Metro Exodus review – Off Rails

One of the most memorable things about Metro: 2033 and Metro: Last Light was their sense of place. Both games are claustrophobic and constricting, sometimes to the point of frustration, but that was in keeping with the very ideas that the games (and the books they’re based on) wanted to explore. Those narrow confines and moments of frustration were a near-constant source of tension and discomfort—fitting for games set in a world that’s been rendered uninhabitable by nuclear fallout, where the last living remnants of humankind have been forced to eke out a living in the broken tunnels of Moscow’s subway network.

The idea of taking that concept and morphing into in an open-world game is… odd, to say the least. But that’s the direction that 4A Games and Deep Silver decided to go with Metro Exodus, and the result is a game is very superficially enjoyable, but at the cost of much of the personality that made its predecessors stand out in the first place.

Metrod Exodus follows on directly from Metro: Last Light, and sees protagonist Artyom finally confirm a long-held hypothesis: that there are indeed human survivors living on the surface, despite those living in the metro being led to believe otherwise. This discovery brings him into conflict with the Hamza faction—de facto rulers of the metro—prompting Artyom, his wife Anna, and a small group of soldiers to steal a train and set out on a journey across Russia in search of salvation.

This setup naturally lends itself to an open-world structure, though Metro Exodus cleverly steers away from the worst tropes of what has become one of the most cluttered game genres of the day. Rather than a single, huge map whose expanse trades narrative pacing for the illusion of “player freedom”, Exodus has a handful of smaller open areas connected by linear narrative beats. At the same time, Exodus avoids the icon clutter that’s so typical of open-world games; there are a few side quests and things off the beaten track for more inquisitive players to track down, but it’s a far cry from those endless bombardments of Things To Do.

The result is a game that’s more focused than a typical open-world game. Even with more open maps and the added freedom to explore that comes with them, you’re still mostly following through a linear narrative. Without a hundred different things vying for your attention, deviations and detours from that linear narrative tend to be short-lived, and framed as downtime rather than distractions—akin to pausing a film to inspect a scene in more detail, rather than switching to an entirely different film and then trying to jump back into the first one some hours later.

It’s also to Metro Exodus’ credit that it forgoes some of the common conveniences of open-world games for the sake of theme. Fast travel isn’t a thing, and the tedium that can come with trekking across large distances is crucial to conveying the hostility of the world. There are no heavily-detailed, annotated maps to pore over; your guides are a simple paper map pinned to a clipboard, and maybe a compass (if you manage to find one). These things are inconvenient and mildly frustrating, but there’s a point to that.

Still, the restraint that Metro Exodus shows in its approach to open-world design doesn’t balance out the fundamental damage that an open-world concept does to the atmosphere of Metro. The highest praise I can give to 2033 and Last Light is that they’re uncomfortable. They’re claustrophobic. To play those games is to feel the walls of the Moscow subway tunnels closing in on you, itself symbolic of Metro‘s exploration of fascism and communism.

Metro Exodus trades that in for picturesque of a post-apocalyptic landscape. Sure, the maps are littered with collapsed buildings and the scars of nuclear war, but they’re very pretty, very screenshot-able incarnations of a war-torn land. Compared to the oppressive, downright hellish mood of the first two games, Exodus‘ world feels like a breath of fresh air and freedom. To me, that just isn’t Metro.

There are times when Exodus returns to its roots. Between the open-world bits, there are more linear segments that return to the constrained level design of the previous games. In these, the world feels like it’s closing in on you. In the open world, enemy appearances are somewhat random, and can often just be avoided; in the linear segments, enemy layouts and resources are carefully planned to force you into tense situations where resource scarcity is a constant pressure and progress—whether by stealth or by open combat—is something to be hard won. It’s in these moments that Exodus truly feels like a Metro game.

Unfortunately, these moments are too few and too far between. For the bulk of its run, Metro Exodus is another entry in the far too crowded space of open-world games. It trades too much of the series’ unique identity for clean, polished, superficial “fun”—which is the opposite of what, to me, a Metro game should be.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.