‘Metro: Exodus’ hands-on preview

'Metro: Exodus' expands 'Metro' in every way, but can it handle the scale?

4A Games brings everything that works about the Metro franchise and into big new areas to explore.
4A Games brings everything that works about the Metro franchise and into big new areas to explore.
4A Games brings everything that works about the Metro franchise and into big new areas to explore.

Highs

  • Solid shooting
  • New weapon-upgrade system is smart and intuitive
  • Giant open areas offer a lot to explore
  • Survival and horror aspects seem intact
  • Story is explicit about making choices matter

Lows

  • Crafting increases busywork
  • Big open world might be too big and open
  • Dearth of ammo means lots of slow scavenging

The Metro franchise is leaving the metro. If you like your shooters sprawling, open, and full of mutant creatures, this will be good news.

Developer 4A Games showed off about 45 minutes of Metro: Exodus, the third game in the first-person shooter franchise about a post-nuclear war Russia, at E3 2018. The big takeaway is that, instead of a linear adventure through the underground subway stations of Moscow (the Metro franchise finds its humans huddling in the dark below ground as they eek out what existence they can manage) Exodus is taking the series to the surface and offering you some wide-open spaces in which to run around.

While the setting is different for Exodus, the nuts and bolts of the game haven’t changed much. It’s still a first-person shooter with a focus on making the most of scant ammo and surprise to get the drop on enemies. The previous games had players mixing stealth with straight-up shooting as they explored the darkened tunnels of the Moscow metro, fighting the Red Army, resurgent Nazis, and a number of different breeds of angry mutant creatures, and all that’s back in Exodus. The world is still an irradiated mess, so like past games, you need to keep a gas mask on hand at all times for those moments when the air is too deadly to breathe. All the tenets of past Metro games are still in play.

The difference in Exodus is in level design. As 4A games explained, Exodus is way bigger than the previous two Metro games in terms of scale, and probably double the length of either of those entries.

Russian road trip

In the hands-on demo at E3, players return to the role of series protagonist Artyom, a Metro wasteland warrior called a “Spartan” who’s traveling with a group of other soldiers across the Russian landscape aboard a train to find a new home. Things start to get shooty when the Spartans’ train careens through a roadblock and they find themselves stuck, with mutants roaming the landscape and bands of folks set up in nearby ruins.

Artyom gets dispatched to search the surrounding area in hopes of finding survivors who might have information. The Spartans are apparently worried that Russia was occupied by an invading army of some kind, so they’re expecting some serious hostilities. Those forces are nowhere to be found at first, but everyone’s on edge.

If you like your shooters sprawling, open, and full of mutant creatures, Metro: Exodus will be good news.

As Artyom, players head away from the train and toward a nearby church, where there are signs of human life. How you get there is mostly up to you, though, and there are ruined buildings, derailed train cars and ravaged campsites to scavenge for gear along the way.

There are also groups of mutants rooting around to fight or avoid. Doglike creatures roam in packs, chewing on bodies, and aquatic “Shrimp,” with armored backs and sharp, blade-like appendages, lie in the sun on the banks of the Volga River. Exodus points Artyom in the direction of a small rowboat to make his way down the river toward the church. As we go, Shrimp see us and roar menacingly, diving into the water and leaving only a wake of unsettling ripples.

Mercy or force

The demo picks up steam when Artyom reaches the church, which is also partially a boathouse with a canal running through it to allow the boat to drift inward. The locals seem friendly, with a man on the dock signaling Artyom in while a small girl tugs at his hand. Inside, some sort of preacher is giving a sermon on the evils of electricity while a group of congregants watch Artyom drift inside. Then, suddenly, an iron gate drops, locking Artyom inside. Climbing a nearby set of stairs, he discovers a woman and her daughter who say the cultists have kept them prisoner for nearly a year. Time to escape.

Metro Exodus

Metro: Exodus suggests the choices players make in dealing with situations like this one will be important to its unfolding story. The cultists are hostile, and a few are lightly armed, but as Artyom notes in the journal you can check in which he details his journey, they’re likely no match for a well-trained and well-armed Spartan such as yourself. You can sneak past them and spare their lives, or you can murder your way free of their clutches. Either path will get you where you’re going, but 4A said players will choose the kind of person Artyom becomes as part of the tale of Metro: Exodus. The past Metro games had a morality system taking stock of Artyom’s actions that changed the ending of the games based on their choices, so it seems some version of it is back in Exodus.

Metro: Exodus suggests the choices players make will be important to its unfolding story.

With the scarcity of ammo in Metro, stealth is usually a smart way to approach any given situation, and it’s possible for Artyom to carefully pick his path out. Things didn’t go quite so smoothly in our demo, however. Patrolling guards found an unfortunate colleague of theirs we took out with a silenced revolver, and with that, shouts of alarm sounded throughout the church. It was a running gun battle from there, until we wrecked enough villagers’ lives that several started raising their hands in surrender — immediately making us wonder if maybe we’d messed up a bunch of lives unnecessarily. Abandoning any further fighting, we hopped in a boat off the church dock and rowed on out of there.

The danger wasn’t over, however. The creatures inhabiting Russia are as worrisome as the people, and as we rowed toward a distant shore, fighting off Shrimps, Artyom’s row boat was attacked by something huge in the water. The villagers in the church had referred to something they called the Tsar-fish, and the giant thing grabbed the boat, sending Artyom sprawling into the water. The cutscene that followed found Artyom scrambling for a distant shore, where a fellow Spartan helped him out and sent him back to the train.

A world full of crafting

Back among the Spartans, Artyom received new orders: To track down a local mechanic the woman rescued from the church mentioned, to help repair the train. Returning was also a chance to get a rundown on one of the Metro series’ cool pneumatic rifles, nearly silent weapons you pump up to use, and its crafting system.

Upgrading your dingy post-apocalyptic weapons has long been a part of Metro, but until now, Artyom always had to stop at specific places in settlements in order to get his guns fixed up or to craft new gear like explosives. Exodus presents you with a new backpack that functions as a crafting table, allowing you to quickly fashion medkits, grenades and pneumatic rifle bullets from the things you find in the world. More interesting than a crafting menu, though, is the fact that you can dismantle any gun you find in the world, snagging its useful parts like stocks and scopes to attach to your own weapons. A new scope made the pneumatic rifle a silent sniper rifle, thanks to a rifle we discovered earlier in the sad, demolished camp of the victims of a plane crash.

The idea of new gun pieces and snapping them onto your weapons whenever you’ve got a second to take a knee and open your backpack is a strong addition to the Metro formula. Crafting, however, has become ubiquitous in games like this, and almost never for the better. Exodus‘ big open world is full of random bits of junk to pick up along the way, and with ammo as scarce as it was in the demo, players might find themselves spending a fair amount of time digging through the detritus of Russia to find something useful. That might be in keeping with life in a post-apocalyptic world, but it also feels like busywork.

Springtime dangers

Next, it was back to the river (despite that run-in with the Tsar-fish, who seemed to hang out near the church) to head toward the nearby port, where the mechanic was said to be waiting. As we approached the building he was said to be hiding in, a zombie-like human mutant attacked Artyom, grappling with him as we slammed the X button to shake it off and ultimately stab it to death.

These “Humanimals,” as Metro: Exodus referred to them, are another type of mutant that seem to mostly operate during the springtime. Artyom’s journey will take him through all four seasons, and the time of year affects what you’ll run into as you go. There’s also dynamic weather, which 4A says can situations and the strategies you’ll want to use in given situations. Rain during our demo suggested it’ll be tougher for creatures to hear you sneaking up on them, and seemed to make sniping a group of mutant dog-creatures a bit easier. The timer on the demo ran out shortly after we entered the mechanic’s building, as we fled, ammo-less and afraid, from a pack of humanimals that threw bricks and rocks at us as we went.

For the most part Metro: Exodus feels a lot like past Metro games, just bigger. Two games in, the series has a good handle on elements like shooting and stealth, and opening the world up gives players a chance to make strategies of their own to explore it. As a follow up to the linear approach of the underground in the past, it feels like it works.

The question is how well Metro: Exodus can handle all that space. Players who enjoy these games like them for their spooky, tense situations, and 4A showed that will still be possible in the open world. It was tough to tell in just a few minutes what’s out there beyond Moscow, but Metro: Exodus will hinge on whether finding out can stay engaging.

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