“Listen up!” A rough voice crackles over the radio. “The baron is about to speak.” The baron, I’ve come to understand, is the leader of the Munai-Bailer (or “oil-rich”), a group of slavers that have a stranglehold on the desert wasteland’s oil. And then, without missing a beat, the voice of the henchman returns with similar cadence. “Listen up! The baron is speaking!” There is a dark comedy here, one echoed by the exasperated voice of the baron, who you can almost hear shooing away his minion as he steps up to the microphone to talk about how badly he needs his soldiers to hunt you, the player, down.
Metro: Exodus has more going for it than this particular blend of humor and world building, but it was the one thing that exceeded my expectations during my three hour play session of 4A Games’ post-apocalyptic FPS, and it’s the one thing which could potentially set the game apart from the pack (which is extremely important given the busy winter gaming schedule). Exodus, which is due out February 15th, is one of four post-apocalyptic shooters coming out in the next three months, with The Division 2 on March 14th, Rage 2 on April 14th, and Far Cry: New Dawn sharing February 15th with Exodus (and Crackdown 3, for that matter).
For the unfamiliar: In the world of Metro (which is based on Dmitry Glukhovsky’s fiction franchise), nuclear war devastated earth in 2013, killing billions and introducing supernatural phenomena and creatures to the world. Those few who remain alive quickly factionalize, fighting over the world’s remaining supplies. The series follows a scavenger named Artyom as he travels through the Russian underground, maneuvering between warring factions, helping those he can, and trying to a world filled with unexplained phenomena and newly emerged mutant species.
With Exodus, 4A is bringing Artyom and his allies out of the claustrophobic, linear tunnels of Moscow and into large, post-apocalyptic sandboxes, a first for the series. Journeying across the continent in a train called the Aurora, the player moves not only between locations but also through time, with each major zone being tied to a different season. Last E3, I got a chance to play the game’s spring level, which sends Artyom into the swampy Volga riverbanks to confront a fanatic group of luddites. In my recent demo, I instead faced off against the aforementioned Munai-Bailer in the now drained and desert-like Caspian Sea, beaten down by the summer sun.
After two Metro games of walking through tight corridors, with only brief excursions into the ruined and dangerous urban sprawl of Moscow, stepping out into the sand of the Caspian is strange and almost overwhelming. These zones aren’t quite open worlds—and in my hours with the game, I couldn’t really tell if breaking off the beaten path would be rewarded or if the game was effectively just placing linear segments around a larger open area—but the effect of perceived openness was undeniable. I found myself navigating with a map closer in nature to the ones in Far Cry 2 or Miasmata, a physical-feeling thing that required me to check for clear landmarks as I moved.
You might think that all of this openness would reduce the tension so key to the series’ success. Though the desert’s bright blue sky and orange dunes feel open wide in contrast to the fluorescent overheads and grey-scarred skies of past Metro titles, the Caspian is no less risky to navigate than the old underground.
Metro has always leaned hard into post-apocalyptic scarcity and danger not only in story, but in mechanics too. Previous games famously treated “good” ammunition as literal currency, and while Exodus drops that particular mechanic, resource management remains a key focus. You’ll keep track of overall ammo, manage your flashlight’s charge, make sure your pneumatic weapons stay pumped, and, of course, count each and every gas mask filter you use. And because your resources are limited, you’ll want take the risk of drifting into the periphery of your main path, wandering into this bombed out shop or that buried oil tanker, only to bump into a pod of ravenous zombies. When you do go back on the main story path, you’ll be in familiar territory, descending into an abandoned, spider-mutant infested communications center or fighting off enemy raiders in a makeshift base buried in the sand as a horde of zombies surrounds you below.
None of this is particularly novel, but it is tense, which is why it’s so important that the game’s attempts at comic relief actually land. All through my demo, I found myself chuckling at bits of dialogue, environmental storytelling, and even combat encounter design.
I first heard the Baron’s name while I was driving towards a lighthouse in a rusty, beatdown truck—itself a source of humor with its engine coughing in the sand and its steering wheel replaced with the handlebars of a bicycle. I was on my way to meet up with a rebel and potential ally named Giul, and (after the overlong introduction to by his underling) the Baron ordered his soldiers to close in on her.
After years of playing first person shooters, I was pretty sure how this would go: Either I’d sneak in through some hidden entrance and stealth kill my way through dozens of military dudes, or I would roll up in my broke ass truck, hop out, and with support from Giul up in her sniper nest, I’d take out a bunch of enemies in a firefight. You know. Video games.
Instead, though, Exodus treated me to a comedy of errors. While the Baron lectured his soldiers on the power of fire and the inevitability of his control of the entire desert, I snuck up on his men, posted up inside of a once-underwater tunnel system. They were trying to find an alternate route to the lighthouse. But Giul knew about these tunnels, and has prepared a welcome for them. As I moved from hallway to hallway, they stumbled into trip mines, fired their guns in rooms filled with explosive gas, and generally managed to make life hell for themselves. It’s dark, yeah, but it was also a funny respite from another ammo-counting firefight.
...it’s the character of Exodus that sets it apart...
Just as key is that it told me something about the world. Sure, the Baron and his oil-rich army were in control of this place, but they were bumbling at best; powerful not because of expertise, but because of their numbers and their control of resources. This differentiated them from the group of foes I fought back in the E3 build—a smaller force of technophobes who fought a pitched, defensive battle from inside of a well fortified church, but who surrendered to me once it was clear this was a fight they couldn’t win.
Whether it was watching reckless enemies flail into traps or listening to audiologs or engaging in an absurd, long range sniper duel, my time with Exodus was filled with moments that made me grin. Everything else? Well, it mostly works, and if that sounds like a backhanded compliment, well… I refer back to my opening statement: the game’s blend of humor and world building is the one thing that exceeded my expectations. The combat is functional. The more linear sections of level design are pretty much in line with past games. In an era overflowing with open world games, the game’s sandboxes are totally fine. But it’s the character of Exodus that sets it apart, and when the game drops in February, that’s the thing I’m most looking forward to.