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Feature Article

How Metro Exodus Expands Horizons Without Going Open World

Light at the end of the tunnel.

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In many ways, Metro Exodus feels like a parallel to the journey of developer 4A Games. Having moved headquarters from Kiev, Ukraine to its new office in Sliema, Malta as development for Exodus began in 2014, the studio seems ripe to tell a story about venturing off from home while maintaining its identity and building off of a strong foundation. After getting hands-on with the upcoming sequel, it's apparent that much of what makes the series unique is still intact, though some changes are inevitable as the game charts new territory.

Metro Exodus continues the journey of main protagonist Artyom, who has left the labyrinthine underground tunnels of Russia with his wife Anna and a group of Spartan Rangers. You'll be spending more time on the surface (even more so than Metro: Last Light) as you trek eastward in search of a new home, staving off the hostile nuclear winter and fighting off the enemies you'll make along the way. It's worth noting that this is also the first time the game's story was created without the direct involvement of Dmitry Glukhovsky, author of the Metro novels for which the game's are based on.

We had the opportunity to speak with Huw Beynon, global brand manager for the Metro series at publisher Deep Silver about Metro Exodus--everything from the influence of the STALKER games and branching from the source material to gameplay changes and non-lethal runs were on the table. The following interview was edited for clarity and readability.

Metro Exodus was originally set to launch late this year, but after a delay, it's slated to release on February 22, 2019 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. 4A Games is also working closely with Nvidia to incorporate new ray tracing graphics technology to create more realistic global illumination and lighting on the PC version--we'll have a feature on how this is being done soon here on GameSpot.

GameSpot: Having played through Metro 2033 and Last Light, I understand Exodus is quite different from the tunnels of the metro. It's not necessarily an open world, but when you're working with so much more space, the atmosphere is little different. So, how are you capturing that Metro vibe and staying true to the series?

Huw Beynon: That's fundamentally the biggest challenge that the studio has. Exodus was kind of born out of this ambition to try and do something new. So the first two games were more linear and story-driven, inspired very much by Half-Life. Also, given the size of the team at the time, Metro 2033 I think topped out around 50 or 60 people. Metro: Last Light [had] 70 to 80 [people]. So, the idea of doing a more open game with that kind of team size and resources was out of the question anywhere. So, with the first two games, they focused on something they knew they could do, and do really well.

And then, you know, after literally six or seven years spent in the tunnels beneath Moscow, working underground, we wanted to try something different. They couldn't come back and do Metro 3 to be more of the same. I think the concept originally came from the art team. They said, "We want to explore the environments," and we got all these ideas, and they came up with the idea for this journey across Russia.

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That kind of explains leaving Moscow and this creative desire to explore new environments and do new things. Also from a design perspective, we didn't want to just retread the same formula. A lot of the team had experience at GSC Game World, before 4A was formed by a splinter group who broke away from GSC, including creative leads from the STALKER games. They wanted to try and find that perfect marriage of more open-ended and emergent gameplay but still keep the experience feeling unmistakably natural, and the spent a huge amount of time the first few years trying to find that formula where we could have both, and it wasn't an easy process. A huge amount of prototyping and iteration to get that balance. I'm pretty happy with where we ended up.

Metro's not meant to be easy going, where breadcrumbs are just laid out in front of you. Feeling lost, having to explore, feeling alone, it's part of it. Those are all sensations you should experience when you're playing. The fear of the unknown, that's part of the Metro experience.

I think for Metro fans, it's really important to make it clear that it's not an open world game. It's a series of levels, and you play them in linear order, and you still have traditional Metro-style levels when the game starts; the game will feel very familiar, and then at E3 we showed the first of these new huge levels, we call them sandbox survival levels. Each one of those can take several hours to complete, several days worth of in-game time, that's where we're going to gradually expand the horizons. Let the player explore, still try and keep all the elements the players love about Metro--the atmosphere, the scavenging, that sense of immersion, but also give them more latitude and freedom.

You wouldn't say that they're like hub worlds, necessarily?

I wouldn't call it a hub world. I kind of call it these big levels, like miniature open worlds. So within that level is a defined space. One of the things that's really important is we want to keep the story front and center. There's always this sort of golden path, which, if you want to you can play through these open levels and you can kind of imagine playing it as a metro game where you can follow the path around if you want to, but they're fully open. You can go off and explore at any old time. We've purposefully avoided any of the kind of trappings of contemporary open world games where you have side quests and fetch quests, x-number of towers.

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There's no checking things off lists, right?

We don't do any of that arbitrary stuff, and you don't have a side quest tracker. There's the story objective, and then you can go explore: exploration should be its own reward. So no one's going to tell you, "Hey, here's a side mission to go and explore that farmhouse." You'll see that farmhouse through your binoculars, you'll get just like a question mark that says there's something there. Then you can go to it, explore it, it'll have it's own narrative, storytelling, like you could get some loot, you could get some other reward, but it's entirely up to you whether you do it. We're not going to hold your hand and say, "These are the things you have to check off and do."

I think if you played the STALKER series, that's the strong inspiration. But when you play [Exodus], mechanically, it feels like a Metro game. Everything you're used to is there.

Are there any considerations that, in the modern sense, maybe we need to provide more guidance for the player this time around? Or is it strictly, here's that X on the map, it's up to you?

I think one of the rules for Metro has always been don't underestimate the player. It's not a pick-up-and-play [game]. You need to sit down, go through the mechanics, and understand how the game works. Let's think of it as a thinking person's shooter. We've never tried to dumb it down or make these concessions. I think we've definitely improved the user experience, like the accessibility, quality of life. Just kind of like, refine our craft a little bit.

But Metro's not meant to be easy going, where breadcrumbs are just laid out in front of you. Feeling lost, having to explore, feeling alone, it's part of it. Those are all sensations you should experience when you're playing. The fear of the unknown, that's part of the Metro experience. It might not be for everyone, but what I've learned from working with friends for however long, we've got our fans and they love that, so they love the fact that the game doesn't hold your hand, that it is challenging, that it doesn't underestimate them. It rewards them for thinking before shooting, or exploring off the beaten path. So, that's the kind of game 4A likes to make. No change.

There's an on-going day and night cycle, I noticed the time of day on Artyom's watch and it sits in the corner of the screen. I'm wondering, is time-of-day more than just an aesthetic tool to create atmosphere, or does that play into any of the story beats or gameplay elements?

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From a gameplay perspective, I think the two key differences are obviously being able to do stealth. Obviously, stealth is a huge part of Metro--manipulating individual light sources because when you're playing underground, you're basically playing at night all the time. So, you turn out the light sources one by one to get these pools of darkness. That's the best way to execute the stealthier approach. You can still do stealth in the daytime with pools of shadows to move between, but it's much more difficult.

Players can find outposts and rest camps where you get the full crafting bench and can rest to set the time of day to what you want. If you want to play stealthily and be that ninja/ghost or whatever, take down everyone one by one, you're probably going to play a lot of the game at night. You'll find stealth is obviously more forgiving or easier when it's completely dark, but then at the same time, there are a lot more other threats that you're not going to be able to see. So when you go out in the wilderness at nighttime, it presents its own challenges and dangers. It's a choice of how you want to play.

Is there a possibility of a completely non-lethal playthrough?

I believe it's possible to do completely non-lethal.

When I'm presented with the options, especially in immersive sims like the Deus Ex series, Dishonored, I always try to go non-lethal, and be as stealthy as possible.

Now I need to qualify that, because it's still not quite final, so, in theory, I know there are some levels where that will be almost impossible. But certainly in some of the more open levels, it's possible to go [non-lethal].

In 2033 and Last Light, there wasn't necessarily a morality system, but there was still a mechanic that accounted for certain actions you took--and you'd see a flash and hear whispering voices to indicate its activation. Is there still going to be a mechanic like that in Exodus?

We've not taken anything out. There's been an awful lot written about the system we used in the previous two games, and I think it's really important we don't over explain it. So yes, the system exists, and your actions have consequences in this game like in the first two games.

In the first two games, depending on your actions, the ending would be determined. It's simplistic to call to it a morality system because it's not simple like, "hey, this is the good thing, this is the bad thing." It's all these other shades of gray that are actually tracking all the other decisions you might not even be aware of.

You get the ending that you deserve. That's true of Metro Exodus as well.

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I didn't get to mess with the crafting too much but I understand there's different types of resources you gather. In past Metro games I could modify weapons with attachments and use military-grade ammo. How far are you going with the crafting this for Exodus?

That's a big change, but it's necessary in open environments. We don't have trade outposts way out in the wasteland. That system worked really well for previous games because there was a thematic fit and also because they were linear.

This time around, we've got no idea which way the player is going to go through a level, when they're going to run out of ammunition, so everything is done much more dynamically. So now, rather than finding new weapons, purchasing attachments and upgrades for it, you can find new weapons from enemies and also strip guns for the attachments that go into your arsenal. You can customize weapons at any point by just bringing out your backpack. Every gun now has five attachment slots. Scope, barrel, stock, magazine, and under the barrel like a laser sight attachment to it. These might affect the performance; rates of fire, ammo capacity, or handling properties of the weapon change accordingly.

Previously, you stock up on supplies at trading posts, and things like medkits and filters you find on the ground. It was easy to balance when it was a more linear experience. Now you have, instead of just one currency, you have two resources: chemicals and materials. You accumulate those and then you can spend chemicals on maintaining and cleaning your weapon. You can craft medkits and gas masks, you just have to find the materials to make the filter and medkits. You can use materials to craft ammunition on the field for hand-made weapons like the Tikhar and the Hellsing.

I think if you played the STALKER series, that's the strong inspiration. But when you play [Exodus], mechanically, it feels like a Metro game. Everything you're used to is there.

What we didn't do, we didn't have these crazy recipes like three of 'this' and two of 'that' combined you get this. What we're trying to do is always keep the player in that red line where they're not quite comfortable like they're always in need of something. We can do some of that dynamically as well. What we have here, than just what you find and pick up to get that. Fine tune that experience. And it's definitely not perfect at the moment, but it's going to come through the balancing we do before the final game, but it feels pretty good at the moment.

Would be fair to say that resources throughout the game will be relative to what you have in your inventory, or at least slightly change?

Yeah, it can change. One of the other things we want to do and haven't fully figured out how this is going to work. Some people absolutely love the [nature of] super-low resources of Metro, like an every-bullet-counts kind of thing. There are other people who want to engage in the story more and have a slightly more relaxed experience. There's is no one-size-fits-all way you can just cater to both people. What we're going to try to look at is some different kinds of settings. We've not fully figured that out.

Will there be a ranger mode, and is that going to be available straight up? Do you have to finish the game again before you unlock it?

So, it's in the build at the moment. It's going to be available to everyone. It should be there right from the start. There's literally nothing gained from locking content behind pre-order. Buy the game, get the game. Buy it new, buy it secondhand, pre-order it, whatever. When you sit down and play through it, that's the experience that you get.

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highammichael

Michael Higham

Associate Editor at GameSpot. Southeast San Diego to the Bay. Salamat sa iyong suporta!
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