When Metro Exodus was first revealed at E3 2017, it overwhelmingly appeared to be an open-world game. Publisher Deep Silver later clarified Exodus would be a "sandbox survival experience," with players exploring large, non-linear levels throughout the game. So not quite open-world, but something approaching it, then. If a four-hour preview build is anything to go by, Developer 4A Games has fulfilled that promise, but it remains to be seen if the move turns out to be a positive one for the hitherto underappreciated series.
In theory, marrying Metro's survival gameplay with an open(ish) world is a great idea. Exploring a wide environment, scavenging for resources, and, well, struggling to survive sounds exactly like Far Cry 2, aka The Best Shooter Ever Made (don't @ me). However, in practice, it has so far turned Metro from a flawed but focused survival experience into a flabby and frustrating sub-standard shooter.
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The two levels I played were set during different parts in the story; one sees the returning playable character Artyom stranded from his teammates in a jungle environment and the other has him investigating a town of bandits in the desert. 4A Games wouldn't say when during the campaign these levels are set, but certainly being dropped in isn't ideal preparation for a relatively involved survival game. In these areas, the increased scope and playing field felt like it undermined the core of the Metro series' gameplay experience. Identikit enemies filled both levels--enemies who are both plentiful and powerful, two attributes that are acceptable by themselves but aggravating when combined with a severe lack of ammunition and dissatisfying, fiddly combat that makes a giant crossbow feel like a spud gun. Difficulty is not something I dislike, but at least make it fun to overcome that difficulty; being trapped in a die-respawn-die loop because there are no spare bullets in the vicinity makes it feel unfair.
Making your map a physical item Artyom carries is a nice touch that helps keep you grounded in Metro's desolate Russian world. However, this immersion is broken by very 'videogamey' problems, such as needing to press a button every time you want to climb a ladder, or being unable to hop in and drive an intact, running Jeep to my destination. The immersion feels a little half-baked, and it's at its weakest during character interactions. Even ignoring Artyom's insistence on never uttering a word except in loading screen diaries, any conversation between two NPCs feels forced. Problems include uneven dialogue, stilted delivery ("The general situation here is completely awesome, sir!"), and sentences simply pausing in their tracks if you move out of range and resuming from the same spot minutes later when you come back into range. Finally, in the missions I played the open-ish environments don't seem to have added to Metro in any meaningful way: objectives still needed to be completed in a particular order, there's still a very linear critical path and few interesting landmarks, and during the demo at least, the player has seemingly no agency over the story.
Instead, Exodus is at its best when you're indoors. Freedom for freedom's sake is replaced by a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia, emphasized by your watch's blinking blue detection indicator, your atmospheric gas mask display, and the sound of your own heavy breathing--it's just you and your senses in here. Stealth is a more realistic approach given the smaller environments and cramped spaces, meaning it's easier to defeat enemies by hand-to-hand takedowns, thereby conserving ammunition. and preventing reinforcements from being called. Things still aren't perfect, but at least some of the frustrations from outdoors combat are avoided and having that cache of ammo does make gun-on-gun combat feel more engaging than the more desperate times outdoors.
Here, Exodus shows promise, but given the focus on the game's openness in its marketing material and my reservations about that change in structure, I'm a little worried about this latest entry in the Metro franchise. I loved Last Light, so I hope developer 4A Games can clear the leaves from Metro Exodus' track in the month to go until launch.