Up until now, the Metro series (Metro 2033, Metro: Last Light) has been about limitation. After nuclear holocaust left the surface of the Earth an irradiated wasteland, civilization went underground. The Metro, the public transportation system built beneath Moscow, became the new limits of civilization. Occasionally, well trained warriors known as Rangers, have to pull on their gas-masks and travel above ground – but the mission has to be worth the risk. Radiation made Earth’s surface a home for mutant beasts that had adapted to the toxic air. The close confines of the Metro bars against the unknown.
But keeping out the unknown isn’t always a good thing. The first two games in the Metro franchise, Metro 2033 (2010) and Metro: Last Light (2013) have not aged well. Each has a modern graphics restoration, tagged with the nomenclature “Redux” to distinguish it from the original. But a shiny coat of digital paint can’t fix many of the things that make those games feel dated. The story of the first two Metro games compliment their structure. They are fairly basic, linear games. In each station or tunnel, the player encounters a problem they have to help with before they can move onto the next part of the Metro. In a restricted world, the character lives a restricted life. It’s fitting that this would lead to a restricted game.
But, in our modern world, that structure feels antiquated. Rockstar Studios and the Assassin’s Creed franchise, along with growing video game homogenization, have led players to expect a certain amount of freedom in gameplay. For better or worse, players expect big budget, AAA, games to be open world and include mechanics like fast travel, a crafting systems, and decision trees. None of this is well suited to a series that takes place in a predictable series of tunnels. Even the closest thing to Metro, Fallout, has always been about what happens after a character leaves the vault for the outside world. Games that were about limitation, games like Alien: Isolation and Prey, needed to build absolutely massive maps to limit their players within in order compete in the modern landscape.
Which is what led 4A Games to make a dramatic decision about their franchise. In Metro Exodus, Artyom comes above ground to discover a world not quite as destroyed as he thought. While not quite “Open World”-proper, the game is made up of a series of hub worlds that are much more in step with modern game design than the previous installments in the series. But even if the level design isn’t quite up to the standard of modern gaming, the shift is something that’s impossible to deny. From the moment the game opens on a field of white snow, Metro Exodus does everything it can to prove that it is something entirely new for the franchise.
Artyom and company travel the surface of the post-apocalyptic world in a train that acts as a kind of home base. As the train drives thousands of kilometers away from Moscow, Artyom must disembark and complete a few central tasks to keep the train moving. But each hub-world also contains within it enough side quests to more than triple the game’s play time. Players can spend days in each swamp, desert, or city in which the train stops. And how long Artyom spends in each local has consequences with the game.
Players have always had to keep track of time in the Metro series, or risk choking when their gas mask fails. But 4A Games has added in a day/night cycle to give each mission an added layer of strategy. During the daylight hours, Artyom is more likely to encounter bandits and be easily seen by his enemies. But at night, he is more likely to come up against the mutant beasts that inhabit the post-apocalyptic world. This update isn’t a massive technological undertaking. It’s essentially Hyrule Field from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998). But it’s one of many systems that makes Exodus feel like a fully realized update to the Metro series.
The day/night cycle might be mostly an aesthetic feature, giving players the opportunity to decide which sidequests they want to undertake under which conditions. But the tick-tock of in world time does feel very real. Exodus is one part first-person shooter, one part RPG, and one part survival horror. Ambitious players may set out to try and complete every side quest that pops up on their map, but a world of limited bullets and health packs and unlimited enemies may make that task difficult. On top of deciding what time of day is best for a mission, players must decide if sneaking around a pack of mutant dogs or shrimp is worth the bullets saved by not attacking them head on.
And then there are the decisions regarding the human enemies. In Exodus‘ first level, Artyom encounters a church of religious zealots who worship a mutant shrimp called the Czar-Fish. The believe that the nuclear war was caused by men giving in to Satan’s greatest temptress: electricity. When these zealots run up against Artyom’s company, the player has to decide whether to deal with them with lethal force, or something less definitive. All of these decisions together lead to a stealth-survival game with genuine depth of field. A world that feels genuine, lived in, and authentic, but still apart of the world the Metro franchise built in 2033 and Last Light.
Many games in today’s landscape feel like an original idea with as may cutting edge “video game” bits tacked on as possible. This an often be at the expense of fidelity to that original idea. Metro Exodus has accomplished the improbable act of bringing a classic franchise up to date without losing what makes the franchise uniquely Metro. Like its protagonist, the franchise has taken its first steps into a bigger world.