Having been founded by former Stalker developers, 4A Games struck gold with Metro in a way GSC Game World never did. Both series share similarities regarding their oppressive atmospheres and survival-focused gameplay, with 4A Games banking on accessibility. In equally catering to hardcore and casual audiences with its difficulty settings, the Ukrainian-based developer penetrated the mainstream. Combining this audience reach with cutting edge production values led to a tumultuous future for Metro—one which saw its most ambitious entry in Metro Exodus.
Oppression Informing Design
The previously defined linear structure has been disrupted by a semi-open approach to game design—Metro Exodus shows a remarkable level of restraint. For a series continuing to penetrate the mainstream, crafting a traditional open-world would have been a simple box to tick for the marketing team. Instead, Metro Exodus is comprised of several disconnected, large environments littered with optional points of interest. This illuminates 4A Games’ precarious balancing act between mainstream appeal and artistic intent. The spaces are used to reinforce Russia’s post-nuclear futility.
Metro 2033 and Metro Last Light showed glimpses of a realized world rife with melancholy. Unfortunately, some of these moments felt constrained by overly linear level design. The scattered pockets of underground civilization felt unnatural in their composition, and brief excursions to the surface felt similarly restrictive. By opening levels up, players see factions and wildlife mill about, lending a greater sense of believability than its predecessors. These open environments introduce a more organic form of world-building.
The previous design philosophy meant most players would see the same things even if they weren’t actively seeking them. With the shackles removed, players’ investment in the world is informed by their desire to explore. This allows a critical path-run with exploration more than doubling that playtime. These experiences differ dramatically, but it’s within this disparity that Metro Exodus finds its calling—player choice.
Narrative driven experiences typically operate more smoothly in a linear setting as it allows for tighter pacing. Storytelling was never 4A Games’ strong suit, though. Metro Exodus’ plot may act as a continuation to the last two games, but remembering those events isn’t important. The Metro experience is defined by atmosphere informed by its setting and gameplay. Critically examining story isn’t as important as moments like smoking a cigarette atop a destroyed church overlooking lush scenery or slowly creeping through decrepit buildings. If nothing else, Metro Exodus nails this post-nuclear society. Its individual locations don’t always tell interesting stories—they evoke a range of moods.
Metro Exodus‘ Gameplay
This permeates the experience thanks to its mechanics acting as an extension to this mood-setting. Make no mistake—while there are easier settings that reduce resource management, Metro Exodus is an endurance test. Enemies hit hard and weapons are susceptible to failing in the midst of fire. They get dirty as Artyom wades through contaminated water and mud, gradually reducing weapons’ stability. The dirtier said gun is, the more frequently it’ll jam. Circumventing this isn’t an on-the-fly fix, as guns can only be cleaned at workbenches—a process which itself uses up resources.
There’s also the matter of Metro Exodus’ weapon handling. There’s a real sense of heftiness to the act of moving with and aiming each gun, requiring more calculated movements. So many systems work together to make every outsider feel like a threat. You’re pushed to use stealth because being caught in the crossfire is terrifying.
This is where the semi-open environments fit in, allowing more leeway with which to approach engagements. Getting the drop on a squad in some random marked spot on the map feels simultaneously empowering and tense. It’s empowering because you chose the approach on your terms, but it’s scary because you’re so vulnerable. The day-night cycle adds an extra layer to the proceedings. Players can choose morning or nighttime by sleeping in beds at rest stops.
Less humans patrol areas at night. However, there are also more creatures stalking the surface. In the Volga level, nightfall also brings dangerous electrical anomalies. The day-night cycle integrates user choice into its world building. Whereas prior entries decided when and where to place mutants and humans, this placement of organic life feels more natural. This makes the dynamic between Artyom, opposing humans, and mutants more palpable. 4A Games manages a meaningful connection between players and the world through this cycle. Maybe you lose track of time, finding yourself in an inconvenient spot to backtrack to a rest area. The adaptation required to mold to the changing environment makes the world feel more dynamic.
For all its successes, though, the cracks start to show when examining AI more closely. Like most games, artificial intelligence breaks apart under specific circumstances. In one instance, guards were semi-alert to an intruder in the area because they noticed a dead body. I was holed up in a room with one entrance only accessible by a nearby stairway. I took out a dozen enemies walking up that stairway even after the vicinity went on full-alert. The game also doesn’t handle scripted sequences gracefully. AI despawns after triggering certain points allowing further progression. These minor inconsistencies feel monumental on the face of an experience leaning heavily on immersion through so many systems and design decisions.
For its hardcore tendencies, Metro Exodus doesn’t push too far into unforgiving territory. Only two resources are used for everything, including repairing masks, cleaning guns, and crafting ammo. De-emphasized micromanagement is the key—several systems need to be accounted for, from recharging the flashlight and night vision goggles to patching up holes in the gas mask. The act of addressing these survival systems, however, means players will never feel overwhelmed by its survival underpinnings. For example, patching up gas mask holes from a bullet is as simple as pressing one button.
However, there are areas in which Metro Exodus could have pushed further. Rather than a portable bank that can infinitely recharge the flashlight and night vision, they could have run on consumable batteries. The bandages used to temporarily seal gas mask holes could have also been a limited resource. 4A Games understands, however, how much is too much. It offers enough to make casual and less skilled gamers feel vulnerable without making the experience tedious or insurmountable.
Conversely, the dedicated find solace in the franchise-staple Ranger Hardcore setting. With this setting, the already minimal HUD is further reduced, forcing players to be more observant. Weapons degrade faster while requiring more resources to clean and workbench locations are more limited. Ranger Hardcore also removes the quick-save feature, forcing players to live with every mistake’s consequence. This is all in addition to the expected resource scarcity and more sensitive AI sight lines. At its highest settings, no AAA or AAA-like release touches Metro’s brand of masochistic vulnerability.
The studio understands its target audience without alienating the more casual player base that has afforded them to continue pushing technology. The move to a fully real-time ray-tracing lighting pipeline as the bare minimum standard moving forward beginning with Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition shows this. By making ray-tracing capable GPU’s a requirement, 4A Games is alienating a huge portion of the PC audience. This needs to be circumvented through broader reach—an act the team has succeeded at.
Finding Solace in Silence
The Aurora players use to travel from level to level is used as a sort intermission level. Between story beats, players are given the reigns to explore the Aurora, talk to people, and just relax. These are more than just character and world-building exercises; they’re breathers from the preceding mission’s intensity.
Artyom typically operates as a one-man army or assassin depending on the way players approach combat. He’s presented with roadblocks at every turn, but he always finds a way through; whether it’s against densely populated bandit camps or hoards of mutated, or even wading through radioactive areas, he’s steps away from death. This constant opposition is contextualized through combat and survival mechanics. By extension, then, the Aurora offers the moments of respite a mad-man like Artyom needs. Just as facing adversaries on the surface is equally exhausting for Artyom and players, winding down on the Aurora is equally coaxing for both parties.
This mood-setting is borderline unmatched in the AAA space. For all its boring characters, overdrawn dialogue, and phony accents, it hits where it counts. These sections run the gamut from hopeless to relaxing. Playing guitar with a friend or sitting in your private cabin, enjoying the outside view, with Artyom’s wife by his side—these moments likely won’t make players feel attached to the characters. Rather, they’ll feel attached to the holistic experience Metro Exodus is presenting. Don’t think of the Aurora as an opportunity to get to know these characters as it exceeds suspension of disbelief. Artyom is a silent protagonist, but not really. He doesn’t speak during gameplay, but loading screens give him personality as he voices diary entries summarizing the events and his thoughts between levels. 4A Games has relied on this suspension of disbelief since the beginning, but it feels especially egregious in Metro Exodus. Characters have a surprising amount of dialogue in each Aurora intermission. It’s difficult to believe Artyom and Anna’s inseparable bond when she does all the talking and Artyom only shows up to offer ears and sex.
Giving Artyom a voice during gameplay would have made the Aurora sections even more impactful. As it stands, however, it’s a powerful respite from the madness that fails to meaningfully engage with its cast.
The Metro Exodus Verdict
Metro Exodus is a very fine entry in Artyom’s journey. Its inconsistent AI drains some of the immersion, as does its oddly silent protagonist that has a defined personality during loading screens. These are small bumps along Artyom’s intense and evocative journey. Metro Exodus’ diegetic design and thrilling encounters will leave an impact beyond reaching the end credits.
Disclaimer: This review was conducted on the Xbox Series X version. Last-gen users should drop a point from the final score. The amount of input latency makes combat more frustrating than it should be.