War never changes, if Ron Perlman is to be believed.
Not so in the case of Metro Exodus, which drinks from the same radioactive toilet as the Fallout games. This latest entry in the post-apocalyptic FPS series shakes things up, mostly to great effect, sending Artyom above ground in a search of a new home. You remember Artyom, right? No, me neither, and I’ve played the two previous Metro games. Fortunately, there’s so much more to Metro Exodus than its bland protagonist, a character who narrates between chapters but who is infuriatingly mute, even when his wife is begging him to reply.
Rather than the main character, it’s your fellow travellers who are at the beating emotional heart of Metro Exodus, even though they’re happy to let you do the bulk of the grunt work. Leaving Moscow’s underground tunnels, previously the only safe refuge after an atomic war, your ragtag bunch “borrows” a train and heads into into the wilderness. The plot twist that enables this is a tad flimsy and does undermine the previous games a bit, apparently only for the sake of keeping Artyom around.
But the characters’ quest for a place to call home resonates so strongly that you’ll be content to overlook it. Leaving the Metro’s claustrophobic tunnels far behind, Metro Exodus is less of a survival horror experience than its predecessor. The game sports multiple environments, each divided into a chunk of open territory which you can freely roam around. Some of these areas are so large that a vehicle is the only reasonable way to travel.
That’s out of pure practicality, you understand, and definitely isn’t an excuse to joyfully smear a ghoul across your minivan’s bumper and windshield. But even if it wasn’t for the enemies that roam these areas, you’d still want to explore every inch of Metro Exodus‘ stunning landscape. The first area, a gloomy chunk of countryside, is a solid introduction to the game, if underwhelming. But it’s when you hit the game’s second zone, a vast desert where the sea has rolled back (and where you get the minivan), that the game really comes into its own.
Metro Exodus seems to think you should constantly be using stealthy tactics, to the point where characters will clumsily remind you such a strategy exists. After having single-handedly ensured the survival of the train’s crew, Artyom’s wife Anna will flippantly remark that it’s a shame you couldn’t have avoided bloodshed. Metro Exodus never forces you to be sneaky; you just feel like you’re disappointing it if you don’t.
The game sports a new crafting system which isn’t nearly as intrusive as it could be, but means you can manufacture bullets back at your base. In previous games they were a premium, but here you have much more freedom. And yes, despite promoting stealth, it does occasionally insist on locking you in a room and flinging hordes of enemies at you, all of whom must be gunned down.
Metro Exodus does give you the freedom to tackle objectives as you see fit, though, whether you’re undertaking a main mission, pursuing a side quest or just pottering around murdering people because they’ve got a big tower and if they don’t appreciate the view, you sure as hell will. But you can also count on the game’s enemies to outflank you if they get wind of your presence, which really ranks up the tension when you’re outnumbered. A feature that’s more in your favour is the ability to customise your weapon to your heart’s content.
Metro Exodus certainly does look fantastic, whether you’re gazing down at the ocean, or pushing your way through lush forest. The bulk of the game takes place outdoors, though periodically you’ll be sent down into some deep bunker. As in previous games, many of the foes you face are human, though the mutated creatures you do encounter will give you nightmares. I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say that if you’re an arachnophobe you’ll have difficulty with at least two distinct levels in this game.
What’s especially appealing about Metro Exodus‘ locations, apart from their whole post-apocalyptic vibe, is that they’re subject to the game’s day and night cycle. This in turn dictates your actions; do you head in at night, knowing you’re less likely to be seen but will also have problems getting around? Or do you wait until daybreak, to give yourself a better chance of sniping your enemies from afar? Metro Exodus does sport multiple difficulty levels, including an easy mode where you’re nigh-on impossible to kill but, at standard difficulty, you’re no bullet sponge so care is essential.
4A Games is also to be applauded for not making Metro Exodus‘ indoor levels entirely separate areas. At one point I headed into a disused railroad terminal, confident that the darkness would give me a better chance of survival. Things were going to plan, right up until the sun rose. I’d been so used to Fallout 4‘s blacked-out windows that I hadn’t considered what would happen when sunlight started to stream in and the creatures I’d been eluding could suddenly see me. Needless to say, a rethink was in order. Another neat feature is the way that, should you kill enough foes, the remainder may well surrender (depending on their temperament).
There are also plenty of scripted encounters within Metro Exodus, typically occurring when you’re penned in by level architecture. The snag is that the game can be a little too insistent that you experience these and so wags its finger at you if you attempt to bypass them. On a couple of occasions I chose to ignore an NPC’s advice to sneak into a location through the side tunnels and instead approached the front gate. From Metro Exodus‘ perspective, it had prepared a three course meal and here I was, sitting on the kitchen floor, shoving handfuls of crisps into my mouth. But the way it handled it was odd.
I’d sniped and sneaked my way past the observation towers and approached the front gate, whereupon I was spotted. “No big deal”, I thought, right up until I was incinerated by one of the guards’ firebombs. I reloaded and tried again. Once more, I was burnt to a crisp. And again. And again. Finally, I stepped close enough for the guards to see me, then ran away and hid behind a towering rock, well out of their view. You can probably guess what happened next; the guards possessed superhuman accuracy and so I was flambéed just because I chose a different path.
Fortunately, the above scenario doesn’t occur all that often. An unrelated, if also irritating bugbear is that the game doesn’t let you choose multiple save slots, merely offering you a single quick save slot. This issue is compounded by the fact that the game’s autosave can leave you in a position where you can’t win.
You’ll need to use a gasmask in certain areas to avoid choking on radioactive dust. If you run out of filters, and don’t have the resources to craft a new one, you’ll start to choke. If the game has auto saved past this point, then there’s literally nothing you can do and you’ll have to start the game from the beginning of that chapter. Given there’s so much to do in each area, having to start from scratch would be infuriating.
There’s a lot to love about Metro Exodus, but what really makes the game worth experiencing is the tale it weaves. Not Artyom’s tale – he’s as interesting as a mildly-irradiated plank – but the story of those who, following his lead, leave behind their underground home in search of a better place. Metro Exodus isn’t as grim as previous Metro games, but you’re always conscious of how isolated your fellow travellers are. There’s a creeping sense of guilt that, even though the game gave you no choice in the matter, you may have doomed them. Whenever Metro Exodus gives you a reason to be hopeful, you latch onto it and hold it tight.
Equally intriguing is that, travelling through seasons and countries, you’re the interloper. You’re not protecting your home; you’re stepping into the lives of others, for better or worse. The game doesn’t shy away from reminding you of this fact; one of the most sobering moments for me was having an enemy, who’d just surrendered, beg me not to hurt the girls. Sure, they’d been shooting at me, but they weren’t slavers or raiders. What had I really been doing to this tribe?
Deviating from the series’ formula and taking the adventure above ground was a bold move for 4A Games, but it’s paid off. Metro Exodus can be unforgiving at times but it’s a rollicking, radioactive road-trip that’s sure to scratch that post-apocalyptic itch.