Metro Exodus is a first-person, survival horror, shooter set in a post apocalyptic Russia, and is the third installment in the series. The Metro games are based on the series of Metro books by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. I haven’t played the previous titles in the Metro series or read the books, so I went in without any expectations.
Upon starting Metro Exodus on my PS4, I was immediately plunged deep into the richly atmospheric world with a stunningly artistic intro cinematic. The camera panned through a desolate, frozen wasteland, scattered with long dead corpses preserved in the icy landscape. This was a brilliant introduction to what I would discover are the core strengths of the game, the narrative, the rich world and the immersive atmosphere.
The game offers five levels of difficulty, which includes Reader, for gamers who prefer a story based experience, and Ranger Hardcore, for those with a strong masochistic streak. I took my usual path of going squarely in the middle and picking Normal difficulty.
Metro Exodus follows the narrative of the previous two games, which are briefly and artistically presented in an intro recap viewed through the windows of a moving train. Starting in the underground Metro station where your military order is based, the game takes you through an exploration of Moscow and on a journey through Russia, where you begin to discover that not everything you’ve been told about the world is true. Along the journey you’ll meet colourful characters, and discover that some interesting ideologies have popped up post catastrophe.
The world of Metro Exodus is stunningly rendered. Each chapter is set in a different region and season, so there’s a lot of variation in the landscape and fresh eye candy to be found. The game has dynamic weather which really enhances the journey and makes the world feel alive. Walking through a storm is a vibrant and exhilarating. The frequent changing of environments keeps things fresh and interesting throughout. Parts of the game are quite open, while others have set levels with a specific path to be followed.
The character that you play, Arytom, is a silent protagonist and the story is told through interactions with other characters that talk at you, seeming not to notice your stonewalling. The world, the characters and the story are quite inherently interesting but the lack of dialog options feels a little dated and unengaging. For example, there’s one interaction where you’re asked to argue for a refugee to join your crew. You’re shuffled into a meeting where you sit mute while the characters around you argue. Eventually you’re lauded for successfully presenting your case and saving the day, when of course you did nothing of the sort. I’m pretty sure it was intended as a meta joke, but it seems like such a lost opportunity that could have given the player a sense of achievement and pride.
There’s a few pain points in the game that prevent it from reaching its full potential. It’s clear from the design that immersion was chosen over functionality. The HUD is very minimal – there’s no minimap and all indicators sit on the wrist of the player character Artyom and not on the screen. There are times when it’s clear that the game wants you to feel claustrophobic, garbed in your gas mask and wandering through gloomy tunnels with no visibility of enemy movements. There’s a level of excitement and realism to not knowing when an enemy might jump out at you.
Far too often though, I ended up feeling frustrated by not having enough information. Health is communicated through the screen turning red with splashes of blood, a common technique, but with Metro Exodus I found the implementation quite subtle. I often died without knowing I was even close to death, and I eventually started using medkits liberally so I never felt like I was rationing efficiently.
The world of Metro Exodus is both harsh and beautiful. It’s not open world but some chapters open up a new map that can be freely explored, albeit cautiously – death is constantly looming! This feels like an intentional artistic choice but as a player, this can make you feel quite weak and powerless and even hesitant to explore. The mutants in the world, when alerted, will howl and draw a pack to their location, so it seems like the intended strategy is to sneak past them without engaging in conflict. The mutants also respawn, so if you stealth kill or even rambo your way through an area, you’ll be faced with the same challenge again next time you return.
There were many times when playing where I would get stuck in a death, reload, death, reload loop. At the game’s release, the reloading times would take up to a minute which would destroy my immersion (reloading times are now much faster!). I eventually dropped the difficulty to Easy which enabled me to progress through the game without frustration, but it actually made the fights too easy and took away any challenge. I think the biggest problem is that there didn’t seem to be a significant difference between normal enemies, and boss fights. I felt like I had to choose between a game that was brutal all the time, or a game where I had no challenge at all.
Another area of frustration is saving. The game maintains one auto save for you, and you have one quick save that you can use at will. I recommend quick saving very strategically. Metro Exodus has a mechanic where, when you’re in an area with radiation, you have to wear your gas mask and frequently replace the filters or you’ll die. You can craft new filters and repair your gas mask if it’s damaged, assuming the have the right materials. I found myself in a frustrating situation where I had just finished a fight, the game auto saved, and I then ran out of filters and didn’t have the material to craft another one. Upon loading, I would quickly die and wasn’t able to escape the radiation or craft a new filter in time. My only option at that stage was to load my last quick save, which frustratingly was 30 minutes before.
With a small team of only 150 people (according to Wikipedia), it’s admirable to me that 4A Games was able to deliver an experience that, from an atmospheric perspective, rivals triple A titles. Unfortunately, for the heights they reach in their strongest areas, there are areas of weakness in gameplay and pacing that took away from the experience and prevent me from being able to give Metro Exodus a glowing score.
If you love post apocalyptic worlds and want to experience Metro Exodus for the story, select Easy or even Reader, and sit back and enjoy. If you really like a challenge and don’t mind having to reload frequently, then a harder difficulty may suit you. Metro Exodus does have a great atmosphere and a vibrant world, and while I think the story could have been told better with a more active and verbal protagonist, it’s still engaging. For their size, it’s clear 4A Games have an extremely ambitious vision. Despite pacing issues that force the player to choose between either an unchallenging or a frustrating experience, they have been able to execute brilliantly in creating a rich atmosphere and an interesting narrative.