Metro Exodus is a grand departure for 4A Games, not just in terms of the game’s setting and how ambitious their game design is, but in how many other major game releases they’re going up against. It takes a great deal of confidence to go from releasing alongside Anthem to choosing to release earlier and go head to head with Far Cry: New Dawn, Crackdown 3, Jump Force and (prior to its delay) Dead or Alive 6. Can a cult classic series such as Metro hope to stand out from the masses?
Compared to the claustrophobia of the Moscow metro system that juxtaposed with the hellish surface that could only be survived to the sounds of your breath rasping through a gas mask, Metro: Exodus is so freeing and open feeling as Artyom and the Rangers take the Aurora armoured train and steam across the country in search of a promised land without an endless stream of mutated and human threats. Playing out over the span of a year, it’s a bit like a post-apocalyptic road trip, in which you chase this epic folly from one side of the country to the other.
Each season plays host to a different chapter and part of the country, starting in the wintry wastes of the Volga, passing through spring and on to summer as the Aurora passes through the the barren, desert-like conditions and oil fields that neighbour the Caspian Sea, which our latest hands on time introduced us to. Every new location brings with it different dangers, different human factions and people to interact with, and features its own narrative arc.
As the Aurora reaches the Caspian, the Rangers and their steed are in a sorry state. Most of the Rangers are sick from dehydration, they’ve reached the limits of their fuel for the Aurora, and they’re travelling without much clue where they’re heading. It takes moments for the Baron and his minions to make their presence known, as a ramshackle camper van races up alongside the train, its occupants start excitedly yelling about seeing a woman on the train – Artyom’s wife Anna – and then race off again. With no resources left to keep going forward, it’s time to stop, step off the train and scout out the local area.
As soon as you head toward where you last saw the car, though, a huge dark storm starts rolling in, dropping the visibility and bringing with it toxic air that forces you to put on a gas mask. It’s a great atmospheric effect, and part of a shifting day night cycle and weather system, but in this instance it nicely aligns with reaching where these bandits have holed up to try and message the Baron, only to find themselves set upon by a horde of mutants. It’s their demise that gets you the keys to their makeshift transportation.
While there’s a distinctly more open feeling to the world, it’s also nicely contained and plays well with a driven narrative path that runs through it. There’s a hint of sprawl, and you can head off the beaten path to explore, follow up on side goals, and hunt for secrets. Heading toward a lighthouse on the other side of the area, I passed through a beached tanker that was being stripped for parts. You can happily drive past and head to the next main objective (following the notes on your clipboard and compass, just as in previous games), or stop and get out. It’s only if you do the latter that you really understand the monstrosity of the Baron’s regime, with slaves working day and night, praising fire gods and with barest grasp of communication. I didn’t feel particularly guilty as I snuck through and took down all the guards who were keeping cosy on the upper decks.
The stealth action gameplay remains as strong as ever in Metro, and it’s almost a necessity when you have to watch every bullet and save them up for the climactic battles that churn through your ammunition. Knowing when and how to engage is a big part of the game’s feel, and within a more open setting it starts to remind me a little of immersive sims like BioShock or, perhaps more pertinently given 4A’s origins, STALKER. Then again, being able to hop into a vehicle and roam the map, mowing down mutants and wandering bandits while the Baron makes pronouncements over the radio has a definite Far Cry vibe to it.
A real strength of Metro: Exodus is in its crafting and customisation system. Scavenging doesn’t lumber you with dozens of duplicate parts, but rather gives you the raw resources that can be used to craft new ammunition and health kits when you get to a worktable. However, even when you’re out and about, you can pull out your backpack for some more limited crafting, and also teardown the weapons you’re currently carrying, swapping out different barrels, sights, stocks and attachments as you see fit. The pneumatic Bastard Gun returns as your main utility weapon, and it’s more flexible than ever before. It’s silent to use, and can either be used at short range or expanded until it’s practically a sniper rifle.
One of the real fascinations of a post-apocalyptic setting is just how the world got to this place, and Metro: Exodus looks to build upon that. The blind faith of the Rangers, perhaps stemming from their desperation to find a better world, inevitably leads them from one empty clue and hope to another. Here in the Caspian they’re looking for a military bunker that might house some modern satellite maps, but it’s obviously been long abandoned once a friendly local points you in the right direction. The environmental storytelling here, of finding decaying corpses in various positions, of how the records go from filling every slot on the shelves, to there then only being a few left to sift through, it draws me deeper into the setting.
Perhaps my biggest concern is that you can see the joins, see where the strings are being pulled to create this world. Whenever you’re dealing with NPCs, their actions don’t quite hang together as fluidly as you might expect from other AAA titles, and there’s odd breaks in their dialogue that are jarring when they drop in talk of your exploits elsewhere within the area. Additionally, when Ayrtom is heard during loading screen voiceovers, it’s strange that he doesn’t engage and converse with characters in the game. The silence of this protagonist is an unusual one.
Yet, I can’t help but like Metro: Exodus, warts and all. In some ways the flaws add to the charm of the game in a positive way. It shows where this game has come from and where this series could head in the future. With expansive new gameplay, a sweeping new story and plenty of variety as you trek across Russia, it’s clear that leaving the isolated Moscow metro is the the best thing that could have happened for the series.