With a slight grunt, I pull myself over the top of the larger of the train depot’s oil tanks, and breath a sigh of relief. So far, I’ve been shot at by bandits, nearly eaten by giant shrimp-like creatures and a humongous mutant catfish as I paddled across part of the Volga, fought-off pitiful humanials and blundered into high-radiation zones (which, without my trusty gas-mask and Geiger-counter would have been the end of me). I’ve narrowly avoid being electrocuted by an electrical anomaly, been savaged by a small rat-like mutant and barely avoided becoming dinner for a huge band of watchmen (think of them as a cross between a wolf, a rat and a ferret). I can’t relax, though. The journey has left me with limited ammo and health-packs, and I know that somewhere, nearby, lurks a demon. This hellish, oversized bat-like mutant had flown-off with one of our company, and I’m here to rescue them.
Nervously checking the heavens and straining to hear the tell-tale beat of wings, I take a few steps forward, and freeze. I was so fixated on the sky I had nearly run straight into the demon’s hideous, tooth-filled maw, poking out of what can only be its nest. Fortunately, it seems to be sleeping, and there, just below its head, is my target. Slowly inching forwards, I carefully reach out and grab... Nastya’s stuffed teddy bear. Mission accomplished.
From rescuing an acoustic guitar from tone-deaf bandits, to saving a teddy bear from a ravenous mutant, it’s a testament to just how engrossing Metro Exodus is that it can throw these kinds of missions at you without breaking the mood. Few games can so effortlessly hook you into their world or make you actually care about the plight of its characters (whether they’re the locals or the members of your band). Not since Cyan’s masterpiece, Riven, have I encountered such a richly detailed world and well-done environmental story-telling.
The third entry of the critically acclaimed Metro series, Metro Exodus continues the story of the previous two games. However, this is still a good starting point for newcomers (like myself), as it’s clever (and stylish) opening sequence quickly brings players up to speed. Set in post nuclear-war Russia, the player is cast in the role of Artyom (pronounced ‘Ar-tee-yom’), a ‘Spartan’ special operations soldier whose job is to protect the inhabitants of Russia’s metro – believed to be the last inhabitable place on the planet, courtesy of poisonous air, radiation hot-spots and dangerous mutants. A dramatic series of events and misunderstandings, revealing that the war did not wipe-out life on the surface, leads to Artyom, his wife Anna, fellow Spartans and their commander fleeing Moscow in the train Aurora, trying desperately to find safe refuge and the last remnants of the pre-war government.
The action in Metro Exodus takes place, for the most part, in huge, staggeringly detailed and visually stunning maps. Ranging from lush forests and desolate winter marshlands, to a Mad Max-themed desert (complete with bandits and a hunt for fuel), these are filled with interesting (and sometimes disturbing) characters, and clues as to how each group has evolved (or devolved) to survive in the broken world they now live in. While there will be a main objective/area you have to reach to progress the central storyline, you are free to explore and tackle each situation as you wish. Whether you want to go in all guns blazing, ‘go ninja’, or avoid a conflict altogether is up to you. Complementing this freedom of choice is a clever system which allows you to customize your weapons on-the-fly. Each part of a weapon is modular, meaning it is quite possible to take your pistol and turn it either into a sniper-rifle or a close-quarters stealth weapon by simply changing the stock, barrel and scope
With its rich story and emphasis on exploration and survival, Metro Exodus is not your standard FPS. Rather than reactive ‘run & gun’ gameplay (a staple since the days of Wolfenstein 3D) combat is short, tense, and tactical, forcing you to be aware of not only your enemies’ positions, but also how much ammunition you have in each gun. How long it will take you to reload them matters (switching to a fully loaded weapon is often faster than trying to reload your current gun), as does the condition of your weapons (a dirty gun suffers from significantly reduced accuracy and rate-of-fire). Compounding this, is the fact that ammunition is always in short supply. So rather than barrelling headlong into the next conflict as in most shooters, you’ll often find yourself trying to avoid needless conflict which will do nothing except waste precious resources.
Limited HUD elements (there are no health-bars or ammo-counters) also force you to be far more observant to not only visual but also auditory cues. Whether it’s the worrying click of your radiation-meter, the beep indicating your gas-mask filter needs changing, the faint voices you can hear on the wind, or the snuffling and growls of mutants on the hunt, all are valuable clues. Not only does this game force you to be observant, it also rewards you for it, with precious upgrades, resources, tapes and journals spread throughout the environment, waiting for you to discover them.
All in all, Metro Exodus is visually stunning, compelling, tense and quite enjoyable. A word of caution though: this is definitely one for the older gamers as there are some quite grim and occasionally gory sections (ranging from ugly mutants and the dessicated corpses of unfortunates caught in the nuclear blasts, to the rather grisly larder of a band of insane cannibals), copious use of the F-word, and nudity. While this, its slower pace and emphasis on story and exploration may not be for everyone, Metro Exodus is an immersive masterpiece and a brilliant piece of design. ■