The Metro series has a rough charm to it that I honestly enjoy. The games have a scrappy feeling which pairs brilliantly with protagonist Artyom stumbling through the claustrophobic horrors of the Moscow underground. But with Metro Exodus taking a stab at open world segments for the first time in the series, the end product detracts from what the Metro series typically does best.
As ever, life isn’t too swell for our survivors of the Russian nuclear apocalypse—Artyom, Anna, Miller, and co. are all on the run from the ruling Hansa forces in Moscow after inadvertently discovering that the rest of the human population on planet Earth is still very much alive on the surface. Through Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall, our group travel east across Russia in a train dubbed the 'Aurora,' arriving at different destinations in an attempt to find a place to call home. The group always begin by scouting out a new region, whether it’s the mountains or deserts of Russia, before inevitably encountering the local population. Spoiler: the nuclear annihilation of the surface world hasn’t turned the remaining population of Russia into the best people.
Back at the beginning of the decade (Christ, was it that long ago?) Metro 2033, a first-person shooter based on the Russian novel of the same name, won over a cult following. In 2013, Metro Last Light cemented the cult status of the series with brutal claustrophobia and horrific monsters in the depths of the metro. Crucially, Exodus retains what made the past two games a success. Claustrophobic gunfights are still rife throughout, whether it’s fighting psychos with guns in a bunker, or fending off swarms of mutated bugs with nothing but a lighter. Horror elements, while not so prevalent in the sprawling surface world, have their moments in the spotlight with a gruesome cannibal cult, or horrifically mutated beasts like bears and wolves.
4A Games and Metro creator Dmitry Glukhovsky know they’re underdogs in an industry dominated by open-world games with bigger budgets. Metro Exodus sticks to being a plucky fighter with chaotic but controlled gunplay. There’s a learning curve that comes with every weapon in the wasteland, as though you’re never quite sure how the new weapon you’ve picked up will handle or act until you start firing. Bullets are few and far between in the Russian wasteland, and every shot counts. There’s almost a feeling of dread whenever you pull the trigger in Metro Exodus, as though you could be kissing goodbye your final few bullets for miles around.
I actually like the busy work of Metro Exodus. 4A has found a perfect balance between relaxed and annoying upkeep for Artyom. If your flashlight or night vision goggles are running low on charge, simply pull out your battery and use the hand pump attached to it. If Artyom is a bit banged up, quickly whip out your backpack and craft a med kit or two with just a press of two buttons. The balancing act of upkeep for your character in a post-apocalyptic game is an incredibly tough thing to perfect (looking at you, Fallout 76), but 4A has found a solid middle ground—there might be plenty to do in looking after Artyom and his gear, but it’ll never stop you in your tracks or actively hinder your progress. If anything, it just adds to the tension of Metro Exodus. Stopping to pump and recharge your flashlight in the middle of the aforementioned underground cannibal cult is an excellent way to hold your breath for the longest five seconds of your life.
The combat and gunfights of the Metro series can be messy, and the open world sections of Metro Exodus follow suit. Optional objectives in the Caspian Desert or the Volga range from “go here, kill this guy,” to “go here, kill these guys.” There are fleeting moments that give context to other characters—rescuing Nastya’s teddy from a demon’s nest, for example—but aside from occasionally making you give a damn about your comrades, the open world of Metro Exodus falls largely flat. The combat might be a difficult pleasure, but it isn’t nearly enough to make me want to trudge through multiple repetitive objectives out in the open world of Metro Exodus.
4A’s Metro series rose to cult glory in the dark, deranged environments of the Moscow underground, so it’s no major surprise that the strengths of Metro Exodus lie in what 4A Games has typically excelled at. There’s one linear chapter that arrives in the first half of Metro Exodus, where Artyom, Miller, and Anna find themselves battling deranged psychopaths in the murky depths of a bunker. It’s a brilliant, haunting section in which you move through makeshift hospital wings and prison cells, and nothing else in Metro Exodus comes close to topping this grisly hour-long sequence.
Stealth has always been problematic and clunky in the Metro series, and it returns to haunt Metro Exodus. The Metro series has a deliberate pace to it, as if every footstep is a struggle for our beleaguered protagonist Artyom. This doesn’t translate well to stealth sections of Metro Exodus—of which there are many. If you’re moving forward in a corridor, and an enemy patrol is coming round the corner in front of you, there’s simply no option for escape. Turn and run, and they’ll hear you. Turn and crouch-walk away from the patrol, and they’ll spot you.
It wouldn’t be quite so bad if Metro Exodus didn’t tie major outcomes to the stealth sections. If a comrade of yours asks you to take out guards surrounding a slave camp quietly, you can bet there will some big consequences if you’re spotted. In the culmination of the Volga section of Metro Exodus, where a stealthy approach is asked of you multiple times, you can even get a comrade killed if you’re seen. You can always gun your way out a stealth situation in open combat should you be spotted, but this has a knock-on effect on the supporting characters, leading to the feeling that Metro Exodus is punishing you for being spotted.
Failed stealth taking a toll on the cast of Metro Exodus is even more painful because they’re all brilliant. Entertaining and caring characters like Katya, Nastya, and others join our ragtag group of comrades while journeying through annihilated Russia, and the journey for a new and better life provides agency and stakes for every one of the supporting characters. It’s interesting to see characters displaying the drive for a better life in different ways—Miller has a militaristic approach to the mission, and a desire to bring Mother Russia back to glory, while Stepan finds a better life in marrying Katya. It’s not to say that every single character has memorable moments like this along the way in Metro Exodus, but a search for a better life away from nuclear annihilation goes a long way in making you care about the people around you.
As the conclusion to the Metro trilogy, Metro Exodus gives closure to key characters that we’ve spent time with for multiple games now. Exodus sheds the complex conflict between the Hansa, Communists, Nazis and more for a character-driven tale, and it pays off. The combat is still difficult but enjoyable, with a certain learning curve coming with every weapon in the game, whether it’s a shotgun or a gas-powered rifle. But it’s the forgettable open world, with bland and repetitive objectives, and the at-times infuriating stealth sections with brutal consequences that lets the entire adventure of Metro Exodus down.
Metro Exodus is a solid conclusion for a cult series that made its name in rough charm. The open world and stealth systems of the conclusion to the trilogy are largely missteps, but it’s when Metro Exodus returns to its horrific roots, with a bunch of caring comrades, that the game fires on all cylinders.