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.