Metro Exodus Review – A Light At The End of the Tunnel
Trains serve a primary function: they get you to where you need to go. This sounds obvious but I feel it doubly so because of how important the train is to my life. Just about every journey I take begins and ends on a train and it’s a damn trip every time I have to board one. Whether I run into a troupe of dancers, a mariachi band, an old friend or my worst enemy, the train system in New York City kind of binds us all together. It’s the living, breathing network of tunnels that allows me to foster a connection to anyone I’ve ever known and everyone I will never meet. I think for this reason, I’ve always found the concept of the Metro franchise so promising: it fashioned a home in a place of comfort.
Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light were comfortable. Those games took place in the poorly lit tunnels and occasionally lively stations of the abandoned Moscow metro. When you weren’t being beset by mutated oddities under and above ground, you were in stations that served as makeshift homes for survivors of the nuclear war that landed them there. You shared in drinks and songs with the same people you fought for your survival with. Metro has always been incredibly diligent about providing those opportunities to unwind. There’s always been a live, beating heart at the core of Metro, a heart I thought would be lost once you left the stations behind.
Metro Exodus finds you on the road for a change. After years of exploring the Moscow underground, Exodus, the third game in the series, follows Artyom beyond the tunnels of apocalyptic Russia and out into the world proper in order to find the next place to call home. On the trek, he comes across the worst of people and befriends and grows close to some of the best. It’s an oft dark but affecting tale of a small family trying to make it despite arguably insurmountable odds – and I loved it.
On the latest in a seemingly long line of missions above ground, Artyom and his wife Anna discover a train that can finally help them escape the oppressiveness of life in the tunnels and all the problems it’s thus far bred for them. After securing the train themselves and making a shocking discovery, they set out with a small group of fellow tunnel dwellers aboard the Aurora to make a new life for themselves. This expedition lands you in Volga, the level that changes everything about the series.
Volga is pretty barren. A river runs through it and a castle filled with cultists sits at one end of it. Ruins, abandoned buildings and shacks dot the landscape and plenty of creatures populate the holes in the ground, the fields and the water. But it’s an environment that’s wide and spacious in a way that the Metro series hadn’t done till this point and it’s marvelous. Metro has always had a survival element to it: filters of limited breathable air needed to be swapped out in irradiated territories, equipment needed maintenance, ammunition was (supposedly) scarce, enemies absorbed a lot of damage and you had to use med-kits you scrounged for or bought to heal up. Gun-play and stealth were always options but felt lacking in polish. While it feels better now, it’s still not where it needs to be to be up to snuff with a standard shooter, namely in its AI. Whereas this felt unintentional before, it feels absolutely like The Entire Point™ now. The clumsiness in which you mantle over things, the snappy way Artyom aims around, exactly how much he flinches after being hit, how quickly you get winded, and how quickly you die absolutely provides a uniquely human tension to this game that its contemporaries and predecessors lack and make up for the fact that playing it isn’t always the most fun or challenging experience. It feels like the hard pivot into an identity that Metro has been forging for years now. This pivot, more than ever, makes Metro Exodus stand out in a crowded space. Understandably then, the game ratchets things up a few notches.
Resources are much harder to come by and much more spread out, making you have to really consider every action you might want to make. Those resources make up the entirety of the economy of the game. You can use those to clean your weapons, fix your damaged mask, mass produce ammo, fashion med-kits or make throwable equipment. Most importantly, you’ll almost never be able to do two or more of those in one shot. You have to begin making choices that amounted to next to nothing in previous games. Do you keep the suppressor that significantly dampens your damage but keeps mutants off your back, or save the resources and make the loudest gun to ever kill a monster in two shots? Do you craft the Molotov cocktail for crowd control or the health in case stuff gets dicey? Decision-making begins to rack your brain at every corner and then the game starts to click into place.
This kind of thinking informs the rest of your experience with the game. You’ll constantly find yourself in inhospitable and downright ruthless locations. Whether it be the barren Volga river, the bandit ridden basin of the Caspian Sea, or the woodland areas of Eastern Russia, everything begs to be meticulously glanced over in order to be ready for what’s inevitably ahead. If you don’t prepare, Metro Exodus will be a brutal experience. This exploration is then incentivized by little vignettes that give you the briefest taste of the world outside of your home. The game may dictate that you go to one location, but fills your map with question marks based on stray conversations and observations. The completion of these activities almost always nets you some tangible benefit like a weapon or a piece of equipment and on occasion a story fitting of Metro Exodus’ tone. In my time, I found instances such as bandits trying to overthrow a despot, cultists conducting fucked up experiments, and others trying to defy the “gods”. The world of Metro Exodus is a quiet hell that was rewarding for the perspectives alone, and even better for what I earned from it: the ability to make it.
More often than not, these little expeditions feed back into the cast of characters surrounding Artyom, like Tokarev, the gunsmith, or Stepan, a soldier who longs for normalcy wherever he can find it. In some way, shape or form, they change and evolve and your treks into the outside world help nudge them along onto paths that bring out the earnestness of the game. Without them and what I did or retrieved for them, I can’t imagine how many moments of the game would feel indescribably different and hollow. This helps reinforce the theme of the game: that love, compassion, home and survival aren’t things chanced upon but that come by way of nurturing. By venturing out into uncomfortable situations for the sake of another person and learning what sacrifice is.
It’s the connections to the crew of the Aurora that make the journey of the game worth it. You go to a number of places where people running counter to your interests present a challenge. Unfortunately these folks and their motivations hardly have a place in the story, which amounts to a lot of disappointment in the narratives outside of the primary one. Instead, your crew takes the spotlight. Aboard the Aurora, you can sit in on long conversations that seem to go nowhere or you can share in a smoke with a character. You can elect to turn music on to lighten the mood or spend a tender moment in bed with your partner. These light touches craft a connection to the cast and their frankly mundane lives rather than fabricate drama – and it feels fantastic to be a part of that. Weird decisions like keeping Artyom a silent protagonist help keep you from feeling completely immersed in that, but those connections still manage to shine through.
These characters are further explored off of the train, where they take center stage in each level and carry it through to completion as your occasional partner. You’ll get to know people like Damir or Alyosha, who are refreshing in the face of the starkness of Metro Exodus, and you’ll meet characters like Giul, who are intrinsically tied to the location you find them in and act as motivating factors for how you approach them. Unfortunately, some characters play key roles yet are given the short end of the stick like Anna, whose role in the story is immense, but takes an early turn to a regrettable place that leaves a lot of it beyond her control. While overall these characters feel like a well rounded group of people, some dynamics, backgrounds and motivations fall flat in order to pave the way for others. While I can’t tell you what those could’ve looked like, it’s disappointing to not be able to see more of them.
If it wasn’t abundantly clear, this central family is the story. Decisions you make can decide whether it stays together or comes apart. Early on, I lost someone. They were a recurring voice and a bit of a small comfort. They were someone who idolized my character a bit, paid a price for it, and life on the Aurora felt that much quieter without them. When I realized their fate was my doing, I began to take the literal words that make up the chatter of the game that much more seriously. The game will rarely explicitly tell you what’s wrong and right, or what to do beyond a broad goal. It trusts you to listen to the people around you like they were actual people and move forward as such. If a character tells you they want to go through a base without killing innocents, maybe take into consideration that you don’t do that. Instead of ticking a box in a menu, Exodus forces you to take their thoughts and feelings into consideration when deciding where the narrative should go. It specifically employs you as an agent of chaos or order at the center of the micro narrative, and rewards or punishes you for acknowledging or abusing that power. It’s a choice that, in a series that has often asked you to take it and its small touches seriously, makes abundantly too much sense, and while it proved to be a decision I loved, it’s worth noting it could prove divisive to an audience that likes a sense of direction.
The game contracts and expands in a way that very clearly shows broad direction though, lest you think it’s entirely devoid of it. Linearity and its opposite live side by side. A wide open space like Volga can be, and is, followed by a level that could be ripped straight out of previous entries in the series, but with the refinements present that make it less of a chore. Metro Exodus is a shockingly well-paced game that knows how and when to ramp up, come down, push you in a direction or give you the space to breathe. This all comes to a spectacular head in a finale that rounds out this trilogy and game in an unsurprising but deeply affecting way. It’s one long sequence that manages to almost expertly weave every bit of its history into one place and bring some resolution to characters we’ve seen go through more than we ever could.
At the end of my time with Metro Exodus, I’m left with one outstanding impression and that’s that this is a deeply human game. Moving through it, I feel more vulnerable than ever. Talking to characters in it feels like talking to actual people (minus the shoddy delivery of some lines). The cast emotes and evolves in natural ways like we all do. It’s experimental, but within an existing framework. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It sees us at our worst, but never fails to see the best in us too. It’s a game that, much like the train that pushes its story along, plows through unfortunate circumstance after circumstance and dares to posit that with the right people at your side you’ll not only survive, but prosper and find the place you can call your home.
Metro Exodus was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 with a code provided by PR.