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Metro Exodus: The Kotaku Review

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I take my anxious first steps into a desolate post-winter wasteland. All around me, I hear mutants scratching and snarling. One sights me. Three more follow. I rise to fire my rifle. It jams. I feel frightened, vulnerable, out of sorts. But also, at home, like I’ve stumbled into a lucid dream shared by Far Cry 2, STALKER, and of course, Metro 2033.

I’m on a train—our train—surrounded by friends. Family. I can overhear their conversations as sun glints through lightly fogged windows and the train clacks down the tracks. Laughter. Stories. Boasts. Hopes. I sit down in a cramped cart with our heavy weapons specialist Stepan and a nurse we rescued named Katya. Stepan is playing guitar. I pick up another and join him. Together, we add to the gentle cacophony.

I can hear each stair creak as I ascend the lair of a “gargoyle” mutant. “This is suicide,” I think, but I keep going. A little girl asked me to retrieve her teddy bear. I’m going to do it. I reach the gargoyle’s nest. It’s curled up, asleep beneath a moonless sky. The teddy bear is in its nest. I shuffle toward it and reach out a trembling hand. The creature stirs and lashes out twice. Blood masks my face, clouds my vision. Teddy bear in hand, I bolt. I see a zipline. I latch onto it and soar away from the gargoyle, turning back to make sure it’s not flying after me. I finally start breathing again as I land hundreds of feet away. “Fuck you,” I say to the teddy bear.

I’m surrounded by darkness. If the cramped ventilation system I’m squeezing through stays dark for another few seconds, I’m dead meat. Mutant spiders chitter and screech, out of sight but definitely not out of mind. I furiously pump the charger on my flashlight. I’ve been in this situation many times before, but I never stop internally freaking out, no matter how many times I tell myself I’m finally over it. Mere feet away from me, I hear a spider leap. I turn and hit it with a fresh beam of light. It falls to the ground and exposes its belly. I fire off two bullets. It dies. Others stir. Behind me. In front of me. On all sides. I can’t take it anymore, so I charge forward in hopes of emerging into a more open space. I hit a dead end. I can hear them closing in, but I can’t see them. Then I remember: I have one molotov cocktail in my inventory. I hurl it down the vent and pray. The black answers back with spider screams. It’s finally over. For now. My heart beats in my chest as my character’s pounds in my earphones.

I find myself on the train once more. I’m talking to my character’s wife, a field-hardened special ops sniper named Anna. She’s angry that the she spent so many years in the tunnels of the Moscow Metro—once thought to be the only place safe from a ruinous plague of radiation after the bombs dropped—when she didn’t have to. But, despite it all, she’s hopeful. “It’s not like there’s many of us humans left now,” she says. “So I hope someday we will be able to trust others just because... because they are people, too.”

I prepare to slip into a sewer to infiltrate a raider compound. These raiders have been hounding us the whole time our train has been stopped in the desert. It’s time for them to pay. My companion, a Kazakhstani medic named Damir, asks me to see things differently. Some of these raiders are his people, he says. Many of them are young and desperate, taken in and enslaved by a ruthless and charismatic leader. He asks me not to kill them as I stalk through their lair. He asks me to understand.

Metro Exodus is a series of moments, a blur of sometimes nearly-incoherent events that pass like scenery outside the window of a fast-moving train. You pick out a few, but others fly by so indistinctly that you’ve forgotten them minutes later. It’s a bounteous bouquet of first-person shooter ideas, encompassing everything from modern open-world level design to hyper-linear scripted set pieces to walking simulators, one right after another. But the game struggles to cohere. It’s inconsistent, frustrating, and frequently less than the sum of its parts. The moments I wrote about above, I remember with perfect clarity.

But I’m already struggling to remember many others—strung together, as they were, by a post-apocalyptic cliché-heavy plot, factions that never quite click, and missions that introduce extra characters to an already bloated cast instead of giving the spotlight to crucial ones. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you much about half the characters that traveled with me, even after listening to them talk at me for literal hours.

Exodus is far more structurally ambitious than previous games in the Metro series, both of which were linear adventures confined to post-apocalyptic train tunnels. This time around, main character Artyom and friends are done tussling with Nazis and monsters in tunnels. Now they’re topside in the remains of a world they were certain no longer existed. As a result, you divide your time between exploring areas that are either open or linear, depending on what the story calls for, and hanging out with your pals back on the train.

Many of the moments, environments, and atmospheres Exodus creates shine even as they’re surrounded by a world of despair and decay. The game visits a veritable greatest-hits album of post-apocalyptic settings while managing to maintain a unique feel and atmosphere. No small feat, given how many other shooters have already visited the end of the world. Exodus is at its best when it marries its bleak, no-nonsense vibe with unpredictable landscapes and light survival mechanics. In the game’s excellent first, STALKER-esque open area and less excellent (but still pretty good) Mad Max-inspired second open area, supplies are hard to come by, meaning that you’ve got to strike a balance between using them to craft ammo, medkits, and canisters for your gas mask, as well as putting them toward upkeep on your weapons, which get dirty and become less effective with use.

All the while, bandits, mutants of every conceivable shape and size (humanoid, gargoyle, bear, spider, big crab, almost dog), and freakier things like floating, maybe-sentient electrical “anomalies” roam the wastes. Often, they behave less like enemies and more like hazards: If you don’t get too close, they’ll go on living their lives. Sometimes they even fight each other. Multi-layered, almost Thief-like sound design clues you in to their relative locations, with snarls, cries, and lengthy bandit conversations creating a feeling of constant tension.

At the start of the game, I felt like I was near the bottom of the food chain. It was thrilling—a return to the feeling I’d been missing in the absence of late-2000s shooters like STALKER and Far Cry 2. I had precious few bullets to spare, so I crept through half-dead bushes and underbrush instead of trying to play hot-shit hotshot against packs of mutants who a) wouldn’t give me any supplies and b) were imminently capable of tearing me limb from limb. Brief moments of empowerment—mostly involving stealthing my way through bandit lairs and freeing those they’d captured or enslaved—felt like triumphs. But beyond the reaches of those flimsy, man-made tents and walls, the wasteland was still waiting to pounce.

This was Exodus at its best. However, it repeatedly proved capable of suddenly flipping over and exposing its ugly underbelly, like a screaming spider freak mutant exposed to too much light. As I said in my impressions after 30 hours with the game last week:

Yep, the Metro series’ trademark jank is back, and in many places, it threatens to be the game’s downfall. Exodus is admirably ambitious, blending countless mission types, combat variables, and a series of locales that seriously feel like they could each be from a different game, but AI and other systems struggle to keep up. Enemy AI has improved by leaps and bounds since Last Light, but it still alternates between being eagle-eyed and comically blind to your presence. This became especially apparent to me when I reached the game’s second area: a vast, lonely desert. Open areas lead to wildly inconsistent behavior from AI, and missions became too sprawling for their own good, creating confusion about where I needed to go. I’ve also encountered quite a few bugs, both hilarious (a bandit moonwalking through the sky) and frustrating (the climactic end of an act-concluding main quest broke, forcing me to reload repeatedly until it magically worked again).

Combined, these issues have formed a handy crafting recipe for frustrating tedium. I won’t beat around the glowing green bush: I’ve spent multiple hours of my time with Exodus absolutely infuriated.

Having finished it, I can now say that Exodus is one of the most inconsistent games I’ve played in years. It’s a masterclass of care and craft in places, a post-apocalyptic world in which detail and humanity trump scope for scope’s sake and Fallout-style ironic distance from the subject matter. The story is smarter than it initially seems to be; while factions like an electricity-fearing cult and Mad Max ripoff bandits aren’t inherently clever, the game’s treatment of them is. At almost every turn, your travel companions urge you to understand where these people are coming from, and to avoid bloodshed if you can. In almost every case, it’s possible to do so, too.

Exodus is the video game equivalent of that friend who cares so much about everything all the time, who wears their bleeding heart on their sleeve and outshines the sun with their earnestness. You can’t help but root for it. That makes it all the more depressing, however, when it stumbles with bugs, AI issues, a bloated cast, a story that lags woefully far behind excellent world-building, and bits of needlessly frustrating level design.

Exodus isn’t content to just be one kind of first-person shooter. After an open first half focused on survival and exploration, the latter portion plays much more like its linear predecessors, to mixed results. The final two of Exodus’ four major locations suffer from their own particular issues, as well as more exasperating versions of issues that pop up all throughout the rest of the game. The third, a forested fall setting, starts out on a high note, dropping you into a mysterious village armed with nothing but a crossbow. I loved sneaking through that area and into a more open forest that was bathed in eerie moonlight. Packs of wolves sprinted by as I trudged to rescue a captured companion from two ideologically opposed factions of forest dwellers. The section was ultimately linear, but I could progress in water, on land, or up in the trees.

But then I reached more heavily populated areas, and the enemies suddenly decided they could see me through walls. I saved and reloaded repeatedly in hopes of ghosting my way through these sections, but to no avail. Eventually, I had every inch of the terrain memorized, but people kept spotting me or bodies I’d left behind (which you can’t move) out of nowhere. I couldn’t figure out why, no matter how much I searched for an answer. Finally, I just said “fuck it” and sprinted through these areas, taking damage and hitting checkpoints. It all felt sloppy, like these ambitious level design ideas didn’t quite mesh with the systems created for this game, in particular.

The game’s last main area, more than any other, is as Metro as Metro gets, with oodles of atmosphere oozing from its straightforward tunnels. But it also plays things safe, introduces a superfluous new character instead of honing in on a central relationship that’s crucial to the ending, and generally rushes to a fairly flat conclusion. When I finished the game and watched its bittersweet ending unfold, I didn’t really feel anything. I wanted to, but that’s Exodus’ very peculiar trick: it regularly makes you want to care, but only rarely creates circumstances in which that actually happens.

Throughout the triumphant highs and frustrating lows of these journeys, the train and my compatriots chilling out on it provided a welcome reprieve. Between missions, I’d stagger back to our messy closet of a home, take a load off, and just listen for a while. This has always been one of the Metro series’ great joys: occupying spaces overflowing with the detritus of people’s meager existences and overhearing conversations about their hopes, dreams, concerns, fears, and pasts.

In Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light, those people were mostly randos you’d never see again after progressing to the next area. Exodus’ cast, however, sticks with you through thick and thin, so their conversations build on each other. They react to new locations and your decisions. It feels good to have them acknowledge, for example, that you managed to complete a mission without any bloodshed. The game’s morality system is more streamlined than those of previous Metro games, and is mostly tied to your decisions about whether or not to kill people. But it was the thought of being praised by my friends that motivated me to meticulously play and replay missions in hopes of K.O.-ing or avoiding everyone. These characters start out as a stock cast of soldier archetypes—the risk-taker, the smart one, the foreigner, the gruff general with a heart of gold, etc—but they evolve into more over time.

Well... a little more. For all the heart underlying Exodus’ dialogue, it’s often stilted, awkward, poorly acted (unless you’re playing in Russian), and repetitive. Characters really, really, really like to talk, but they tend to do so in the form of expository info dumps. On one hand, the sheer amount of this stuff that’s in the game is tremendously impressive. When I say I spent hours listening to people talk, I mean it: at least three or four in total, probably more. You pretty much have to if you want to get to know characters, given that their characterizations in the main plot are thin, verging on non-existent. For example, Artyom’s wife Anna—allegedly a hardass sniper and a pillar of the team—spends the story getting kidnapped, falling into a pit and needing to be rescued, getting kidnapped again, etc. If you don’t talk to her between missions, you have no real reason to care about this, or any of the other big beats, in a plot that gets the job done but leans heavily on predictable clichés.

These conversations all kind of run together after a while, especially when characters are “conversing” with you instead of each other. I use quotation marks because Artyom is a silent protagonist, so everybody talks at, over, under, around, and through him. In previous Metro games, this made sense because Artyom wasn’t really part of any of the places he visited. He was transient, more observer than character. In Exodus, however, he’s got a consistent crew of friends, a wife, and a father-in-law. They clearly care about him, but there’s an awkward disconnect every time they address him. That, in turn, makes it hard to care about many of them. I ended up feeling like I was supposed to care, but only on a few occasions did that actually manifest in powerful emotions.

And that’s a shame, because Metro Exodus so badly wants you to love everyone and everything in it as much as its own creators clearly do. It’s one of the most earnest blockbusters I’ve played in ages, a janky mix between a modern open-world game and a too-ambitious-for-its-own-good late-2000s-style shooter that tries with all its heart to do absolutely everything and alternates between succeeding gloriously and failing miserably. It cares. It cares so much. It cares about its detailed environments and mechanics, even when they misfire. It cares about its characters, even though there are too many of them. It cares about its central message of understanding, rather than vilifying, each faction you come into conflict with, even though this message is attached to a ho-hum plot. It sincerely believes that there is hope for humanity even after the end of the world. I love it for what it wants to be more than what it is, but that’s still love of a sort.

I’m back on the train with my ragtag family. A conversation turns toward the future, toward a home free of radiation and mutants, toward dreams and new generations. We toast. We drink. Stepan plays a song about generals and trains and people losing their way and trying to find it again. It is warm. It heartfelt. It is painfully on the nose. It is Metro.