Successfully converts Metro to a S.T.A.L.K.E.R.-esque open world
Discusses sociopolitical and religious themes in a way few games dare
Dialogue performances feel a bit dated
Metro Exodus abandons the cramped corridors of the Moscow subway for wide-open expanses of Russian countryside, but Artyom’s journey is still as bleak as ever—and as janky, though that should come as no surprise.
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In Metro Exodus, you learn to appreciate silence. It’s unnerving, at first, the dead stillness of a post-nuclear hellscape. Soon you come around to it though, because silence means—for a brief moment, at least—nothing is trying to kill you. Nobody is yelling “He’s over there!” and no one is shooting at you. You’re not being mauled by mindless ghouls. Demons don’t circle above you, diving down to scratch at your face. You’re not drowning, or on fire, or choking on poisonous fumes, or bleeding out on the sand.
Silence means safety. And in Metro Exodus safety is a rare blessing, punctuated by the beep of your makeshift motion detector picking up a new den of horrors.
In Metro Exodus, it’s been 20-odd years since nuclear warfare destroyed Moscow, drove the few survivors deep underground into the concrete shelter of the subway system. It’s been 20 years of infighting, of tin-pot dictators and territory grabs and dwindling resources. And in 20 years, not a single person’s arrived from outside the city. These few, the ones blessed enough to reach the metro, are the last remaining representatives of the human race.
Or at least, that’s what the people of Moscow think. Artyom isn’t so sure though. Following on from the events of Metro: Last Light, Artyom’s convinced there’s life outside the city—if only you could reach it. Every day he ventures above ground, braving radiation and hostile wildlife to reach Moscow’s ruined rooftops where he listens to static on the radio. Every day, static.
Until one day, there are voices.
I won’t ruin what circumstances cause Artyom and the ragged remnants of the Spartan Order to leave Moscow. Suffice it to say, they do—and it’s forced upon them rather than chosen. Regardless, it’s on Artyom, his now-wife Anna, and the rest to find a new home, traveling by train across vast swathes of the Russian countryside.
And I do mean vast. Both Metro 2033 and Last Light were linear affairs, corridor shooters in an era where we rarely saw corridor shooters. It made sense. After all, the first took place almost exclusively in the confines of the titular subway system. The latter ventured above the surface more often, but still was about being trapped in the labyrinthine ruins of Moscow.
Exodus is about exploration, both thematically and mechanically. Taking place over the course of the year, you’ll spend most of your time in three enormous environments: The Volga, the Caspian Desert, and the Taiga. There are linear moments amid the open-world, mostly story-related, but they make up a fraction of the game. More often than not Exodus gives you a map, a few points of interest, a gun, and nothing else.
There’s a feeling of coming full-circle here. After all, Metro developer 4A Games consists in no small part of developers who worked on S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a landmark open-world shooter at a time when open-world games were still a novelty. For Metro to go open-world, it’s finally embraced being the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. spiritual successor it only sort of resembled before.
Exodus is friendlier than S.T.A.L.K.E.R. ever was, to be fair. But it’s also refreshingly free form compared to the straightforward action-shooter setup of Last Light. After a short prologue section Exodus turns you loose on the icy shores of the Volga, and it really is just you, a map, and a gun.
Each segment of Exodus centers around a new crisis. The Volga, for instance, sees Artyom’s train ambushed by local bandits, then forced to parlay with the locals to try and get across the river. There are really only three or four “missions” of note.
And yet I spent maybe seven or eight hours (maybe more) on that map, painstakingly scouring collapsed buildings for scraps of supplies (for crafting more ammo, health kits, knives, and so on) and gear upgrades. By the time I left the Volga I’d managed to secure night vision goggles, longer-lasting gas mask filters, a better battery for my flashlight, and a bevy of gun attachments. Most of this was optional. You get a few upgrades through the course of the story—it’d be hard to miss those night vision goggles for instance. But the majority of it is tucked away in random outposts, or monster-ridden ruins.
It feels overwhelming at first, I’ll admit. We did two demos of Exodus prior to release, one at E3 last year and another just a few weeks ago, and in both I had basically the same concern: That the open-world nature of Exodus, that lack of structure, would seem aimless.
But you soon realize there’s a logic to the world. Sure, the Volga is littered with all manner of sunken houses and crashed train cars, and it’s tempting to poke into each and every one. There are definite landmarks though, and the game (in one of its few player-friendly design choices) allows you to mark these on your map by panning over them with Artyom’s binoculars. The smallest of these locations might be a single camp with some supplies and a few enemies to clear.
The largest are Metro levels in their own right though, sprawling dungeons with a short story to tell—whether explicit or, more often, implied by the environment. Here, a crumbling church full of cultists who banned electricity in the wake of the apocalypse. There, the sunken remnants of a train depot with a shrine to a mutant whale-god. Later, a recluse congratulates you on making it past the overgrown spider-scorpion-nightmares who live underneath his home, a feat the soldiers who pursued him couldn’t manage.
That’s still Metro’s strong suit, the atmosphere of it all. It’s what elevates Metro above so many other open-world shooters, the fact that its world feels realistic and weighty. And freed from the confines of Moscow there’s more to experiment with in Exodus, be it the rusting hulk of a beached ship-turned-prison, or caves pocked with makeshift homes, or geysers of oil that periodically light on fire, or a rail line threatening to crumble into the lake below, or a collapsed hangar with the dusty remnants of helicopters within. It’s incredibly picturesque and diverse, this post-apocalypse, and worth exploring.
Not that Exodus is without issues. Like most open-world games, Exodus has a hard time balancing between the player who explores every nook and cranny versus those who want to blaze through the story. If you’re meticulous like I was, and if you master the use of throwing knives to conserve ammo, you’ll end up with an absurd number of crafting materials, taking much of the danger out of Metro. Why worry when you can always gin up more ammo, more health kits, and more gas mask filters? The crunch of resource management, a trademark of Metro since the original and its unique bullets-are-also-your-trading-currency system, is mostly absent here.
And it’s also full of jank. One particularly egregious bug lost me two hours of progress early on, breaking my save and forcing me to restart the game. As of the time of writing, 4A couldn’t tell me what caused the issue or whether it’d be fixed for release. That sucks.
Myriad other bugs abound. I’ve seen people floating in mid-air after I’d alerted their camp. My companions are constantly running into me and then pushing me out of cover or down a hallway. I’ve been pulled through a door and into a black void, then rescued later in the same scene by scripting that warped my character back into the room to accept an item from a character’s outstretched hand, thank goodness. Don’t get me started on the characters themselves, with models that look much older and less polished than the environments, or the constant pauses between every line of dialogue, or the near-constant animation glitches.
Enemy behavior can be wild as well. It’s often impossible to tell whether alerting an enemy will alert the entire base, and reloading a scenario can result in different outcomes entirely. Also, it’s hard to take the Demons (flying mutant bats) seriously when their AI is thwarted by ducking alongside or underneath literally anything. Not very threatening.
But none of this should come as a surprise to longtime Metro fans. 2033 and Last Light were games I loved despite the jank, and Exodus is no different. Sure, it’s buggy, but there’s nothing else like Metro.
People always clamor for Half-Life 3, or a spiritual successor to the grim realism of Far Cry 2. For my money, Metro’s the closest we’ve come in the recent past to either of those hypotheticals, and particularly Exodus. Its commitment to grounding the player in its world, to forcing everything through Artyom’s eyes, is relentless. In broad strokes, Exodus is the same “Finding A New Home” story we’ve seen over and over, particularly in post-apocalypse settings. But it’s filled with insightful commentary on social and political systems, on demagogues, on how religion and other doctrines can be used to control a vulnerable populace, and—most importantly—on how those ideas pertained to the society that came before the apocalypse.
Metro’s nuclear war is more than a convenient setup. It’s core to the entire worldview, a thread straight through from 2033 to Last Light to Exodus. Everywhere Artyom goes he finds the same petty tyrants lording over the same insignificant fiefdoms and making the same excuses for their behavior, proof that even if the majority of the human populace died when the nukes fell, humanity’s baser instincts are alive and well.
Bleak, no? And yet Artyom still goes up to the rooftops every day and turns on the radio.
I’ve said it before: I’ll take flawed-but-interesting over polished-but-generic every single time, and Metro has long epitomized that belief for me. Sure, Metro Exodus is rough around the edges, there’s no disputing that. I was annoyed having to replay that first two hours, and there are countless ways I think Exodus could be improved—not least of which is the dialogue delivery. This is still very much a B-tier series in some ways, and it shows most in the character performances.
And yet it’s so exciting when it all lines up, when you’re creeping through the brush at night, skirting a patrol, then crawling through the rusting sheet metal of a collapsed hangar to scrounge for a new scope or a few assault rifle rounds—just you, a map, a gun, and a prayer.