Metro Exodus Preview: Expanding on an Established World
Every time I’ve stared the apocalypse specific to the Metro series in the eye, I’ve never been able to hold. Something about every previous title has always been off-putting. Whether it be their more deliberate pace, their fondness for claustrophobic settings, or in some cases, their janky mechanics, I’ve found myself running with my tail tucked between my legs from every experience with this series. Which isn’t to say the series isn’t up to snuff, but that it’s never been quite for me. I still don’t think it is but Metro Exodus seems like it’s trying to evolve past those tenets yet still double down on what defines its tone that helps it stand apart from its competition. I think it pretty handily does.
Metro Exodus seems primarily concerned with the expansion of its world while maintaining the intimacy its blunderous gameplay has bestowed it traditionally. Metro 2033 was a tight game by comparison, one fraught with tension. Mostly bound to the dark and abandoned Russian subway tunnels, Metro 2033 was defined by its constraints. It was dark everywhere you went and insufferably oppressive. If something was on you, there was nowhere to run from it. There was always the sense that you had to push through every encounter because…well you did. This linearity, this sense of obligation and restraint become a bit of a recurring theme. Hell it even manifested in gameplay and systems via making the very bullets you use to protect yourself into a currency. Put all of that into games that didn’t necessarily control ideally and you have yourself an odd, but winning couple that never failed to bring an excitement to the run of the mill single-player shooter. Metro: Last Light further expanded on that game’s scope, eeking ever so slightly out of the series comfort zone but still kept things on a leash while polishing it up a bit. Metro Exodus acts as the furthest step from the series core and yet feels like what the series has understandably been building up to.
Metro Exodus is meant to take place over the course of a year and importantly, you’re on a post apocalyptic road trip for the duration of it. Well, railroad trip. What does this mean for the structure of the game? It means that it’s broken up into four segments that correspond to the seasons, each taking place in a new hub area. The other big change is that final detail, which significantly shifts the tide of the series. There are still dark, cramped tunnels from what I gathered in my demo but for the most part, you will be exploring the barrens of the land above ground in wide open sandboxes meant to conduce a sharper, but still not totally refined, survival experience.
My demo began in the summer, in a dry desert known only to me as Caspian. A train ride through the area quickly reveals a band of drifters in vehicles who seem to have their eye specifically on Artyom’s wife Anna. This danger presents you with the opportunity to navigate the land on foot and deal with the threat. Importantly, you still don’t feel like a super soldier despite the sequel’s more expansive offerings. Snakes that look much too large and zombie like husks cover the ground between you and the small den you want to secure. While wandering around the ruins of a nearby town, I remembered why I stopped playing Metro games: I cannot get out of the action-heavy shooter mentality, despite not even being a fan of it. My (right)trigger finger is regrettably primed and ready to go. Even the slower shooters I play have a focus on precision and lethality that Metro has never been content folding itself up into. So when I emptied all of my clip into a pack of husks, only to be swarmed by more, I quickly learned what might become the most valuable lesson to keep in mind: run.
I ran into as many small buildings as I could to scavenge whatever might be left. If you’re huge into stark survival conditions in games, you’ll be happy to know there were slim fucking pickings. Me though, I was a little less content with that. Paired with my inability to run too far or even vault something capably, I felt for the first time like the jank we’d come to know from the series was purposeful and meant to imbue horrible situations like mine with the kind of dread you couldn’t conjure if I did somehow have a three foot vertical leap. Being able to hear that pack constantly closing the distance and knowing there was next to nothing I could do to fight them back or even properly escape gave me anxieties I deliberately sidestep whenever I can. Soon enough I was forced to combat brick-throwing mutant zombies with my bare hands and a slowly diminishing shotgun. Before long, I’d actually have nothing. My medkits were dwindling since I had to get in front of everything and swing on it to take it out in order to be conservative. Soon enough, I was through all of them and very nearly dead. Exploring that small building knowing any of these corpses could rise and end me was tense and exactly what I feel the audience for this game wants, even if my specific position wasn’t the most enviable.
On my way up, I managed to scrounge just enough ammo to feel barely competent before I ran into a man who really wanted me dead. Unfortunately for him, I’m good at button mashing and soon enough I was able to loot his key to the van parked just outside. I grabbed his gun and ziplined down into another encounter with zombies before I could finally operate the car. Yeah, Metro Exodus has spaces wide enough that you can now drive between them. I can’t say it personally added anything to my experience but I figured it’s worth relaying to convey how much bigger these zones are compared to what’s come before.
With my new wheels, I set off to answer a distress call from someone who was clearly beset by the same guys who had beef with me. A haunting jaunt through a cave filled with burning bodies quickly proved that the game had not lost its defining cold touch. Unfortunately, fighting the human A.I here and up ahead in the climactic encounter at the base of a tower proved the game has also not completely shirked off some of its rougher edges too. Enemies just kind of waited outstandingly long for me to line up the right shot, especially when I was right in their face doing it. I managed just fine with these guys compared to the zombies and got an awful lot of bullets and crafting materials out of it too, which came in handy when the NPC Guil let me up her tower to fill me in on what had been going on and let me finally upgrade weapons and make ammo. A simple economy and navigable UI ensured that the deluge of information didn’t overload me and I knew what I was doing. Locked and loaded again, and this time armed with the knowledge that I probably shouldn’t shoot everything that moves, Guil directed me to a substation that would aid me in my mission to power a comms tower we need on. And so back into the tunnels we went.
Back in the tunnels, on my own, with night vision and a lighter to burn away webs, I felt the pull of what had come before. Shuddering at the sounds that creatures made in the darkness and cautiously traipsing through that unlit office space, I fell back into the rhythm I got into with previous titles. After gallivanting in a pretty, but admittedly empty overworld, it was refreshing to feel some sense of direction guiding me forward. More importantly it felt good to have the more intimate survival experience of yore side by side with the newer, more spacious and world-driven survival. The fact that it flowed together as well as it did shows that 4A Games may just have a good thing going here with Metro Exodus.
Unfortunately, my demo capped out around this point so I couldn’t see the current mission to its end. It’s a shame too because it was just getting into the more character driven content I’ve heard resonated with folks who liked previous games. But I didn’t leave disappointed. I walked into my demo expecting a narrative-heavy, sandbox survival shooter and Metro Exodus gets points for quite brutishly filling out each one of those boxes. The world won’t catch fire for it but it’s a game that’ll certainly fulfill the desires of the audience already starving for it and seems like a solid enough effort to hopefully engender more good will its way. Despite not being my cup of tea, it’s a good and novel entity in homogenous landscape that I’d much rather have around than not at all.