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
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.