The malleable wastelands of post-apocalyptia is hardly unfamiliar territory to video game players the world over. But even by those standards, the first six months of 2019 are awash with post-nuclear milieu with games like Far Cry: New Dawn and Rage 2 bringing different shades and colours to the end of the world. Mainly blistering pinks.
But Ukrainian developer 4A Games are hoping that its Metro: Exodus will stand out as a harsh and brutal survivalist among the more rambunctious American heroes. An Eastern spin that recalls the Soviet-punk and oppression of the brilliant S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, a game on which the 4A founders worked on.
This is the third game in the series based on Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro novels, following the success and acclaim of Metro 2033 and Last Light. Exodus is 4A Games most ambitious attempt yet, blending linear and non-linear environments to create a game that can be by turns sprawling, wild and terrifyingly intimate.
The events of Metro Exodus follow on from the end of the last of Glukhovsky’s novels, Metro 2035. “The books will not continue,” Glukhovsky tells me. “The game is picking up the plot where 2035 leaves it. So the only way to know what happens after is to play.”
With that said, the pitch of Exodus is easy to pick up even if you are yet to be exposed to either the books or previous games. You are Artyom, a former Ranger of the Moscow Metro system where the population hunkered down after nuclear devastation, believing the outside world to be lost and inaccessible due to intense radiation.
Turns out this isn’t the case, with Artyom leaving Moscow and setting off on a trans-Siberian odyssey aboard the Aurora, a thundering steam locomotive. You are accompanied by your own ragtag group of survivors, including Artyom’s wife Anna, as the group scavenge the tundra for resources on the way to find some solace away from the fear and isolation of the Metro.
“All of this is continuing the themes of the book,” says Glukhovsky, who has collaborated closely with 4A on the story of Exodus. “Which is: why do we like to stay in a bunker? Why can’t we accept wars can be over? Why do we need an enemy? Why does a state of eternal war give us a sense of purpose?”
This sees Artyom and co seeking to break that cycle in their journey. From a game perspective, it allows 4A to create something a lot bigger than the intense claustrophobia of the Metro tunnels in the first two games. All the while retaining both the grimy, analogue feel and intimate, creeping horror that has made Metro stand out. The latter of which I can well attest to having played a selection of segments through the game.
Metro Exodus is not an open-world game, with Artyom literally on a defined track, but the areas in which the Aurora stops off are sprawling ‘survival sandboxes’ in their own right that take several hours to complete. It will drop you into the bitter, snow-covered Siberian plains or, as in this latest preview, the scorching heat of Summer in the dried up canyons of the Caspian Sea. It is an approach that seems to offer 4A and Glukhovsky the opportunity to deliver the game they first envisioned when they partnered up over a decade ago.
“We share this feeling and a passion for this Soviet-punk, post-apocalypse,” says the author. “It’s a very different flavour from what you get in Western post-apocalyptic stories. It’s all about fear of the future, a festishism for this Soviet hardware; battered and rusty self-made equipment. Traces of its style you could already see in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.”
Indeed, the equipment you pack is delightfully creaky and cobbled together. Weapons are grimy and must be kept clean, while proper ammo is genuinely scarce. Coming across a group of nuclear monsters guarding an abandoned building, it is a constant dilemma to choose whether to fight or flee, saving your ordnance for later challenges or pressing on in the hope of finding some abandoned goodies. Ball-bearings make useful makeshift ammo for custom-made weapons, pinging through mutant flesh with gruesome effectiveness.
Just because the weapons are grimy doesn’t mean the shooting doesn’t pack a punch (this looks to be 4A’s most accomplished gunplay yet), but the makeshift nature is a theme that permeates the game. Metro won’t throw a ton of open-world icons at you to vacuum up. In fact, there isn’t much of a HUD at all, with key information, like time, radiation and even a motion-tracker set into Artyom’s bracer. Even the map is a physical, in-game item, with you needing to check your position on a clipboard and Artyom scribbling down objectives on the back.
Pressure-powered weapons need to be kept gassed by manually pumping them, otherwise they won’t fire. Parts and ammo need to be made at workbenches with junk found in the wild. Vehicles are ramshackle things that clatter through the wasteland. Certain areas are radioactive, meaning you need to keep your gasmask clean and free from cracks (sometimes patched up with a band-aid) while a steady stream of time-limited filters are essential.
4A seem to have done a terrific job of transporting many of Metro’s elements to a bigger stage or expanding on them with the addition of things like vehicles. Everything feels grounded and tough as I trek through the Caspian wasteland, a dust storm whipping around me as rusty, hand-made metal fortifications shudder in the distance.
The open-world is quite a sight. With objectives scattered around each level able to be approached in a way you see fit, tensely stealthing through enemy strongholds to take out thugs without wasting too much of of your precious resources. But neither does it seem 4A has lost its knack for claustrophobia.
Much of my time in the Summer level was spent above ground, taking down bad guys and trying to reach Caspian survivor and expert sniper Giul in her under siege lighthouse. But by the end I am sent to an underground Soviet bunker to retrieve some essential post-war documents. “I haven’t gone very far in,” says Giul. “There are spiders down there.”
Not half. Venturing into the bunker from the bright light above is quite the shock, with giant, mutated creepy-crawlies skittering in the darkness. They are afraid of light, with you able to shine your flickering torch to keep them at bay, but only in one direction as more of the spiders are bolder, skittering behind you or crawling over your arms and gasmask. Shudder.
The transition is expertly done, trading open-world survival-action for deliciously creepy and claustrophobic horror in a heartbeat. It is this kind of grit that will make Metro stand out, as well as the forthright politics brought in its story that come from a different viewpoint than in much of Western entertainment.
“For me, some things that are quite obvious in Western Europe are not so in Eastern Europe, in Russia, where we are facing a gathering strength of a totalitarian regime,” says Glukhovsky. “Some of the messages I’m trying to get through, I wouldn’t say are revolutionary or political. Rather they are educational, prompting people to think with their own heads. It’s what makes the series stand out. The controversies, the decision to not be too politically correct, to be provocative and to go on more complex storytelling, raise issues on subjects that might not be raised in a typical American story. Or at least serve them from a different angle.”
"How do we give you the flavour of something totally different?” he asks. “It’s just by being ourselves. Whereas bigger American gaming brands try to be these sexy boybands so that everybody likes them. It would be nice to be liked by everybody, but we want to be the f-----g rockstars.”