Some games just don’t belong in open worlds. Design philosophies that flourish in corridors and other closed-off spaces can lose their way in sandboxes if not properly reinvented or re-contextualized.
Luckily for fans of 4A Games’ Metro series, Metro: Exodus sacrifices little of its A-to-B heritage. I spent two hours with a previously unseen section of the game and, so far, it seems to offer the best of both worlds. Like Metro: 2033 and Metro: Last Light, Exodus is a largely linear journey. But this time it’s guided by train tracks.
Instead of sticking to the tunnels and irradiated exterior of post-apocalyptic Moscow’s subway system, protagonist Artyom and company head east to reach far off Vladivostok via the Trans-Siberian Railway. Over the course of a year, they trek by train through four distinct and open areas — each during a different season. My summer-set demo took place in the Caspian Sea (now a dry desert in the Metro universe) about halfway through the game.
Free as the Wind Blows
The demo opened with gas mask-free Artyom and (tough sniper-wife) Anna taking a moment to silently reflect on the sandy wastes from their train: the Aurora. I quickly met the members of their ragged crew, learned of their objective to find water, and more. Then I set off on foot toward a functioning car spotted from the locomotive.
Like in previous demos, I was free to explore in any direction as soon as my feet hit the ground. I beelined to the car, following the physical map in Artyom’s hands, to make the most of my two hours. I fought eerily croaking sand mutants and a dynamically generated sandstorm along the way. If you’re looking forward to the freedom that comes with escaping Metro’s claustrophobic tunnels, you won’t be free of the series’ quick time events and many other scripted moments. I retrieved the car key from a nearby building and mashed X to fight off the zombie-like creatures. It felt exactly like the Metro I remember.
Driving is unwieldy and difficult — as it should be. The uneven terrain makes it hard to see past the bobbing dashboard and into the blinding sunlight. It’s excellent. During a pit stop on my way to a lighthouse, I engaged the region’s inhabitant slavers with equal parts stealth and gunfire. Afterward, I was prompted to upgrade my equipment at a workbench.
There’s also a new take-a-knee-anywhere, root-through-your-backpack, Last of Us-style crafting system. But I attached enemy-tracking radar to my wrist through the bench’s expanded version of the crafting menu. Back in the car, I avoided the device’s pinging green dots on the way to my objective. As in previous Metro games — where you had to check an in-game watch to see how long you could survive in toxic air — Exodus commits to a mostly diegetic user interface.
At the top of the lighthouse, a friendly character exchanged shots with attacking slavers below. I immediately recognized the villains by their cliched, misogynistic taunts toward the defending NPC. And most of Exodus’ dialogue feels as disarmingly stilted as ever. Once her foes were dead, Artyom’s new friend helped him gain access to a military bunker beneath the tower. That’s where she suddenly broke character — revealing a a quick, charming moment of sentimentalism. She asked me to bring back a framed picture of her mother.
Deep in the underground facility, I was reminded of a favorite sequence from Last Light. I once used only my flashlight to fend off and kill hordes of “Spiderbugs“: creatures harmed by light. The exchange came to mind because the bunker replayed that same old section, set in the same types of interconnected passageways. If you’d only shown me that part of Exodus, I would have said it was footage of someone playing the older game on a powerful PC. The mission didn’t last long, though. It could have been a one-off bit of fan service. I went right back to driving across the wasteland after delivering the family photo.
Make Your Choice
And the Exodus overworld feels as fresh as the bunker felt familiar. In an optional scene (I could’ve driven past her or gone in another direction altogether), Anna detailed points of interest around the map. Any of them could be optional or story-essential. I couldn’t tell the difference, since the mission log scrawled on the back of Artyom’s map only tracks the main objective. As much as the game feels tuned for longtime Metro fans, it also seems aimed at would-be explorers. So after I checked in with Artyom’s companions at the Aurora, I set off toward some of the new question marks on my map.
I mostly found more combat at each new location — along with loot and lore-rich notes. Each encounter was preceded by unique dialogue if I was stealthy enough to listen in (another Metro mainstay). And every time I fought against humans, save for those by the lighthouse, the last enemy would throw their hands up to surrender.
There weren’t any developers from 4A present at the demo, so I don’t know if this was a systems-driven fluke or intentionally common. Either way, it was a great example of Metro Exodus melding old and new. Last Light had two such surrenders, but they were scripted moments meant to make the player engage with that game’s morality system. I assume the moments in Exodus serve the same purpose. And now I’m intrigued by the possibility of a more systemic Metro experience.
Metro Past Meets Apocalyptic Future
Exploration-based games usually peak for me in the early hours, before one learns to see their seams. That might still be the case with Exodus. I’ve only seen two hours, after all. But its less conventional, open-but-roughly-linear structure might fix that mid-game slump. Knowing I won’t be able to return to any of the four open areas motivates me to squeeze everything out of them.
And my 120 minutes suggest Exodus sheds little of Metro’s identity, despite its updated structure. You can still find spots too irradiated to traverse without a gas mask. You still kill cool Spiderbugs with your flashlight, follow train tracks, and sit through dark loading screens narrated by Artyom.
Skeptical fans should rest easy knowing enough of the familiar will be intact, but they might also be excited to explore a new world when Metro Exodus hits PS4, Xbox One, and PC on Feb. 15.