The Metro series owes a lot to the game-playing public’s desire for something truly fresh. In a market where one wrong game can spell closure for a studio, Metro developers 4A games managed to turn their dank, tunnel-crawling stealth horror shooter into one of gaming’s lesser known gem franchises.
However, after two games of claustrophobic and tense underground action, with only short excursions to the surface, the series is now finally ready to expand its scope and truly discover the world above. So, grab your gas mask filters and start cranking your flashlight charger, as Metro Exodus is going cross-country.
Opening in the post-apocalyptic Metro tunnel system of Moscow, Exodus returns to the story of Artyom, the stalker-turned-Metro-messiah. Artyom previously found himself in the middle of socio-political civil unrest that was brewing in the tiny half-life being eked by the Metro’s underground society, survivors of the original nuclear hellfire many years prior.
Artyom’s obsession that has developed over previous games became the possibility of someone – anyone – still making a life on the surface, beyond the bounds of Moscow. After the discovery of a train running on the tracks around the city (how they never noticed it before is beyond us), Artyom, his partner Anna and the rest of the crew resolve to steal it to make contact with a supposed aboveground society.
Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light had similar rhythms of play, with tooth-and-nail linear battles through the best – and worst – offered by the dilapidated remains of Moscow’s train system. Those games flowed from pin-drop stealth to frantic brutal gunfights to horrific monster encounters with impressive flow, something that made up for their sometimes inconsistent animations and mechanics. At no point in either of the previous Metro games did you feel as though you weren’t at least going somewhere – and earning every step – with the decay of the tube system often a beautiful backdrop for the hardship.
Exodus makes moves to carry over versions of the experiences had in the past games – such as the exploration of a crumbling apartment block, or the slow creep through an irradiated military outpost – and parcel them out. Instead of moving through encounters strung along by the narrative, Exodus scatters these moments across modestly vast zones, where the train – dubbed ‘Aurora’ – has stopped for one reason or another. After so much time spent with your helmet scraping the ceiling, to be cast out into the open wilderness wasteland of Russia is a tantalising, if foreboding, concept.
While trekking through the zone, you’ll discover monster-infested areas, bandit camps, and spaces belonging to humans that won’t necessarily attack you – but they sure as hell won’t trust you neither. In one moment, a group from a local technophobic cult were beset upon by an electrical anomaly, it’s electricity sparking off wildly, something that can kill you almost immediately. However, the group happened to be unwittingly beneath a metallic frame that conducted the electricity away from them, shielding them from the anomaly’s attacks. While their frantic prayers sung out underneath the crackle of the creature, they began to believe that God was protecting them from being cooked alive.
Of course, after dealing with the thing ourselves, God still got the credit.
One thing to point out about Exodus is just how much hasn’t changed, possibly a comforting thought considering the specificity of the franchise’s formula. The satisfyingly cumbersome toolset that Artyom lugs around returns, while gas masks are needed for irradiated zones, and you’ll be double checking your map and compass a lot.
New to the load-out is a backpack which acts as a mobile gun alteration set – for any attachments you find in the field – and also allows for some… wait for it… minor crafting elements! Now you’ll never be left wanting for hand grenades or literal garbage (you can throw it to distract enemies.)
The gunplay also retains its Metro flavour. Guns are distinct and specific in their uses, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and unique attributes. A series favourite, the pneumatic Tihar rifle, requires you to manually pump it to maintain the pressure needed to fire small silent ball bearings. You’ll need all the weapons you can get, as the Russian wastes are even more treacherous than the Metro itself.
However, one of the risks in taking the series above ground quickly rears its head, and it’s that exploring the post-apocalyptic Russia of Exodus is just less interesting than the winding, repurposed spaces of the underground Metro system. Exodus feels somewhat like Borderlands by way of Fallout, but 2033 and Last Light? They don’t really feel like anything else – and that’s their charm. The way the shanty towns of Polis haphazardly housed the remnants of humanity, the small nooks of respite found in corners of endless concrete labyrinths, a single lantern, flickering in the darkness…
Exodus manages to hang on to the Metro flavour in a few departments, but in its ambition to increase its scope, it runs the risk of losing its identity. It isn’t an out-an-out loss of atmosphere, but at times it feels a bit faceless, with the cracked gas mask over the screen your only reminder. It’s almost like Exodus knows this too, opening on an almost routine exploration of another part of the rail system, eventually building to a frantic escape from a pack of Watchmen, the mutated mammals that stalk the underground and surface alike.
It’s certainly easy to be impressed by the fidelity of the blasted landscape – even tiny details, like sunlight catching layers of pollution on rivers that coast the train line. This is one of the most impressively rendered expressions of the post-apocalypse yet.
The Aurora, too, is a beautiful central piece of environment design. As it carves through the snowy winter landscape in the early game, you’re able to chat with your crew members (one of whom is literally referred to as “Idiot”, which is great), fiddle with the radio to find beacons or even music, and put in your shift shovelling coal into the boiler. The space is positively covered in small pieces of environmental storytelling. It’s at times like this when the atmosphere returns, albeit one of cautious optimism, rather than the Metro’s fatalistic desperation.
It’s a shame then that within such a gorgeous world, there is still room for bugs.
Nothing game-breaking, mind. It’s small things like subtitles becoming locked on single pieces of dialogue and never moving forward. The player model becoming stuck on small bits of invisible geometry in the ground. At one point, we swear we saw an enemy appear from nowhere to start attacking. This new atmosphere that 4A Games is trying to cultivate above ground struggles in multiple ways. But then, nowadays these things are what patches are there to deal with.
It’s rather funny to reflect on something like Metro Exodus and realise that, for everything changed, it still feels deeply at home within the Metro franchise. The bizarre horror, the workmanlike approach to combat and survival, plus the ability to explore some truly weird locations makes this a welcome addition to the post-apocalyptic pantheon.
Metro Exodus is available on February 15 for PS4 and Xbox One.