a silencer on and it’s great for stealth, swap out the scope to make it better at range or for night vision, add a laser dot, a magazine for a larger clip, and so on. It’s all relatively straight forward, but there’s still a rudimentary inventiveness to the weapons, which include the returning Bastard Gun and pneumatic rifle that you have to pump to give it enough air pressure to fire.
You have a degree of freedom to explore the area how you see fit, whether you do so in the day or wait until night time to cover an assault in the darkness, with the game having a day-night cycle and dynamic weather systems. With so many new characters and factions that you’ll encounter, you might want to holster your weapon to start with so they can see you’re no threat, which given the lack of resources might be a wise starting point in general. The Rangers can’t just rely on their own skill and resources, but will need to invite others in to help them, such as the mother and child rescued from the cult who then point you toward an engineer living at the top of a crane who might be able to help with repairing the Aurora.
Of course, that openness disappears as soon as you head underground and don your gas mask which, as mentioned above, is a nice reversal of the first two games. Suddenly you’re trapped in claustrophobic environment with a clock ticking down until you need to replace the filter, and your mask takes a beating as you take damage from fighting mutants, showing wear and tear, not to mention the unsettling clicking of the Geiger counter. It completely shifts the tone, bringing it back to the tighter confines of Metro 2033 and Last Light, and makes for a great change of pace, injecting a touch of horror alongside the tension of combat and survival.
Five years in the making, Metro Exodus is a huge shift from the first two games in the series, showing a real ambition and desire to do something different – apparently the art team were a bit bored of underground tunnels and wanted to explore more of the Russian setting. However, as much as the setting has shifted and changed, giving the game a much freer atmosphere, it’s still very much a Metro game.