“Get lost or pay wit ur life,” says the note. Normally, I would not be threatened by such a poorly spelled message from – let me see – ah yes, the “Brezeren of the Coast”. After all, the note is written with the tone of a brat in a treehouse. That said, it was also delivered by a scarily accurate crossbow bolt, piercing the wooden post right next to my head. So maybe I should take the Brezeren a little more seriously. I mean, they have nailed an awful lot of corpses to the walls of that house back there. The open-ish world of Metro Exodus looks grim and muddy, but it's woods and riverlands are wilder than I expected.
When I first saw that the subway shooter was emerging from the sordid underground of Moscow, I was simply happy to see it again. But I was also concerned. Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light felt like games confined to another age. Straight-forward shooters with an A to B story and level-by-level Nazi-killing that was literally on-rails. Exodus wants to open that up (although it’s not quite an “open world”). I played a demo at Gamescom, and it feels like a shut-in shooter that has finally been exposed to the sweeping landscapes of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and even the wide levels of Half-Life 2. I worried that such exposure might mutate the series and strip away its strengths. The claustrophobia, the squalor, the excitement of skulking in the dark, blowing out candles and popping skulls. But the Brezeren have reassured me.
This demo sees Artyom, the returning quiet man of previous games, waking up in a swamp. There’s a nice mutant deer sniffing harmlessly at his face. It isn’t long before I’m crossbowed up and ready to wander through the world. The bodies strung up on the house near the riverbank are decorated with signs that translate via a caption as “Marauder” or “Rapist”. They aren’t fun to be around, so I leave. I could go across a bridge but it looks too vulnerable to whoever is watching me, shooting darts with poorly composed notes attached. So I dander towards a wood instead. There’s a bandit tied up, squealing as a wolf bites his ankles. I kill the wolf but leave without untying the bandit. Oddly, he doesn't protest.
I pass through the wood and come to an abandoned schoolhouse. Developers 4A are once again leaning hard on the ol’ environmental storytelling. Statues of children play around a bigger statue of Lenin. Notes in the classroom talk about "the Teacher" in respectful, almost worshipping tones. I can see the ideas forming here. We’re going to have a settlement of young ‘uns, I think to myself. Another Little Lamplight. I’m vindicated when three figures leap out of a tree on the road ahead and start talking in pirate slang, three mateys brandishing their crossbows and threatening to gut me if I don’t leave. Except, looking closer, they aren’t children. These pirates are fully grown adult men. A schoolyard worth of kids has grown up here in isolation, and now they're stuck with the lingo and culture of childhood. Russia's own Lost Boys.
I look for a route around the manchild encampment. There is something so endearing about their childlike chatter, that I can’t face killing them, even if the reticule of your gun turns red when you aim at them. That’s noticeable because the reticule is the only unnatural thing on the screen. The HUD, as in earlier Metros, is pristine. There are no bullet counters permanently fused to your retinas (although they do show up when you reload or fire). No objective markers dragging you through the world with icon-vision. There is still a "pull out your lighter" button, and a dedicated “put on gas mask” button. Although perhaps the latter is not that dedicated, because holding the same button will also wipe the plastic visor. All the same, I’d rather a misty gas mask than numbers and gauges that are branded into my optic nerve.
“Who’s behind that fence!”
Oh no. I’ve been spotted. One of the manchildren shouts for his friends and I run to a hiding spot beneath a bridge. There’s a barrel on fire and I extinguish it, more out of a long-dormant habit than an attempt to find cover in the twilight. But it takes longer to die down than the lamps and candles I’m used to blowing out. This hiding spot is no good. So I run out and run like billio for a small tower, climbing a ladder to the second level. The manchildren holler, and crossbow bolts ping around me. I smack a sentry in the head on my way up. I hope he’s okay. Oh look, a zip line. Weeee.
I’ve landed far away and escaped the Brezeren, but the night is coming in fast, and the forest I’ve landed in is full of bad things. A pack of five or six slavering mutant wolves is running nearby. Also, a giant bear with a hunchback and peeling fur is chasing after the mutowolves, Benny Hill-style. I creep through the forest, full crouch, and night finally covers everything in darkness. The body of a deer lies in a glade. Was this the deer who woke me up earlier? I’m going to say yes because it’s poetic. Good bye, mister deer. I’m sorry you’re dead.
I see a light in the wood – a lamp in a treehouse - and head for it. The wolves dart through the trees. Six wolves? Seven? It feels like the pack is getting bigger. They briefly spot me and I run the rest of the way to the ladder up to the treehouse. I like Metro games. I like the blind panic they inspire. From up here, zip lines go off in two directions, again showing off the multiple routes of the level. For a series that has been underground for years, it seems to have learned some solid level design. At least, judging by these riverside woodlands. Light leads me to investigate important points, and clear routes in different directions show me where I might go. Years ago I dreaded the outside portions of Metro 2033, not because they were filled with scary flying beasts, but because the messy rubble and bad directions made it unclear which direction you should head. This was extra annoying when you only have a few minutes worth of clean oxygen filters for your gas masks.
In this demo, however, I’ve had no such problems. And the gas mask is only needed in certain radioactive bits. Everything feels clear, the way(s) forward are signalled by flickering lights or cobblestones or trampled desire lines in the leaves. It’s also possible to miss whole areas. Katharine also played a short snippet of the same demo and told me afterwards about a fisherman she stumbled across. She murdered him in cold blood, which isn’t very pleasant. But I never encountered him. When a shooty-shooty-bang-bang includes this level of detail, despite knowing that characters lounging near riverbanks or boltholes hidden in thickets or will go unseen by many players, it only makes me respect the world even more for its commitment to minutiae.
Oh shit a massive water-dwelling insect. Excuse me. I just have to, yes, there. Only went and tore his leg off, didn’t I? I’m in a cave now, you see. I didn’t wait around while explaining my level design thoughts.
The cave is a damp, abandoned place, full of glowing mushrooms. You can harvest these for chemicals to use in crafting. I pull out my backpack and make a distracting tin can from some bits and pieces I found earlier in the wicker baskets littered throughout the level. I also take the time to upgrade my guns with any new lasersights, barrels and stocks, all scrapped off guns I've found on my way through ruins and shelters along the way. The menu for this is clean and simple, but it also seems like the world is continuing as I tinker with the suppressor on my submachinegun. The wind is still whipping around the mouth of the cave. You can make throwing knives and molotov cocktails too. But it seems unfair to use those against the lost boys.
I come out of the cavern and sneak back into the wolf-woods. The pack snarls its way past me in the dark once more, very close this time. I swear there’s now nine or ten of the chompers. As a pack, they’re as unsettling as any monstrous demon thing on Moscow’s streets. One of them howls on a rock alone as the others run back into the woods, and I continue onward. I'm beginning to like the wildlife, the wolves and the crows, almost as much as the mankids.
But I’m not hanging about. I’m going to –
Ah wait I’ve been caught in a rope trap, so I guess I am hanging about. It’s a first-person storytelling moment. Two wild-looking manboys waltz out of the undergrowth, pleased with their work. They’re going to take me to the “Forest Court”, which doesn’t sound that bad to be fair. But then two more ladults march out of the bushes and start bickering with the first pair. Don’t they realise this is a Pirate trap? Oh yeah, say the wildboys, then why is it in Pioneer territory? Two groups of grown men, the Pirates and the Pioneers, caught in some eternal feud of mutual arrested development are now snidely arguing over who gets to bring me in. I’m so glad I didn’t kill any of these adorable idiots.
They start arguing about “the Teacher”. This isn't what he wanted, yells one of them. From their chatter, it feels like this figure from their past was a well-meaning man who died before he could see his pupils truly grow up in this era of mutants and radioactive shrooms. But before any of their history is made clear we’re interrupted by a nice big fella with a furry back and lots of saliva.
The manchildren are in a panic.
“The explosive tip!” one of them yells. “Now, quick! The molotov!”
The bear erupts in flames but not in time to prevent him savaging one of the lost boys. The rest of the gang scarper. Exit stage right, pursued by bear.
I continued playing for a while after this. Artyom cut himself loose and went looking for a way through the rest of this morbid, faintly humourous land of littluns trapped in big-people bodies. I’m glad the boys helpfully shouted what items I would need to use against The Bear. But I also never got to test their methods, because my time with the demo ended shortly after this encounter. I was hiding in a bush from some of the mancubs when I was sadly cut off from my new pals and their radioactive Neverland. Although if you want to read about a different area entirely, Edwin was given a longer demo that involved some crazed luddites.
By this stage, many of my worries about Metro’s move into the open had evaporated like hot bog water in an old swamp bed. As ever with prime cuts of videogame demo, it’s hard to tell if that quality will stay consistent throughout the rest of the shooter. But it has both impressed and reassured me that the next Metro has not lost its greatest strength: its atmosphere. There was buckets of it here. From the howling wolf pack skittering through the forest to the soggy treehouses of its more human denizens. The decrepit outside world feels like a good place for the series to go after all, and the Brezeren of the Coast are already more likeable to me than anything Fallout 4 offered. Even if they are terrible at spelling.