4A Games, a small team working out of a tiny office in Kiev, formed back in 2005 with one dream: “to make the kind of games they want to play”. This is what Huw Beynon, head of global brand management for Deep Silver, told the gathered group of game journalists in the atrium of London’s Proud Embankment on 10 January 2019, eager to get our hands on the latest build of Metro Exodus.
“They turned to Dmitry Glukhovsky [who joined us at the event] for inspiration, with the goal of creating a Half-Life-inspired immersive shooter set in the tunnels beneath Moscow.”
Since then, 4A Games has grown from a small studio to a team of around 150 split between Kiev and Malta. The Metro franchise has grown too — what started out as a linear crawl through the Moscow Metro is now an expansive, albeit linear, journey across Russia as our protagonist Artyom, his wife Anna and their Spartan Ranger comrades go in search of others who may have survived the apocalypse that nearly wiped out all life on Earth in 2013. This point is important, Huw reminded us — this isn’t a Russian game about Russians set in Russia made by Americans: it’s an eastern European game set in east Europe made by eastern Europeans. This, we were told, is part of the franchise’s long-running authenticity. And Huw had a point — in all my years of playing video games, there are few games I’ve played that feel quite like Metro.
Now, I hate spoilers as much as the next person — probably more so, in fact: I recently unsubscribed from a podcast because they let slip who went out in Strictly Come Dancing — so here’s your fair warning. If you haven’t played Metro 2033 (the first game), Metro Last Light (the second game) or Metro Redux (the HD remaster of these two stunning games), and you want to play them 100% spoiler free, go and play them now. There won’t be any major spoilers for the first two games in this article, but consider yourself warned.
If you’re still here, you either don’t care about spoilers for old games or you’ve played them already, in which case, privet tovarishch, and welcome back to the Metro. Artyom is tired of life in the Metro — the struggle to survive amid warring factions of the Reds and the Fourth Reich, and he wants to see who else, if anyone, survived the bombs falling 22 years ago. He convinces his wife Anna, her father Miller, and their band of Spartan Rangers, to leave the city behind. I don’t know how he does this, but it is likely no easy feat. The Spartans have evolved from the ‘superheroes’ of the Metro who braved the irradiated surface and its myriad horrors — the Dark Ones and other foul mutants — to gather resources for the citizens of the Metro, into what seems to be a paramilitary that keeps the peace between the major powers all vying for control beneath the ground. Whatever Artyom does to convince them, it works, and the Spartans pack up, board a steam engine called The Aurora, and embark on an epic year-long transcontinental journey.
The nuclear winter is over, as we soon discover. Not only does this mean that we get to see seasons for the first time in the franchise, but Artyom, now in his late 20s, can finally feel the sun on his bare skin without being boiled alive. This also means that you can traverse the open world without a gas mask strapped to your face, which is a welcome touch. This traversal, you’ll be pleased to know, even includes drivable vehicle sections — unsurprising given that your base is a train, but still a franchise first.
This doesn’t mean that Russia is without its problems, of course — far from it. Those who survived the nuclear apocalypse have toughened — bandits and mutants roam the country now, and the townsfolk across the country have formed strange cults and religions; whether you’re an easy target, food or a heretic, you’ve got your work cut out for you if you want to stay alive.
As with previous games, Metro Exodus is a stealth survival game more than it is a first-person shooter. Yes, there are guns and yes, you need to maintain and use them if you have any chance of survival, but ammo is still scarce and firefights are still deadly. Go in guns blazing at your own peril — peaceful negotiations are always worth considering, where possible.
I’ve got my hands on this game a few times over the past few months. At this event, I got to play the game for six hours straight and really dig my teeth into the sandbox survival that is Metro Exodus. Having played the spring, summer and autumn levels, I’m impressed at how this linear survival game has kept its unique sets of enemies enclosed in their own little areas, making each one feel distinct and separate. I’m excited to see how these self-contained environments string together in the overarching story.
However, what I find even more impressive is that this story-driven, linear survival game has almost flawlessly incorporated sandbox exploration — something that I was a little apprehensive about as a long-term fan of the series. This isn’t a game of sidequests — there’s no HUD with a mission marker telling you where to go — your map is, as always, an in-game item that you need to stop and check as your intrepid protagonist marches his way across the continent. This doesn’t pause the game and it doesn’t stop enemies from advancing on you; this is a survival game and you need to treat it as such or you will not make it to the end of your journey in one piece. This leaves you with an interesting quandary: do you walk the linear path and avoid conflict, or do you go hunting for ammo and supplies, braving the danger in the hopes that it will better equip you for the road ahead? The choice is yours, but it’s a choice that the game makes you live or, more probably, die with.
The nuclear winter may be over, but that doesn’t mean that you’re free to run around without a care in the world — some sections are still irradiated, as you would expect, and your gas mask is a literal life-saver. This time, however, you can build filters on the go; while you will always need to keep an eye on your watch if you don’t want to suffocate, you at least have that little lifeline. Likewise, you can craft health kits and ammo for certain guns, and even modify weapons while out and about. This is a real boon and makes your decisions in the field that much more interesting. Sadly, this system is imperfect and I found myself on multiple occasions accidentally scrapping mods that I wanted (like laser sights) by hitting the wrong button. I expect this will be easier in the full game (what with the standard tutorials you’ll encounter at the beginning that I haven’t had a chance to play through), but it is something that caught my eye.
Talking about your watch, I was lucky enough to bump into Beynon at the event while he was carefully unboxing the Artyom Edition in a corner of the room. This was a sight to see — someone that close to the game carefully (almost religiously) removing the watch from its bomb proof case, and placing it on his wrist. Pretty sure I even heard him say “wow”, as he smiled at how cool the watch looked. He clocked me watching him and walked over. “This is pretty cool, watch this,” he said, as he pressed a button. The watch lit up in all its glory, showing a bright red 9999 (Huw didn’t have time to set the time, I guess). The watch is breathtaking, and if you want one of them, there are only nine others in the world — keep an eye out on social media and I’ll keep my fingers crossed you get one, or at least get to see one in real life. If you get one, I want pictures.
Metro Exodus is a game I have been waiting for since finishing Last Light, which I did during release week, in Russian (a language I don’t even speak), because I threw myself into the universe and didn’t want to come out. Getting my hands on this third game in the series has cleared up the few worries that I had and reignited the burning itch I have to jump back into Artyom’s shoes. The open-world exploration is executed very well, it handles excellently and, despite getting a chance to look at the open skies over Russia for the first time in Artyom’s life (well, without any storm clouds or threat of demons attacking him), this still very much feels like a Metro game — and I am incredibly excited to review it for you in the coming weeks.
You can get your hands on Metro Exodus on 15 February 2019 on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.