Danger: mild spoilers ahead.
There’s a pile of bodies twitching under our flashlights. My god, what is it now? Mutant wolves? Crab freaks? Spiders? Please, not more spiders. In post-apocalyptic shooter Metro Exodus, when you walk through a web, there is a terrifying animation of a hand-sized muto-spider as it crawls across your arm, your gun, and your face. I’ve been enjoying the small touches like this in 4A’s not-exactly-open-world shooter, this admirable attention to detail. The button to wipe your gas mask is still there. The gizmo that charges your torch is still there.
I point my torch at the heap of bodies, and it twitches again. A creature bursts out – a giant mole. I’m going to shoot it now, because, sorry mole, this world is not so open that it will accept your freakery. This is still a heavily scripted adventure. I’m just sticking to my lines.
Those who have tunneled through previous Metros know a little of what to expect. Your character, Artyom, is going on another shooty-bang. Yeehaw comrade, as they say in Moscow. But this time many of the levels will be grander jaunts on the surface of a Russia still breathing twenty years after the governments of the world overdid it on the nukes. For reasons too stupid to explain, our favourite post-apocalyptic Spetznaz has alienated his old tunnel allies and escaped the underground aboard a flashy train, along with his sniper wife and a small team of fellow gun likers.
Of course, Artyom is that type of strong, traditional Russian hero who only speaks via loading screen (you’ve read Tolstoy, right?) So he can’t say: “Let’s just go to the country and farm cabbages, pals.” He has to obey his superior officer (who is also his father-in-law) and go on stupid military excursions in cool new biomes. Fine by me. The creators have asked that reviews do not spoil much, but you could spoil the story of this game yourself just by thinking aloud. Your gang falls for obvious traps, characters get conspicuous coughs, and one of the major antagonists is a VHS copy of Mad Max: Fury Road sitting on a throne. I was surprised by that. I didn’t even know you could get that on VHS.
I’m being very harsh, very quickly. But only because I want to get its single big failing out of the way first. Like previous Metros, this is a by-the-numbers action story starring a walking AK-47, only marginally better than a Call of Duty campaign. There are good moments, even if they are mostly buried in side quests and out-of-the-way places. When I brought back a teddy from the nest of a flying beast and gave it to the train’s resident little girl, she thanked me and ran off to play with it. And when that same wee girl ran out of our shelter following a scripted gunfight to see what had happened, one of my fellow Spetzboyz knelt and gently told her to go back inside. These small human occurrences go some way to redeeming a very dry tale, far more than the mildly branching storytelling does.
I could lambast it for having a tripe story all day, but I’d be missing the joy. And there’s a lot of that here. Metro has always been far more talented at delivering atmosphere than sensible or touching plots. And with Exodus, it again succeeds. In looks alone, it’s laudable. Leaves billow past like an autumn blizzard, power lines flap about, water drips from rooftops into giant puddles, the red light of a flare glows on a mound of corpses. The environments are beautiful and harrowing and – oh my god – outside. We’re outside!
You should know that the expansive levels the creators have been showing off are fewer than you’d expect. There are really just two big levels that could be called “open world”, perhaps “open country” or I don’t know, “open municipality”. One is a swampy coastal area ruled by mutant shrimp who love to spit at you while you row a boat across the water, and the other big level is a desert landscape full of mutant humanoids who blend into the dusty ground and leap out at you when you’re picking up sandy cans of beans.
You get a map of each level, and can mark places of interest by looking at them through binoculars. Some of the game’s finest moments are when you’re left to explore these places. To loot the cargo holds of rusted ships, or navigate a road in a sandstorm. One time, I was ambushed by three punks with a petrol bomb. I enjoyed their company very much, and then I shot them.
I say “only two levels” as if this is a major criticism. It is a very minor one. The levels are vast, especially compared to the rat mazes Metro players are used to running around. As maps, they were like very small Fallouts, and still more than big enough to satisfy my urge to poke my head in every doorway. I even had to leave these places before that urge was satisfied, just so I could get this review done in time.
Another level (a forested river valley featuring some wonderful manchildren) is also quite-big, but it is also “narrower” than the other two. Your path through its caves and bogs and woodlands will deviate from another player’s path much less noticeably than on the desert sands, where your tracks are likely to go off in massively different directions. One of you might barge across the dunes in a van and leap out to get shot by a sniper in a tower. The other might sleep in one of the fast-forwarding beds scattered throughout the map, rest until night-time, then sneak onto a prison ship to bash some slaver skulls.
But there’s something better than the slavers and shrimps and zombie not-men of these large places. And that’s the big scary thing(s) each level likes to dump on you. This is a sort of “environmental boss” that harasses you in most of these places before finally confronting you, the monster equivalent of a headline act. They’re all pretty exciting lads. Although none of them beat the monster of the first big level, that flooded coastal area. Of all the mild things I’ve spoiled, I won’t spoil that fella. Generally, I found this level to be the best showcase of the game’s strengths. Namely, it rewards you for being nosy, but also for asking questions first and shooting later. Not all bad guys shoot back.
Here’s what I mean. After raiding a bandit-controlled train hangar down to a single henchman, I whipped off my backpack and swapped a few mods on my gun. You do this in real time, so you’ve got to do it in a safe, dark place. I changed things up. I went from silent killer with suppressors and throwing knives to murderous rampager with grenades and a long-barreled Kalashnikov. I was going to blast this final bandit into the walls, ha ha. I ran out, pointed my gun at him, and he immediately surrendered. He just put his hands up. At some hard-to-know moment, the enemies in some outposts will lose the will to fight. This is a good game, I thought, and I knocked the bandit out.
But it is also something of a patchwork game. I’ve mentioned Mad Max, and I’m mentioning it again because Exodus is so indebted to its influences I’m surprised George Miller and Andrei Tarkovsky haven’t come over to break its thumbs. There are electrical anomalies, and someone drops the word “Stalkers” at one point. And is that Gordon Freeman’s dune buggy I spy parked outside a mysterious bunker? A nice Easter egg, for sure. One sequence sees you in a vent as some of those big, light-sensitive spiders scurry around and — Hang on, now that you can see them up close, they look a lot like the facehuggers of Alien. And they come out of egg sacs in the same way. And what’s this? A motion sensor attachment you were given a minute ago, it’s beeping on your wristband. 20 meters. 15 meters. Get out of there, Artyom! Something’s coming to serve you a legal takedown notice!
None of this makes me like the game less. The spiders in the vents were great, we had a lot of fun. But it is also an indicator of how hodge-podge the game can feel at times, like it has been cobbled together from a bunch of different shooters. Some of the levels are open-worldy, others are not. Some gunfights are heavily scripted, others are simply your own doing. You’ve got night-vision goggles now, go wild. No wait, you don’t have those any more. This mission demands that you lose all your gear.
There’s a roughness to it that also doesn’t help. You get caught on unseeable crags, or can’t clamber up a foot-high wall under fire because the climb animation doesn’t trigger. Bits of wood float in the air, bullets seem to pass straight through an enemy’s body. Sometimes the prompt to knock out a soldier simply refuses appear in time, and he hollers for everybody to come and look at the idiot who doesn’t know how to punch. This last problem would be more forgiveable were it not for the big flaw: there’s no manual save. Just a higgledy-piggledy hybrid of a checkpointing plus a single quicksave slot. The cool photo mode is also somewhat undermined, given that neither the game nor the Epic launcher has a screenshot button. Whoops.
The last two Metro games also had rough edges, but they were so well-confined that it was perhaps better able to cover up these problems in the darkness of a tunnel and simplicity of a train carriage. When you’re underground, you can’t see the stars magically double. But there’s nowhere for a floating texture to hide in the blazing light of a summer day.
Despite those foibles, I’ve had a good time on the choo-choo ride of Exodus. It’s still very much an on-rails set piece marathon, the action-heavy equivalent to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. It’s just got bigger missions now, which is excellent. But this also has the side effect of making all the non-big levels seem like lesser missions.
During one such return to the linear underground, your commander dad-in-law remarks “we’re in our element here”. And he is blatently speaking for the studio who created him. This is the game’s element, and that is both true and regrettable. Metro’s strength has always been its dogged loyalty to the “full steam ahead” format. But once you’ve seen that the format works just as well above ground, in a big desert or a wide forest, it’s hard to appreciate any return to more constricted tunnel levels. Easy to dismiss those shorter rollercoaster rides, with their scripted enemy attacks and so much time spent watching the back of your squadmate, as being “the bad levels”. Even though, were they any other Metro game, they’d be fine.
Those scuttling returns to straight-line boltholes are not so frequent that they ruin the rest of the open levels. You could argue that they serve to keep the game clacking along at its proper pace (I won’t agree, but you could argue it).
It just feels like a shame to have that freedom suddenly discarded for the old ways. A wankier reviewer than I (there are not many) might read the final hours of Metro Exodus as some sort of Wolfian assertion that “you can’t go home again”. Once off-track, you can’t go back. And if that was the intent (it wasn’t) then let’s give a round of applause to 4A, because bravo, message received. But it’s more likely the developers just ran out of time and, speculation hat on, some other big level had to be scaled down or cut completely.
Regardless of its limitations, Exodus still deserves its place among its underground comrades. In many ways it’s better, and I’m very glad they didn’t just repeat the same subterranean journey again. And yet, for the studio, this installment might also turn out to be a fabulous curse. Because if there are any further shooters set in the Metroverse, they’ll won’t be able to return to a life of tunnel vision. Not when we’ve seen Metro is capable of so much more.