Metro is back after a main series hiatus of almost six years and the Malta-based developer has taken everyone's favourite underground-dwelling protagonist to the surface with Metro Exodus. Following the previous games, the new instalment has players continue the story of Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light, starting out on (frozen) solid ground. The series has been through some changes through the years, with Metro: Last Light straying from the original narrative and Metro Redux bringing the games into a new generation, but one thing is certain - Metro Exodus is Metro as we've never seen it before.
It begins, as these things often do, with mutants out for blood. After a near-death experience and later a familiar stroll through the massive underground metro bunker, our hero Artyom and his wife Anna venture to the surface above their home with a radio, trying desperately to get a signal when all of a sudden a train rolls by. It turns out that there's life on the surface of Moscow after all - and so begins the journey of The Order, having set out to find traces of civilisation, a potential remaining state leadership, and a place to finally settle out in the fresh air, leaving behind the dark tunnels they've been calling home since the war began.
Instead of exploring dank tunnels and underground facilities, even though there's certainly some of those areas in Exodus as well, Artyom, his wife Anna, Colonel Miller and the rest of the gang travel across an open-world landscape by train, through different seasons, along the way finding small societies of cultists, slave trader-run and slave-keeping colonies, and the occasional genuinely good samaritan. The various maps offer different methods of transportation for Artyom, such as boats for lovely rides on irradiated waters and armoured vans for Mad Max-esque dirt road action in the desert. For the first time, Metro has gone open world, with stunning landscapes, nightmare-inducing beast lairs, and full-on cities, all experienced during different stages of the year, with the different flora and fauna setting each one apart.
The different seasons are separated into chapters, so, while the game most definitely is open world, once you have explored the massive maps you can't return unless you choose to load the chapter via the main menu. As for the flora and fauna in each area, the different locations differ greatly both in terms of their surroundings and the enemies who live there. Players get to take on massive bears, giant catfish, terrifying leeches, and hordes of spiders that instil fear in the dark. The latter, which was our favourite beast encounter during our time with the game, is worth mentioning for more reasons than one. These particular enemies reinforce the importance of two of the many items of gear in Artyom's arsenal - the flashlight and the lighter. Various enemies react differently to light and darkness, with some hiding and avoiding confrontation until approached in daylight, while others display more violent behaviour in the dead of night.
Human enemies can also be taken down using the day/night cycle to one's advantage; by going into a base at night and killing the lights as you move forward, you can limit their ability to spot you substantially. The aforementioned spiders, however, reside only in dark places and swarm the player when no lights are around, making the experience of meeting them one of pure terror. One can force them away using either a flashlight or a lighter (or both), shining the light in their direction, burning their bodies and making them retreat back into the shadows.
The many options, both in terms of gameplay and your arsenal, make Metro Exodus feel much like a full-fledged action-RPG. If a player wants to go through the game mostly using stealth with a minimal kill-ratio, that's a viable option. Using the darkness to one's advantage, exploring and looking for nifty gear like night vision goggles and using the takedown option instead of the stealth kill option will not only change how you play the game, it will change the outcome as well. If you'd rather kill everything and everyone in sight, going in guns blazing with an extra bright flashlight and a ton of explosives on your upgraded belt will also change the outcome of your journey.
When on the topic of combat, Metro Exodus has an incredible amount of variety in that regard. As well as using the environment to your tactical advantage, there are lots of options to take into consideration. Gunfights feel incredibly satisfying with the player able to shoot their enemies or even their surroundings in order to trigger environmental effects. All of the weapons we used had really good sound effects and they all had a satisfying weight to them. The controls are easy enough; the game sports a classic aim and fire setup with aiming mapped to the left trigger and shooting to the right, and you can throw a grenade (or similar) by tapping the right bumper, and you can patch up or wipe the blood off of your gas mask with the left. Holding the left bumper will pull up the weapons menu, letting you scroll through your guns, switch ammunition, and pick which grenade or throwable to equip with the d-pad buttons. Holding the right bumper brings up the gear menu, where you can holster or draw a weapon, turn the flashlight on or off, replace the filter of the gas mask (or holding the button to take the gas mask on or of) and flip the lighter, switch to night vision, use the binoculars or access your backpack.
As for the backpack, which grants you the ability to craft and customise your weapons on the go, it's by far one of the more essential features in the game, especially when playing on normal difficulty or above. When unpacking your backpack, you bring up the crafting menu. Here you can craft select ammunition (steel balls for your pressure based main weapon as well as arrows for your crossbow), select throwables (throwing knives and distracting decoys) as well as medkits and filters for your gas mask. All of these are crafted using materials you pick up when exploring and it's crucial to do so since crafting on the go can save your life in more situations than one.
While in the crafting menu one can also attach and switch out the stock, grip, barrel, sight, magazine and laser of most guns you find (or take off an enemy). For this, you need to loot the parts of guns lying around by dismantling them, putting the highlighted attachments in your inventory and turning the rest of the dismantled gun into crafting materials. If you would like to craft more complex ammunition, switch a weapon out for a different one, change your gear (as in a flashlight or combat armour mod) or repair and clean your gas mask visor and weapons, you need to get yourself to a workbench which you can find at safe houses (in which you can also rest up, replenishing your health) found in the wastes or your moving home base, the train The Aurora. Make sure to clean your weapons and repair your gas mask when you can, as dirty weapons lose their usefulness and a broken gas mask eats up filters more quickly.
All of the basics aside, Metro Exodus offers a gut-wrenching narrative involving Artyom and his friends, both new and old. There's plenty of room for casual conversations with his fellow members of The Order and by making time for these, the player will both learn more about the characters and the missions ahead and get the option to take on side-missions.
While Metro does a lot right, there are some issues to mention as well. When playing the game for review, on an Xbox One X, we encountered quite a few bugs and general issues. Most notably, we encountered a semi-game breaking bug that forced us to revert back to a long passed quicksave after NPCs wouldn't acknowledge our presence when finishing a mission. After this, we encountered a bug where, every time we toggled the flashlight, a laser beam-like sound could be heard, making firing guns or interacting with anything impossible. The second bug we were able to fix by proceeding through to a later checkpoint without using our flashlight.
Now, also worth noting is the fact that we played a pre-release version of the game, meaning there could be a patch coming, fixing the issues we experienced, but it did, nonetheless, mess with our sense of immersion when playing. Other issues we had, that weren't game-breaking but were still notable, included the odd audio bug when walking indoors, speeding up the sound of Artyom's footsteps, and there was a strange animation issue when walking up and down stairs, essentially making the player skip a few steps and instead falling down, sometimes over a steep railing.
While some issues exist in Metro Exodus, there's not enough of them to seriously detract from the fact that the game itself is great. With a heart-pounding narrative, fantastic environments, great action, reasonable survival elements, and the depth of the crafting and customisation systems, Metro Exodus is an experience that action players will enjoy and Metro fans will adore.
And finally, while we found that the game ended pretty abruptly, almost as if the player was hearing the last page of a book read aloud by Artyom, it was still oh so satisfying.