After spending two games in the dingy tunnels of the Moscow Metro, 4A Games has opted to give its FPS franchise a one-way ticket out of dodge. Metro Exodus wastes no time in throwing off the shackles of its predecessors, ditching the claustrophobic confines of that subterranean tube network in favour of a sightseeing tour of the Russian wilderness.
As ambition goes, Metro Exodus has loads of it, but it doesn’t come without risks. Abandoning the core locations of the franchise is a bold move, which leaves a hole in this threequel where the franchise’s main gameplay style should be. And when it comes to plugging this gap, director Andrew Prokhorov and his team of designers have thrown in everything but the kitchen sink.
Instead of a series of mutant-stuffed corridors, Metro Exodus serves up numerous different pitstops on a long overground journey out of Moscow. Artyom and his pals quickly realise that there is life elsewhere in the world, and they soon set off on a train in search of new digs (as well as searching for a series of McGuffin’s that keep everyone busy).
The game, at times, feels like you’re playing a demo disc from the cover of an old magazine; one that had loads of different snippets of intriguing experiences within it. Over the course of a year, you’ll visit a bunch of mini-open-world environments, some of which have very engaging traits. In every area, scavenging for ammo and supplies is of vital importance, even if you’re playing on one of the lower difficulty levels (there are, impressively, five to choose from).
For the most part, somewhat surprisingly, this scattershot approach to building a gameplay experience really works. Although the formula quickly becomes obvious – enter a new part of the world, identify a thing that the crew needs, get into scrapes with the locals and some creatures, escape dramatically with the thing – exploring a continent that’s been ravaged by radiation is a rewarding gamut to run. And that’s especially true if you’re treading on the lighter side of the game’s morality system, where your journey across Russia can help a whole bunch of people.
Indeed, although this is an epic expansion of the Metro world, there is still room for intimate stakes – doing missions wrong can result in the permanent loss, death or maiming of crewmates, but putting the work in to embrace side-missions and stealth takedowns can keep your gang together as well as helping randomers improve their lives. There are moments, particularly when the crew are all together on the Aurora train between missions, where it’s genuinely heartwarming to see characters interact. That’s no small feat for a mutant-stuffed FPS title.
Let’s not underplay the epic side of things, though. The graphics are mostly excellent, despite the occasional niggle where a creature glitches out or a character walks right through you. The vistas are particularly eye-catching, with the train-set journeys between levels offering expansive and often luscious views if you take the time to look outside. There are also some nicely imaginative mutant designs and out-there visual ideas, especially towards the end of the game.
Not everything quite works as well as it could, though. Since the game tries so many different things – how about zombie-like mutants in a desert? Or a church-raiding mission in a water-based village? What if we do a base that’s like Terminus from The Walking Dead? – perhaps it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that some segments aren’t quite as thrilling as others.
Certain sections, like the second big open world area with loads of side missions, can feel like a bit of a slog. And in other cases, like a terrific part where you wash up in a new place without any of your weapons, the game rushes through a highly enjoyable idea instead of taking the time to wallow in it. It’s a case of imperfect balance, basically, but you’ve still got to admire Metro Exodus for attempting such a smorgasbord of concepts.
Even in the less exciting bits, the core mechanics of the game are spot-on. It takes a bit of time to get used to all the variations, since you can control gear with basically every button on your controller, but once you get into the swing of it, Metro Exodus manages to make scavenging, crafting and upgrading items feel more like simple second-nature handiwork than the endless series of essential chores that it actually is. There are moments, too, when the ability to quickly craft a new air filter or Molotov cocktail can really come in handy, and nailing skills like that can begin to feel like you’re actually achieving something.
And, also, it’s worth stating that there are still sizeable scares and claustrophobic segments for fans of the previous games’ stylings. They’ve tried, with a lot of success, to cram an old-style Metro game into this bold new reinvention.
The attention to detail is admirable, as well, with the vast array of weapons and upgrades providing a prime example of that. This game allows you to really build the tools that you want, and the experience you’ll have is all the richer for it. Since Artyom is still utterly dialogue-free during gameplay, feeling more like an emotionless cypher than a breathing character, the fact that you can alter his gear and craft swag to your heart’s content provides a neat alternative way to make the journey feel more personal.
There are points when Artyom’s silence grates, and there are some small story beats that irritate (one character’s decision in the opening act could leave you seething at him for the rest of the game, since he never really apologises for it), but taking part in this expedition across the ruins of Eastern Europe is still a very agreeable way to kill around 30 hours. In that time, you’ll change a few lives and save a few more; you’ll meet some intriguing new characters and watch old friends develop; you’ll leap out of your skin thanks to unexpected mutants, and you’ll panic endlessly about your supplies, but mostly you’ll just have a ruddy good time.
Is Metro Exodus a scattershot game with quite a few things in it that don’t gel perfectly? Yes, it definitely is. But is also an admirable attempt at expanding a franchise, which still finds the time to revel in human experiences and serve up meaningful emotional stakes. It flits between scary gunplay and beautiful vistas with aplomb, leaving us with the hope that 4A Games will keep the franchise chugging along and add a few more stops to the journey. But if this is the end of the line for Artyom et al, at least they came this far.
Metro Exodus is out now for PS4, Xbox One and PC.