"There’s an entire world out there, not just Russia." This is a key line from the final story trailer of Metro Exodus, and it’s a line that author Dmitry Glukhovsky repeats. “We have other ideas, we have new ideas,” the author of the Metro novels and a writer on the games tells me, referencing the push of Metro Exodus towards the ruined surface world of Russia.
Metro Exodus is a bold new step forward for the series, thematically and technically. There’s advanced facial capture and animation for protagonist Artyom’s band of comrades, as well as the debut of vehicles in the Metro series. Most notably though, Exodus is the staging ground for the exploration of a Russia that’s been totally annihilated by nuclear weapons.
The Devastated Caspian Desert
When I'm let loose in the open world area of the Caspian Desert of Metro Exodus recently, it’s immediately apparent just how big of a step forward for 4A Games its latest game is. There’s a soaring blue sky above my head, stretching on as far as the eye can see, matched only by the glistening sand dunes going on beneath my feet.
The aforementioned vehicle (think an early Mad Max version of a Volkswagen campervan), bounds over dunes and makeshift roads with ease, with bumps that probably come close to sending Artyom through the roof. The campervan is a nice showcase for how people that have been dwelling on the surface world in Metro have been living since the nuclear bombs hit—remember, this is our first time actually encountering human civilization that hasn’t been wading around in their own filth in the tunnels underneath Moscow.
As I progress through the main story missions of Metro Exodus’ Caspian Desert section, Artyom encounters a local of the desert holding out valiantly against the local militia. Joining forces with one of the sole, sane survivors of the desert wasteland to help stave off the Mad Max-like gang, she then joins our cause, leading us to an abandoned Russian army bunker deep beneath the surface of the Caspian Desert. We're heading back to the roots of the Metro series, delving deep underground once again.
It's in this abandoned army bunker that everything goes to hell… in a good way. Monsters are no strangers to the Metro series (remember the Dark Ones?), and the defunct bunker is home to mutated spiders and scorpions, with creepy-crawlies the size of dogs bounding at you down corridors and through air vents. The only method poor Artyom has for staving them off is the lighter in his pocket and the weak flashlight on his weapon.
It’s here that Metro Exodus quickly descends into a panic-inducing rush through cramped spaces. Sure, you can hold off the mutated creatures with a lighter in one hand, blasting away with your shotgun in another hand. But sooner or later (depending on how trigger happy you are) the magazine of that shotgun is going to run dry. Artyom puts out the lighter to painstakingly reload the shotgun in the dark, all the while you can hear the mutated creatures scuttling closer and closer to you by the second.
And when you eventually pull the lighter back out and flick the flame on, there’s a mini-horde stood before you, so it’s time to blast away on the shotgun once again. All throughout this deadly cycle in the underground bunker, you’re trying to inch your way back to the entrance, where the floodlights of the base—and your newfound friend—will protect you. It’s a cramped rush through corridors and winding passageways in the dark, inching closer to salvation with a rapidly depleting stock of ammo and gear, just as survival horror should be.
Metro Exodus Excels in Confinement
It’s somewhat ironic that this was the best section of the entire Caspian Desert demo for Metro Exodus. I was presented with an entirely new surface world to explore, the debut of the Metro series properly venturing above ground for the first time, but it was back underground that the demo section was at its strongest. It's a reaffirmation that the game—so far—appears to play best when 4A is on home turf, combining confined spaces, scarce ammo and supplies, and deranged monsters.
Nevertheless, 4A Games obviously feels like it’s time to try something new. Driving around the overworld in Metro Exodus is fun, there’s no doubt about that. I was presented with numerous optional quest objectives from Ana (Artyom’s wife) in the Caspian Desert. For instance, there are suspicious individuals wandering dangerously close to base camp, and a nest of ghouls in an abandoned airfield that need sorting out. All of these objectives revolve around showing up to a designated location, obliterating a group of individuals by whatever means necessary, and wandering off into the sunset with whatever items you manage to scavenge.
But 4A Games is forging a new path with Metro Exodus. As Glukhovsky previously told me, they’ve got “other ideas”—ones outside of the confines of the metro or the previous books. After the release of the final story trailer for Metro Exodus, speculation was rife on Reddit that we’d glimpsed the ‘Cult of the Worm’ for the very first time, a faction from the Metro novels that fear and despise all forms of technology.
But Glukhovsky shot the idea down. “The cult that you’re seeing in the former church thing is not the Cult of the Worm,” he says. “Exactly where the book trilogy that ends with Metro 2035 is leaving us, Metro Exodus is picking up from.” And since the final book in the series is dedicated to the discovery of the surface world, it’s this surface world that Metro Exodus journeys into. Metro Exodus is 4A Games moving in a new direction with the series, striding confidently into unknown territory, but it’s still underground where the game excels.