Everything in Metro Exodus wants to kill you: the environment, the animals and many of your fellow humans. Coming out of the tunnels, you burst upon a brilliantly lit landscape and breathe a sigh of relief until your Geiger counter starts clicking like bebop drummer and you see the pack of irradiated wolves circling you.
The Metro games have been both revered and reviled as singular, hardcore first-person shooters that are often janky and a bit opaque but absolutely nail the tense and terrifying world of post-apocalyptic Russia. Part survival horror and part shooter, they have largely been set in the dark and claustrophobic tunnels and corridors of underground Moscow. For Metro Exodus, however, developer 4A Games has moved the franchise into the open and sometimes radioactive air, while preserving the doom and dread-laden atmosphere that so thoroughly infused the earlier games.
Taking place two years after the events of Metro Last Light, Exodus sees the return of several key characters from the earlier game, including main protagonist Artyom and his wife, Anna. In an event-filled opening chapter set in winter in Moscow, the pair discover a vast political and military conspiracy that has deceived the Metro survivors about the ending of the war and fate of humanity. The pair join the rebel Spartans to travel east in search of other survivors. Their mode of transportation is a train they name the Aurora, and it very much becomes a kind of character, as it must be tended to and maintained. As new characters join the party, the train becomes longer and grows into a traveling outpost.
Maybe even more than in the previous games, the shooter aspect of Metro Exodus is balanced with stealth and survival. While guns and upgrades are plentiful, ammunition is never in adequate supply and weapons often feel underpowered or imprecise. Running and gunning is not a viable strategy and often avoiding enemy encounters is the wisest choice. It doesn’t help that weapon controls are a little sluggish and melee combat is generally ineffective against all but the weakest foe. As Artyom scours the detritus of the once-thriving world, he finds upgrade materials and even weapon accessories which can be used at crafting stations or in the field via his backpack tools.
By far, the most impressive and successful accomplishment of Metro Exodus is its four distinct regions, tied to the four seasons. Each region has specific flora and fauna and a story to tell. Although not an open world, the areas are large enough to feel unbounded yet manageable in a way that some more recent open world games are not. The streamlined map shows the next major objective and is uncluttered by an overwhelming number of markers and side-quests, and a wrist compass helps guide the player but without handholding or laying a breadcrumb trail. Mission structure most often consists of a main task that might be interrupted or amplified by a series of secondary missions but there is no army of quest givers ready to burden Artyom with busy work. The feeling of always being a little on the edge of not enough information leads to well-integrated exploration, but it’s clear that Metro Exodus builds in a tolerance for many approaches.
Although there are a large number of games set in post-apocalyptic worlds, Metro Exodus does a great job of conveying both the hopelessness and horror of a world ravaged by a nuclear war. Even though much of the game takes place above ground and often free of the requisite gas mask and ever-dwindling filters, there’s no lack of tension and omnipresent danger — if not death — hiding in every bombed out husk of a building or shadow. Whether mutant variations of familiar animals or zombie-like human monstrosities, creature design is excellent and terrifying. The game’s singular accomplishment is making daytime, sunlit exploration nearly as claustrophobic and tense as moving deep underground. Baked into the environment and story is a wealth of social and political commentary, like a formerly lush region destroyed by a climate change or a Luddite cult preaching the dangers of reliance on technology. Sometimes heavy-handed and not always elegantly joined to the narrative, it’s clear that Metro Exodus is not lacking in subtext.
Built on a solid story premise arising from the previous game, Metro Exodus has a compelling main arc that is often and unfortunately betrayed by characters that lack definition or nuance and dialogue that is seriously over-written, blandly expository, and confusing. Having some familiarity with the franchise, of course, gives the third game context, but the silent protagonist Artyom is still a cypher and too many of Exodus’s characters are formulaic stereotypes. A world this well-designed deserves to be populated by a better written cast, which is not to belittle the work of its voice actors. There are some engaging NPCs but the main characters tend to be stolid, one-note figures.
The Metro games have had a reputation for bugs and jank, and on PS4 Pro, performance issues were not infrequent, with characters getting stuck mid-quest, texture pop-in, odd animations and frame rate quirks. It all feels very Metro, a little rough around the edges despite being a big-budget, high-profile game.
Moving out of the subterranean world of the first two Metro games, Exodus preserves the tense, stealth shooter vibe while opening up into a vastly more varied and interesting series of environments. Even on its normal difficulty setting, Metro Exodus is a challenging and often unforgiving shooter, requiring careful planning and situational awareness. Although it would benefit from a ruthless editor’s pen and fewer wooden characters, Metro Exodus has found a great balance between linear and more open-world game play. Underground, the Metro series portrayed a barely-sustainable world of humanity at the edge of extinction. Exodus manages to infuse the darkness with a little more hope and light while preserving the tension and danger which made the series unique.