As interesting as the previous games’ stories have been in terms of their allegory of Russian society – and ultimately human society as a whole – the storytelling often got a little muddled and relied too much on familiarity with the novels and reading every little note scattered about the game world. Exodus is a direct sequel to both the games and the novels but has a much more straightforward narrative, that requires no previous knowledge of the franchise. You play as an elite solder named Artyom, who has become obsessed with the idea that there are other survivors outside of the metro, despite all evidence to the contrary. Set 23 years after the initial missile strikes the landscape around Moscow is less dangerous, or at least less radioactive, than the previous games and it soon becomes clear that Artyom is right and he and his team of soldiers, plus his wife Anna, end up commandeering a train that takes them east across the country. The story spans a whole year in game time, starting off in the Moscow winter and taking in a wide variety of other landscapes, from desert to forest.
With the constant changes of season and location the segue between linear and non-linear maps works very well, with the latter filled with secondary objectives and rewarding exploration. Like Fallout, you’re constantly on the eye out for resources to collect, but you can craft basic ball-bearing bullets and other perishables on the go from your backpack, as well as reconfigure your gun on the fly. This helps foster a great feeling of freedom as you’re given a minimum amount of instruction on what to do, with the game relying on clever signposting more than following the Rockstar route of prescribed instructions.
The open worlds feature a proper day and night cycle and dynamic weather, so it’s often best to wait until night if you’re facing human adversaries, who might be asleep or unable to see as well in the dark, but at the risk of certain mutant animals being more active. There’s a well-established ecosystem at work, as you watch predators attack and eat prey animals, or call in reinforcements if one of their scouts spots you.
Even with the ammo limitations it is possible to play Metro Exodus as a straight shooter, but we found it far more rewarding to use stealth. As with the previous games the weapons are jury-rigged antiques and although the gunplay is a little better than before they’re still not that much fun to use, and that seems to be entirely purposeful. The artificial intelligence is noticeably better though and stalking enemies from the shadows is very rewarding, especially as each map is riddled with secret crawlspaces and shortcuts if you take the time to search for them. Although there are some more arcade-like sections (a grisly encounter in a nuclear bunker being one early highlight) Metro Exodus is a naturally slow-paced game and all the better for it. What particularly impressed us was how it handles ordinary human opponents. Most of the low level schlubs you fight are just doing their job and you have the option of merely knocking them out when you surprise them. They’ll even give up and beg for mercy if they realise they’re the last man standing.
Not only is this vastly more realistic than most other games but the other characters recognise whether you’re being merciful or not and this can significantly affect subsequent encounters and how you as a character are perceived. A good argument could be made that the game should’ve provided dialogue choices and a voice for Artyom (although he does narrate the loading sequences) but as with all its gameplay elements Metro Exodus prefers to keep the mechanics as simple and accessible as possible. The end result is a game that feels considerably more mature and meaningful than other post-apocalyptic titles. And yet the atmosphere is not quite so cripplingly depressing as the previous entries. It offers a damning indictment of humanity’s willingness to follow orders simply out of a sense of purpose and belonging, but there is a sliver of optimism present in the story and characters that was not so evident before.