Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition – A sign of things to come for ray tracing on PS5 & Xbox Series X|S?

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While the dawn of any new console generation brings with it excitement for the new games that will be announced and released, the early days of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S era have been just as defined by the games that seek to bridge the generational divide. There’s been plenty of games new and old turning up with patches and upgrades that add support for higher resolutions and frame rates, and for many that’s enough to get them to dive back in and savour the increased performance. Then there’s the developers that look to go far, far beyond what’s minimally expected of them. 4A Games is one such developer, and Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition is a sign of what the fledgeling new generation can really do.

Released back in March 2019, Metro Exodus originally came out for PS4, Xbox One and PC, and by all counts it was a stunning achievement – see our glowing Metro Exodus review. The game traded the series’ claustrophobic origins for broad open spaces, and with that, brought new vibrancy and variety to its post-apocalyptic world as players journeyed across Russia. That was ramped up even further by the then pioneering ray tracing effects built to support the new Nvidia RTX GPUs.

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As 4A looked to enhance the game for PS5 and Xbox Series X|S, they chose to do more than just fiddle with resolutions and frame rates. The Enhanced Edition is a huge game-wide overhaul of the game’s lighting engine to use ray tracing throughout, going far beyond what was supported on PC at launch. What’s even more impressive is that they can do this while also targeting 60fps on all three new generation consoles.

There’s a litany of new ray tracing technologies and techniques found throughout the game on console, from ray-traced lighting, to per-pixel global illumination, emissive surfaces, infinite light bounces, and so much more. What it boils down to is that every light source is now ray traced, those rays of light moving through the game world and bouncing off objects, letting the different colours they come into contact with then spread through the surrounding area, while objects project fully realistic shadows. Even compared to the original release on PC, having infinite light bounces means that a single source of bright light – say the sun streaming through a doorway – can illuminate an entire room.

Simplistically, the game’s lighting just looks that bit more naturalistic, often in a way that, if you didn’t go back and forth between the two versions of the game, you probably wouldn’t really notice at all. If you do compare the two versions though, you can really see the differences. Honestly, the lighting, look and feel of the original game were already fantastic, but Enhanced Edition brings things that much closer to reality.

You can boil them down to three different improvements. Light is a lot more directional, so if you’re talking to Miller while stood in the shade, his face will be lit from the other side as it receives bounce lighting, instead of more generally lit as in the 2019 release. Light also bounces and transfers colour from world elements it touches, and this can quite dramatically change the tone of scenes throughout the game. The tower at the top of the church in the Volga level is filled with red hues as the sunlight bounces off the furnishings, once grey interiors in the Caspian level are illuminated by the warmth of the sun bouncing off the ground through the doorway.

Even when the sun isn’t streaming through an opening, light sources are now dramatically more illuminating – a small fire can really glow up a corner in the opening tunnels of Moscow, while flares are significantly more impactful – but 4A also aren’t faking things when light isn’t there. Dark and gloomy places are often so much darker and gloomier because global illumination isn’t being emulated by artists. It makes those moments more oppressive, forcing you to turn on your flashlight, but it can also increase the dynamic range of what’s shown on screen, the stark contrast between a bright space contrasted with almost total darkness.

Stepping into a dark room often comes with a gradual build up of light in that space, simulating how your eyes will adapt to darker rooms, though this is apparently down to how the game calculates illumination from one frame to the next, adding bounce after bounce after bounce. It is this, however, that can show the limits of what the game is able to do. Most notably, the need to cull geometry and light sources that are out of sight means that you can walk into a room, only for all of these things to suddenly pop into existence and dramatically change the lighting you thought you were going to get.

It’s an all or nothing approach that is admirable, but it also means that there’s no fallback to help smooth out some of the rougher edges. It’s also an approach that seems to be hitting the game on Xbox Series S quite hard. While PS5 and Xbox Series X are able to hold their 60fps target well with a dynamic resolution and upscaling to 4K, that same 60fps target for Series S can see it drop significantly below its 1080p target and get rather fuzzy – per Digital Foundry’s excellent analysis. If there was an option to target 30fps on Series S, it could help get a cleaner, higher resolution image without so much excessive pop-in. Heck, the Series S might be better suited with a build of the non-enhanced game that lets it shoot for 60fps without ray tracing. Smart Delivery won’t let that happen, though.

Another thing worth remembering for the coming generation is that not all games are going to be able to go all-in on ray tracing in quite the same way. In many ways, Metro Exodus was perfectly placed to be an early showcase like this, the game having been designed to scale down to the base Xbox One and PlayStation 4, while 4A’s artists were already thinking about ray traced lighting for cutting edge PC GPUs. New productions for PS5 and Series X|S might want to put more resources into animation, performance capture, sheer world detail and more that might mean fully ray traced lighting is too costly to consider. We already see Sony’s first party exclusives featuring 4K30 with ray tracing and the option to turn them off for 60fps. Even so, Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition a tantalising glimpse of what could be possible, if a developer is willing to prioritise it.

So yes, there’s a few caveats,  but Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition is an incredible step forward that shows just how effective ray tracing can be on the new generation of consoles.

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