The Metro series so far has been defined by its claustrophobic setting and worldview. After nuclear war ravages Moscow in 2013, survivors who flee to the underground tunnels of the Metro system form their own independent states and societies, all in a bid to keep on living. That element of survival against the odds in a dangerous environment, rarely going outside into the irradiated city ruins, is inseparable from the franchise. So what happens when the series takes a step outside, hops on a train heading out of the tunnels, and goes above ground and into the heart of Russia?
Artyom, hardened Ranger and inhabitant of the Metro, is searching for radio signals on the surface of Moscow following the events of Metro: Last Light. After a series of revelations resulting from this, he and his comrades from the Order hijack a train and set out into the rest of the Russian Wastelands, leaving behind the brutal wars of the Communist Red Line, Capitalist Hansa, and Fascist Fourth Reich, chasing potential survivors and finding a new place to call home.
For Artyom and for the world of Metro, the underground became normality, and the outside of its tunnels atop the crumbling skyscrapers became alien. To leap out of its confines and into that unknown world feels like jumping into a space cruiser and departing the planet earth. Aptly named the Aurora by its crew, the train becomes your ship à la the Normandy in Mass Effect. The locations you visit, varied in their look and feel, become planets
As I explore unique and visually captivating miniature open worlds that constitute the “levels” of Metro Exodus, my train becomes a place of refuge. Between locations, I can roam about its carriages, catch up with its crewmates, maintain my gear, and partake in little activities like playing the guitar or smoking newspaper cigarettes. It’s functionally and aesthetically a train. But it takes on a mood unexpected of the franchise’s genre: warm, relaxed, and nonviolent.
4A Games took this opportunity to explore a range of different post-apocalyptic environments that move with the seasons over the game’s yearlong timeline. The Volga River is a swampland home to villagers who worship a giant mutated shrimp. The Caspian Sea is a lake dried out into a desert. It operates under the tyrannical thumb of a Mad Max-style oil baron and his legion of thugs roaming the wastes in shoddily repaired cars and trucks. Taiga is a lush forest region home to an unusual tribe and beasts.
The world isn’t fully open, but compared to the corridors of the metro, it isn’t linear either. I’m given plenty of approaches to the different encounters I run into. One mission has Artyom and some of his squad infiltrate a dock to steal a tugboat. You could stealthily approach the building on foot, or you could ascend a nearby radio tower occupied by bandits and use the zipline at its peak to reach the rendezvous location in a speedier (and cooler) fashion.
The weapons are weighty and powerful. They collect dirt as you traverse through dust and mud and require cleaning at workbenches, but it never feels tedious. Moreover, this need for maintenance coupled with the plethora of attachments you use to customize them gives every gun a sense of ownership. This is my Kalash: There are many like it, but this one is mine.
There’s a lot of busy work like this in Metro Exodus. Much like my guns, my gas mask can get dirty, and I have to wipe it clean if it becomes difficult to see. I have to replace its filters as they start to deteriorate, lest I choke on the toxic air in pockets of radioactivity. But it never feels like work. It’s organic, and eventually it becomes second nature. I find myself taking all of these factors into account when interacting with the world: Is there a lot of mud here? I’ll be sure not to sprint through it, kicking up dirt onto all of my equipment. Am I about to head down into a little bunker? I’d best make sure to craft some more air filters, in case I end up needing them.
Accessibility options are somewhat limited but nonetheless present. For QTEs, there are the choices of rapid tapping, holding down, or just pressing the required button. Subtitles also come with a few different options: changing their size; toggling the speaker, background, and sign subtitles; and deciding whether lines of dialogue are labeled with the character that says them.
While it isn’t an option in the accessibility menu, hit markers give a lot of feedback. If a shot makes contact, the marker flashes white, and upon killing an opponent, it flashes red. This is helpful in some particularly messy gunfights, and also adds to the satisfaction factor. What doesn’t add to the satisfaction factor is the occasional stretchy-armed ragdoll of a bandit I’ve just killed, or the sudden disappearance of an ally mid-conversation, only for them to return once I reload a quick save. Fortunately, these incidents are so few and far between that they don’t impact my experience in any extreme way.
What is Metro Exodus setting out to achieve in the world that it has created? For 2033 and Last Light, it was arguably to show how humanity is doomed to the same path of self-destruction, even after the nuclear bombs have long fallen. Exodus is different, though. We still see the monstrosity of humanity, the horrors of brutal survival. But that isn’t the dominant worldview here. Metro Exodus injects the Russian post-apocalypse with hope.
Between two locations, as we cruise along the railway passing green valleys and distant mountaintops, I join my comrades in the kitchen of the passenger carriage to drink, laugh, and play music together. We joke about one crewmate’s obsession with women, cough and wheeze at the strength of the booze, and toast again and again over what lies in the future for us. I don’t need to participate in this. Within the confines of the game, it’s completely optional. But in a world destroyed by war and violence, pure and innocent moments like this are captivating.
Without saying too much, the buildup to Metro Exodus’ climax does become a little dire. But even then, that desperation is born of optimism. Throughout the game, I run into a series of moral choices that are unclear in their impact, and even in their actual morality. I lose friends, for better and for worse, and my actions have consequences on the communities that I meet. But that faith in a better tomorrow still lingers, never fading away. It’s refreshing.
There have always been shades of gray in the Metro franchise, but until now the darker shades dominated its emotional and moral landscapes. Metro Exodus is more of an overcast spring afternoon. On my journey aboard the Aurora, I encounter pockets of humanity that have already lost hope. But on this train, beside my friends and family, there’s still hope yet
Metro Exodus will be released Feb. 15 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” PC download code provided by Deep Silver.