Game Review

Metro Exodus Review

Metro Exodus is a brilliant tale of discovery and human companionship, where the central premise revolves around a train taking the characters to various locations in relation to the seasons. Players will enjoy the overall experience, but however will feel like there should be more – or that Exodus is a stepping stone to a more ambitious project. This review will contain spoilers, and as such – this is a game that I would recommend, so play it first, then read my review.

Glukhovsky’s book-series-turned-video-game-series captured the hearts and minds of players all over the world with the release of the first game – Metro 2033, a survival horror FPS with RPG elements. Players were drawn to the inventiveness and variety of the game world, the weaponry, and the various characters that guided the player character, Artyom, through the dark and dangerous locations of Moscow’s Underground. Glukhovsky, borrowing some elements from the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic, took what was a classic of Russian sci-fi literature and made it his own – adding a post-apocalyptic twist on the genre with political commentary thrown in. Metro Last Light followed shortly after, with an updated engine with better visuals, and overall a better presentation of the story. Although, Metro Last Light arguably, focused more on the stealth aspect of the Metro gameplay loop – bringing elements that were not paramount in Metro 2033, and fleshing them out while pushing them to the forefront. Also, perhaps this was one of the first mainstream video games that did not frame Russians as enemies – but rather humanity’s struggle with itself and the supernatural. It was pleasant to not see Russians as villains as they are constantly portrayed as such in Western media – but that Russians are actual people and people come from vastly different different backgrounds and cultures. Metro 2033 and Metro Last Light portray the dredges of mankind, what happens when there is no retribution for one’s actions, where they either turn to barbarianism and historic Fascistic Nazism, hailing the Hitler and the Third Reich. Or perhaps they turn into authoritarian Communists, which was an interesting inclusion in Last Light. The game showed what kinds of atrocities even the Communists are capable of. While I won’t go into detail regarding the supernatural aspects of 2033 and Last Light – they aren’t explored in as much detail as I would like in the games, with these parts of the experiences being simply ‘creepy’ rather than exploring these ideas more. The main character, Artyom, doesn’t have much of a character arc – as he is silent, only speaking in loading screens – thus, robbing him of a lot of characterization as the player doesn’t know what he’s thinking or feeling. The argument that ‘Artyom is thinking what the player is thinking’ doesn’t hold up, as he is placed in the story as a character, not a vessel for us to project ourselves through. The games themselves are both also entirely linear, having small open spaces for players to explore ‘life in the stations’. These parts also being quite useless, as there is no way for the player to interact – other than buying guns or gun mods or refilling their inventory. Other characters do acknowledge Artyom, and he interacts with the world – really hammering in the ‘RPG’ aspect, which makes it even more heartbreaking that the player cannot hear Artyom’s thoughts or hear him speak during gameplay. I would’ve loved to know what Artyom was thinking about when he was exploring the tunnels with Khan in 2033, or towards the finale portion of Last Light, as getting that psychological feedback would help the player be more invested in what was happening – other than ‘something weird’. But for now, let us move onto the main event – Metro Exodus.

Exodus was released in 2019 and was met with a lot of praise – fans citing that ‘this is how you make a game’, that this was a ‘breath of fresh air’ in an era of bullet-sponge enemies and ceaseless microtransactions being shoved into your face. A true, single player RPG being presented to you from an immersive first-person point of view, looking directly through Artyom’s eyes at the world around him. The beginning cutscene is beautifully presented, the slow pan through the metro cars as the world grows darker with wonderful exposition – ending off with a callback to the ending of 2033 – where the camera drops from above into the perspective of Artyom, surfing the frequencies on his radio backpack trying to find a signal from outside of Moscow, before descending down into the sewer and the metro tunnels once more. This premise struck a note with me because there is always this desire to explore – to do more, to find something that no one else has found, to contribute greatly to something big. In this one, Anna is already Artyom’s wife, and their relationship is shown to be very close as a married couple. At the start – Miller, Anna’s father, and a commander, is quite hostile to Artyom – and quite quickly the entire premise of the game is revealed. The nuclear war that made everyone retreat into the metro is actually still happening all over the world, but the world itself is not destroyed. Although the player never gets to see ‘the war’, the player does come across a familiar formula – a journey through the human experience, except this time above ground, and not every character is a Muscovite. The supporting cast of Damir, Duke, Alyosha, Stepan, Tokarev, Sam, Yermak, and Idiot are all very engaging and each character gets their time to shine. Sam is an interesting addition – an American soldier who became one with the Russians is a touching addition and a hopeful sign that perhaps there may one day be friendliness amongst the nations.

The beginning is incredibly rushed, almost pushing the player out the doors of Moscow and out into the ‘unknown’ – there isn’t really the sense of discovery there. Anna and Artyom get kidnapped and then Artyom gets thrown down into a pit, a result of his attempt to stop the execution of two individuals from another area of Russia – his dog tag cheekily taking the bullet. From here, it’s a straightforward line to finding the radio room where Artyom, as a result of him struggling with another officer – ends up shooting the radio machine and revealing that Moscow was under a jamming signal – shrouding it from the outside world because the war was still going on. This is supposed to be a massive revelation that the player was supposed to ‘accidentally’ discover, to feel like it has some impact because the whole repressive atmosphere of the first two games was dependent on ‘we’re all that’s left, there is no outside world, this is the apocalypse’ – and here we get a contradictory moment that was revealed to us in a very rushed way. I wanted to feel like the discovery was mine – even though I was aware that somehow, they were supposed to get out of Moscow – that still doesn’t stop one from being invested in the story along with the characters, being as shocked as they are that this is the case. You get Anna’s shocked face and her angry demeanor towards her father, who knew about the shroud – but you don’t get attached to this premise, you don’t feel any anger towards Miller, as you should – as you find out that Artyom has been going out onto the irradiated surface already a ton of times, almost losing his life a bunch of times and he just stands there while Anna yells at her dad. When there are moments in the game that do not directly involve the characters addressing Artyom, is feels like the characters are performing a skit and Artyom is just there – as an audience member. It doesn’t feel like he’s part of what’s happening, hearkening back to an earlier point that I made about how Artyom being silent during gameplay essentially renders him a faceless audience member (him grunting because he gets hurt sometimes or hearing him breathe inside the gas mask doesn’t count as characterization). The communication between the player and the character is absent, even if the player does feel some conflicting emotion – the game stops the player from expressing themselves on screen for the other characters to interact with.

The Volga level serves well as an introduction into the semi-open world premise that the game goes for, stopping the train because there’s some Luddite cult that blocks the path. The player is given almost no reasoning behind why this cult exists and why they hate electricity and modern technology. There is a huge foreshadowing section where Anna falls through the ground into some weird bunker and is without her mask, she starts suspiciously coughing, a very weak plot point to give the player a reason to be worried for her – but perhaps this blatant bait isn’t what Chekhov had in mind when he was talking about his Gun. The player does get introduced to the backpack in this segment, where they essentially have a portable workbench, which allows a player to modify their guns and craft consumables, that uses more resources than a normal workbench. Finding resources isn’t much fun because it hasn’t been evolved in any way since Last Light – you just click ‘E’ and the item disappears and reappears in your inventory as scrap, bullets, or chemicals. The game does away with the interesting ‘military bullets as currency’ premise and doesn’t give much use to any merchants found in the game – of which I don’t remember a single one. The focus isn’t on saving bullets to pay the merchants for actually better guns, but looking around the environment for new attachments, and having enough scrap and chemicals to craft first aid kids, ammo, and to clean your gun whenever needed. I love the addition of a gun customization mechanic – except it only comes into play when you find a new worthwhile attachment – and there aren’t that many attachments to begin with. While I appreciate the fact that the system is in the game, allowing the player to swap out attachments whenever they feel like, there isn’t ever really a compromise to be made as it’s always about finding the best attachment and just going with that throughout the game. There are three weapon slots now, with the first two being reserved for whatever you want, and the third being for the Tikhar – a silent pneumatic ball-bearing shooter. The philosophy of, ‘this attachment is just better than this one’, is something that I’ve been struggling with ever since gun customization came into play. I don’t wish to have objectively better attachments to make previous ones obsolete – I want attachments that allow me to customize my weapon to whatever makes me comfortable and gives me the freedom to try out weird customizations without losing the enjoyment of playing the game because you made your gun useless. The only game that I’ve seen that actually accomplishes this is the game Escape from Tarkov. Coincidentally, another Russian-made game about Russians killing each other in civilian exclusion zones – the gun customization accents personal taste. There are stats, but there is enough variety in each option to make whatever you wish. My dream system would make it accessible and fun to fully customize your weapons to suit your playstyle. For example, turning an AK-47 into a submachine gun by cutting off the stock, shortening the barrel and doing whatever else needs to be done – or going in the opposite direction by turning it into a designated marksman rifle with a higher caliber and a longer barrel with a semi-automatic fire rate. Call of Duty Modern Warfare did have an extensive customization mechanic that was very close to what I wished for – but it wasn’t quite there.

Returning to Exodus, after the Volga – the players find the Ark, a massive Fallout-style bunker that was meant to house the government. Turns out they’re all cannibals and the game turns into a hallway DOOM-style shooter. While certainly not a boring segment – it seems that this entire section was done just to make General Miller look stupid again, once when he knew that the world wasn’t destroyed and didn’t tell anyone, and again when almost all the main characters were close to being eaten by cannibals. It’s not a horrific section in the slightest because you’re absolutely loaded with ammo and the game gives you a chance to just lay into a bunch of psychos. However, this section is so linear it makes Call of Duty campaigns blush, as the hallways that you walk down are just super narrow and the game gives you a reason to rush through it – that the cannibals are going to eat your wife. You don’t get to look around and enjoy the horror and the time and effort the level designers spent – you just have to run and gun. The section is stupidly easy, save for one part where you come face to face with a super armored enemy with a gatling gun – whom you just chuck a bunch of grenades at and you’re done. This section doesn’t offer anything new, other than Anna’s cough just getting worse and Miller looking like an idiot again.

The next section is perhaps where the game shines the brightest – the Caspian Sea. This desert environment was the highlight of a lot of the promotional material for the game – shamelessly copying Mad Max in almost the entire thing. The player comes across a sea that has turned into a desert and there are a bunch of beached, decrepit ships around with crazy characters in buggies – the player character also gets a small van – also the main bad guy in this area controls the water and obviously has slaves. This is such an outright copy that I’m surprised the producers of Exodus didn’t get sued for copyright. It’s strange how all the characters are so affected by the heat, that I expected some kind of heat meter where you would have to run to find shade during some parts and incentivize nighttime gameplay – where there are more monsters, to give the player some kind of dilemma. The producers did none of that and Artyom bears the heat as if it’s nothing. The development team’s imagination seemed to have run out here, as they literally reused the same light scorpion enemy from Last Light – which back then was a reason to give them a lot of praise since they were a unique enemy that forced you to adapt your playstyle. You’d have to maintain your flashlight pointed at them while walking through complete darkness, to keep them from striking you from behind, while at the same time burning off their armor with your light. That was a highlight of Last Light as no one expected them and everyone was pleasantly surprised at how tense it made the atmosphere. So why not just copy and paste it? Because a joke is only funny once, if you tell the same joke again, it’s not going to get the same reception. Same with this enemy, where they just made me roll my eyes – and then again when you had to navigate a bunker that was completely full of those things. While it was supposed to be tense, it didn’t feel like it in the slightest – I was just in a hurry to get this part over with.

After the Caspian level, there is the Taiga level – which is different, at least it’s not a carbon copy of another, well-established IP. This part is quite fun because you lose all your weapons and your backpack for a large portion of this and get to only use a crossbow. While linear, this is perhaps what I would’ve liked the Ark level to be – as it is more expansive and akin to a typical Last Light level. The highlight of this section is the mutant bear fight, which is just an uninspired bullet sponge monster that just attacks you and all you have to do is just not get hit and shoot back – with the very little amount of ammo that you have because this is supposedly the apocalypse. This fight was so subpar, it’s not worth talking about. However, the level makes use of ziplines a lot more than other levels – to zip through the tree canopy, avoiding the Children of the Forest – who will shoot you on sight (who you can’t shoot back if you want the good ending). There is a nice radioactive area to remind you that this isn’t the planet of the Ewoks from Star Wars but, indeed, a nuclear apocalypse. Other than that, there isn’t much to talk about it as its fairly straightforward.

Finally, you get to the winter section in which you arrive back in Moscow and have to make your way back to the metro to find a cure because Anna just coughed up blood during Stepan’s wedding ceremony. This section is a carbon copy of any Last Light surface level, maintaining your gas filter, making sure you don’t get attacked too much to not break your mask, watching your back for flying Demons, watching out for gangs of the mutant werewolf-type enemies, and so on. The ending itself is quite touching because Artyom’s survival depends on how many people you managed to keep on the train. In a display of human companionship, everybody takes turns giving Artyom their clean blood to flush out all that radioactivity out of his body. Miller gives his life for Artyom to survive, redeeming him and his actions in the eyes of the player. The ending evokes a strong emotional response from a game that didn’t try too hard to differentiate itself from the previous titles. Other than the extra area-specific gimmicks that the Artyom came across, the fact that you now don’t have to constantly wear your mask, and gun customization – there isn’t that much here that would compel a player. However, this game left a very good impression on me when I finished because there are a lot of small moments where the player has the option to bond with the other characters and see the supporting cast show off their colourful personalities more. While mostly consisting of banter, this is exactly what I spoke out against earlier in this review – where Artyom turns out to be a passive witness. It is pleasant and distracts the player from the ‘wait, I’ve seen this before’-itis. Overall, it is a step in the right direction – but a step, not a jump or a leap or even a hop – a step.

If you’ve played, and finished Metro Exodus, you’d be surprised as to why I didn’t mention the morality system – as the Volga, Caspian, and Taiga levels cause your characters to be affected by your moral choices. Although, this game takes a very strange philosophical approach to morality – whereas only killing members of a certain faction in a certain area constitutes as a hit to your morality and lowers your chances of leaving that area with a certain character. It matters in some areas and in others it doesn’t, a strange commentary on selective morality. It’s not made clear which areas and what actions cause you to have an effect on the ending sections of the areas so the player may play the game and think that that Duke getting left behind on the Volga level and Damir staying with Gil on the Caspian level, and whether Alyosha confesses his love for Olga or almost gets shot by her and gets confined to a wheelchair during the Taiga level. It’s all very black and white – where the moral choice is either killing people or not killing people. There aren’t any grey areas, and it is completely justified to kill bandits and to not kill slavers because they belong to a certain faction – even if they are shooting back at you. The game makes no attempt to give distinguishing factors to their concept of morality. Artyom also seems to lack any kind of moral code, as the morality system is directly tied to if a character stays or goes with you to the next location. ‘Oh, but it affects if you get the good or bad ending, where the good ending teaches you the importance of community, and you just die from radiation poisoning in the bad ending’ – I hear you say, and to that I respond how that doesn’t change my argument, how during the game, your moral choices only affect who stays and who leaves your group – how is a person supposed to know this during their first playthrough? There aren’t any indicating factors, the screen just flashes and you hear drips, but not all of these instances constitute to a character leaving or staying? Do you see how confusing this is and how the game gives little to no indication that this is what is happening?

The two DLCs are alright – one gives you a linear story with no redeeming elements that just ends up being really depressing, and the other is a fun look at an epilogue. The Two Colonels is the former and is just a straight-shoot from start to finish about a dire situation concerning a New Year’s celebration – where there aren’t enough anti-rad medicines to go around, so one of the Colonels decides to gas the population to save them the pain of dying to radiation poisoning and the other, disagrees with that. You can guess which Colonel is bad and which is good. It ties nicely in as a side story and is fan service for hardcore Metro fans that specifically want the Metro – not as much as the outside. This is a play and forget DLC, as it is really short and is told through the perspective of Miller and the second Colonel, moving between the two perspectives – with Miller finding the remains of the gas attack and slowly unravelling what the Colonel, and from his perspective, is living through in real time. The ending is quite moving, I will say, when Miller finds the dead body of the second Colonel – shown through his attempts to save his son from death. It’s like a short story that just ties up in a neat little bow. While the effects of the story have no bearing on Exodus’ story – it is a pleasant distraction to slake the fans’ thirst until the Sam’s Story DLC came out.

Now Sam’s Story is, while fairly short – it gives a new semi-open area and new characters to interact with.  Sam meets up with another American – and finally being relieved to be among another of his nation – we find out that he’s actually a militant warlord and managed to survive this long in his fantastic suit as a result of manipulation and power-hungry behavior. Hopefully Sam’s and Tom’s (the warlord) behaviors are not a commentary on rampant industrialism and meritocracy – where it could be reasoned that Tom is who Sam would’ve become if he hadn’t found the Exodus group. I approached it with an apolitical mindset and in search of an interesting story and some new mechanics – I got them. They managed to fix the time-wasting boat sections by just giving the player a motorboat instead of having them row extremely slowly and waste their time getting to different shores. They also added a 1911 pistol, a classic weapon that is present in pretty much every FPS, and a Tommy Gun that fires incendiary rounds – both fairly fun weapons to use and play with. Overall, the DLC is straightforward and gives you some more background into one of the more interesting characters of the cast and how he ended up with the Exodus group during a nuclear war. I personally enjoyed looking through Sam’s eyes, as he finally had a personal voice – and I actually felt a connection with him during my playthrough – with him commenting on the various events that were happening. Perhaps this was a test for the next game, where we will finally get a voiced protagonist and the moral choices will have more emotional and philosophical depth. If not, then the team will just be retreading old ground and I could just copy and paste my review, just like the development team copied and pasted a lot from Last Light into this game.


Featured Image by: Mehrnaz Taghavishavazi @ Unsplash

Game Review Thumbnail by: Free-Photos @ pixabay

Game Trailer by: Deep Silver

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Metro Exodus

8.5

Metro Exodus is a breath of fresh air, and compels with the potential that future titles the series can have.

Pros
  • - Fantastically written characters with touching moments
  • - Gun customization is a welcome addition
  • - Varied levels change up the gameplay
  • - Morality system inspires future playthroughs
Cons
  • - Gun customization could use more work to incentivize using different attachments
  • - Morality system is very black and white, and doesn't show itself much throughout the gameplay
  • - The ending is already known from a mile away

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