Now is as good a time as any for 4A Games’ Metro franchise to emerge from its dank subterranean setting and venture out into a terribly unforgiving post-apocalyptic Russia. It’s what series protagonist Artyom has strived for all these years after all, setting out on an ambitious adventure across harsh tundras, spooky desserts and mysterious forests to desperately try and make a better life, both for himself, his now-wife Ana and his fellow Spartan rangers.
For those familiar with the series, which never enjoyed the same mainstream exposure as say Fallout or Farcry – that will change with this game – Metro Exodus takes place two years after the (good) ending of Metro: Last Light and spurs Artyom and his crew on a journey across Moscow on board a rusty locomotive dubbed “The Aurora”. What has motivated this exodus (or self-imposed exile) from the traditional Metro tunnels is not just that this small group of Spartans are now considered traitors, but the revelation that there is a fully functioning surviving government out there with what seems like promises of a radiation-free existence.
With the Metro series based on the works of Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky, Exodus is obviously first and foremost driven by narrative. That is its defining point, and the emotionally rich and incredibly resonant story that gently unfolds across biomes and between near-death encounters is amongst the greatest I have personally come across in a game. Which is why Exodus comes at the opportune time, where in the past few years games like God of War, the Uncharted series and Last of Us have been praised for their deep and affecting stories. This title will surely be joining those highly acclaimed titles, and I think anyone who plays through this properly will agree that 4A deserve the recognition.
Not only does Exodus nail the pace of its narrative, but it vindicates the entire series, justifying all that time spent in those dark tunnels sharing Artyom’s desire for something more and contextualising this as one big cinematic epic that should be experienced as a whole. That’s not me saying that you need to have played the previous Metro titles to get much out of Exodus though; while prior experience with the series is crucial to fully appreciate the story, this works just as well as a stand-alone adventure because of how vastly different it is to what has come before it.
Each of the biomes, which reflect the four seasons, bring about a clever tonal shift that’s so substantial it feels like playing a new game every time you’re thrust into a vast landscape with its own dynamic weather system, unique dangers, and insane zealots bouncing from one belief to the other. There are plenty of consistencies too, including the beasts which inhabit the surface ranging from (fast) zombie-like humanimals to giant mutated catfish (yes, giant. mutated. catfish). Gameplay is also largely the same throughout, revolving around the perfect balance of survival-horror and first-person shooter that 4A have managed.
The comparisons to Fallout aren’t unfounded, but there’s much more that reminded me of detail driven slow-burners like Dying Light (albeit, without the awesome parkour) and even Half Life. This is largely due to the juggling act between sandbox environments and intimate scripted action, a realm in which Metro has traditionally been most comfortable. Whereas a game like Fallout 4 could feel overwrought when it attempted to drive you away from the ambitious wasteland and into tunnels to hunt yet another generic super-ghoul, Exodus makes each and every stage-like environment count and unfold in controlled ways that enhance the overall story. 4A has also cleverly sprinkled these controlled environments in between and amongst the wider worlds, so there’s a good dose of both.
The focused storytelling is also embedded in all elements of this decaying world. Metro’s visual storytelling has always been a strong point, but with Exodus 4A have really taken it to another level. Each and every setting throughout the game features a high level of detail so that they all feel very lived-in, with stories to tell that you actually want to uncover. This encourages deeper exploration, even for those – like me – who sometimes get a bit too impatient and rush through certain stages. It doesn’t just add to the immersive, oppressive atmosphere of Exodus, but complements the survival mechanics and makes you truly think like someone who is trying to scavenge their way through to a better life, protecting loved ones and mourning the fallen.
Ammo is still ridiculously scarce, but you no longer have to worry about using precious bullets for currency. A dynamic and very user friendly crafting system is the core mechanic for Exodus and is designed in a logical and authentic way so as to not pull players out of the immersion. You can use workbenches at certain safe spaces to tinker on a full range of things, like make bullets, enhance or dismantle guns, or add the rare suit upgrade you just found in a lowly desert bunker; or you can use your backpack to work on certain smaller tasks on-the-fly, which includes reshaping guns in a matter of seconds (don’t add a 4x scope to a shotgun, it makes no sense and you’re just being silly) and putting together precious medkits or replacement filters for your gas mask. Just make sure you’re constantly rummaging through the ruins for the two components of all your crafting needs: chemicals and tools.
As with all Metro titles, stealth is often the best approach to everything. Even on Easy Mode, this isn’t a very forgiving game, and would rather stick as close to realism as possible than babysit wait for you to git gud at placing headshots. Guns blazing simply won’t work for a lot of situations in Exodus, and you’ll likely find yourself actively avoiding distant beasts (usually roaming humanimals) or running like hell to avoid having to waste ammo. Though, you’re often given choices on how you’d like to approach missions, and while silence is always encouraged (even from your NPC crew), it’s always really difficult to navigate some of these scenarios (especially with dogs involved) without being spotted along the way.
Another neat choice you’re given before most missions is whether to tackle it in the day or in the night. As with the weather, Exodus has a dynamic day and night cycle that has subtle effects on gameplay, mainly dictating whether you’re fighting more beasts (night), or more human enemies (day). Similarly to most other titles that offer this, you simply have to find an appropriate safe bed, set your alarm, and sleep to recover help and skip to the appropriate time of day.
With all the good about Metro Exodus, there are still some things that won’t quite gel with the majority of casual gamers out there. There’s a reason this series, though successful, hasn’t quite left the tag of “cult favourite” behind. Movement is sometimes slow and laborious, especially if you’re navigating tunnels infested with spiderwebs; makeshift guns often jam or require slow reloads (a pain in combat); as mentioned above, ammo is sometimes frustratingly scarce and sometimes tests the thin line between “okay I can do this” and “fuck this, I’m out”; and you’re just as easy to kill as your enemies. I can see some people throwing their controllers down in an emotional rage at times.
The most frustrating for me personally was the fact that Exodus auto-saves too god damn much. From load options, you’re only given two choices so it’s either start from the most previous auto-save (usually 1-2 minutes ago) or start from what is essentially the beginning of a mission or set-piece. I’ve had a few occasions where I quick saved before a situation I knew I’d find difficult (eg, one bullet, six humanimals) only to find that the game had decided to auto-save again once I’ve wasted that bullet. So I could either respawn with no bullets or start again from a save that was 13-15 minutes ago. I should also mention that load times can be ludicrously long.
A few niggling issues aside, what 4A have done with Metro Exodus is an entirely worthy experience for any gamer, irrespective of their experience with the previous two games. The richly detailed narrative, ambitious survival mechanics, and stunning visual storytelling really elevate Exodus to compete with AAA blockbusters like the Fallout and Farcry series.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Visual storytelling amongst best I’ve seen in a game; engaging, deep narrative and characters; vindicates and contextualises entire series; crafting system is easy and fun; locations are vast and keep the game feeling fresh and unpredictable.
Lowlights: Annoying auto-save habit; some small glitches at times (I had a situation where I completely froze while being attacked by humanimals and had to load to the most recent save).
Developer: 4A Games
Publisher: Deep Silver
Platforms: PlayStation 4; Xbox One; PC
Available: 15th February 2019
Review conducted on PlayStation 4 with a pre-release code provided by the publisher.