As has always been the case, the Metro series stands mostly alone in the first-person-shooter storytelling space, defiantly focusing on immersion and gunplay regardless of gaming's overall ecosystem at the time of release.
This point is more potent with the 4A Games-developed Metro Exodus at a time when the majority of the gaming industry seems to focus on the next battle royale experience.
The third installment in the superb series takes some bold steps in new directions thanks to a narrative ruleset defined by the book series it retells, taking a departure of sorts from its comfort zones.
With Artyom in the lead role once more, Exodus takes the story and familiar gameplay elements above ground into a set of expansive open-world levels.
The task is again setting itself apart, nailing what it does well to retain its core audience while reaching out to a broader base—because Metro is a series worth experiencing and the games continue to generally fly under the radar.
Exodus sets out to change that and does.
Graphics and Gameplay
Few games look better than Metro Exodus.
It may seem like a bombastic claim, but a series leaning hard into immersion more than anything else has to have the visuals correct. And Exodus does, to say the least.
Exodus oozes graphical fidelity and attention to detail. The minutia like wildlife variety to various modifications to guns are little things that draw a player in and don't let go.
Story beats are done within the game engine where cutscenes would normally take place, which on its own is a confident sign from a game. The characters Artyom interacts with all look fantastic, and there are no problems in the lip-sync department.
On a grander scale, the dynamic weather system and day-and-night cycles are superb. Advancing on a destination in the desert under the growing threat of an encroaching sandstorm—which blots everything out when it arrives—is an experience gamers can't get anywhere else.
Above all else, the lighting in Exodus is best-ever material and a major way the developers get into the heads of players and create horror moments. Not that this is any surprise, as PC-gaming aficionados know this is one of the first titles to use Ray Tracing.
Dynamic, always-changing systems based on the player and world alterations atop a stunning sense of detail has done the immersion goal justice.
Furthering this goal is the gameplay. Exodus is a mostly HUD-less experience. The visibility gauge on Artyom's wrist reveals whether he's visible to enemies. He'll have to manually use a flashlight, pull out a gadget to charge the flashlight, pull out a radiation meter, wipe away grime on his mask, repair his cracked mask...the examples abound.
Perhaps most notably, the constant timer on his watch signaling no more oxygen when it hits zero can create some of gaming's most tense moments.
Gunplay ties these systems together. Artyom has a fully moddable arsenal at his fingertips. He's capable of slapping any components he finds on to almost any gun, even swapping out mods on a pistol for, say, something silly like a 4x scope. He can do this on the fly, though it leaves him exposed to the world.
Following the trends here, gunplay feels superb and responsive. The guns perform noticeably different based on the modifications, and if a player isn't spending the resources to clean them, they will jam at inopportune times.
The sheer detail that goes into these weapons up close is almost distracting, which goes double for the unskippable reload animations and real-time item management. Even pulling up a map to get a sense of direction in one of the open worlds happens in real time, which means enemies can still attack.
Perhaps the lone area where the game stutters is against human enemies. Bandits and otherwise will shout impressively detailed things like "at the crate over there" while the player takes cover to reload, which assuredly elicits a smile or raise of the eyebrow.
But it's window dressing covering up bad enemy A.I. that will often take cover and get easily flanked, presenting themselves as targets. Whether an enemy detects a stealthy approach seems to be hit or miss as well, and if a player fades into the shadows again, it is hard to tell if it will actually lose the A.I.
But this is the typical praise-criticism cycle for a Metro game. The attention clearly goes into the world and gunplay. The latter, despite its faults against certain enemies, is still a blast and rewarding for those who mastered it, as headshots lead to conservation of scarce ammo resources.
A balancing act between resources—which bleeds into a bigger balancing of going in all guns blazing and taking the stealth approach—Exodus takes its strength and weaknesses into a grander setting and captivates its audience in a way few games can.
Story and More
Given the title of the game, the fact Artyom and crew leave the metro isn't much of a spoiler.
Those who read the books or are familiar with the plot know what to expect here. Artyom and friends are attempting to survive in the Russian Federation 20-plus years after the bombs dropped, and they depart on a train in an effort to travel across the continent. Given the results of the first two games, a supernatural element is to be expected.
While the overarching plot is a nice backdrop, the intimacy between the player and world is where the real story unfolds over the course of several open-world segments with smaller, metro-ish linear environments within each.
Storytelling through the world is superb. One barren set of tunnels features skeletons frozen while playing chess when the bomb dropped, and yes, the player can scavenge supplies from them. At one point, the player is escorted past boys bullying another child and, without spoiling the outcome, it's fascinating to see the segment unfold so the player has a better understanding of this world.
These little tidbits are pervasive and engrossing. If you rip through a bandit base slaughtering everyone in sight, the last man standing might come out with his hands up, surrendering and pleading.
But approaching every unknown human as an enemy could lead to the player missing some interesting side developments. Even back on the train, Artyom can get a break and interact with the crew, even strumming on a guitar while the characters fill in some story detail.
Unfortunately, Artyom himself is once again a mute, unless he's reading a refresher tidbit during a loading screen. It is a jarring departure given everything else mentioned, especially when the player is supposed to feel connected to Anna during their fleeting moments together.
One of the charms of the Metro series (or horrors, for some) was the gameplay atmosphere the tunnels created. It was claustrophobic, making mutants and monsters deadlier than usual because there was nowhere to run. Ditto for hostile humans, who could find a way to take the player down in tight spaces no matter how erratic their shots are.
Those concerned the series leaving the metro and expanding into open-world segments would hurt these feelings can rest easy. If anything, the change of pace isn't just fresh and needed, it builds on some of these concepts.
Out in the open world, the beasts and mutants are arguably more dangerous. At least confined in the tunnels, players knew which way they would be coming from and it was hard to miss. Out in the open, a single Watcher won't be alone for long—if a player lets it howl, several more will collapse on the player.
The top of the new-world food chain, the bat-like monstrous creature known as the Demon will hunt the player from above as they travel from location to location. And stranded on a rowboat in the middle of the water, players are vulnerable from above...and below.
Keep in mind the game lends itself to a choose-your-own-adventure feel. Players can manipulate the day-night cycle to their advantage depending on how they want human and mutant encounters to play out. A morality system will once again play a part in how things unfold, too.
Without going into too much side drama, players disappointed in the Fallout series right now will be happy to know Metro Exodus is what a Fallout game should feel like.
Exposed, with limited resources, guns that jam, hostile mutants and humans alike in a post-apocalyptic setting equipped with environmental hazards to boot, this is the best game to nail this setting and drive tension consistently through it.
Metro hasn't had the biggest speedrunning audience over the years due to its linearity, but Exodus could change that as the series expands and throws in more wrinkles than previous entries.
After all, Exodus asks potential speedrunners to carefully manage a variety of different factors at once or lose a huge chunk of time due to death or running out of something critical and needing to backtrack.
The type of speedrun can wildly vary, too, ranging from any-percent runs to 100-percent runs to outright no-kill runs, as is popular with stealth series like Splinter Cell.
For Exodus, one of the better tips on most difficulty settings is to simply mow through enemies on the way to objectives. Doing so with accuracy is a must, though, or running out of ammo will leave players in a bad spot.
Headshots on most enemies reward instant kills, so general practice here will lower run times. Knowing when to engage is key, too—speedrunning means ignoring some of the tension-causing mechanisms, as sometimes it will simply be faster to outrun mutants. But this also calls for a careful management of Artyom's endurance, which is relayed to the player through his breathing.
Choosing to engage with side content is another conundrum. Arriving in a new open-world segment and tackling some of the smaller, but not necessary objectives could yield some critical modding components and resources. But if a player isn't hurting, going right for the main objective is a good idea. In certain areas, relying on the free-roam vehicles is a must to cut down on time.
As far as the arsenal goes, an assault rifle will likely serve runners best in most instances. Running and gunning is possible thanks to the enemy A.I., and getting cute with different revolvers or sniper rifles can hurt a run.
Crafting will likely mostly center on health packs and ammo, as well as keeping the weapon of choice clean so it won't jam. Also on the managerial side, things like gas mask time remaining won't be as big of a concern thanks to a lack of exploration and the fact much of the above-ground segments don't require it anymore.
As always, a rudimentary understanding of video game design comes into play as well. Things like red flags in the environment or specific lighting are subtle game-design elements meant to reveal the way.
The Metro series has done it again.
Exodus laughs at the idea of multiplayer and instead provides a tense, better-than-Fallout experience while showing off a bit in the flashy department thanks to the visuals.
That Exodus bravely takes its best elements to an open-world level structure and does so without losing any of the tension or immersion is a feat. It's an experience players won't soon forget—the only thing forgotten once loading up the game is a sense of time passed.
It all lends to a bold sequel with a single-player experience worthy of being mentioned up there with the Red Deads and God of Wars. Maybe it won't yet again, but players who invest in the experience will get one of the best games of 2019 and another reminder there is a place for single-player games that excel in refreshing ways.