Metro Exodus: Impressions from 30 hours of gameplay
The game arrives February 15 for PS4, Xbox One, and PCBy Nathan Grayson
Before starting Metro Exodus, I replayed the entirety of its predecessor, cult hit post-apocalyptic shooter Metro: Last Light. Exodus' first hour felt like it could've been part of that game. I skulked around in train tunnels, got chomped on by mutants, and listened to underground denizens chatter endlessly about their sad, sunless lives. Then, the game tossed me into an open, snow-sprinkled map tens of times larger than any single environment in Last Light, and I didn't know what to do with myself.
Both Last Light and the first game in the series, Metro 2033, were tightly-scripted shooters set in creaky, leaky tunnels beneath a bombed-to-oblivion-and-back Moscow. Never was the term "corridor shooter" so apt: In the game's fiction, based on a series of novels by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky, desperate survivors cobbled together societies in train tunnels beneath the irradiated rubble of civilization.
Whether you, as a soldier named Artyom, were stealthing and shooting or quietly taking in the strikingly atmospheric sights and sounds of ramshackle scrap cities, you were generally moving down straightforward paths with relatively few detours. This allowed for rich storytelling and varied pacing sometimes on par with Half-Life 2. Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light felt like places---dirty, treacherous, lived-in places; humanity's unkempt home at the end of the world.
Artyom's missions in those games usually centered around life-or-death squabbles between human factions like the Communists and the nakedly fascist Fourth Reich, as well as a mysterious psychic race called The Dark Ones. These would occasionally take him out of the tunnels, but even the outdoor levels kept you moving full-steam ahead. Exodus flips the script, mostly taking place in outdoor, open areas that you're free to explore at your leisure.
As you would imagine, this changes things pretty significantly, for better and worse. After 30 or so hours (I can't say for sure, since the Epic Games store doesn't track it), it all still feels distinctly Metro. As a big fan of the previous games' relentlessly self-assured brand of grim eccentricity, I'm having a good time. Mostly. Exodus is ambitious to a fault. It bites off about a thousand more mouthfuls from the old game design meatloaf than it can chew, leading to an experience that---at least, for me---has been defined by inconsistency. Magnificently high highs, yes, but some truly dispiriting lows, as well.
As ever, the below-zero bleakness of Metro's world is matched by the surprising warmth of places you visit and characters you meet while traversing it. Don't get me wrong, though: things are still capital-B buh-leak. Metro is not Fallout. It's rarely zany or ironic in its depiction of a post-apocalyptic world, and it's not afraid to be unkind to get that point across. My first few hours in Exodus' initial spring thaw wasteland were frustrating, albeit not in an entirely unwelcome way. Metro 2033 emphasized survival over Rambo action tactics, while Last Light turned Artyom into a bit more of a tank. Exodus, at least initially, feels more like 2033 with a dash of Far Cry 2 and a pinch of the long-mourned Russian survival shooter STALKER thrown in.
Guns get dirty and jam. Monsters hear you if you get too trigger-happy, and what seems like an easy encounter with one wolf-like Watchman mutant can easily turn into a bloody, barely winnable battle with four or five. While bullets were literal currency in previous Metro games, here they're precious in a different way: there's a crafting system in Exodus, and some of the supplies you collect have to be turned into ammo.
Each area has its own day-and-night cycle and environmental hazards, too, like the horrifying "electrical anomalies" that casually float along at night and set mutants aflame, or radiation-ridden desert storms that kill your visibility and also possibly you. As in previous games, you've got a Geiger counter and a gas mask you can put on, take off, and even wipe off, but now you're responsible for crafting canisters to keep it stocked with sweet, breathable air.
Despite all that, I wouldn't call Exodus a brutally difficult game. After the first few hours, I figured out its satisfying fight-craft-fight rhythm, started employing a lot more stealth, and stopped dying. When Metro has all its ducks in a row and everything is working, you just need to play smart. Unfortunately, it's far from guaranteed that'll actually happen. We'll circle back around to that in a moment.
Even when you're not getting your ass kicked by graveyard-dwelling mega-bears, the game's environments still feel distinctly threatening. If you walk too close to water or pilot a maggot-ridden boat through the wrong spots, a titanium-shelled "shrimp" mutant might yank you in. In the desert area, humanoid mutants camouflage themselves in sand and pop out when you least expect them. Wherever you are, you can hear ravenous beasts that not even the end of the world could kill, skittering and chittering. Sometimes they're far. Sometimes they're near. Sometimes those idle pitter-patters turn into rapidly approaching footsteps or wing flaps. What do you do? Do you run? Do you hide? Do you stand your ground? You're frequently just one or two firefights-gone-awry away from emptying your meager supply cache. How much do you trust yourself?
These open spaces rely more on recycled structures and enemies than the previous Metro games, which were able to change things up on a regular basis thanks to their relative straightforwardness. On the upside, if you sneak up on bandits and just listen to them chatter, you're usually rewarded with lengthy, interesting, and sometimes even funny conversations. On the downside, some of the spaces they inhabit don't feel as lovingly crafted and lived-in as those in prior Metro games. That's not to say all areas in the game suffer from this issue, but some stretches of each map feel perfunctory.
Same goes for enemies. Previous Metro stories were able to dig deep into factions' motivations because they were all crammed together like grizzled, tough-as-leather sardines. In Exodus, each open area has an interesting main faction or two---take, for example, the first area's religious zealots, who believe electricity is the literal devil because, well, it did bring about an apocalypse and all---but also heaps of recycled rent-a-bandits occupying same-y spaces.
Weapons, meanwhile, feel better than in any previous Metro game, but still not amazing. In some ways, this adds to the game's desperate, tension-ridden vibe, but when big, scripted gunfights break out, they often feel underwhelming. Yes, I said "scripted." While Exodus is mostly open-world, it doesn't abandon its linear roots entirely. Some main story missions put you in more confined locations and rely heavily on setpieces, to varying degrees of success.
One involves tip-toeing through a green-tinged, radiation-devoured compound while a mutant alligator whale fish swims beneath, munching on mutants and trying to make you its next meal. I found it thrilling, albeit not terribly difficult. Another saw me sneak through a rain-soaked fanatic compound while their leader was giving his big speech, weaving through the crowd en route to raining on his parade. It was harrowing in all the right ways. But there was also one where I was forced to blast my way through a cannibal lair while cheesy metal music played, and it felt like I was playing a different, worse game with more bad boss fights and less personality. Then there was the half-linear, half-open moonlit forest stroll through wolf-infested enemy territory that heralded the start of the game's third major area, which absolutely wowed me at first, only to overstay its welcome and leave me running in rage-inducing circles.
Yep, the Metro series' trademark jank is back, and in many places, it threatens to be the game's downfall. Exodus is admirably ambitious, blending countless mission types, combat variables, and a series of locales that seriously feel like they could each be from a different game, but AI and other systems struggle to keep up. Enemy AI has improved by leaps and bounds since Last Light, but it still alternates between being eagle-eyed and comically blind to your presence. This became especially apparent to me when I reached the game's second area: a vast, lonely desert. Open areas lead to wildly inconsistent behavior from AI, and missions became too sprawling for their own good, creating confusion about where I needed to go. I've also encountered quite a few bugs, both hilarious (a bandit moonwalking through the sky) and frustrating (the climactic end of an act-concluding main quest broke, forcing me to reload repeatedly until it magically worked again).
Combined, these issues have formed a handy crafting recipe for frustrating tedium. I won't beat around the glowing green bush: I've spent multiple hours of my time with Exodus absolutely infuriated. But I've soldiered on and witnessed the game redeem itself multiple times over. Sometimes, that's meant a stellar mission full of action and tension and drama and fury. Other times, it was a weird little open-world interaction, like the time I got a pack of dog-like mutants, humanoid mutants, and human bandits to all fight each other instead of baring their rabid fangs at me. Most often, though, it's been environments and characters that have bandaged my bleeding enthusiasm for the game.
Honestly, my favorite lived-in space in the game so far is the train you and your ragtag gang of survivors use to travel between locations. Each time you go somewhere or accomplish something, your friends react to your accomplishments. Or they just drone on about their backstories, or what they've been up to lately, with voice acting that ranges from acceptable to "Whose IRL mom is this, and why is she voicing a major supporting character in a triple-A video game?" They're like the talkative Metro NPCs of yore---telling instead of showing to such an extreme degree that it somehow becomes endearing---only they're persistent across your adventures. Their lives and possessions spread out across the train in a way that quickly makes it feel like home. Occasionally, all of them get together to chill or celebrate, and it's just insanely charming. I like to return to the train between open-world adventures, even when I don't have to, just to hang out and hear my companions' stories.
That, to me, is the essence of the Metro series: people finding a way to create home in a world that doesn't want them anymore. Despite all the other issues, I'm excited to see where everyone ends up, and I'll have a proper review for you when I do.