The Metro series is something of a small miracle. Based on a cult sci-fi novel by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky and developed (at least for the first two games) on a tenth of a competing game’s budget in a country literally going through a revolution and cut off from the outside world, it’s still managed to find global success and praise from fans and critics alike. So much so that developer 4A games has since been able to move their offices from the Ukraine to Malta to work on Metro Exodus, a truly AAA sequel to Metro 2033 and Metro Last Light and their biggest and most ambitious game yet. Not too shabby for a niche, story-heavy survival horror game set in the Russian underground. Well, until now.
Yes, Metro Exodus’ biggest shake-up from its predecessors is that it takes protagonist Artyom and his ragtag team of heroes on adventure above ground, all across the nation of Russia aboard a repurposed locomotive called the Aurora. Let’s wind it back a bit first though and talk about the game’s intro, which is awesome. The world has already seen the game’s initial, beautiful title sequence produced by Elastic (Westworld, Game of Thrones), and this is followed by a really neat scene in which Artyom rides a train passing through the Metro underground as he recalls the events prior to Exodus and events seen from the windows mirror his story. These smart, slick moments are an instant reminder that this is a series whose success is, in no small part, due to its fantastic storytelling and presentation.
Next stop, Eurovision!
Once the game starts proper we find Artyom living out his days in the safety of the Metro with his wife, Anna. Happy, but plagued by thoughts and visions of the wider world and the possibility of other survivors of the nuclear fallout some twenty years ago, Artyom takes to popping outside on the regular and scoping things out. Of course it’s not long before his curiosity gets the better of him and he sets off a chain of events that has him leaving the underground for good alongside Anna, her Commanding Officer father and a crew of other Rangers in search of the true answer as to just what’s transpired above ground over the last two decades. To do so, they commandeer a train which they dub the Aurora, and set off to follow the only clues they have about life outside of the Moscow Metro.
It’s this grand journey aboard the Aurora that forms the base structure for Metro Exodus’ story and gameplay. While not strictly an ‘open world’ game, Exodus does feature a number of fairly large, open environments that make up the bulk of the game’s chapters. As Artyom and crew attempt to take the Aurora cross-country in search of a new home, they find themselves up against obstacles or circumstances that keep them rooted in a particular place for long stretches of time. Beginning with the frost-covered lakes of Moscow in Winter before drastically changing things up with a sun-drenched desert as they visit the dried-up Caspian in Summer, and then the dense forests of the Taiga, Exodus features exponentially more environmental variety than the series has seen before. The sandbox-style areas don’t signal a sudden shift to a more free-form game, mind, but they inject just the right amount of player agency into the adventure to make things feel fresh and modern.
The changing locales and conditions inform much of the gameplay, too. Moscow is of course closest to the other games in look and feel, kicking things off with the series’ trademark medley of human and mutant encounters in dense and frigid environments where resources are scarce and survival depends on playing safe and smart. Once the Aurora’s crew reach the desert though and find themselves tackling camouflaging sand mutants and fanging it across dunes and oil fields in beat-up vans, it’s clear that Metro is no longer a one-trick pony. Each area culminates in a confrontation with a ‘boss’ type individual, be they a cult leader, a bandit kingpin or just some horrendous beast, and all end with variable results that have far-reaching consequences for the game’s finale. It’s easy to see where Metro Exodus has taken inspiration from its contemporaries like Far Cry and Tomb Raider in adopting this new structure.
That last statement may have Metro fans’ alarm bells ringing, but fear not. Despite these major departures, Exodus feels unequivocally like a proper Metro game. Whether boating across freezing waters, skulking through forests under cover of night or spelunking in spider caves, none of the series’ classic survival/stealth/horror gameplay has been lost in translation. You’ll still need to scrounge for the scant few resources available to keep your equipment and gas mask maintained, you’ll still need to manually charge your flashlight battery and you’ll still always be better off stabbing a bad guy in the back lest you waste precious ammunition ahead of a tussle with a man-sized mole rat. Even the move to bigger spaces does nothing to hurt the franchise’s identity, which each location featuring a number of smaller, tightly designed areas that feel right at home in a Metro game and constitute the bulk of the game’s meaningful content.
Despite these major departures, Exodus feels unequivocally like a proper Metro game
Pin-up posters? Check. Human heads in fridge? Yep, typical bachelor pad
nemoфиндинг немо (2003)
It’s in these moments, fending off giant spiders with a flashlight and a shotgun or quietly infiltrating a ramshackle camp on top of a swamp that Metro Exodus is at its best. That’s not to say that meandering around an open wasteland in search of juicy points of interest isn’t fun, but the game’s tight gunplay and stealth really come into their own. Sneaking through enemy encampments takes proper consideration for your visibility, the sounds of both your movements and your immediate surroundings, the time of day and even the mood of your enemies. A lone, nervous bandit will react to a candle mysteriously going out with the appropriate sense of urgency, while a gaggle of soldiers having a tea break around a fire might not even notice one of their buddies take a knife to the back, especially with the sounds of a nearby waterfall to drown out any noise.
Those that like to play fast and loose aren’t left wanting, either. When it does come time to throw down, Exodus provides a great assortment of guns and throwables to wreck house with. The assortment of pistols, rifles and shotguns seems standard to begin with, but the game’s crafting and weapon modification systems allow for a great degree of customisation. Each gun can be equipped with modified stocks, barrels, magazines and scopes, with some mods being so extensive that they radically change the gun’s class type. Given how hard ammunition is to come by and how tough some enemies are, it’s great that players can tailor their loadout to such a fine degree. The pick of the bunch for weapons though is the Tikhar, a rifle that Metro fans will recognise that gets a starring role in Exodus as both a powerful and very upgradeable gun and a saving grace out in the field thanks to ammo that can be crafted at any time.
The crowds at the t.A.T.u. concerts get pretty crazy
The team’s penchant for jaw-dropping environments dripping in detail hasn’t been lost in the expansion either, instead only being multiplied exponentially. Metro Exodus is a gorgeous thing to behold, feeling unbelievably tangible and handcrafted from its smallest spaces to its largest. Lighting, particle effects and moody audio especially add to an atmosphere thicker than the game’s Russian accents, and there’s even a great ‘photo mode’ with some pretty slick filters to use. Metro fans are used to seeing a fair share of issues that come part and parcel with the team’s ambition though, and Exodus is no exception. Along my journey I ran into a number of bugs and issues ranging from minor visual oddities, to quirks like enemies walking through the air, up to hard locks and freezes that forced me to close and restart my game. The other negative is a chaotic audio mix with voiceover and background music levels all over the place and not enough options to correct them. Subtitles wind up being a must. Thankfully the worst of any real issues only cropped up a handful of times across my twenty-odd hour playthrough, but they’re a blemish upon an otherwise fantastic presentation.
All of these pieces gel into what represents an ambitious undertaking for a developer like 4A, but Exodus is proof that they have what it takes. Taking a previously very tightly-directed and linear experience and blowing it wide open could have spelled doom for a series that found success in those exact qualities, but they’ve pretty much nailed it. Any fears that I had about tone or pacing were misplaced, and in fact the tone and pacing are damn near perfect. For every balls-out firefight there’s a carefully orchestrated, stealthy recovery mission. For every creepy tunnel full of radioactive sea serpents there’s an impromptu sing-along on a transcontinental train ride across the valleys. I don’t know what it is, but despite some clear budgetary deficiencies, 4A has always managed to make human spaces and interactions in these games feel so tangible. Exodus’ story works so well because, silent protagonist problems aside, the relationships that Artyom builds with his fellow crew shine through so strongly that their stakes feel that much more important. Cue my disappointment at getting the ‘bad’ ending thanks to the unforgiving autosave system locking me into it before I realised I’d made a mistake.
Metro Exodus does the unimaginable and successfully translates a mostly linear and story-heavy franchise into a sprawling, epic adventure with plenty of ‘open world’ moments and does so without losing any of the series’ unique personality. Most impressive of all it takes what was a very niche and even slightly unapproachable cult hit and opens it up to a wider, modern audience with nothing but the utmost of care for its current fanbase. For an embattled developer with their roots in a crowded office made of trestle tables and folding chairs to pull all of this off with a game as well-rounded and powerful as Metro Exodus is nothing short of exemplary.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher