Metro Exodus is an answer to a question I really don’t think I needed answering: what if you took a game that already looked like Fallout, even though under the hood it really wasn’t like Fallout at all, and made it a lot more like Fallout1?
I increasingly feel that open worlds are the great scourge of modern gaming. We can’t have a nice, compact and focused 10-hour experience in our videogames any more; now they all have to be set in a sprawling open world that takes 40 hours minimum to clear. Open worlds can definitely add a lot to a game when they’re done right, as Witcher 3 and the most recent Assassin’s Creed games proved, but they’re very difficult to get right — they’re insanely expensive in terms of resources (Rage 2 is a good example of what happens when you don’t throw hundreds of artists and programmers at the problem) and since development cycles aren’t getting any longer what usually happens is that you end up with a 10-hour game spread out over 40 hours and which is consequently shallow as hell. The me-too nature of videogame development means that open worlds are cropping up everywhere, even being crammed into places where they really should not go and where they’re an active detriment to a game delivering on the things that made it successful in the first place — and so it is with Metro Exodus.
The premise of the Metro franchise is that humanity has been devastated by a nuclear war and the few survivors that we see in the first two games are the ones that managed to take shelter in the Moscow Metro. The surface is a radioactive wasteland where you can only briefly venture before all of your internal organs start trying to exit your body through your various orifices; Metro 2033 and Last Light did have you taking regular excursions up there, but it was always portrayed as an extremely hostile environment where you needed your geiger counter and gasmask and a lot of bullets to fight off the mutated monstrosities that would be constantly stalking you — and these were much tougher than the regular human enemies, to the point where it was almost a relief to go back underground and fight people who could be taken down with a single headshot. I liked 2033 a lot, warts and all; I was less wild about Last Light because it felt like it had compromised on much of what made 2033 feel different in order to make itself more appealing to a mass market audience, to the point where it felt like a substandard Call Of Duty knockoff at times.
In retrospect that was something of a warning sign; I liked Metro because it was Metro, but developers 4A Games appeared to want it to be something else entirely, and Metro Exodus signals yet another tonal shift for the series. All that backstory about the radiation and the mutants and the incredibly hostile surface environment? That is revealed, in the first hour of Exodus, to be Fake News; it’s just Moscow that happens to be a mutant-infested ruin, and the rest of Russia turns out to be fairly livable if you ignore the hordes of bandits, cannibals and crazy cultists running around. Series protagonist Artyom hijacks a steam train and sets out into the unknown with his special forces squad — who have finally stopped calling him “Rookie”, thank god — to find somewhere relatively quiet and peaceful to settle down where they can eat things that aren’t mushrooms and gruel.
Now, to be fair, I don’t think it’s impossible to take Metro and turn it into an open world game. You can do it while retaining the unusual environmental hazards and the weird psychic bullshit from the first game; this would ensure that Metro retained its distinctive flavour — very important in a world with a hundred open world games all vying for my attention — as well as appealing to the not-insignificant audience of starving STALKER fans2. The problem is, that’s not what 4A have done here. Instead they’ve chucked away their whole premise just so that they can inject some painfully by-the-numbers open world areas into their game. The idea (and it’s not a bad one) is that Russia is a big place and that Artyom and friends are consequently going to have to spend an entire year exploring each of its different biomes in different seasons. The first area they visit is the outskirts of Moscow, and it is probably the best one because it’s the most recognisably Metro: covered in snow, with packs of mutant dogs, and weird shrimp things pulling themselves out of the water to spit acid at you, and super-tough flying beasties flapping around, and electrical anomalies that appear at night that made me think the game was going to be considerably more STALKER-ish than it ended up being. Even here, though, there are alarming signs of a lack of imagination that feels almost intentional. Artyom can look at things through binoculars to mark them on his map; when he does so, they turn up as the familiar white question marks that infest all open world maps everywhere. He goes to them. He shoots all the baddies. He loots them. Very rarely do these locations tie back into anything else he’s doing; they’re just generic monster huts that could have been lifted from literally any other open world game.
More than that, though, they contrast especially poorly with the more Metro-y parts of Metro Exodus. When Artyom goes for a main quest objective it usually turns out to be inside a building with one entrance and one exit where the designers can lay things out in a linear way and have some good old-fashioned scripted scares as giant fish monsters chase you around a flooded trainyard that also happens to be infested with ghouls. These areas reminded me of Last Light more than they did 2033, but Last Light was no slouch at all at what it did, and neither is Metro Exodus when you cross the boundary from its shallow surface world into the dank, dark ruins of the pre-apocalypse world. There’s precious few of these areas in the first two-thirds of the game, however. The opening area at least keeps things a little interesting with pools of icy water that’ll suck you under if you blunder too far, and the odd cloud of radiation or toxic gas that’ll at least prompt you to pull on your gas mask or skirt around the area entirely, and monsters running around that were genuinely threatening at this point in the game before I had all of my equipment upgrades. The next area is set in a desert, though, and while it’s certainly pretty to look at the number of environmental hazards and monsters is greatly reduced. Instead you’re just clearing out ruin after ruin of bog-standard bandits, and it’s here that we get to one of my biggest complaints about Metro Exodus: despite trying a couple of things to liven it up, fighting human enemies in Metro Exodus is really boring.
It wasn’t always like this. One of my defining memories of the first Metro is when I fluffed a headshot on a Nazi walking around in the irradiated above-ground ruins of Moscow. I didn’t hit his head at all — but I did get close enough to ruin his gasmask, which turned out to be just as good as he slowly choked to death on the toxic air. Yes, 2033 did stuff things up more than a little bit by making all of the enemies psychically know your location once you’d revealed yourself, to the point where they’d be trying to aimbot you through cover even though they didn’t have line-of-sight; the point here is that 2033 and even Last Light took the standard FPS concept of a human enemy and tried to apply some Metro-specific rules to it that made things a little more interesting. It didn’t always work that well, but it worked well enough that I still remember that choking Nazi nine years after playing 2033.
In Metro Exodus, though, fighting human enemies is just like fighting human enemies in any other FPS ever made. You’ve got limited stealth capabilities and can sneak up on people and knife them or shoot them with silenced weapons, but as soon as they find the first body they go into the Generic FPS Baddie behaviour of crouching behind a piece of cover with their head poking out. If they know where you are because you’re not using a silenced gun they might get a few shots off, but this is why you always use a silenced gun against humans. You find a nice piece of cover of your own — a doorway or a window are ideal — and you slowly move across it, slicing that visibility pie. When an enemy comes into view, you headshot them; they’re very easy to spot because, despite the action now taking place above ground, nearly every single human baddie in Exodus wears a bloody great headlamp — even the tribe of forest hunters, who you’d think would value stealthy camouflage but who all walk around with gas fires attached to their foreheads that act as a big “Please shoot me here” marker. None of them are wearing gas masks or any of the other survival paraphernalia that had been Metro’s hallmark up until this point, because there’s no environmental hazards for them to avoid outside of the cities. This means that you are not wearing your gas mask either, which removes one of the interesting mechanics around getting it damaged and having to repair it or find a new one; those mechanics are still present in the game, they’re just totally irrelevant. There’s also no interaction between humans and monsters outside of scripted events, because there’s no monsters roaming Exodus’s open worlds outside of that first area.
Instead you’re fighting human enemies 80% of the time, and there’s not even any enemy variety — sure, they’ll all carry around different types of gun, but the AI’s behaviour for the cultists in the snow area and the hunter tribe in the forest area and the Mad Max bandit gangs in the desert area is the same set of crouch-behind-cover tactics you’ll find in any other FPS. They can all be defeated exactly the same way — by slowly angling around cover and shooting them in the head one at a time — and there are maybe half a dozen instances of armoured enemies that cannot be headshot in the entire game.
Shooting people in the head is particularly easy in Metro Exodus thanks to the equipment system, which I did appreciate for the flexibility it gave me in choosing my loadout but which I also think was a significant factor in trivialising the game’s combat. The idea behind it is that each weapon you pick up is just a frame with a bunch of components bolted onto it — different stocks, different barrels, different grips and so on — and that you can loot new components for your guns from dead enemies which are then swapped for current ones when you visit a workbench. Your Kalashnikov can thus become a rapid-fire medium range weapon or a slow-firing LMG, depending on which components you have stuck to it. Not all weapons have the appropriate range of sidegrade components, however, and there’s too many options which are just straight upgrades. The very first weapon I picked up in Metro Exodus was a silenced revolver3 with a three-round cylinder, and this seemed like a reasonable stealth weapon: landing a headshot with the iron sights past close range was tricky (there’s bullet drop involved) and the extremely limited rounds and lengthy reload time meant that it was difficult to fight my way out of a miss. Fast-forward to the end of the first area — not the end of the game, just the first area, which is 25% of the way in — and this thing now had a six-round cylinder, a stock and grip that made it way more accurate, a laser sight for landing headshots at short range and a 4X scope for landing headshots at long range. All of the drawbacks had vanished, and this was the configuration I used all the way to the end of the game, where I swapped the silencer out for a high-velocity barrel as there are (thankfully) no humans in the game’s final area and so stealth was less important compared to raw damage.
The equipment system is odd in other ways, too. There’s a simplified crafting system in place for making ammo, medkits and gas mask filters, but I used the gas mask so infrequently and the game handed out so many filters that I never had to craft those, and thanks to the vast number of humans I killed and looted I also never had an issue with ammo shortages. Most of my materials were consequently spent on medkits; there’s no regenerating health in Metro Exodus and the only way to recover health is to either rest at a safe zone — these are ubiquitous in the starting area, but become increasingly rare and eventually vanish altogether by the end of the game — or else inject yourself with medkit drugs. This did lend exploration more of an air of tension than it would have had otherwise, especially when monsters got involved; taking damage is potentially very expensive in terms of crafting materials, and I sometimes found myself holding off on healing, even when I was on half health, because I didn’t want to waste the medkit. However, because I wasn’t spending my crafting materials elsewhere I soon built up a vast surplus and could afford to be far more reckless; the game tried to hold me back by resetting my material stocks at the start of every new area, but by that point I was so powerful that I was barely taking any damage and could very quickly build them up again.
All of this open world stuff — exploration, crafting, and combat — consequently ends up falling flat on its face. It undoes much of what made Metro interesting in the first place, and replaces it with systems that are either too basic or too poorly thought-through to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace. The one kind word I’ll say about it is that the environments do look quite pretty and there are some great dynamic weather effects — snowstorms, thunderstorms, sandstorms. Also — and I appreciate this is rather a niche point in the game’s favour given how few people have bought into the RTX cards — Metro Exodus is the first game I’ve played that used RTX tech where I actually noticed it, with some very nice lighting effects at night and in the dark. Aside from the looks, though, the open world gameplay of Metro Exodus is very definitely a dud.
Fortunately for Metro Exodus, though, that’s not all it has to offer. As I mentioned earlier, it’s an odd hybrid of two approaches, merging a generic open world with the more traditional scripted underground encounters that Metro is known for. And while I don’t think these encounters reach the highs of the previous games in the series — largely because the best of them are recycled encounters from previous games in the series — they’re executed competently enough and I didn’t regret playing through any of them. The final area in particular scrubs the open world and the human enemies from the game entirely and has you go on a two hour jaunt through the Novosibirsk Metro, and while the monsters here aren’t particularly imaginative it’s got considerably more Metro atmosphere than the rest of the game. I wouldn’t have been displeased to play a whole game that was like that, instead of this awkward halfway house between the things that the Metro series has historically done quite well and the current open world flavour of the month.
And while I’m offering Metro Exodus grudging praise I should probably mention a couple of other things it does that I very much liked and would like to see other games expand on — they’re not explored in huge detail here, but that it’s done them at all is interesting enough. First, by not having a full open world and instead going for a hybrid approach that still involves a hefty amount of scripting, Exodus can progress time and evolve its world and its characters in ways that a traditional Ubisoft-style open world game would find difficult. In the first area, much of your time is spent acquiring new bits for the train: a passenger car so that your squad of goons can travel in relative comfort, and an electric trolley car that can detach from the main train engine to scout ahead. I really liked the idea of the train as an upgradeable, evolving base of operations; unfortunately Exodus kind of forgets about it after you leave Moscow as there are no further train upgrades to be found. What it does do, however, is convincingly portray the passage of time. It takes a long time to get around Russia, even on a train, and travelling from one biome to the next takes three months each trip. This travel happens almost entirely offscreen, but it’s effectively communicated via little non-combat interludes on board the train that portray the deepening bonds between the original military members of the train crew and the various civilians you pick up along the way. As usual with these games, most of your squad hangs back at the train and waits for Artyom to do all of the work, but thanks to the intermission cutscenes you still get to know this cast of characters quite well, and by the end of the game the train crew is effectively an extended family. It’s quite a nice, low-key storytelling touch in a game that’s otherwise unremarkably generic.
(This is all the more impressive for being accomplished in spite of some truly awful voice work; not only are the performances mediocre-to-bad, but the voice lines aren’t synced up with the speaking animations and characters end up talking over each other a lot. Metro Exodus also takes the curious decision to give Artyom a voice in the loading screens, where he regales you with a short recap of the story up until that point, but have him still be mute in game. This results in some truly absurd moments when other characters tell you to “go and convince the commander to change his mind”, which Artyom accomplishes by sitting in a chair and awkwardly staring at him for a couple of minutes.)
The other thing Metro Exodus did that I really liked was that the human enemies I fought — and remember, there are a lot of human enemies in Metro Exodus — would actually surrender once it became apparent they weren’t going to win the fight. This usually equates to “kill two-thirds of them instead of all of them” but it’s still a really smart thing for the game to do; I’ve ranted on here in the past about games featuring human enemies who’ll continue to mindlessly charge at a protagonist who has effortlessly slaughtered their way through several hundred of their friends and co-workers, but Metro Exodus at least manages to avoid that particular pitfall. Interestingly, judging by the voice lines the surrender behaviour does appear to be tied to how you’ve acted towards people who have surrendered in the past; I killed everyone who deserved it but didn’t touch anyone with their hands up, and this seemed to make future enemies more likely to give up since they knew I wouldn’t kill them if they surrendered. I’m not sure if that’s what’s actually happening under the hood since I’d need to do a properly bloodthirsty replay of Exodus to test what happens when you do murder surrendering enemies, but that’s the fiction it managed to create for me. It’s probably fortunate that I have no intention of ever replaying Metro Exodus since I strongly suspect I’d end up spoiling that fiction, but it’s a laudable effort nonetheless.
When I was talking about Metro Exodus with my friends I referred to it as “aggressively mediocre”. That’s probably a little unfair. It’s half of an aggressively mediocre game; the open world half of it has no ambition to be anything more than the most milquetoast implementation of open world gameplay possible and actively drags the other half of the game down. When you consider the scripted bits in isolation — the dungeon diving, the travel, the train cutscenes — there’s more than a few glimmers of a game with some promising ideas that’s trying to be more than merely “okay”. With so much effort expended on this most generic of open worlds, though, Metro Exodus finds itself too distracted to explore any of those ideas in more than the most superficial of detail. The previous two Metro games were qualified recommendations; as long as you were willing to put up with a hell of a lot of flaws you’d find some gameplay that you could have some fun with and was worth looking past those flaws for. I can’t say the same of Metro Exodus, unfortunately; it’s all but finished the job that Last Light started and has stripped out too much of the Metro series’ individuality to be enjoyable. The only reason I don’t feel annoyed after finishing it is because I got it as part of the £1 introductory offer for Microsoft’s PC Game Pass; if I’d actually spent real money on it I’d be properly upset at how bland it is. As it is, Metro Exodus is so unremarkably average it’s almost not even worth commenting on, and unlike its predecessors I think that in a year’s time I won’t be able to remember a single thing about it
- The modern Bethesda versions, obviously. I’d be over the moon if they’d made it more like Black Isle Fallout. ↩
- Although most of these people are probably already fully bought-in to Metro already. ↩
- A physically implausible silenced revolver, I might add. It is possible to suppress a revolver if you seal the gap between the cylinder and the barrel so that no gas can escape, but this one doesn’t. ↩