Metro Exodus is a far cry from the tunnel shooter we knew

metroexodus

I didn’t realise how much I’d missed Metro’s ball bearing rifle till I spent two hours with Metro Exodus, the third in 4A Games’ cult series of post-Soviet, post-apocalyptic shooters. Goodness, that rifle. The sheer delight of cranking its Super Soaker handle. The vicious snap of escaping air when you pull the trigger. The rush to make the most of those few seconds of maximum pressure, and the panic when you empty the cylinder and all your shots start to bounce off. There’s no better advertisement for Metro’s raw-knuckled survivalist ethic and love of analog technology. It’s something I’ve held onto, as 4A’s flight from Moscow’s tunnels has exposed it to the slings, arrows, repetitions and inelegances of an open world.

Exodus is, as publisher Deep Silver’s head of communications Huw Benyon is at pains to stress, more open worldy than open world. Five years in development, and apparently boasting double the playtime of its predecessors, it’s a series of huge maps from various biomes, each subject to a day-night cycle and made up of “bespoke, hand-crafted” structures and scenarios. There’s plenty to wrangle with, from pockets of radiation through reality-distorting anomalies to lurking crab monsters, but busywork in the Ubisoft vein is, Benyon promises, minimal to non-existent. The idea is to “give players more freedom while retaining the sense of narrative urgency” offered by the previous games, which took their cues from Half-Life: every quest you’ll undertake is a story, however tangential, and every blistered edifice you’ll visit is designed to imply one.

Protagonist Artyom and the other denizens of the Moscow underground are on their way westward in a wonderful old rustbucket of a train, a mobile base you’ll bolt carriages and other unspecified fittings to as you tunnel through the continent. The train sums up the game’s attempt to widen its horizons without softening its narrative thrust: every map, however vast, is built around one and the same railroad, and the critical path through these maps is generally dealing with some obstacle so that your party can move on. The map I’m shown is an icy flooded city, skeletal parking blocks, downed passenger jets and silent power plants jutting from dead earth and troublingly opaque water. Artyom and the Moscow refugees make an unplanned stop here when we crash into a makeshift barricade, busting the train’s engine. Amid the ensuing tantrums, he and his wife Anna slip out to investigate the waving of a white flag atop a distant sunken church.

Rather than the hoped-for nice vicar with a tin of chocolate digestives, the church turns out to be home to a community of violent technophobes who worship something called the Tsar-Fish. With Anna providing cover from a nearby tower, I enter the multiple-story building using a rowboat, overhear a sermon about the infernal wiles of electricity and am promptly set upon. The writing and scripting aren’t dazzling at this stage – think guards who yell state-signalling phrases like “HAVE YOU SEEN THE HERETIC” as they obligingly turn their backs on you – but the building harbours a few surprises, from dangling noise traps to a strange group of captives who wave me away with a hushed imprecation.

In the space of 15 minutes, I flatten a few believers, steal some choice gun parts, free a mother and child from the church’s belltower and escape in another boat, which is then eaten by a giant amphibious terror. Hauling myself up onto the shore, I run into an ally who tacitly scores me on my performance in the church with some context-sensitive dialogue, before ushering me towards a crashed airplane that houses the first of the map’s crafting tables. It’s at once an introduction to the new open format and a reintroduction to the series’ core principles of stealth, claustrophobia and cautious improvisation – one that just about makes the case that this is still Metro, for all its wider horizons.

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The “crazed Luddite” theme is old hat for post-apocalyptic fiction, but it does intriguingly echo Metro’s own, on-going disdain for UI elements and other interfacial abstractions that might wreck the sense of inhabiting a physical body in a lovingly textured environment. There are no waypoints or enemy position indicators, just landmarks and a compass strapped (once you’ve found it) to the inside of your wrist. The map is an actual in-game piece of paper, though your position is magically marked upon it. “We don’t give you a HUD unless it’s strictly necessary,” comments Benyon. “We try to convey a lot through in-game materials.”

The same thinking underwrites the game’s careful cherrypicking of structural elements and systems from mainstream open world titles. There are no fast travel points, but there are safehouses with beds for health recovery and crafting stations – lamplit nooks in shipping crates or upended train carriages, some equipped with ziplines that launch you straight into an activity. There’s no shopping list of outposts to flip or map-revealing towers to climb, but you’ll encounter clumps of more generic foes like bandits, holed up to create smallscale combat puzzles not lightyears away from the Far Cry series. One of these sees me scaling a rusty gas station from the rear, boshing a sentry and using his rifle to knock out the guards in front. It’s a setup that could be from one of any number of open world shooters, though an amusing cassette recorder message inside the building lends my victims a certain personality in hindsight.

“It’s important that people understand that we’re not copying another game, another style – really it’s about creating this hybrid,” Benyon tells me. “It still has to feel like a Metro game at its heart. I think the real challenge was the initial prototype. We spent a long time learning how to mix that Metro immersion and pacing with more freedom, and make the two play nicely together.” In his opening presentation, he suggests that Exodus is as much a return to STALKER, the game many of 4A’s staff cut their teeth on, as a move into new territory. Naturally, I ask for his thoughts on Vostok’s recently announced STALKER sequel. Benyon is sanguine. “This game is not STALKER – STALKER is an inspiration. It’s going to scratch that itch for some people, but I like to think we’re our own thing. I can’t speak for the rest of the team, but personally I’m excited that there’s a STALKER sequel coming.”

metro-exodus

The GSC Game World influence is certainly felt in Exodus’s glut of crafting and customisation options. There are five parts to every gun – a scope, a barrel, a magazine, an attachment and a stock – and each gun type can take many shapes, from a wide-angle close-quarters handcannon to a silenced automatic rifle with a laser sight. The weapons you find can be stripped of parts in the field, but you’ll need to visit a safehouse to apply them. While out and about you can also slap down your backpack to cobble together necessities such as bandages, ammo for “special” weapons like the ball bearing rifle and throwables such as Molotov cocktails, but you can’t whip up bullets and shells. It seems a decent compromise between letting you sustain yourself on the go and ensuring that you’ll eventually end up in dire straits, with nothing but knives and lint to protect you against threats like the prowling lupine Watchmen. Among the casualties of the beefed-up crafting focus are traders and thus, the previous games’ usage of ammo as currency. This never came to much in practice, but it was a deft entwining of backstory and the needs of the moment I’d have liked 4A to expand upon.

Another casualty of Metro’s expanded canvas is, inevitably, a certain level of direction and consistency. As in Bethesda RPGs, NPCs (including mission givers) have a way of talking over each other that eventually makes you want to shiv the lot of ’em. Some bits of dialogue also betray uncertainty about when you’ll hear them – the child I rescued from the church had already taken to calling me “uncle”, moments later, though this might just be an instance of bad writing. I also ran into a handful of pretty spectacular bugs, like a winged mutant that got stuck in an endless dive, sliding around on its face like a hockey puck and barging into me passive-aggressively. The same beast redeemed itself later when it surprised me atop a barn, scooping me up like a disobedient kitten as I fired at vagrants through gaps in the corrugated roof. The game’s newfound capacity to surprise is worthwhile but the old tunnel environments and their tighter scripting are, at times, keenly missed.

In general, I’m still not convinced that Metro needs this kind of breadth. I can see why it makes sense creatively and as a business proposition – as Benyon puts it, “there’s only so many times you can do tunnels beneath a frozen wasteland”. But the obvious concern is that it will only dilute what the first two games did well, that all of the additions will prove content for content’s sake, and the blend of approaches will prove more of a skilled compromise than an advance. Still, there is plenty here to enjoy, whether you’re new to the series or not. Metro is still a thrilling blend of sim elements and run-and-gun, steeped in Soviet and Russian aesthetic traditions rather than the kitsch Americana stylings of far too many post-nuclear games. It’s still a treacherous, tentative experience, like tip-toeing over broken glass in the vicinity of a crocodile. And it still has that awesome ball bearing rifle.

Metro Exodus is due for release on February 22nd, 2019.

Check out our E3 2018 tag for more announcements, trailers, news, and goodness knows what else.

34 Comments

  1. HiroTheProtagonist says:

    Removing ammo as currency feels like a cop out. While it wasn’t really an issue in the first two games, since normal ammo was plenty powerful, it definitely felt unique compared to most other shooters. Beyond that, it still seems like a STALKER/Far Cry mashup in spite of the developer’s comments.

    Guess I’ll wait this one out for a sale.

  2. fuggles says:

    The third book also had a similar broadening, which may have influenced it. Trailer looked great, but that dialogue…

    “THEY ARRIVE IN AN IRON STEED!”
    ‘Its a train boss, always has been. You know if this cult is going to make us stupid I’m just gonna opt out’
    “AN IRON STEED!”
    ‘Well thanks for the opportunity, sorry it didn’t work out but I wish you luck’
    “IRON STEED!”

  3. Skiddywinks says:

    So long as it has the same Ranger difficulty modes as the original games eventually did (totally removing the HUD, and Ranger Hardcore making everything die in a more realistic amount of damage, you included), I’ll be hard pressed to not buy this day one.

    The loss of ammo as a currency is a shame. It added some style to the game that I loved, and scrounging for the good rounds was very immersion setting. Although panic reloading and full auto unloading in to a monster was always a kicker when you realised what you’d done. Ahh, good times.

  4. fuggles says:

    The loss of bullet currency is sad though. That was a great tread off of damage Vs money. It may not have been a big deal, but it felt like one.

  5. DirtyDivinity says:

    “reality-distorting anomalies”, you said, Edwin.
    I adore.
    Fully Philip K. Dickesque

  6. Chorltonwheelie says:

    The last Metro was not the tunnel shooter you remember.
    However, I stopped reading when the spoilers kicked in.
    They were more akin to the Doom reboot. Broad and approachable in a myriad of ways.
    This seems to expand admirably on that. Can’t wait!

  7. Nauallis says:

    I guess I’ll be the one to make the token observation about this being a shooter on rails. Sounds interesting though.

    Edwin, did you get the sense that the game world is truly “open,” with a main map area that is constantly being traveled, or is it a series of “open zones” with smaller maps and encounters that are left behind once the survivor train has moved on to a new open area?

    • Jernau Gurgeh says:

      I hope the latter. I much prefer the sort of ‘guided open(ish) world’ of games like STALKER these days, than being thrown on an overwhelmingly open map and having no direction, stumbling across myriads of quest givers and sprawling dungeons to explore, that you find out later on you’ll just have to fight through again to complete a quest that you may have just broken etc etc etc.

  8. klops says:

    That semi-openness sounds pretty good. You have your base but move to new locations, which I wish have been paid more attention than, let’s say Skyrim, does.

    I loved the first one so I have hopes for this.

  9. Freud says:

    I recently played Last Light Redux and they get so much right, but it feels there is something missing. The stealth sections feels very binary between success/failure. The monsters are too bullet spongey. It’s too linear.

    Still a good game but in a 8/10 kinda way.

  10. Janichsan says:

    In general, I’m still not convinced that Metro needs this kind of breadth.

    I'm convinced the Metro series absolutely does need this breadth.

    The previous games were just so painfully linear. Even the occasional levels in underground towns, that just begged to open up and give you the possibility to explore at your own pace were nothing but linear corridors that rather resembled a museum exhibition than an actual, living settlement.

    The whole fascinating setting of Metro just asked for an (more) open world than just a strictly linear series of winding tubes there were in the first two games.

    • airmikee99 says:

      Have you not read any of the Metro books? The first two games stayed tunnel shooters because that’s almost the entirety of the world in the Metro story. Characters make brief excursions to the surface to accomplish specific tasks before heading back underground because the world is a poisonous, toxic, hellish nightmare unfit for human life.

      I’m convinced that the Metro video games need to change their name if they’re taking the game out of the tunnel system known as the Metro. Exodus is just another post-apocalyptic open world game, like so many others.

      Ironically most of the people I know looking forward to an open world Metro game are the same people that get upset whenever a video game or movie deviates from the source material too much.

      • Ethalis says:

        Haven’t YOU read the books ? I won’t explain why because it’s too much of a spoiler, but getting out of the metro totally makes sense after the events of Metro 2035

        • SomeDuderr says:

          I don’t want to read a book in order to “get” why a game has to make sense. Those are 2 different mediums. Thats almost as bad as the goddamn Star Wars movies and the retarded Expanded Universe or World of Warcraft and the motivations of certain characters which aren’t explained in the actual game.

          For me, Metro games are about exploring a cramped, claustrophobic environment and surviving waves of mutants and whatnot. Wide, open spaces served only to, briefly, break up the environment and as a storytelling element.

          It might work just fine in Exodus, I have no idea. I’m just afraid that by doing this, Metro loses its unique flavour.

      • Janichsan says:

        I’m fully aware that the Metro series is called because it is mostly set in the tunnels of the Moscow metro system. But you know what? These tunnels *branch*. The Metro game’s level design does not.

  11. HTBites says:

    The multiple, sequential, smaller sandbox zones sound awfully close to the area concept of Far Cry 2, which is a shame, because I remember how I regretted that I didn’texplore every inch of the first section before the story moved on without prior notice.

  12. Someoldguy says:

    I’ve not played Metro before, but from the little I’ve seen of this one I’m hoping it’s going to scratch the Fallout itch in a way that Fallout isn’t going to do now it’s gone all Rust on us in its next iteration.

    • jabbywocky says:

      Do yourself a favor and pick up Metro: 2033 Redux or Last Light sometime. It is a different animal but there’s things I think it does well that I wouldn’t mind cross-pollinating future Fallout works, and I think you might like them also.

      Both feature mutant creatures, but in Metro humans aren’t undisputed kings of the foodchain, whereas in Fallout there’s nothing you can’t dispatch easily with a big enough gun. In Metro some mutants are easily dispatched but those typically have numbers and will try to outflank you. Bigger threats might mean to just run or hide, because gunfire will just attract more; creatures feel much more dangerous. Fighting humans can almost be a relief and Metro has more options for stealth than the Bethesda Fallouts. I really liked the use of light and dark, for example there’s an ability to unscrew light bulbs or snuff out lanterns. You could take out a lamp in Last Light for example, and a sentry would investigate allowing you to take him out. Sometimes his friends might become alerted to his absence after a bit further shaking it up.

      The mood and atmosphere is also done well, I love the minimal UI approach and touches like needing to wipe condensation of your mask. Settlements are smaller in size and mostly like museum exhibits as said above but feel more alive and adequately populated, rather than the ‘big city’ in Beth RPGs having a total population of like 17 that repeat the same barks over and over.

  13. Raoul Duke says:

    I think these guys are trapped between their undoubted skill in creating amazing, bespoke graphics and the fact that this severely limits the amount of content they can produce.

    That video still looks very limited to me, and this is my major problem with the Metro games. They look amazing but play a bit like the House of the Dead.

  14. racccoon says:

    Good Review, Nicely made :)

  15. Jernau Gurgeh says:

    Does anybody else question the unlikely ability of a train to travel a world that is all but destroyed by nuclear holocaust and post-apocalyptic decay? Considering that the damn things get cancelled if there’s the wrong sort of leaf or snow on the tracks here in not-quite-post-Brexit Blighty?

  16. faircall says:

    “Vostok’s recently announced STALKER sequel” that would be GSC Game World, not Vostok.

  17. Jaykera says:

    I cannot wait for this but I always have the same feeling in games where you can specialize in various weapons : you inevitably unlock more than you need.

    In DOOM for exemple, I wish I could make a run with only a few weapons fully upgraded though I understand many (most ?) players don’t have time for multiple playthroughs and want to experience everything.

    Would it be crazy to see an option at the start asking if you plan to do multiple runs and adjust the upgrade components ? (Or a more elegant way)

  18. KenTWOu says:

    Some bits of dialogue also betray uncertainty about when you’ll hear them – the child I rescued from the church had already taken to calling me “uncle”, moments later, though this might just be an instance of bad writing.

    That’s how Russian people talk, ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’ is not necessarily a relative of yours, you can call ‘uncle’/‘aunt’ a complete stranger who is a bit older than you.

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