Metro Exodus: The Next-Gen Difference
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Metro Exodus: The Next-Gen Difference

Two years after its initial PC and last-gen console release, 4A Games brings us Metro Exodus: Enhanced Edition. Offered as a free upgrade for existing owners, this newest iteration puts many other console updates to shame. Using a fully ray-traced lighting pipe-line, the amount of effort poured into ensuring this feature-set was kept on consoles with such limited hardware accelerated RT performance compared to Nvidia at double the framerate of last-gen consoles is astounding. While not every visual flaw has been addressed, in an era whereby developers see fit to increase resolution, framerate, and tweak LoD’s,  Metro Exodus: Enhanced Edition is one of the most transformative upgrades console owners have had since last November’s launch.

For a link to a google drive folder with more images, full resolution PNG’s, and split-screen comparisons, click here.

How Does Metro Exodus Feel?

Last-gen consoles ran Metro Exodus at thirty frames per second. While not unreasonable given its slow-paced nature, it suffered from worse input latency than most 30fps console games. Latency was such an issue that the developers updated the game with a sensitivity preset to mitigate it, but sensitivity sliders could only go so far to fix an engine-side issue.

Metro Exodus pushed vast, dense environments with high attention to detail. Fitting this experience onto such dated platforms near the end of their lifecycles meant sacrifices—in this case, texture resolution and input latency suffered dramatically. There was always a sense the consoles never should have gotten the game in the first place.

The Enhanced Edition remedies the player experience with a 60 frames per second target. While the engine still seems to process actions a little slowly—it’s less responsive than other 60fps games—the doubling of framerate has a profound impact on the moment to moment gameplay. You’re no longer wrestling with the controls in heated encounters. Rather, you’re resisting against its survival elements, which include weapons that can jam as they get dirty. By removing controller response as a barrier, Metro Exodus feels more genuine in its attempts to make players feel unsafe.

Metro Exodus’ Rendering Pipeline

Before diving into Xbox One X and Series X comparisons, a basic understanding of Metro Exodus: Enhanced Edition’s rendering set-up needs to be established. While consoles are missing ray-traced reflections, all other aspects of the ray-tracing pipeline remain intact. This includes ray-traced emissive surfaces as well as the ray-traced global illumination with an infinite number of light bounces. With Metro Exodus: Enhanced Edition, every light source is ray-traced. What does all of this mean, though?  

Ray-tracing refers to a straight line in a 3D space—the ray in question. This ray travels until it touches something. The tracing refers to the act of the game searching for which polygons the ray intersected with. By finding this information, it processes which polygons are illuminated by the original light source. Technically, older methods of rasterized lighting used a similar approach of rays determining what to do, but they were limited; either the ray could only be traced if it was within screen space or the lighting pass would be baked into a pipeline after the fact, as opposed to rendering rays in real-time. There was also the issue of light only being able to impact objects it directly illuminated.

All this is to say ray-tracing accurately processes how light interacts with the environment in real-time. Global illumination is a fancy name for indirect lighting. An emissive light source refers to light emitted by objects such as light bulbs and candles. Ray-tracing is used for global illumination and emissives. The new ray-traced GI differs from the 2019 PC release, which only supported one light bounce. This meant as soon as light hit a surface and bounced once, ray-tracing ended. 4A Games’ new implementation supports an infinite number of these light bounces. This leads to more accurate results, as light bounces more than once in real life.

Examining the Differences

With such a robust lighting pipeline, how do current consoles manage such a feat at 60 frames per second? Image quality is the biggest concession. Users coming off PS4 Pro or the base consoles will find an appreciable upgrade in clarity. Xbox One X users, however, are taking a step back in this regard. While the top-end last-gen console ran Metro Exodus at native 4K, according to Digital Foundry, the Series X version uses a dynamic resolution scaler ranging from 1080p to 1728p depending on the activity or scene before being reconstructed to 4K.

As reconstruction techniques mature industry-wide, native pixel counts aren’t as important as the perceptual image quality. At its best, Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition produces an acceptable enough 4K-like image. At its worst, it’s a noticeable step down from Xbox One X. The first few hours don’t stress the engine much, but by the time players begin their approach to Yamantau aboard the front of the Aurora, DRS kicks in, providing a borderline unpleasant result on a 4K screen. However, as with any DRS system, don’t take the worst cases as indicative of general gameplay.  

As a comparison between the two best console versions of both generations, the gap in image quality both highlights how powerful Xbox One X’s GPU was for its day as well as how limited the consoles’ ray-tracing capabilities are even compared to the first-generation Nvidia RTX cards. On balance, though, the visual gains outstrip the image quality sacrifice. More resolution could have been eked out had 4A Games opted to target the same thirty frames per second refresh, but the right call was made.

This is partly due to its assets. The developers claimed consoles would be making use of a new 4K texture package. Based on several comparisons to incidental objects from the first several hours, there was little evidence of this. During the run of tests where I poked Artyom up to random objects, I found no disparity. However, it was while comparing one of the global illumination shots that I noticed higher resolution textures on the crates toward the left of this shot (visit the Drive folder linked at start of article for a better view).

While Metro Exodus was a largely pretty game for eighth-generation consoles, texture quality was a sticking point. It features some of the most inconsistent artwork of a major release in the past several years, just shy of the PlayStation 4 version of Final Fantasy 7 Remake. Considering I actively searched and still only found one example of these supposed “4K textures” outside of the usual suspects, this inconsistency still remains. However, because of this, the rendering resolution deficit between it and Xbox One X isn’t the biggest concern. Most textures are low resolution enough that the drop in image clarity is still enough to fully resolve the artwork.

With those caveats in mind, the impact of its ray-tracing can’t be understated. It’s true that some scenes may appear more visually pleasing to the standard user; in one early scene, players come upon a hallway with a group of mushrooms radiating a green hue. In the last-gen version, this hue dominates the scene more harshly than the ray-traced version. There’s also the case with the Aurora, a train players gain access to a few hours into the experience. The wooden walls exhibit sharp mirror-like reflections whereas the ray-traced version cuts down on the reflectivity of these walls. They still reflect objects, but the reflections themselves are more diffuse with less objects being reflected, owing to the rougher material of the wood than other surfaces throughout the game.

Beyond these two instances, most other scenes show a transformative difference. Light shines into areas naturally, influencing the surrounding scenery. In this image, notice the orange hue from the light bouncing around the inside of this train as opposed to the monotone Xbox One X version.

Because every light source is ray-traced, moods differ. Some areas are more brightly lit in the new release because of the light bounce. By contrast, the original console release never got that dark with its raised black levels and imprecise lighting solution. Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition, however, does feature true pitch black rooms, necessitating equipment such as the flashlight, lighter, or night vision goggles more frequently. The true pitch black scenes are astounding. Also, because of the ray-traced emissive sources, Artyom’s lighter isn’t as overpowered as the original release. I rarely used the flashlight in 2019 because the lighter lit entire rooms. This isn’t the case anymore. The lighter now only works effectively in tight spaces. These are examples of technology driving gameplay.

For one final example, let’s look at this shot, which is a classic example of the original release’s limited lighting solution. Looking outside the window, it’s not very bright, yet the entire room is illuminated from that and the lamp. Notice how the pillow looks as if it’s floating within the scene and the lack of ambient shade on the books hanging to the left of the scene. In the ray-traced version, you get a tiny bit of that light leaking, as evidenced by the grey shine on the top bunk, with that bouncing slightly onto the opposite wall by the bookshelf.

Beyond this, pay special attention the way the lamp situates within both versions of the scene. The original is a general spherical light that doesn’t seem to have a clear beginning or end point. With ray-tracing, light is clearly emanating from the bulb itself, which is contained by the socket, limiting its reach.

Surviving Metro Exodus

Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition is a transformative upgrade. Its ray-traced lighting has a profound impact on the look of the game, as well as players’ association with mechanics. The lighter isn’t so useful anymore. All the new pockets of shade register as actual shade within the game’s stealth and AI system. This generational difference in visual quality being offered at double the framerate with mostly solid image quality is remarkable.

It’s not perfect. While textures are improved in spots, the increase to quality isn’t applied to enough assets. There are also slight oddities with the way ray-tracing works. After all, these consoles aren’t using top of the line ray-tracing hardware. In one scene within the Aurora, I noticed light leaking from one room into the next through a wall.

As the only instance I found, it could have been a one-off bug. The RT calculations also seem to struggle with recurring light sources. For example, Metro Exodus takes a few seconds to fully register a blown out candle or shut off light bulb within a small room, slowly darkening the room and removing the colored light over the few seconds instead of taking effect immediately. These are minor quirks, however. Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition’s state of the art rendering puts other next-gen upgrades to shame. It offers console gamers a glimpse into the inevitable future of real-time ray-tracing as a standard feature.

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