A brutal new world.
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The Metro series has been building toward a game like Metro Exodus for years. 2010's Metro 2033 focused on the exploits of Artyom in the bleak underground society of post-nuclear-war Russia, and its follow-up Last Light expanded its scope even further. Exodus broadens the scale of this world in an even more pronounced way, placing greater emphasis on survival in the harsh and unforgiving Russian wilderness.
The developers at 4A Games have been rather quiet about Metro Exodus after revealing it last year, but just prior to E3 2018, we played about an hour of the game and spoke to the team about the evolution of the series. With Exodus fleshing out the survival-oriented gameplay, while sticking close to its methodical combat, the next game exhibits potential for a more freeform experience, where open-ended exploration presents players with the freedom to approach challenges as they see fit.
Set two years after the events of Metro: Last Light's "good" ending--which saw Artyom save the mysterious Dark Ones, giving humanity hope for a better future--we find the lead character working with a group of survivors seeking safe passage out of Russia. Aboard their train and mobile base, the group will journey through several large areas housing hidden bunkers, several strange factions seeking control of territory, and hostile mutants that attack anything in sight. With their trek becoming more dangerous as the months go by, Artyom and his allies will have to make some tough choices as they fight to survive in the wilderness of post-apocalyptic Russia.
While the previous Metro games had brief sections above ground, mostly to illustrate the scale of devastation and showing there are worse places to be than the underground, the surface is where you'll spend most of your time in Exodus. As you're mostly out in the open, you're in a constant state of danger whenever you're away from a safe haven. Along with a day/night cycle, you'll have to plan ahead and manage your time, as hidden enemies will come out of hiding during the night. This is all made worse by the ever-present dangers of lacking resources, stumbling into wandering mutants, or falling victim to radiation and other environmental hazards.
In our demo, we explored one of the early maps in the region called The Volga, which is one of the more average-sized maps you'll find according to the devs. After departing from the train, we traveled to a nearby church, serving as a hideout for a particularly weird cult that shuns technology. While initially cordial, our meet and greet quickly turned into a fight for survival. In keeping with Metro's style of shooting gameplay, with every gun having a particular kick to it, you're constantly aware of your weapon's capabilities during a fight. Running and gunning has never worked in the series, and that's most definitely the case in Exodus. After escaping on a boat, things got even hairier h when several mutated crabs sprung out and tried to pull Arytom under. Such as the case in previous games, things usually go from bad to worse.
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While the main mission was the focus, I took the time to explore the surrounding areas first, oftentimes finding abandoned houses surrounded by mutants. The game gives you the chance to trail off from the main path at any time, which is a level of freedom that I appreciated, but I had some difficulties getting a sense of just how much variety there was in the short time we had. While the developers claim that much of the content found in the game is bespoke, including all side-content, I had a difficult time getting a sense of that from this demo, felt like I was wandering aimlessly without much payoff, as opposed to properly exploring the environment and finding something cool.
Considering how it blends together these sandbox events with story missions, all wrapped with challenging survival systems, Metro Exodus channels elements of the classic S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series--which several 4A developers had worked on. At any time, you can pull out Artyom's backpack--shown with him actually taking it off and placing it onto the ground--to manage your inventory, craft items, and swap out weapon attachments. Of course, it's smarter to do this at the safe houses scattered around, as opening your backpack out in the open is dangerous as you're vulnerable to any nearby foes. There's also a strong sense that players need to be keenly aware of their surroundings. In the style of Far Cry 2, you have to pull your map and look directly at it, obscuring your vision and leaving you vulnerable. With no mini-map or on-screen health indicators, all the important bits of info are located on the main character's arm--such as a watch and Geiger-counter.
Since utilizing survival skills is more important than ever, Exodus gives you a lot more options in how you want to approach situations. After taking out human enemies--either with lethal or stun attacks--you can loot their bodies and even strip their weapons for parts. These materials can be used to craft items and upgrade weapons, which include the familiar standouts like shotguns, pistols, and rifles. As many of these weapons are made from used pipes and other bits of metal, you can modify them to add new stocks, barrels, silencers, and other gadgets. It's also important to keep your guns clean by routinely keeping them clean, as overuse will cause them to break apart. The gun-crafting system is impressive in its own right, but it also feeds back into the underlying survivalist element of the game.
Like previous Metro games in the series, Metro Exodus emphasizes an incredibly eerie and haunting atmosphere, but now within the desolate Russian wilderness. While Exodus has incredible scenery, we encountered numerous technical hiccups and quirks which made certain sections--which should been exciting--somewhat taxing to sit through. Along with inconsistent frame-rate, reloading to a checkpoint would take well over a minute each time, which made some challenging combat sections a headache. By far, these were the most glaring drags throughout the session, which did a lot to put a damper on the experience.
Still, I found myself really enjoying what Metro Exodus has to offer. With the game now aiming for a Spring 2019 release, there's still plenty of time for 4A to iron out technical issues. Given the scale of the game, and how it brings those familiar Metro touches with a more open design, it should be a welcome twist on what people expect from the series.
For more info on Metro Exodus, and all other games we got to play during E3 2018, check out our GameSpot E3 HUB page for all new content as it comes in.