Metro Exodus Review
Into the Light
After establishing the Metro IP as a note-worthy game series with the much-improved sequel Metro Last Light, developers 4A Games opted to take a bit of a risk with the third entry, Exodus. Rather than create another entirely linear adventure to continue the story of Artyom and The Order in the Moscow underground, the team chose to go for a longer development cycle and craft a significantly larger game, with open areas to explore and a much greater variety of environments that move beyond the expected underground tunnels and bombed-out city ruins that dominated the series up to this point. That gamble has paid off, as Metro Exodus is a very strong third chapter, able to successfully build on the gameplay and design concepts honed in previous games, while making the experience more substantial and giving it room to breathe - even if some of the rough edges that have always plagued the franchise aren't quite shaken here.
The opening hours of Exodus focus on setting up the story and largely follow the more linear, scripted formula used by the first two games. After those titles focused on the complex relationship between the survivors in the metro tunnels beneath Moscow and the mysterious Dark Ones who appeared in the wake of the nuclear war, Exodus offers a more grounded tale about survival and hope. Set in 2036, two years after the events of Metro: Last Light, we once again follow Artyom, his now wife Anna, and father in law Colonel Miller along with a handful of Spartan rangers going on a year-long train journey across Russia. The trip is initially prompted by the discovery of a radio signal seemingly indicating some kind of organized military force looking for help, with new revelations shifting the direction of the group’s adventure over the duration of the campaign.
Though Exodus doesn't completely shy away from the more mystical elements that made Last Light's story so intriguing, generally your motivations are grounded in reality and whatever circumstances the train and its occupants finds themselves in. The overarching narrative works well and there are no shortage of epic, memorable moments to be had throughout the 20 or so hour journey. You end up spending a lot of time on and around the train, mostly listening to the other members of your crew talk to you or each other. The quality of voice acting and writing is very much in line with Last Light, meaning most characters speak in gruff, Russian-accented English, which can become a bit tedious, though it does fit with the subject matter. More effort is put into character development here, especially with Anna and Colonel Miller.
The only real issue I had with the narrative is Artyom's refusal to speak outside of reading journal entries during load screens, and the context in which some of the dialogue is delivered. The perpetual silence of the central character was slightly awkward but generally written around successfully in previous games. Here, it can feel quite jarring, as characters pull you aside and spout lengthy monologues while you sit or stand silently and smoke a cigarette or drink some booze. There are stretches where you might spend twenty minutes moving between conversations and just listening to people talk without any meaningful interaction or gameplay. At times you can feel like a bystander in a play where everyone but you has specific stage directions; you awkwardly try and find a place to stand in often cramped quarters as other characters move around to their marks to say their lines and stiffly bump you out of the way. At a couple of points Artyom becomes separated from the group and is contacted on the radio to see if he is ok, but of course he doesn't respond, which just didn't feel right in the context of the characters' relationships and pulled me out of the experience.
Despite these shortcomings, the dialogue-heavy parts of the game remain largely enjoyable, and it is the compelling gameplay side of Exodus that makes up the bulk of the experience. The mix of action, stealth, scavenging and set-pieces returns from previous games, and though most of it will feel fairly familiar to series veterans, everything has been improved. The biggest addition to Exodus is the inclusion of a few much larger open areas with a number of locations you can explore that aren't tied to the main story. Though the game is by no means an open world, you'll go through some levels that are far larger and more freeform than anything the series has seen previously. They are mostly filled with bandit camps, mutant-overrun ruins, and outposts from local factions.
There will be breaks between story missions when you are encouraged to go check some of these optional locations out, to scavenge for supplies and get the lay of the land. You can use binoculars to scout out a point of interest, and mark it on your map. There are also some new mechanics in the form of new transportation methods; a small boat and a rickety old van can be used to traverse these more open environments. What you find in each location will vary, but all are every bit as detailed and atmospheric to explore as the main story missions, and you are rewarded with unique weapon upgrades and crucial supplies. Assuming you explore everything, I'd estimate that about half of Exodus' run time takes place in these larger levels, with the rest of the game following the more linear formula of past Metro games.
Exodus does away with using military-grade ammo as a currency, and instead introduces a basic crafting system where you must scavenge for scrap and chemicals. You can craft a few things on the fly, like ammo for projectile-based weapons, gas-mask filters and throwing knives. For almost everything else, you will need to find a workbench, which are scattered throughout as part of occasional safe havens. Here, you can craft ammo, install upgrades for your armor, repair your gas mask and clean your weapons. Though you will still find a bit of ammo here and there when scavenging, you will need to craft most of it. I thought the balance of resources was quite good; I often felt like I was on the edge of running out of ammo when I finally found another workbench, and crafting supplies are scarce enough that you will need to explore the environments carefully. Even the more linear story levels will often have side areas and rooms that are worth visiting to find hidden supplies, weapons and notes.
Something else you can do at these little safe havens is take a rest and advance time. The three biggest areas bring a day-night cycle into the mix, and the time of day can have a big impact on gameplay. If you want to sneak into a bandit camp, going in at night with your light-detecting watch and night-vision goggles is much easier, while several guards are sleeping. On the other hand, mutants become more numerous and harder to deal with at night, meaning you might want to explore mutant-infested locations during the day.
Similar to the previous Metro games, most encounters with human opponents let you choose to be stealthy or get into open firefights. Stealth plays very similarly to how it did in Last Light, apart from the addition of tin cans that can be thrown to distract enemies. Sneaking around and silently pegging someone in the head with a pneumatic rifle is incredibly satisfying, though the AI can still behave erratically when you get spotted, but then go back into hiding. The addition of a motion sensor you can put on your arm next to the light gauge is also a useful aid when trying to remain unseen. If you are dedicated to a stealth playthrough, you might find yourself reloading saves pretty frequently since it can at times be tricky to determine if an enemy you are going to shoot is visible by another, but overall creeping through the atmospheric and detailed levels remains supremely enjoyable.
If you choose to go loud, or happen to be fighting non-human opponents, the gunplay has been beefed up, with weapons feeling and sounding punchy and satisfying, and some new additions to the classic Metro arsenal such as a crossbow make the shooting a lot of fun in general. The new weapon degradation system is quite well executed; your weapons become visually dirty, and will start to jam and do less damage once caked in enough mud. The weapon customization system has been overhauled, with plenty of different attachments for different slots, and you are even given the ability to change parts out on the fly. I will note that it seems like the difficulty of firefights was balanced with a controller in mind; being able to easily make head-shots with a mouse can make things a bit too easy on the normal difficulty setting. If you are playing on PC, I'd recommend choosing one of the higher difficulties if you are at all experienced with FPS games on this platform.
When it comes to the mutants, many varieties return from previous games, such as the light-sensitive spiders and over-grown prawns. There are a few additions, and though a couple aren't terribly interesting, such as the ‘humanimals' which are effectively zombies who can also throw bricks, some of the new creatures are terrifying and disgusting. The few bugs I did encounter in Exodus were pretty much all related to the AI of common mutant types bugging out, or ragdolls twitching, though these were uncommon and the mutant AI is pretty good and makes for some exciting action.
One of the most immersive aspects of the series has always been clever UI design, and this remains true here, with absolutely no overlay aside from the optional crosshair, and some temporary information about your remaining ammo or supplies if you reload or hit a specific button. Your wrist is valuable real-estate, with your watch indicating whether you are visible and how much time is left on your gas mask filters when moving through irradiated areas. You can also install a compass or the above-mentioned motion sensor on your wrist. When you stop to do some crafting or change weapon attachments on the fly, you will actually take off your backpack, put it on the ground and open it before the crafting menu appears, all details that ground you in the world and make you forget you are playing a game. The only minor annoyance for me is the health system; when you take damage, the top of your screen gets increasingly covered with red until you use a med-pack. Since these items can be hard to come by or require precious resources to craft, you might choose to press on with a bit of damage, but the permanent red at the top of the screen can be a bit annoying and lead you to heal more often than you might otherwise.
The most impressive thing about Exodus however is how well everything flows together. It transitions from sections of open exploration with light survival elements, to frantic action set-pieces, to effective psychological or straight-up horror segments. The different scenarios are generally very well balanced, and despite Exodus running for significantly longer than the previous two games in the series, and ending on a very memorable and haunting mission, I was left wanting more. Many games suffer in the pacing department when increasing in scope, but Exodus manages to pull it off by frequently changing things up and introducing new gameplay elements and ideas that keep you engaged.
It also helps that the game is once again bolstered by mostly stellar presentation. Though it uses the same engine as previous games, Exodus has seen an appreciable bump in visual fidelity in all areas, which in combination with the increased size and variety of levels is quite impressive. Though character models and animations aren't quite up to snuff with the best on the market, they have been improved from Last Light and are generally very detailed. The environments on the other hand are incredible, with top marks for lighting, texture work and art design allowing the game to retain an incredible atmosphere throughout, whether you are creeping through some disgusting flooded tunnel or bouncing your way through a desert sandstorm in a jerry-rigged van with terrible suspension.
You will need a very beefy PC if you want to run the game on its highest settings; with a powerful PC I still had to drop the settings one notch to retain a good frame rate in some areas. Fortunately, even with the settings slightly lowered the game still looks excellent. It's also worth noting that the title still doesn't have a Field of View slider, and though I didn't have any issues with the default, those who are prone to motion sickness in first person games should be aware of this.
The audio is also very strong, with weapons in particular sounding far punchier and more detailed compared to previous Metro games. The growling, skittering and sometimes squishing noises of mutants are used to incredible effect to build tension as you explore some claustrophobic long-abandoned structures while waiting for whatever is making these terrible noises to jump out and try and eat your face. During story scenes with characters talking, it seems like there was some attempt to change the volume of character voices depending on how far away they are, and this sometimes results in slightly muffled or tinny voice lines that sound a bit off. During gameplay, some music and audio cues, like the horn sound that plays when an enemy can see you during stealth, are recycled from Last Light, but continue to work well. There are also some sections where new music is present, be it low-key orchestral or blood-pumping electric guitars, and it generally works well.
Metro Exodus sees the series continuing its upward trend in pretty much every regard. The addition of open areas to explore, a greater variety of environments and further fleshing out of the Metro universe make the game an excellent follow-up to Last Light, even if a few of the rough edges like occasionally buggy AI are still hanging around, and some aspects of the storytelling are a bit clumsy. If you have enjoyed the series thus far, or like the idea of story driven atmospheric survival-horror shooter, Metro Exodus is absolutely worth picking up.