The Metro series has long had outstanding strengths. The claustrophobic tunnels and cobwebbed trains gave the franchise an authentic sense of atmosphere missing from most modern first-person shooters. It’s grimy and miserable, harking back to a time when world-building was key, not banal collectible hunting through identikit landscapes.
The shooting, too, has always been an intoxicating mix of stealth and survival, the scramble for ammo made even more intense when every bullet is potential currency. But Metro is also a series that’s never quite made that final jump to true greatness. It’s missed that little something to elevate it to Half-Life or STALKER levels.
Metro Exodus felt poised to take this final step with its open-plan level design and a train-faring odyssey across post-apocalyptic Russia. Sadly, Metro Exodus has fallen down a few of the same pitfalls as its predecessors. It’s still a fantastic game, and absolutely one worth playing, but it’s still just a tiny bit short of the lofty heights we were hoping it would soar to.
Longtime fans will be pleased to know Artyom is back, and this time he’s had enough of living like rats in the Metro system, much to the frustration of his wife Anna. Artyom’s insistence that there must be more life out there than exists in this wretched network of tunnels is what propels them out of Moscow and east aboard the Aurora, joined by a handful of comrades. This bleeds into a year-long journey through the changing seasons, lending Exodus constant locomotion. It’s been tried many times before in the series but always fell short due to the zig-zagging underground tunnels that failed to prevent a true sense of place. Without knowing where you are, or where you came from, how were you ever supposed to know where you were going to? In Exodus, the answer is simple - onwards, across Russia, towards the hope of life amid a bleak world that is brimful of despair.
The story, for the most part, is engaging enough, but it ends up taking a backseat to the journey itself. The world is Metro Exodus’s story, and it does a better job of telling you what fate has befallen Earth than a hundred hours of droll exposition.
At its core, Metro Exodus is a game far more like its predecessors than 4A Games would have you believe. Moment to moment it’s still an undulating ride, shifting from skulking in the shadows to hectic shootouts in the blink of an eye, interspersed with plenty of contemplative downtime which affords you the opportunity to soak up this rich world. Gunplay is clunky and forceful in the best way, each shot methodical.
The big change for Metro Exodus is undoubtedly its several ‘open-world’ levels. They’re still strictly levels, but each offers a weaving of network of side-quests and places to poke around for upgrades or rewards. It’s here where Exodus excels, seamlessly flitting between an open survival sandbox and tense stealth in a tunnel network. It really helps to break up the flow of play and eliminates one of my biggest flaws of Last Light - that it’s guilty of being one-note and repetitive. Metro Exodus is anything but, offering a blend of exploration alongside a driving narrative that pushes you onwards. Linear, open, linear, open, linear; it just works. It meant I was never bored playing Exodus, there was always something to do or the promise of something intriguing right around the next corner. Busting out of the titular Metro has finally given the franchise the form and shape it has deserved.
Exodus’s open areas are filled with secrets and side-quests that can either be stumbled upon or spotted with a pair of binoculars. You’re basically free to head in whichever direction you want and take some bandits or rummage around in some ruined buildings. It’s much less overbearing than a typical open-world game though. These areas aren’t massive. They’re big in detail and small on scope, so it generally feels as if Exodus funnels you to the next story element in a roundabout way. On the occasions you head underground it becomes a more traditional Metro experience, but it’s also a welcome diversion rather than the forceful trudge it could become in Last Light.
While the form has changed though, the moment to moment gameplay remains a little too close to previous Metro games for comfort. Gunplay, while often exciting, can be a little one-note. You’ll either be sneaking around taking out enemies one by one or frantically popping them off from cover, keeping an eye out for flanking maneuvers and scavenging for ammo. The notable downside to this is that while Metro may have gone pseudo-open-world, it doesn’t actually use this to deliver notably different gameplay from its predecessors. There’s freedom to tackle what you want when you want, but once you actually get there it’s the same old Metro. Now, that’s no bad thing, but we’d have liked to have seen a bigger leap of faith from 4A Games here, at times it can feel like a limited rendition of Far Cry.
4A has put a day/night cycle in, for example, but it never really changes the gameplay; the enemies are still wide awake no matter what time of day it is. Heading in during the daytime just means you’ll be spotted more easily, so there doesn’t really seem a benefit at all to fighting while the sun’s shining. It all basically boils down to point and shoot, which I know is what people want from an FPS but there was room here for 4A to experiment with Dishonored-style environmental systems that could’ve switched things up a big way.
But of course, Metro Exodus looks like an absolutely fantastic game while you’re doing all this, and it helps to paper over the cracks. I’m stuck with a ‘crummy’ old GTX 980 Ti at home, but from the chunks I’ve played through with an RTX 2060, this is a game that really does shine with ray-tracing. It looks lovely regardless but the additional scene depth afforded by the ray-traced global illumination gives the world a fantastically believable presence. For a game that thrives on atmosphere and immersion, this comes highly recommended.
The move to more outdoor locales and the changing seasons also lend Metro Exodus a great deal visual variety than we’ve come to see from the series before. The usual snowy cityscape gives way to desert ruins and lush forests. From top to bottom, it looks unbelievable and is comfortably one of the best-looking games I’ve ever played. This extends to the minimal UI design as well, which is usually completely absent aside from the occasional button prompt. Metro Exodus uses excellent visual cues to keep you clued in on what you need to pay attention to, whether that’s running out of air or your flashlight running low on battery. Pesky UI elements rarely ever get in the way and it truly helps to build engagement with the world to new levels.
As a sequel, Metro Exodus pulls ahead of the rest of the franchise in a big way by leaving the very metro itself behind. Aesthetically, the place is a joy to explore from beginning to end, and there’s enough variation to keep things feeling fresh. Dig down deep and it’s another Metro with a new skin, but it’s a damned good one of those all the same.