Metro Ex­o­dus

WE VISIT 4A GAMES MALTA TO GET AN EX­CLU­SIVE BE­HIND THE SCENED LOOK AT THE DE­VEL­OP­MENT OF MTRO EX­O­DUS ONE OF THE MOST AM­BI­TIOUS FIRST PER­SON SHOOT­ERS OF THE GEN­ER­A­TION. JOIN US AS WE FELVE INTO THE DE­CI­SIONS BE­HIND METRO EX­O­DUS EX­PANDED DE­SIGN SPEAK WITH T

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We take an ex­clu­sive look at the mak­ing of 4A’s lat­est with the team and get an ex­ten­sive hand­son ex­pe­ri­ence to see just how well this new epic shooter is com­ing along

The only time that you run out of chances is when you stop tak­ing them. After a life­time spent strug­gling to sur­vive in the claus­tro­pho­bic tun­nels of Moscow’s Metro sys­tem, Ar­tyom is only too aware that he is run­ning out of chances to grasp a hold of. For the sake of his fam­ily, his friends and their fu­ture, he must lead an ex­o­dus out of the ir­ra­di­ated city he has al­ways called home and head off to the East in search of a bet­ter to­mor­row. Ar­tyom is ven­tur­ing out into the waste­lands of the wider world to find life beyond the de­cay – he’ll die try­ing to prove it. This is an ex­o­dus of ne­ces­sity; a last chance with no clear con­clu­sion.

It’s easy to draw a par­al­lel be­tween Ar­tyom’s mis­sion and the jour­ney that de­vel­oper 4A Games has em­barked on to make it all pos­si­ble. You might not re­alise it yet, but de­par­tures are a part of the stu­dio’s past, its cul­ture and its iden­tity. This is a stu­dio that is proud of its past and ex­cited by its ex­pand­ing cul­ture, although we get the sense that it is con­cerned about its iden­tity. This is es­pe­cially per­ti­nent as the two core teams – based out of Malta and Kiev – work tire­lessly to wrap up de­vel­op­ment on a cre­ative en­deav­our that isn’t just am­bi­tious by its own lofty stan­dards, but by any stan­dard imag­in­able.

After five years of de­vel­op­ment, this will ul­ti­mately rep­re­sent a bold new be­gin­ning for Ar­tyom, for the de­vel­op­ers that fled a coun­try in cri­sis and for a stu­dio look­ing to rise above a spec­tre of ex­pec­ta­tion that is threat­en­ing to con­sume it.

This is a be­hind-the-scenes look at the de­vel­op­ment of Metro Ex­o­dus, a project that no other mo­dem stu­dio would ever have en­ter­tained, let alone pushed into ac­tive pro­duc­tion.

LONG WAY FROM HOME

Ar­tyom is a long way from home. 5,722 kilo­me­tres out­side of Moscow at this stage of the game; it’s clearly been a treach­er­ous jour­ney, one that has al­ready driven Ar­tyom and his car­a­van of fol­low­ers through hell on earth in win­ter, spring and sum­mer vari­a­tions. Aboard the Aurora, a train hi­jacked from Moscow, the last of the Spar­tan Rangers have moved care­fully across the coun­try, re­cruit­ing new fol­low­ers to their cause and gath­er­ing new in­for­ma­tion on what lies ahead of them as the sea­sons shift around them. Each of the ar­eas pre­ced­ing the one that we stand in to­day has pre­sented a re­fresh­ing change of pace and chal­lenge to those that were found in the depths of Moscow’s Metro, though per­haps none more so than this one.

There is some­thing about th­ese new sur­round­ings that doesn’t sit right at first. The un­ease is pal­pa­ble, the au­tumn air suf­fo­cat­ing. We are now strangers in a strange land, and there’s no telling how long it will take to ad­just to the seren­ity. When all you have ever known has been cast un­der the long shadow of per­pet­ual nu­clear win­ter – when your life has been con­fined to an un­der­ground net­work of tun­nels il­lu­mi­nated by flick­er­ing ser­vice lights – the ab­sence of any im­me­di­ate, ob­vi­ous dan­ger is ar­rest­ing. It’s dis­con­cert­ing to stand by, idly ob­serv­ing the world, drenched in rays of warm light, watch­ing as am­ber leaves dance gen­tly in the breeze to­wards some dis­tant hori­zon. The open road is beck­on­ing us on­wards, dirt paths through nearby trees taunt us to di­rect our at­ten­tion else­where. There is no clear way ahead; the free­dom is in­tox­i­cat­ing.

The weight of the un­known is some­thing that Ar­tyom must carry on his shoul­ders and it’s one we sym­pa­thise with whole­heart­edly, par­tic­u­larly as we are given the op­por­tu­nity to play through this brand-new area of Ex­o­dus, ten­ta­tively en­ti­tled The Val­ley. Ad­mit­tedly, much like Ar­tyom, we are feel­ing a lit­tle far re­moved from our com­fort zone. This isn’t your tra­di­tional Metro game by any stretch of the imag­i­na­tion.

Truth be told, while this change in pace and level de­sign is ini­tially a lit­tle jar­ring, it’s one that we are ul­ti­mately elated to see 4A push to­wards. The stu­dio feels much the same way. “We knew we wanted to do some­thing new, as stu­dios usu­ally do when they set out to make a new game,” ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Jon Bloch tells us, ex­plain­ing how after a decade spent ex­plor­ing dank sub­ter­ranean en­vi­ron­ments the small de­vel­op­ment out­fit fi­nally felt the urge to sur­face for air. “Our de­sign­ers wanted to branch out and flex their mus­cles. They wanted to do some­thing dif­fer­ent this time and the artists felt the same way.”

Some­thing dif­fer­ent, but not nec­es­sar­ily un­fa­mil­iar; 4A is at­tempt­ing to strike a care­ful bal­ance here, one that ben­e­fits from the size and scope of­fered by an open-world sand­box shooter with­out di­lut­ing the power to be found in care­fully au­thored, story-driven con­tent. That isn’t easy to ac­com­plish. In many re­spects, those two goals are the an­tithe­sis of one an­other. Maybe now you’re be­gin­ning to un­der­stand why Ex­o­dus has been in de­vel­op­ment for such a very long time.

4A may have al­ways been as­so­ci­ated with the Metro fran­chise, though the heart of the team has ex­pe­ri­ence out­side of it. It was an el­e­ment of ex­per­tise that the stu­dio was ea­ger to take ad­van­tage of. “There is some open-world ex­pe­ri­ence on this team, from back be­fore 4A formed – from the days of GSC,” Bloch con­tin­ues, re­fer­ring to the team’s work on 2007’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow Of Ch­er­nobyl, a project where many of the core Metro de­vel­op­ers would first meet and col­lab­o­rate. “We fig­ured that this was a good place for us to start. That we could kind of blend the two game ex­pe­ri­ences – S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Metro – together and try to find some in­ter­est­ing way of ex­pand­ing on what we al­ready had. It took us a while to get here, nearly two-and-a-half years to find the right for­mula.”

The ver­sion of Metro Ex­o­dus that you see to­day has been over­hauled ex­ten­sively through­out its de­vel­op­ment. 4A Games

WE ARE NOW STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND AND THERS NO TELLING HOW LONG IT WILL TAKE TO AD­JUST TO THE SEREN­ITY

knew that it wanted to push the en­ve­lope with­out di­lut­ing the core ap­peal of the se­ries’ tra­di­tional play. This process looks bold and pro­gres­sive now, though that wasn’t the case back at the out­set of de­vel­op­ment. “When we first started we made a com­pletely open level and we went com­pletely in the wrong di­rec­tion with it,” ad­mits Bloch, ex­plain­ing that any orig­i­nal in­ten­tion to tran­si­tion Metro’s con­sid­ered ac­tion into a fully open world space would have to be quickly reigned in. It couldn’t cap­ture the at­mos­phere and pac­ing that the Metro games have be­come so fa­mous for cul­ti­vat­ing. “We had to reel it back in… we had to go back in the other di­rec­tion and see where the line was. Then we found our­selves re­mov­ing too much of that open feel. It was a back and forth for so long, of us just it­er­at­ing to try to fig­ure out the right bal­ance.”

“At the end of the day, I think if we had gone com­pletely open world that maybe there’s some for­mula that we could’ve found, even­tu­ally. But I cer­tainly think that it would’ve been a larger shock to the sys­tem, for our­selves, and for our fans,” says Bloch. “With the for­mula that we have now, we found a way to con­tain a story arc and pro­gres­sion through th­ese big open ar­eas that is very well de­fined.”

The Val­ley is a shin­ing ex­am­ple of the com­pro­mise struck be­tween de­sign ideals. It’s an open-ended level book­ended by more tra­di­tional, some­times even claus­tro­pho­bic, lin­ear spa­ces. It’s a smartly de­signed area that sub­tly steers you to­wards points of in­ter­est and ob­jec­tives with­out rush­ing you, giv­ing you the free­dom to ex­plore the wide-open mass of land while still draw­ing you into au­thored mo­ments or ter­ror. It’s a smart blend that works to keep you on the edge of your seat at all times and it’s all han­dled in a nice, sub­tle way. “It’s not like we have a sign up on the screen that says go here, do this, fetch that,” says Bloch, not­ing that the game it­self is al­most en­tirely free of a HUD, while el­e­ments such as the map and ob­jec­tive notes act as phys­i­cal ob­jects in the world that you must han­dle to ob­serve. “We still try to in­te­grate ev­ery­thing nat­u­rally… there is all sorts of stuff that you can just come across nat­u­rally and ex­plore for your­self rather than just be­ing told to, like, go fetch ten of those things. We didn’t want to – and we don’t do – that kind of stuff.”

We were a lit­tle taken aback by just how large this space would prove to be – and that’s some­thing that The Val­ley and Volga, the level shown off back at E3 2018, have in com­mon. Deep Sil­ver’s global head of brand man­age­ment Huw Beynon clued us in to the size and, truth be told, it sounds a lit­tle stag­ger­ing. “We’re look­ing at a to­tal play­time of both pre­vi­ous games com­bined. In terms of ge­o­graph­i­cal foot­print, as we have moved to th­ese more open ar­eas, we can fit pretty much the en­tirety of the first two games (in terms of foot­print) into just one of our huge lev­els,” he says, ex­pand­ing on this thought in a more di­gestible fash­ion: “The last two games came in at about 12GB each, and we’re strug­gling to fit Ex­o­dus onto a sin­gle Blu-ray. This is a mas­sive step up for the stu­dio.”

We spent five hours crawl­ing through The Val­ley find­ing ev­ery one of the notes and au­dio­tapes that were strewn across it in an at­tempt to dis­cern ev­ery sin­gle story de­tail. We fled from a field-of-view dwarf­ing mu­tated bear, hid from hun­gry wolves that left us quiv­er­ing in fear – each of their night-sky-pierc­ing screams send­ing shiv­ers down the spine – and played a vi­o­lent game of cat and mouse with a va­ri­ety of highly in­tel­li­gent for­est-dwelling foes. We tore that level apart in search of ev­ery one of its se­crets.

Truth be told, we thought we had seen ev­ery­thing it had to of­fer. Un­til, that is, a de­vel­oper would later un­shackle the cam­era from Ar­tyom with a dev com­mand key and give us a quick fly­over of the rest of the map that lay beyond the bound­aries of the ver­ti­cal slice we were able to play. We weren’t even a third of the way through it; it was stag­ger­ing. And while we’d love to tell you what we saw beyond the ceme­tery gates of the di­lap­i­dated church where our ses­sion came to a close, we wouldn’t want to spoil the sur­prise.

Suf­fice to say, how­ever, it looked pretty damned im­pres­sive. Not that we should be so sur­prised, be­cause that’s ex­actly what Ex­o­dus is, damned im­pres­sive. That speaks to the love and care that has gone into th­ese care­fully crafted spa­ces,

A lot has changed in Metro Ex­o­dus, but the fun­da­men­tals are still there. It’s still a story-driven ad­ven­ture that looks to cul­ti­vate ter­ror through its en­vi­ron­ments, of­fer­ing a nar­ra­tive drip­ping in moral am­bi­gu­ity and the su­per­nat­u­ral.

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