There was a time when the promise of a large, open game world was considered a unique selling point. The bigger, the better. However, after a decade of countless sandboxes of varying shapes, sizes, and quality, things have changed. Big can mean anything from breathtaking and comprehensive, to bloated and empty. The worth and value of a massive game world is less obvious than before. If anything, the decision for a game series to embrace the structure of open-world design is bound to create controversy among fans.
The industry knows this. The developers at 4A Games do, anyway. During the short presentation preceding our own time with the game, they emphatically stress that the new Metro Exodus is not an open-world game. Rather, it is described as a series of open, but distinctly separated levels. What to make of this? Is it just empty PR-jargon or a genuine attempt to clarify the terminology? Things become a bit clearer as we get our hands on the game. In any case, it's certainly interesting to note how the developers are deliberately trying to distance the new Metro from other, superficially similar games.
What's less ambiguous, however, is the ambitious attitude of the studio. 4A Games is on a mission to create world-class video games that can compete with the very best that the industry has to offer. It is difficult not to be impressed by the passion, pride, and confidence displayed by the people working on the game. In the past, the studio has been depicted as somewhat of an industry underdog; young, small, and eager to prove itself. And to be sure, the people at 4A Games have already faced various challenges, ranging from the bankruptcy of THQ to the military conflicts in Ukraine.
Despite problematic circumstances, the studio has managed to produce two solid video games: Metro 2033 and its sequel, Last Light. The developers summarise these games as two parts of the same story. Metro Exodus, on the other hand, is the beginning of something new. There is something quite poetic about the title. 4A Games has expanded considerably over the past few years, moving their headquarters from Kiev to Sliema, Malta. With growth in the real world, comes the resources to expand the virtual universe as well. As such, Metro Exodus is significantly bigger than the previous games, with a running time estimated to be around 25 hours.
Last, but of course not least, the title is a reference to the story of the game. Artyom, warrior-poet and hero of the Moscow metro, is finally ready to step out of the shadow of the Russian underworld. Spring, to the degree that seasons still exist in a post-apocalyptic world, appears to have finally arrived in Russia. Ice from the nuclear winter is slowly melting and the air, with notable exceptions, has become breathable again. The claustrophobic corridors of the underground are (apparently) left behind, as Artyom and friends set out via train to (re)discover the world of the surface. What kind of adventure lies ahead?
Well, we were afforded the opportunity to play Metro Exodus and thus find our own answers. Our exploration was confined to a single area, but a large one at that. At the beginning of the level, the train, Aurora, is forced to stop near the ruins of an old settlement. Assuming the role of Artyom we are asked to seek out the inhabitants of the area and to enlist their assistance. Then we are briefed through some expository chitchat and handed a gun, a map, and a backpack. Off we go!
We exited the train and found ourselves in the harsh climate of a snow-covered tundra. The lake cutting through the landmass remains unfrozen, however. The sun has not fully risen in the east. The wind is caught somewhere between a whisper and a scream. It is a place fraught with all kinds of danger. Yet, the hostility of this world is evenly matched by its beauty. The attention to detail, the dynamic lighting and the vibrant, earthy colours create a visually astonishing experience. By the time we equip our designated headphones, the atmospheric qualities of the game have been made obvious.
We consult the map to orient ourselves in the world. No better way to break the immersion, right? Fortunately, the map has been implemented as an expansion of the compass from previous games. It only provides you with the most necessary information, instead of flooding the screen with abstract icons. More importantly, the map exists as a part of the game world, so you are not awkwardly pausing the game to figure out where you are. Now, the map may seem like a niche aspect of the game, but I believe it to be emblematic of the experience that 4A Games is trying to create.
We identify our destination, an old church, and make our way there. First on foot, then via a small boat. In earlier games, outdoor levels would often feature impassable bodies of water. This time, you can actually navigate through it - just don't get too close to those nasty shrimp-monsters. We enter the church through an aqueduct of some kind. The interior is brightly lit by hundreds of candles and the walls are covered in religious icons, presumably of the Russian Orthodox variety. The church also happens to be occupied by a group of religious Luddites, displeased with our impious manners and frivolous use of technology. You know the kind.
Negotiations are painfully short, and as we head for the exit, a group of particularly zealous henchmen arrive. At this point, we are placed in a situation familiar to all Metro fans: blast our way out or sneak by undetected? We settle for something in between: anyone getting too close gets whacked with the butt of the rifle. No need to spill blood - yet. As we finally leave the church and head back out, a couple of things become clear. Firstly, the sudden shift in atmosphere is impressive. There is no loading screen involved with entering or exiting the church, yet it manages to feel distinct from the rest of the level. Being inside a structure looks, sounds, and feels different from wandering around outside.
Secondly, there is a real sense of verticality to the church, unlike anything we have seen in previous games. Artyom feels slightly nimbler as well, and this goes a long way to really setting the player free to approach situations in different ways, from different angles. Thirdly, while the crazy cultist trope is far from original, we are curious to see how the game will handle the role and nature of religion in a post-apocalyptic world. Certainly, the developers have not shied away from such considerations in the past. And while the Luddites may be kind of kooky, and while they may worship a not-at-all Lovecraftian entity called 'Tsarfish', they do raise a legitimate question: what good is technology in a world that was destroyed by it?
Having left the church, the mission wraps up. A step on the critical path has been taken. We are asked via radio to head back to the Aurora. Ignoring this we set out to explore more of the world. After ten minutes or so, we receive a different order: "Forget about the train, your next destination has been marked on the map. This is where you need to go." What sorcery is this? Adaptive mission design? We were equally surprised and impressed by this kind of reactivity. The developers seemed to know that players might not feel like reporting back right way - or at all. And so, they simply skipped a step to keep things rolling.
We cannot say to what degree this kind of versatility will permeate the game as a whole. It might even cause some problems, as players could miss out on bits of dialogue between characters. But the purpose seems obvious: to create an experience that 'flows' seamlessly, without scoreboards, unnecessary rendezvousing, or similar types of interruptions. It's all about that sense of immersion in the world of the game, beautiful and dangerous as it is.
This design philosophy is present in several aspects of the game, including the newly added crafting system. The bullet-based economy was idiosyncratic to the Moscow metro and with a shortage of merchants to be found in the wild, you must create your own stuff to survive. The inclusion of a crafting system, understandably (and perhaps not unlike the notion of open-world games) might elicit a few sighs and moans from fans of the series. Truthfully, it is a rather common sight in games these days, yet we really like how it has been implemented in Metro Exodus.
Artyom's backpack can instantly be transformed into a makeshift workbench, allowing for the creation of basic survival necessities, like first aid kits or filters for your gas mask. More elaborate crafting, like cleaning, recycling, or customising your guns, requires a dedicated workbench, found in a select few places. Only two different materials are required: metals and chemicals. Everything is created from a mixture of the two. As such, the system seems to be less about how to craft something or where to find the components and more about what you choose to create with your limited resources.
The ability to customise your weapons was introduced in Last Light, but it has been greatly expanded since then. There appears to be a wide array of different scopes, magazine types, muzzles, and what not to choose from this time around. And just as was the case with using the map, crafting things does not pause the game. It makes the whole system seem slightly less abstract, but more importantly, it is bound to place the player in wonderfully stressful situations, as you try to create a gas filter before suffocating, or make a first aid kit before being seen by a mutant, and so on.
Speaking of mutants, we came across quite a few on our journey across the frozen surface of postwar Russia. Some we recognised, others were new. The creatures of the Metro series feel less like mutants, and more like animals. Certainly, some of them have been around for long enough to earn that recognition. And while some of the new additions seemed fierce and interesting, we were a little taken aback by the inclusion of pinkish cannibalistic mutant men who wear loincloths and spit acid. They seemed incredibly generic in comparison, and rather out of place in the world of Metro.
So, we shot them. Or at them, anyway. Our aim with an Xbox controller is literally hit-and-miss, and bullets are hard to come by in the field. Headshots, if you can pull them off, are definitely the way to go. The weapons themselves have a nice weight and kick to them. They are not too comfortable, though, and that's a good thing. Shooting, after all, is supposed to be just one possible way of handling a situation in Metro Exodus. And with bigger, more open levels comes, well, more situations to handle. You are probably not going to have enough bullets to shoot your way out of them all. We certainly didn't.
The level we played had the kind of attention to detail that we have come to expect from the developers but also included major landmarks to orient yourself by. It was a big area, sure, but not intimidatingly so. And we should stress, like the developers did during the event, that while the levels are open, that does not mean that the labyrinthine spirit of the series is gone. Buildings, bunkers, and manholes can all provide that sense of claustrophobia that fans know and love. The dark and creepy underworld of previous games is, quite literally, just under the surface.
In our four hours with the game, we did not see or do everything. Nor did we get the impression that we were supposed to. You can definitely spend a lot of time combing through a level of this size, but that's hardly the expectation. Exploring the world of Metro Exodus feels less like a checklist and more like treading a critical path, with an emphasis on freedom to digress. Do what you want, and then move on. If anything, it was not the spatial dimensions of the game, but its unique dynamics, that we wanted to further explore. The time of day can be changed, and the world changes with it; holstering your weapon might avert conflicts; different weapons may engender different playstyles, and so on.
With Metro Exodus, 4A Games wants to create a game with a powerful atmosphere, a strong sense of immersion, a great degree of player freedom, and a punishing world to survive in. Ultimately, it may not be the size of the game but the dangers it harbours that turn you away from reckless exploration. After all, every cave you venture into may hold great treasure - or a bunch of hairy mutants with sharp teeth. The balance between rewarding and punishing the player for their curiosity, making it worth their while to stick their neck out, and ultimately justifying the more open structure of the game, may prove to be the developer's greatest challenge. And we cannot wait to see how it all turns out.