When it comes to the Metro series, atmosphere is everything. If you’ve spent any time in Metro: 2033 and the sequel Metro: Last Light, you’ll be used to crawling through dimly lit tunnels, scavenging in what remains of the Moscow underground for supplies and ammunition to survive against the mutant horrors that surround you. In these tense, claustrophobic environments, it's the stories of the survivors that shine through.
The latest title in the series, Metro: Exodus – which I played at a recent preview event – seriously changes up the pace. Expansive open-air locales with bounding wildlife and breath-taking vistas are definitely not what we’re used to seeing Artyom at al struggle through. If it wasn't for the characters, guns, and Metro’s signature slimmed-down HUD, you’d be forgiven for believing this game is set in an entirely different universe.
The setup justifying this change is that the characters have escaped the Moscow Metro tunnels on a train called the Aurora, which serves as the main plot device for a journey across post-war Russia: this ships you from location to location over a year of in-game time. I'm given the option of three different environments to take a glimpse at: 'The Volga', a bleak frozen lake in the folds of the frigid Russian spring; 'The Caspian', a vast desert setting suffering from dust storms and oppressive summer heat; and ‘The Taiga’, a dense autumnal forest with mutated wildlife bounding in and out of view. I spent the majority of my time in the Volga and Caspian zones.
Metro 2033 and Last Light were largely linear experiences, and while the reps are keen to emphasise Exodus will have a story that's still grounded in this world, the open-world feel is something that die-hard Metro fans might struggle to wrap their heads around. The dank, closed-off areas that made the earlier games so tense are present here, but now integrated into a much larger – and brighter – world.
Naturally, the new approach also brings new opportunities. As I take the first steps into the Volga region, it is immediately clear that developers 4A Games have really pushed the boat out. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous, the most heartbreakingly desolate landscape one could imagine, and my travelling companions somehow look amazing with their downtrodden, struggling-to-survive chic looks. Could you really make a game about a journey across Russia without some kind of long, cold trek over the snow?
As we test out our weapons and make our way down to the waterside, in the eerie quiet we spot a raft with two bunny rabbit passengers floating down river. Before we can stop to say ‘aww’, the raft is set upon by some massive mutated fish-monster. This is not your father’s Metro game, but a brutal and gripping atmosphere does persist. Not everything is trying to kill you – at least not all of the time – but that doesn't mean this place is any more welcoming than the tunnels.
Our group is soon rowing across a lake towards a dilapidated church to meet a group of survivors. The attention to detail can be overwhelming, and 4A has really flexed its muscles with the small things: the way our small kayak glides across the water, but judders slightly as we row; the children’s drawing on one of the oar paddles that keeps popping into view; the large mutated crab-seal creatures that dive in the water and swim alongside us.
Perhaps inevitably, the locals in the church are not keen on offering any help. I decide to take a guns blazing approach to diplomacy, but quickly ran into a familiar Metro problem – lack of ammunition. I'd been lulled into treating Exodus like any other FPS, and spraying and praying soon resulted in zero ammo. This scarcity is part of what makes the series, but in the context of this world's scope the reminder was a little jarring. The solution, of course, is simply to be more careful: headshots only take one bullet, after all, and disciplining your trigger finger against these ducking and weaving foes is essential.
If the Volga's a lonely environment, then the Caspian is something else. To call the desert an expanse would be an understatement. The area is huge, and the draw distance incredible: zoomed-in with the weapon scope and binoculars, I see countless buildings and landmarks waiting to be explored. With the move to open world, this is the kind of thing that really delivers: it felt more like a Fallout map than a mere level in a larger game.
As my group wanders around a dust storm rolls in, meaning we have to make use of the Metro gas mask. The signature sense of time-sensitive desperation – and frustration of running out of gas mask air filters – is back in Exodus. I died several times trying to escape enemies and navigate the storm, the conditions of which make this wide-open area feel much more chokingly condensed.
A further departure from previous Metro games is that you can craft your own filters in Exodus, something long-term fans will either adore or despise. To me it makes sense, if only because these environments are so large and open that expecting players to constantly scavenge for an essential consumable could become very annoying. This way you still have to explore and hoard enough materials to be able to craft filters, and it remains remarkably easy to overestimate your own stockpile and end up stranded in hostile zones.
The crafting is simple, though a nice twist is that sorting through your equipment and assembling stuff doesn't pause the game (so you can't craft a load of bullets while surrounded by teethy monsters). You need to set your backpack on the ground and unzip it, then there's a range of ammunition and med kits as well as the ability to clean your weapons. It’s a nice if not expansive addition to the game, and adds an incentive to explore the world (though there are apparently only two craft materials: chemicals and metals).
After traversing the desert, I eventually find one of the more traditional Metro environments. My little band of hardy warriors is tasked with procuring old-world maps for the Aurora from a long-abandoned pre-war military facility, but there’s one problem: it’s swarming with spiders. Yes arachnophobes, you'll be delighted to hear the spiderbugs from Last Light return and are more disgusting than ever. Entering a gloomy pre-war bunker, manually charging up the flashlight with my power pack and burning away cobwebs with the lighter... well, it really made me feel back at home. My skin itched as smaller spiders crawled up my in-game arms, and I'm ashamed to say I shot in panic when one scuttled over my visor. This was 4A Games saying ‘yeah, we can still do this stuff too.’
There are moments in Exodus where you'd easily forget this is a Metro game, simply because this is a series that feels it needs to move beyond moody tunnels. This varied Russian countryside is a departure, but just because you’re above ground doesn't mean you won't be gasping for air all the same. Metro: Exodus is shaping up as a new kind of beast, albeit one mutated by a familiar Russian atmosphere.