'Metro Exodus' Review: Somber Survival Done Right

Metro Exodus feels like a blending of several different genres, games, and movies. It’s got a bit of Mad Max, a bit of The Road, and a bit of Fallout -- good and bad parts -- in it. But even with all these different elements at play, it remains grounded and unique enough to be an engaging survival experience regardless of how familiar you are with the series.

Taking players and the protagonist, Artyom, far outside of the irradiated metro stations of post-apocalyptic Russia, 4A Games has shifted to a more non-linear structure in Metro Exodus. The world is beautifully bleak and surprisingly varied with players entering different biomes as they progress through chapters and seasons. Though the scenery may change to flora-filled areas and deserts patrolled by armor-wearing goons, survival and attention to detail is paramount, and the new openness of the world doesn’t diminish the sense of urgency that’s constantly felt throughout Metro Exodus nor does it relieve the feeling of claustrophobia for more than a few moments at a time.

Resource management is perhaps the most important skill to master in Metro Exodus, and it’s a mechanic 4A Games excelled at here while also intertwining it with the new world design. Gas masks still must be taken on and off and patched up if they’re damaged in battle, all while keeping an eye on the mask’s filter to change it out when needed. Ammo is scarce and can mostly only be crafted at work benches, and while you may find yourself scrounging what looks like an impressive amount of crafting materials, it’s surprising how quickly those resources dwindle.

With so many different tools and resources to keep track of, it is a shame that game’s controls don’t make it easy to deal with all these actions. Every face and directional button on the console versions have different purposes, with those commands changing if a shoulder button is held down. Buttons also perform different actions when they’re held as opposed to being pressed, which means one button can perform up to three different commands. It’s a daunting control scheme that doesn’t appear to have a solution beside pulling up a massive inventory screen that wouldn’t fit well with the game’s aesthetic, and it’s one players will likely have to relearn the first few times they fire up Metro Exodus.

Metro Exodus
(Photo: Deep Silver)

Though it does ask a lot of players, 4A Games abstained from using the more tedious parts of survival games. Having to feed and water a player every five minutes to avoid minor debuffs is a masochist’s way to play a survival game, so that part and other actions like going to sleep to stay healthy are thankfully absent from Metro Exodus. The closest the game gets to these types of exasperating requirements is having to charge up your flashlight or pump a pneumatic weapon, but those tasks skirt the edge of being cumbersome and often lead to intense moments more often than frustrating ones.

All of this factors into the non-linear setting by giving players ways to play the game how they see fit, but you also have to constantly gauge whether you’re ready for a situation or not. The best loot lies in the nests of monsters or in bandit hideouts, so using the game’s new upgrade and crafting systems to augment your character comes with risks. Do you have enough ammo to survive an encounter with waves of bandits, and did you bring enough Molotov cocktails to clear out a horde of mutants? Situations like these never once felt unfair; if an encounter went poorly, it’s because it was either handled incorrectly either during the engagement or because players didn’t plan accordingly. The loot you’ll get from these encounters is worth the challenge though, and will prove invaluable. A pair of night vision goggles is one such example of an upgrade which seems to be totally skippable if you don’t find them early on, and after playing through levels following that find, it almost seems impossible to think someone would play without them.

Just as there are varying options to explore the world, Metro Exodus also gives players chances to go about their objectives in different ways, and it’s during these moments that the combat system shines. In a game where the focus is obviously on the claustrophobic atmosphere where jump scares don’t feel cheap and situations seem dire, Metro Exodus has a combat system that’s thoroughly enjoyable to experiment with. Stealth appears to be the default playstyle that’s encouraged given how quickly Artyom can go down and how precious ammo and other resources are, and the AI is thankfully quite forgiving when tracking down players. So long as flashlights are kept off and noise is kept to a minimum, players can stealthily engage their enemies and kill as many or few as necessary to complete an objective. Going into places guns blazing is always on option, though it’s not nearly as effective and undermines where the brunt of the work was focused.

Once you reach certain points in these stealthy encounters, it’s also interesting to look to take a moment to reflect at a destination and realize there were several different paths that led there. A Quick Save and Quick Load feature will let you retry different routes to see what works best, but the feature honestly should’ve been disabled entirely during these moments. It’s far too easy to save the game before engaging in a risky action like taking down an enemy with a throwing knife or making a dash across a corridor. With the feature looking players in the face every time the game is paused, it’s hard not to use it no matter how cheap it feels. It’s impossible to save in combat, with the option being greyed out and explicitly saying players can’t save because they’re in combat, and the same lockout would’ve made sense for being in a zone wrought with enemies or in moments where a player’s karma could be affected by an action.

Metro Exodus also suffers from some jank and bugginess that’s expected to some degree; if you’re familiar with some tangentially similar games like the Fallout series, you’ll know what to expect. Slowly falling through some pipes you were sneaking across to be stuck in the floor or getting suspended above a tiny fence or rock you tried to hop over are occasional occurrences, though they’re not common enough to knock the game too hard for it.

Anyone who played the past two Metro games will probably already be picking up Metro Exodus on principle, but it’s likely going to be a sleeper hit for anyone who’s even remotely interested in the genres it dabbles in. It’s an example of a survival game done right and has significant replay potential stemming from moral and playstyle decisions. In short, it should have no problem competing in a crowded month for game releases or against other similar games which come after it.

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Rating: 4 out of 5

Metro Exodus is scheduled to release for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC via the Epic Games store on February 15th. You can check out purchasing details on the series’ site.