Metro Exodus Review: An intimate story wrapped in a grand package

Metro. I was introduced to this game series by my friend Levi (if you see this, I hope you’re doing ok) years ago when he bought me a copy of 2010’s Metro 2033 on Steam some…8 years ago now I think. As someone who dislikes horror and creepy stuff, I trudged into this post-apocolyptic game and I’m glad I did because I got lost in love with the tunnels, the story, and the atmosphere. The game was followed by a sequel, Metro Last Light in 2013 which took everything Metro 2033 did right and tightened it down. Metro Exodus is meant to be the final chapter in the Metro game series, and it was initially released in 2019. I squealed when I saw the trailer and finally got my radioactive wanna-be-Russian mitts on this game during the Steam Winter sale. After playing through it once for myself, I have a few thoughts on the game.

Gameplay

Metro can be defined by what is there and what isn’t there.

Specifically, Metro 2033 did something different with HUDs by not really having one. That’s not quite accurate because there are HUD elements, but most of the HUD is displayed on the player character–Artyom is his name–wrist via a watch, on his guns via magazine with witness holes to keep track of ammo, and cracks denoting how much damage your gas mask has taken. HUD windows would open during specific moments such as when Artyom uses a medical kit, replaces gas mask filters, or reloads his weapons. This system returns in Metro Exodus. Having the HUD incorporated into the character and his gear makes for a more pleasant experience because there’s not fifty-dozen micro windows of crap in the way and I still get all of the information I need AND I get to see more of the environment. Ooooh. What’s this? An unlit hallway that contains potential goodies or spooky stuff or death? GOOD THING I CAN SEE IT BECAUSE THERE’S NOT FIFTY TRILLION WINDOWS BLOCKING MY PERIPHERAL VISION!!

This lack of HUD also makes for a more immersive (insert shudder here) experience because you the player have to find the nooks and crannies. Metro Exodus uses proper maps because of the open area level and while the map has questions marks and X marks for objectives and areas of interest, the player can still choose to wander around and see what the world has to offer. The best open area level is arguably the Caspian Desert level. Want to free a bunch of slaves from a cut up cargo ship turned prison? Sure; your prerogative. But Mama Game Dev ain’t holding your hand with way points on screen to the front door. You’re a big boy. You can find your own way there and your own way into the ship to fulfill your goals. Want to skip the side quests? Want to be a murder monster? Want to stay in the shadows and sneak past your foes? Sure. Go ahead. You’ll deal with the consequences. I’m not telling you what the consequences are, I’m just letting you know that choices matter and they aren’t exactly obvious to newcomers.

On the topic of maps and worlds, Metro 2033 and Metro Last Light were linear experiences. Makes sense when the game takes place in literal subway tunnels. But they never felt linear because players had the option of sneaking past the baddies or blowing their craniums back to the Tsardom while having the option to go down other tunnels to explore for new gear, secrets, and world-learning opportunities. Each station was a little town that gave players a chance to breath, soak in some underground Moscow atmosphere, and restock on ballistic bravery to face the horrors in the tunnels and on the surface. Metro Exodus has these more linear level designs in which Artyom navigates underground tunnels to further the story, but the game opts for the player to spend a fair chunk of their time in open areas that have goals that need to be accomplished in a certain order with optional side quests and objectives that more often than not come about due to good ol’ fashioned legging it in game. Notice the term: “open areas,” not “open world.” Some people call Metro Exodus “open world” and those people are wrong. Open world games have one huge overworld to explore and play in. Metro Exodus has open areas and each one is different. Metro always sucked me in with a great story that could be enjoyed at a slow-to-brisk pace with a few action set pieces thrown in for some good fun. I went into Metro Exodus giddy and excited…until I started row-rowing my boat merrily down the Volga only to keep being accosted by giant enemy shrimp and catfish which just slowed the game down to an absolute broken-bone crawl. No. I don’t want to stop rowing my boat to blow some buckshot into a giant shrimp’s succulent face. I don’t particularly enjoy having to press E to put down the oar, pull out my gun, kill the monster, and then press E to pick my paddle up again and continue my journey only for me to probably get attacked by two or three more shrimp. I think had the Volga level been smaller, I would have enjoyed it more because navigating the area would have taken less time. I certainly could have done without the killer shrimp because the giant killer catfish provided an ample enough obstacle to steer away from. The Caspian Desert level alleviates this navigation issue by providing the player access to a car to traverse the desert quicker and without random mutants forcing me to stop to handle them so I can continue my journey. Don’t have to stop to kill the muties because the car does a good enough job of doing that for me. The Taiga is traversed by foot and zipline, but it’s small enough that it never felt like a chore to deal with and I actually had quite of bit of fun exploring the level and dodging the rather defensive and territorial locals. Breaks come in the form of train rides between the levels where Artyom and the Aurora crew spend time together. These train ride breaks were some of my favorite parts of the game because I could just sit down and listen to the characters talk as the story went along, giving me (the player) a feeling of intimacy and attachment with the crew I didn’t expect.

Finally…controls and mechanics. Metro Exodus breaks from previous games by using a crafting system, allowing the player to customize weapons to their exact liking, and limiting the amount of guns players can carry to three, which include 2 firearms and 1 air-powered arm. The crafting system is simplified and constricted. Whereas Artyom bought and traded in previous Metro titles, he and his friends are on their own in an unforgiving, radioactive, mutated Russia without a trader in sight. Therefore, the player has to look for resources in the forms of metal and chemicals to produce medkits, gas mask filters, and ammo. Weapons and weapon parts are found in the world, most often by prying them from enemies that are knocked out or killed. Yes: I will take that AK from your cold dead hands, bandit lord! Thank you for contributing to my survival. Most of the time, this feels ok. However…I think Metro Exodus took a step back by not allowing the player to carry a heavier arsenal and by being too stingy on ammo drops. On several occasions, I found myself using the Tikhar air rifle (a useful and necessary weapon in Metro Exodus, and super fun to use for stealth) and scrounging for metal to make Tikhar pellets to dispose of my enemies with extreme pneumatic prejudice during a mutant or bandit onslaught without any ammo for my shotgun or rifle because they’re were just too many of them!! I found myself wishing I could just use a revolver sidearm in tense situations because I had the ammo available but not the weapon due to the carry limit. As I said, it felt like a step backward. Let me use my resources to have fun because ducking and covering to make steel balls for a high-powered BB gun just ain’t fun when baddies can use that time to get the drop on you. While some say that adds to the immersion, and they make a compelling point, I find it a bit too punitive for trying to survive in a game with survival elements. That being said, Metro Exodus rewards more conservative and cautious gameplay. Stealth is usually the safer option than an all out firefight. But, when dealing with mutant packs, ammo tends to go bye bye a little too quickly, especially in the more cramped tunnels of the game because sometimes there’s too many mutants and not enough bullets no matter how well you stockpile or how accurate and precise your shooting is.

Now on to the nitpicky notes, I don’t like holding E to open a box. Press E to open box, press E again to get stuff inside of box is much better. And I don’t like mashing E to wrestle a mutant off of me either. Just let me press the melee attack button and mutilate the mutant with a knife. The Bastard gun should have used 7.62 rifle rounds like in games past instead of .44 magmum rounds. That felt like a downgrade that killed the joy of using one of the Metro games’ most iconic weapons. Give me my Bastard in 7.62 or give me an AK!! (which I already have).

Graphics and Visuals

Metro Exodus steers more toward the realism side. That’s fine; makes sense for the bleak tone of a post-apocolypse in Russia. Ruins. Disrepair. Burn-out. Scorched. Beautiful. Serene. Sweeping. These words best capture what the player can see on their journey with Artyom and his crew. This game should age well given how far graphic fidelity has come. I ran my game on medium to high settings and couldn’t tell much of a difference between the two. The hair might not look as realistic or sharp, but I can live with that. On ultra settings, the characters look as real as the waitress a person used to see at their favorite hole-in-the-wall diner before COVID-19 shut everything down. And good heavens, that ultra setting made my PC sound like it was getting ready for take off and I only built my rig in 2017; two years before the game was released. Just be sure your PC is up to snuff if you choose to not play a console version.

The art direction also helps with the game’s appearance. Everything looks salvaged, and it’s either slapped together or delicately rebuilt and taken care of. Arytom’s car when he first receives is a gutted van with a steering bar in place of a steering wheel and the windshield is held together with a few clamps and nuts and other bits screwed down to the frame. The last level of the game reveals Arytom’s car is rebuilt with radioactive shielding and a proper windshield. The uniforms the Aurora crew wear look salvaged, but maintained with some sense of pride, much like a proper military unit would treat their uniforms.

The fixed car at the end of the game

The lighting is spot on fantastic, especially the night-time blue of the moonlight. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game with such a good looking night-time. Sure it gets dark, but not so dark that the player can’t see five feet in front of them either. The flashlight and lighter do their job; the shadows look amazing, and the ruins are impeccably dilapidated with signs and evidence that they were once lived in.

The graphic fidelity helps the game with its visuals due in part to the artistic attention to detail. Remember how I mentioned everything looks maintained even though it’s old and in ruins? The artists thought about those details like stitching and missing buttons and cracked leather and they used the graphic fidelity to get those details into the game.

Sound Design

Metro Exodus‘s sound design relies heavily on what is not present, and that is sound. Yes, the game has a sound track and sound effects, but much of the game is quiet. The player will often hear just their footsteps and environmental noise. This is actually pretty important and useful because characters in this game talk. They talk a whole awful lot and if a player pays attention, they can glean some useful information. In the Taiga level, a conversation between two potentially hostile NPCs informed me of a secret cave I could use to sneak past their main camp. This quiet also helps players listen for errant mutants and baddies, giving them ample warning to back off, fight, or sneak around another way. Small things like the echo of voices in the trains belly and the caves lend to a sense of realism and scale not present in many other titles I’ve played.

There is music present in the game, but none of it sounds particularly iconic or memorable except for the guitar melodies Artyom and Stephan–one of Artyom’s travel companions–play and Stephan’s song he sings about finding a place to settle down and rebuilding life on the surface. This simple solo encapsulated the game’s themes of gritty, determined hope in the face of hardship and danger in what should be a hostile and (un)familiar world. What I miss are the quiet, somber quitar strums and mournful strings previous Metro titles brought to the table. For some reason, I cannot remember a single song from Metro Exodus besides Stephan’s song. Maybe the music didn’t resonate with me emotionally as in past titles, but it sucks when I can’t remember any music from a video game.

Narrative

Metro has been a linear series of games for a good reason; linear designs can help developers create memorable experiences and set pieces for the player. I’m not saying open world games can’t have memorable experiences or set pieces, but there’s something about a smaller, tighter linear game that can focus on creating memorable experiences for the player. Metro 2033 and Metro Last Light leaned into that design philosophy to deliver those great experiences. I still remember the first time seeing the Great Door in Metro 2033 and I remember being scared whiter than I–an already pasty nerd–am already. There was a particular set piece in Metro Last Light where Artyom can answer a phone in a flooded tunnel and hear the voice of his deceased mother. Those experiences stuck with me because they fit perfectly into the nuclear purgatory of the Metro. And much like those experiences, the narrative of those games stuck with me as well. Metro 2033 is about a young man who wants to be an adventurer that learns what can happen when people succumb to or overcome their fear of the unknown when they launch (or don’t launch) a bunch of missiles at the home nest of a new speices who adapted to the nuclear surface called the Dark Ones. Metro Last Light follows the “bad ending” of Metro 2033 where Arytom destroyed the Dark Ones and their home. He encounters a child Dark One and goes on a quest to save it from those who would use it or kill it while trying to save the Metro from destruction and conquest by the Reds, focusing on themes about redemption and salvation.

Metro Exodus‘s narrative focuses on the trials and triumphs of a small band of people who cannot return home and must make a new one somewhere in a safe and hospitable patch of an otherwise irradiated and dangerous world. Each character plays a pivotal part in the story, and Arytom’s actions affect their fates, making decision making a critical and nuanced part of the gameplay. The characters and Aurora crew are likeable. I developed an emotional attachment to them and cared about what happened to them. I wanted to see this crew kept together and for everyone to make it through alive. In my playthrough, I only lost Damir who decided to stay behind and become a freedom fighter. Everyone else stayed. I got the good ending. I read about the bad ending, and I won’t give away either. I think they’re best experienced for yourself.

Characterization is pretty direct and you can pick up what the characters are like through dialogue, also worth experiencing first hand. They don’t tell Artyom a whole lot, but the characters talk to each other and Arytom writes down little biographies about them in his journal the player can read. Useful means of getting the short and skinny on them. One thing I admire about all of these characters is how resilient and determined they are. A Hollywood movie would have these characters fall apart like a balsa wood house in a hurricane, but not a video game developed in East Europe!! They’ve all survived the apocalypse and they all shake their collective fist at it, telling the monsters to come and get some!! Katya and Nastya are memorable for all the right reasons. Miller is a tough , stubborn old cuss hellbent on keeping his crew alive that can rub someone the wrong way, but he’s a respected and capable commander. Anna is a loving and loveable wife and companion, and she’s a lot better written and more complete a character than she was in Last Light. Sure, she’s a good soldier, but she’s also feminine and wants to settle down and start a family. Her character as she is and her goals, small and ordinary as they are, are not mutually exclusive. Idiot is probably one of my favorite supporting characters because of his ironic name and his book-ish, intellectual nature. He’s the kind of guy that would give you a book, encourage you to read it, and ask you what you thought after you return it. Really need more people like Idiot in my life.

Without giving away too much, the plot kicks into gear when Anna (an accomplished sniper and Ranger, and Arytom’s wife) falls ill and it becomes up to Arytom and the crew to save her while trying to find a new place to call home and keep the group together. There are touching moments, and sometimes when you think you’re doing the right thing, decisions or indecisions can come back to bite the player in the rear. Ultimately, the themes of Metro Exodus come through brightest in its quietest moments, such as a wedding, sitting atop an old church bell tower, or (at least in my case) watching a crew mate stay behind to set free a people he is connected to only by a common ancestry and homeland. These small moments bleed hope for the future, which is something us humans need to keep working for a better future. It’s as big of a theme as facing the unknown and redemption and salvation, but I can’t help but feel Metro Exodus misses something by missing the Dark Ones and the tight, constricting corridors of the Moscow Metro in exchange for its more open area levels and continent trotting story.

Final Thoughts

If you’re new to the Metro fandom, this is not a bad place to start, but it’s a very different game from its predecessors. Don’t go into past games expecting the Exodus experience. That being said, Metro Exodus is the black sheep of the Metro trilogy at least narratively and in terms of setting (for me at least), but this is a great final chapter worth playing if you’re a hardcore Metro fan. While I enjoyed the open area levels for the most part (stupid Volga…), I missed the tunnels and claustrophobic setting that made Metro so memorable and iconic in the first place. What Metro Exodus does well is create immersive gameplay, tell an intimate story as opposed to an epic one, and bring a little wonder to a nuclear hellscape. Rent it, game pass it, buy it, download it, but get a hold of it and play it if you want a good FPS-adventure!

Good ending spoiler. Oops.

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