Review: Metro Exodus – Welcome to the surface
Choo Choo Motherfucker
The broken buildings of the world-that-was blocks my way. I look for a way to move forward, to continue my search for survivors, here on the surface. The dwellers of the Metro believe that they are all that remains of Humanity, but I believe otherwise. Finding a frozen manhole, I crack it open, revealing the dark below.
Jumping down, I inch my way down the dark corridor, flinching at every echoing growl as I move further away from the light. Back in the tunnels, where our savior has become our funeral knell, we just don’t know it yet.
Some glowing mushrooms serve for a memorial for an unlucky soul. Was he a Ranger, like me? In any case, I take his discarded ammo clips, he won’t be needing them where he’s going.
I pull out my lighter to burn away some cobwebs that are slowing my progress and as the brief flare of light disorientates me, the mutants attack. Huge slavering rats the size of panthers rush me in perfect sync, as if they think with one mind.
Metro Exodus is the latest in the series of Metro games developed by 4A Games. The previous two games describe a world in the aftermath of worldwide nuclear war, where daily struggle and the fight to survive in an irradiated wasteland are the only things the inhabitants of Moscow’s Metro system have left, along with the hope that something will change.
Fear the light. Fear the dark. Fear the future.
That was the tagline used to market the first game in the series, and nothing has changed in the interim. You play as Artyom, whose actions (or lack of actions) reward the player with a hidden system of Moral Points, influencing the later story. While he’s grown up a lot since the start of the first game in the series, Metro 2033, he’s still naive enough to be optimistic for the future.
Dreaming of a time when the Metro inhabitants can rejoin the surface world to rebuild, you’re dropped into one of his many excursions to the surface searching for anything, anyone, that could signal a new start.
Some monsters wear human skin
Without giving away the story, let me just say it continues the thematic shift from 2033‘s “monsters are monsters, humans are humans” narrative to “sometimes the worst monsters wear human skin.” It’s interesting that while you’re always behind Artyom’s eyes, it’s only during the loading screens that you gain a glimpse of what goes on in his brain. The Moral Points system of the Metro system creates changes in those narrative moments, showing a picture of Artyom as a person, who he was, who he strives to be, and where he is going. It’s self-reflective in the best way, something that most games of this genre (or any genre) usually skips, filling that void in the narrative with more explosions.
This feedback loop between you, as the player, and Artyom, who is also you, the player, is a beautiful thing and really pulls you into the story further, making your actions feel more impactful than a ton of dynamite. Anyone who’s played a Metro title will be familiar with how that feedback loop can (and will) steer the story towards one of the possible endings. That’s the same here with Metro Exodus, with Moral Points being awarded for good deeds, certain specific tasks, or taken away, mainly if you make Artyom kill anyone unprovoked.
The longer way, the empathetic way, the merciful way. All of these things Artyom understands, even as he doesn’t understand the world he’s walked into on the surface. It was simple in the Metro. The Fascists, the Communists, the heart of Polis, the lifeblood of trade, Hanza (although brigands is closer, ha!), the selfless Rangers of the Order who live by the maxim laid down by their leader, Miller: “if it’s hostile, you kill it.” All of these things he understood, all fit in a simplified worldview of the Metro, where you choose your targets based on danger and necessity, never by greed or opportunity.
A code to live by
The pragmatism of this moral code, where recognizing the need for violence in a hard world, while still preferring a non-violent approach is very Russian. It’s also very Orthodox, Christian in principle, and decidedly humanist. That viewpoint puts the mutants on the same level as vermin, an annoyance that is either best left alone or eradicated if they become a nuisance.
There’s also no room for regret in the world of the Metro, yet Artyom spends much time in self-reflection, full of remorse for the blood on his hands as he fights for his people’s survival. He’s the embodiment of Russian values, truth, meaning, and justice in all things, the archetypal Son of Russia trying to restore his diminished country.
Now on the surface, he discovers a new world, with a new, confusing worldview. Who are his foes? Who can he trust? With one simple noise, or absence of, his trusty Geiger counter upends his worldview completely. No radiation?!? How can this be?
Just like Moses leading his people out of Egypt, Artyom wants to lead his people out of the harsh environs of the Metro. His journey is long, with each of the sprawling open-world areas taking place in a different season.
This both serves to make them visually distinctive while also imparting a sense of time passing to the player. My only question: has he asked if the Metro inhabitants want to leave?
Janky in all the best ways
With the technical marvel that is the 4A Engine, this all combines to fantastic immersion, only broken occasionally by the usual jankiness. Boats that get stuck on seemingly nothing, tree branches that stop you walking down an otherwise empty field. Gaps between things that seem explorable – until you try. Of course, that’s all part of Metro’s charm, adding to the ambiance, but it could be off-putting to gamers used to the polish of Western AAA games.
Then again, the level of OCD detail here wouldn’t exist in those Western games. Tessellation is everywhere, even on surfaces that could have been painted by a tricksy texture. Motion blur, usually a pox on the visuals of AAA titles, is actually used well, not just blurring the background when spinning your crosshair, but also blurring Artyom’s weapon, Artyom’s arm when you wipe the accreted crud off the visor of your mask (that you keep forgetting you don’t need to wear), and other motions.
Explore at your peril
It’s a world that you want to explore for its beauty, and then run screaming in terror from when that world bites back. Even on Ranger mode, the hardest difficulty, if you stick to the beaten path, you’ll get through more often than not. After all, Artyom did become a Spartan and they don’t accept weaklings.
Deviating from that line is a different proposition, one that really brings the survival horror aspects of the Metro series into its own. Every footstep off that path brings you closer to whatever mutated monstrosities you can hear snarling and grunting in the undergrowth. Each interesting piece of ruined architecture you decide to loot becomes a risk/reward spreadsheet, with the outlay of ammo, crafting resources and medkits balanced against the potential of a fantastic weapon attachment, other loot, or collectibles and moral points.
With all that excitement, at least Artyom has a portable crafting station in his backpack for when you need to restock, letting you do on-the-spot weapon upgrades, craft ammo and health, and tend to your weapon’s condition.
Exploring will give you the best chance of the good ending, the most rewarding experience, and the most amount of gray hairs. It makes you use the clipboard that has the area map and compass to find your way around while balancing the need to know directions with the need to be able to see, as the map covers your field of vision. It’s a wonderful tonic for the overwhelming, icon-heavy, collect-all-the-things of most modern open-world FPS games.
Underground, Overground, stalker-ing free
Listen, Metro Exodus isn’t perfect, but that’s perfectly okay by me. The minor jankiness adds to the ambiance, the world is crafted meticulously with a richness that the Witcher series could only dream of, and 4A Games is a master at playing the player during the more scripted, linear missions, with pacing, momentum and breathtaking set pieces. It’s also one of the best tactical shooters I’ve played, with multiple pathways through each of the more open-ended missions and areas.
If you’ve played the first two games in the series, you’ve probably already bought Exodus. If you’re new to the franchise, go get all three and enjoy the ride.
A copy of Metro Exodus was provided for the purpose of this review.
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