At one point in Metro Exodus, I’m raiding a dark and eerily quiet warehouse. It’s similar to the several I’ve looted before, but I’m no less cautious. My eyes are darting all around the screen — my brain running through a mental checklist I need to finish before the next mutant abomination leaps at me from the void.
Metro Exodus may look like a first-person shooter, but in practice, it’s more like stealthy survival-horror with rare, interspersed firefights. Guns and bullets are critical tools… but so are your actual tools. A flashlight or lighter can be as much a saving grace as that last, precious round. Metro Exodus is, like its predecessors, a game about insurmountable odds and dwindling resources. You’re attempting to thrive in an indifferent world. While the fatalistic writing and beautifully bleak atmosphere wrap you in, the world of Metro Exodus is a little more modern — for better or for worse.
Braving the Elements
The story takes place two years after Metro Last Light, as series protagonist Artyom still longs for life outside the dreary tunnels of the Moscow Metro. Humanity fled to them seeking shelter from all-out nuclear war, but decades have passed. Now he can’t help but wonder if the surface is habitable once more. This is much to the concern of his wife and fellow ranger, Anna, and her father Corporal Miller, leader of their shared unit.
In a series of haphazard events, the rangers find themselves on the surface world. Artyom is suddenly free to pursue his dream of a new life traversing the Russian countryside via a train called the Aurora. This is perhaps the greatest difference between Exodus and prior Metro games: the vast majority of the game takes place on the surface, and the expanses have widened to match.
Rather than a linear point A to B, Exodus has several “open-world” areas at different stops along Artyom’s journey. Some missions are still bespoke one-off areas, but the open zones allow for a lot of additional activities through side missions and random encounters. These occurrences make the world of Exodus feel alive in a way it hasn’t before, and offer some boons for those willing to climb a demon’s tower for a teddy bear, or raid a bandit camp for a guitar.
Most of the time, you can handle those issues with nonviolent means. At least that’s what Metro Exodus encourages. Your actions still have a larger morality tied to them — an invisible metric measured against Artyom at the story’s conclusion — to determine whether you see a “good” or “bad” ending. Though it’s never clear exactly where you stand until the very end, there are road markers. Characters will comment on the way you handle certain situations, thanking you for your restraint or condemning you for unnecessary bloodshed. (You are forced into a few kill-or-be-killed scenarios, however.)
All of this is fine, because Metro’s stealth systems are strong. A blinking light notifies you when you’re bathed in light or cloaked in darkness. I played most of the game sneaking around, dispatching foes with a Judo chop, or simply ghosting past them. It felt great! When gunfire did break out, the combat was frantic.
Guns handle like a post-apocalyptic, ramshackle firearm should: crude, but effective. There are few greater tensions found in games than pumping your pneumatic gun as a horde of radioactive spiders close in on you — the lights flickering as you pray those last seven pellets will be all you need. Often I found myself fleeing rather than fighting, trying to outrun monsters who would take too much precious ammunition to fell.
Of course, it doesn’t help when the controls make you feel like you’re fumbling over yourself. Occasionally the transition into and out of sprinting or jumping feels awkward. The controller shortcuts for the overwhelming amount of utilities you have can lead to moments like using a med-kit instead of switching to your throwing knives.
That’s doubly important when Metro Exodus so often feels like a game of managing meters. Every extra shot is currency spent. While bullets aren’t actual currency, as in previous Metro games, they’re still valuable and craftable with the same resources as your med-kits and air filters. Making a choice between extra time on your filters and a molotov is tough. Yet it never feels limiting.
In fact, it’s enabling. Too often in games I leave my inventory flush with resources as I expend the bare minimum to progress. But by introducing limited resources and a necessity for adaptation, through scavenging and crafting, I spent more time changing weapons on the fly and using resources when I found moments to breathe. Each asset was more critical and rarely left to waste away in my backpack.
Instead, I was the Marie Kondo of the nuclear apocalypse. I thanked each round for the joy it sparked… as it rocketed out the muzzle towards a pack of ravenous mutants. Metro Exodus rides a fine line of stress, but I rarely felt overburdened. Although a few missions that did turn into outright firefights, with massive walls of bullet-absorbing meat impeding my progress.
Those meat-walls aside, Metro Exodus does a good job of instilling fear of even the most basic encounter. Beyond measuring the investment it would take to eliminate an enemy, there was the constant question of whether they would do the same to me.
Day and Night Differences
The day-night cycle plays a large role in this; many missions require breaching enemy strongholds. That is much easier to do (especially as a pacifist) at night, when there are fewer guards awake and patrolling. Yet night is when the mutants hunt, and the worst of the worst surfaces. In the Volga, electric balls light the air around them and wolf-like beasts called Watchmen roam in packs. These carry little to no reward — it’s not like they have pockets for bullets, y’know — but sometimes it’s a matter of survival.
Journeying the open world of Metro Exodus, especially on foot, is a dangerous necessity at times. Sometimes, to make a mission easier, you actually have to take a much more dire approach. It’s a careful balance that I appreciated —another method to force me to weigh every reward against its risks.
For all its new innovations, like an open-world complete with vehicles, Metro Exodus does feel dated in one small, but painfully apparent way: its protagonist. Artyom is a silent player character. That’s the same as in past Metro games. He only “speaks” during interstitial diary entries on load screens. This wasn’t much of an issue when Metro 2033 hurriedly moved from one mission to the next, but with a more open world and opportunities to spend time with your companions, listening to their stories and woes, the silence is grating.
Characters deliver monologues, occasionally falling quiet to look at Artyom. It’s as if they want visual evidence that he’s still alive. Some even make jokes about his silence, which are clever at times, but more frequently just too on-the-nose. It might seem a nitpick, but it was never clearer than in these moments that I was a quiet, passive passenger in “Being Artyom Alekseyevich Chyornyj.”
It’s especially a shame because the story and writing of Metro Exodus is superb. How the rangers get through each hardship, finding reasons to fight and thrive outside the gauntlet of the Metro tunnels, is compelling. Each crew member is distinct and given time to shine. The new additions like Giul, Katya, and Olga add a lot to their respective sections of the narrative. They flesh out the locale and provide insight into how things got to where they are when the Aurora arrives.
The road trip framing device allows Arytom and the gang to see the myriad ways in which the world above has fallen to ruin, and how civilizations have sprung up to survive, sometimes eerily mirroring the real world. A later area of schoolchildren, who have all grown under the tutelage of their educator-turned-deity Teacher, was a particular highlight. It was like a Russian nuclear wasteland version of Lord of the Flies. And did I mention that you fight a radioactive mutant bear the size of a house twice.
A World Worth Seeing
All of this is set in a world that’s so stunningly gorgeous (and, sure, perhaps poorly optimzed) that it reduced my gaming computer to shambles. The sky brightens and darkens with erratic waves of nuclear fallout. The iridescent mushrooms dot forested greenlands, sandy wastes, and dark, dank bunkers alike. All portray the gradual reclamation of manmade industry by distorted and emboldened nature. I might be waxing poetic, but Metro Exodus makes a compelling case for showing rather than telling. It often leaves you to fill in the blanks as to how a skeleton was left in such a place, or why a simple room of filing cabinets might looks so disheveled… Just before the staccato of spider legs skitter around on the ceiling tiles above you, of course.
While the game looks pretty on a PlayStation 4 (where I ultimately played the game), I figure Metro Exodus will be a benchmark game on PC. It should be something to boot up and marvel at as your massive gaming rig pumps out polygons like a hose sprays water. (Learn from my example, though: read the system requirements.)
But while the computer world offers a potential heaven of visual bliss, my console experience was a little different. Sometimes characters would stutter, or at one point, zip from one position to another. Different dialogues sometimes played over each other, turning conversations into choruses. It was odd but rarely got in the way of my enjoyment.
Metro Exodus successfully conveys the optimistic desperation of its protagonists, hoping beyond hope that there’s a corner of the world unsullied and fertile enough to start a new life. Each new endeavor is weathering a storm of tension and stress, measuring costs and benefits, while always moving forward. It’s tonally familiar, but in practice, makes successful strides in taking Metro outside the Metro and into a larger world. More open and free, but just as dangerous.
Despite the hiccups, I enjoyed my time with Artyom, Anna, Miller, and the rest of the crew. I was happy to follow their trials and tribulations. It might sound strange, but I’m glad Metro left the Metro behind.