Each of the three Metro series games begins with a life or death situation that doesn’t offer the luxury of fight-or-flight for protagonist Artyom and as such those first 15-30 minutes will always be a bluntly effective anxietous rattling of the player. Survival and the enduring light of the human spirit sound like inspirational themes on paper and if you’ve approached any of the trilogy thinking that was the point, well, I’m positive you missed it. Even when surrounded by tube-prowling monsters tucked into every shadow of the claustrophobic post-apocalyptic transit system beneath Russia’s war-fueled nuclear winter, Dmitry Glukhovsky‘s original vision for humanity was packed with grey area and a certain allowance for men to act as rabid opportunistic monsters amongst each other; A certain percentage of humanity will be ruthless garbage regardless of the situation. This is quite an old trope in video game stories and that’d be the main reason the Russian author’s world building has thus far translated so well into three video games that focus on brutal realism, tense survival situations, and oh… This one isn’t a survival game? Stealth mechanics are once again… Nope, they’re largely useless in this new semi-open world format. Open what? Exodus takes place above ground and the default difficulty doesn’t worry you with survival aspects and a morality system encourages you to play non-lethally? Oh…
If you’re the sort of fool who’d need the ‘bigger picture’ when playing through a series like this you might’ve done exactly what I did in purchasing each of the three iterations of the spiritual predecessor series S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and then following that up with the full Metro trilogy when Metro Exodus released mid February of this year. The egg was on my face after having spent countless hours slogging through the jammed guns and mask filter swapping n’ shattering n’ splattering Doom 3 flashlight-waving fucking Hell that was Metro 2033. Why? Less than an hour into Metro Exodus you’ve left the Metro, stolen a train, and landed yourself in the first of five moderately sized semi-open world areas. All of the tics and worries and twitchy corner snapping paranoia of Metro: Last Light and its brilliant focus on stealth gameplay rarely applied, either. You hardly need the goddamned mask anymore and — Flashbacks to the broken and sprawling worlds of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. began to blur my vision as the train screeched to a halt, just before I jumped on a rowboat and shot up a religious cult. They all hid in a closet and cried. Right, this is a very different game where reaching a point of satisfaction within the world of Metro Exodus isn’t going to take long if you’re a murderous asshole like me and you can be sure I dropped the difficulty to Easy on my first playthrough and killed -everything-. The point? This third game in the trilogy is in most ways a total divorce from the inconvenient realism and survival mechanics of past games. I’d signed up for a stealth/survival horror FPS and instead I’d end up playing what I’d describe as an immersive first person shooter that’d prefer I didn’t kill anything.
Why did it take almost a full month after my first playthrough to write a review for this game? I had to play it again on Normal for perspective, and even that was (generally speaking) too easy. Hey, if you’ve ever watched one of my archived streams on YouTube you’ll see I can get into a groove but I’m the first to crank up the aim assist and chill out when things get hairy. Metro Exodus took roughly ~20 hours to beat on Easy and maybe 12 hours on Normal as I soon realized non-lethal stealth is almost always the fastest, easiest option. What do you do in the game? Blah blah, *serious Russian accent* blah blah fix the train, interrupt indigenous political imbalances, blah blah shoot zombies or Silent Hill monsters. I’m really not bitching about any of it, I love to explore an open world with a myriad of combat options and different traversal mechanics (a meaningful day/night cycle, too). The four main areas are a whole new world that coincides with the four seasons that the story of Metro Exodus takes place within. Winter escaping from Moscow, Spring along the Volga River in a thawing waterlogged village, Summer in a desert near the Caspian sea ruled by a hierarchy of thieves, [a quick detour to a goddamned cannibal society] and Fall in a Kazakhstan valley complete with a children’s summer camp. You’ll live or die that next winter in Novosibirsk as you’re tasked with risking your life to save another, and your choices along the way matter quite a bit for this outcome. I figure my tone is building towards perturbed as I prattle on so, out with it: Morality based outcomes in video games are boring in 2019. It worked so well on the last console generation and extended the lives of many fantastic games; Hell, some of my favorite games of all time (Deus Ex, Mass Effect 2, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines) benefited greatly from the novelty of this but it’d become too common and blandly binary even by 2013-2014 when this latest console generation hit. Those mechanics belong in Pillars of Eternity, that sort of deep choice-driven RPG, but I don’t see the point of selling me a $59.99 first person shooter and telling me to not kill fucking everyone.
Artyom is a soldier, the best sniper the Rangers had as the Metro universe would expand around him and yet, each major story beat in the game cannot pass without a check for how many kind acts you’ve done for your crew and how humanely you’ve approached the general population of that area. You musn’t kill those who’d kill you, sneak by them and slither your way to the farcical promised land at the end. Bullshit! The morality system is only insufferable because it is invisible as you play and you might not start to realize it is the reason you’re losing people to situations they care about more than the Aurora (your train) until much later. This small population of soldiers, whom I’d consider the eastern European version of the assholes in Killzone 2, speak to you as if you’d just played Last Light and they give very little context for previous events. Rounding out the crew is your exasperated wife, a nurse, her insufferable child, and an engineer or two. I didn’t care about any of them and had more fun listening to the train’s ham radio than any of the crew. The shift to an open world takes away the desperate ‘never going back’ linearity of the previous games and replaces it with a list of potential ‘quests’ that involve scouting and infiltrating or well, killing anyone who shoots first, and tacks on small quests for your crew such as finding a guitar or a toy for them to play with. This would be the time for a pop-up screen saying “Do this, morality matters and determines the ending” but it doesn’t. So, soldier, be a good Artyom and put a daisy in every musket you see.
Metro Exodus is a joy to play throughout all the same and truth be told the ending and/or vacating crew doesn’t truly affect the moment-to-moment gameplay, which isn’t as multi-layered as Deus Ex or Dishonored but the basic options of passive stealth, murder, guns blazing death machine, or a combination of it any/all is possible. You’ll hit safe houses that typically have workbenches that allow for crafting, repairs, and gear (mask, armor, and vision types) swaps but you’re generally not able to change the two gun loadout you choose unless you return to the Aurora. I found each area was worth exploring but with diminishing freedom of movement as you’re pushed through the later environments for the sake of creating tension. If you lean towards a combination of exploration and (fully engaged) combat the creatures of Metro Exodus will be the most fun and challenging part of the game, particularly above Normal difficulty where I’d suggest avoiding them entirely. The AI of earlier swarms of enemies feels like a scene out of Jurassic Park where they’ll rush up and creep around you, then nip at you from outside of your periphery killing Artyom quickly. The only missed opportunity I’d felt was with the wolves in the Fall/Autumn area as they’re fairly docile unless you purposely go standing in the dark asking to get ripped apart. What could have been a menacing threat ended up being 4-5 easily killed beasts and some cheesy wolf Foley work that sounds like it was pumped through speakers behind rocks. Humans are idiots even on higher difficulty and only appear capable of taking you down due to increased damage numbers and not AI prowess. It reminded me of playing Alpha Protocol where an enemy would hide indefinitely until you’d stop aiming at their hiding place. Exploration, finding resources, clearing out areas, and collecting/seeing everything is the major draw of this game and the gameplay itself begins to feel wholly unrelated to the previous Metro titles as you become more powerful.
My assessment of Metro Exodus ultimately boils down to the fact that I played it twice not because I loved it but, because I was not pleased with the low challenge and the complete void of telegraphing for the morality system within the game. I saved who I needed to save in the end but I died and the funeral wasn’t great. The way things wrap up, regardless if you die or live in the end, just isn’t at all in the spirit of Glukhovsky‘s original writing for the series and it ends up feeling like a ‘halfway there’ side story; In fact it feels like the semi-open world expressed in chapters was an idea that Glukhovsky and co-writer Andrei Paskhalov were tasked with shoehorning a story into rather than building the world around the larger story. No big deal, there have been at least thirty Metro related written works, from board games to novellas and comic books, since the early 2000’s that stretch the world in various questionable directions. My issue centers around the departure from the previous games’ tonality making for a hokey, typical video game story that is so mind-numbingly predictable I’d end up embracing my own death at the end. Let this cursed world of nukes, lies, and sickness burn behind me and my murderous choices. /spits in ashtray and smears war paint under eyes/
So, it was fun? Yep, a big stupid 180 degree turn for the series’ end that was mercifully succinct and mildly challenging. I’d only wished the rest of the game’s areas were as detailed and varied as the Spring and Summer chapters. I’d suggest buying it on sale and going for a single non-completionist playthrough; You could push close to 20 hours doing everything but you’ll have more fun adapting to a situation you’re unprepared for rather than blitzing through areas with a thousand bullets stuffed into every orifice. The story isn’t worth plowing through on Easy, at all, and the conclusion is too blandly predictable to be worth mainlining. Planned DLC will expand the game by ~20% with a linear chapter and an open world chapter starring different protagonists but I did not enjoy the main game enough to come back to it in early 2020 for a new level.
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