HANDS-ON: Metro ex­o­dus

4A Games stops re­ly­ing on the un­der­ground And takes its pub­lic trans­port to An (Al­most) open world in Metro ex­o­dus

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It’s not just the death of sin­gle-player games that has been greatly ex­ag­ger­ated – it’s the death of the mid-tier devel­oper, too. For­tu­nately we have the likes of Ukrainian/ Mal­tese dev team 4A Games fly­ing the flag for ti­tles that aren’t cost­ing the world to cre­ate, but are pro­vid­ing play­ers with in­cred­i­ble worlds to ex­plore… just ones that aren’t quite as big, free and open as the ones that Sony spend tens of mil­lions of dol­lars on to get made. Metro Ex­o­dus, the third ti­tle in the post-apoc­a­lyp­tic de­pres­sion sim­u­la­tor se­ries, fi­nally makes its move to the sur­face in a sus­tained fash­ion – so is it open world? Not quite. 4A and Deep Sil­ver, the pub­lisher be­hind Ex­o­dus, are both very aware of the lim­i­ta­tions they're work­ing with – but that’s not a bad thing. In­stead, it means we don’t have to traipse through a large, empty waste­land cre­ated just to pad out space, nor do we ap­proach si­t­u­a­tions with­out a clear idea of what it is we’re try­ing to achieve. Ba­si­cally, Metro Ex­o­dus is a lin­ear game, with mis­sions handed out and ob­jec­tives to com­plete and a pro­gres­sion from level to level to level un­til you com­plete the game. At the same time, 4A is let­ting play­ers out from the un­der­ground they spent the ma­jor­ity of their time in through both Metro 2033 and Last Light, so it just wouldn’t work to strap them in to­tally lin­ear lev­els. In­stead, Metro Ex­o­dus of­fers play­ers the chance to ex­plore lim­ited – though still large – play ar­eas for each mis­sion, tack­ling chal­lenges, ex­plor­ing a lit­tle, hunt­ing down new sal­vage to craft into med­kits, gas mask fil­ters, and am­mu­ni­tion, and giv­ing you a few more op­tions to ap­proach be­yond a claus­tro­pho­bic cor­ri­dor with some­thing def­i­nitely hor­ri­ble at the end of it. Huw Beynon, head of global brand man­age­ment for Deep Sil­ver, has been around the Metro se­ries a long time, and ex­plains the gen­eral thought process be­hind this new di­rec­tion for the se­ries. “It’s the con­tin­u­a­tion of the story,” he says, “With a lit­tle bit of in­ter­weav­ing with Dmitry [Glukhovsky]’s Metro nov­els. This time, rather than just con­fin­ing our­selves to the un­der­ground Moscow Metro, we wanted to take play­ers on an epic jour­ney across post-apoc­a­lyp­tic Rus­sia.” So it is that Ex­o­dus earns its name, tak­ing play­ers – con­trol­ling re­turn­ing se­ries pro­tag­o­nist Ar­tyom – on a jour­ney from Moscow to the far eastern edge of the for­mer Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion. It’s not a short jour­ney, by any means, and it means you get to see a lot more va­ri­ety than ever be­fore – the whole game takes in all four sea­sons across a cal­en­dar year, and the wastes that were once Rus­sia are as var­ied, and deadly, as they've been al­luded to be­fore. It’s go­ing to be a step up from tun­nels and the odd deadly foray to the sur­face, that’s for sure. “The stu­dio lit­er­ally has been work­ing in the tun­nels for seven years mak­ing, across the first two games, what al­most felt like two halves of the same game,” Beynon says, be­fore ad­mit­ting it’s a “kind of creative fa­tigue” that has pushed the team at 4A to change things so rad­i­cally, slap­ping play­ers into a huge steam lo­co­mo­tive called the Aurora and send­ing them on this epic… well, ex­o­dus. “I think we did a great job of keep­ing the lo­ca­tions var­ied in the pre­vi­ous

“4A wants to in­tro­duce play­ers to far more of postapoc­a­lyp­tic rus­sia than they’ve ever seen”

two games,” Beynon says, “The un­der­ground tun­nels, the frozen, snowy river of Moscow, the dec­i­mated city streets. It was re­ally the artists who wanted to flex their creative wings a lit­tle bit, to try some new en­vi­ron­ments to play around with, and that kind of is where the ini­tial con­cept for the story – how it would al­low us to do that – came from.” The story in Ex­o­dus con­tin­ues its di­ver­gence from the source ma­te­rial of Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro novel se­ries, though this time around it feels more like there’s no com­ing back – in more ways than one – to the ground­work laid out by the au­thor. Push­ing play­ers be­yond Moscow takes Ex­o­dus into un­charted ter­ri­to­ries for Glukhovsky’s sto­ries much more than Last Light ever did, and it means 4A – with the au­thor’s bless­ing, of course – is free to loosen the reins a bit in terms of the lore and in­vent its own peo­ple, places, and things for play­ers to en­counter and likely be killed by. Our demo of Ex­o­dus in­tro­duced an elec­tric­ity-fear­ing re­li­gious sect, la­belling all of the sparky power as the work of Satan and blam­ing it for the down­fall of so­ci­ety. As you do. While the god-fear­ing masses are un­armed, af­ter lur­ing you into their sanc­tu­ary they call in their heavy hit­ters, and an es­cape from this not-so-lu­di­crous, given the cir­cum­stances, cult is on the cards. It’s here where Ex­o­dus is so ob­vi­ously a lin­ear ti­tle with crafted, smallscale events to tackle – but it’s also here where im­prove­ments to el­e­ments like stealth shine through, of­fer­ing play­ers even greater abil­ity than be­fore to ghost their way through a sec­tion and progress the story. Es­cape is the ob­jec­tive; how you go about do­ing it is re­ally up to you. Our in­stinct was to go for stealth, and the nat­u­ral out­come was to be dis­cov­ered af­ter a mis­take and pur­sued into the mu­tantin­fested wa­ters sur­round­ing the church, be­fore be­ing de­voured and hav­ing to start all over. Clas­sic Metro, re­ally. The scope for Ex­o­dus has grown hugely since the first two games, and while it’s true the bud­get be­hind things isn’t on a par with most triple-a releases 4A has still grown as a team over the past few years. Af­ter hav­ing to strug­gle through the Crimean an­nex­a­tion and Ukrainian rev­o­lu­tion of 2014, the stu­dio moved its main oper­a­tions to Sliema, in the north east of Malta – while still main­tain­ing a pres­ence in Kiev. “The stu­dio has been growing since con­cep­tion,” Beynon ex­plains. “Re­ally the rea­son why the first two game were so fo­cused was the team would spend – lit­er­ally – years try­ing to cre­ate this in­cred­i­bly am­bi­tious game… maybe a lit­tle bit too fo­cused and in­ap­pro­pri­ate for the team size that they had at the time! “But this year the team has grown and evolved,” he con­tin­ues, “We’ve got around 140 to 160 peo­ple spread across the two lo­ca­tions now. It’s made a project like this a lit­tle more pos­si­ble, but at the same time it’s been a longer devel­op­ment pe­riod than pre­vi­ous games.” It’s the tra­di­tional trade-off – Last Light be­gan devel­op­ment al­most as soon as 2033 shipped and took around three years for 4A to com­plete – since then it’s been around four years in full pro­duc­tion for Ex­o­dus: “So,” Beynon laughs, “Big­ger team, plus longer du­ra­tion, equals more game.” Even with the new hires and new blood cours­ing through 4A, this is still a team with

“if you do have the ca­pa­bil­ity to sur­vive it will be be­cause you’re us­ing the in­for­ma­tion Avail­able”

its roots in the hard­core sur­vival ac­tion of the orig­i­nal Metro – as well as the orig­i­nal S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Shadow Of Ch­er­nobyl. With that be­ing the case, it’s safe to say the first cou­ple of games went some­what ig­nored by the masses – def­i­nitely known to the core gamers out there, but fall­ing by the way­side in the broader spec­trum. 2014’s Metro Re­dux – a re­mas­ter of the first two games re-re­leased on PC and brought to PS4 and Xbox One in a pe­riod when nei­ther con­sole was in­un­dated with big, chunky, at­mo­spheric ex­pe­ri­ences changed the for­tunes some­what for Metro and 4A. “Re­dux was a fan­tas­tic op­por­tu­nity for us to bring a whole new au­di­ence into the fran­chise,” Beynon says. “It proved to be phe­nom­e­nally suc­cess­ful and I think it re­ally built a firm base [of new fans]. Yes, Ex­o­dus is the next big en­try into a long-run­ning se­ries, but the stu­dio formed in 2005 so they’ve re­ally been liv­ing in this world for a long time.” Over time, though, 4A has had to adapt its ap­proach to the Metro se­ries – Last Light made things a mite less de­mand­ing. The Re­dux re-releases added the op­tion to play in tra­di­tional or re­vamped dif­fi­cul­ties – sur­vival or Spar­tan – ac­knowl­edg­ing the fact that to keep hold over a broader, more main­stream group of play­ers, Metro had to at least make a nod to­wards mak­ing things less punishing. Ex­o­dus car­ries on down this path, of­fer­ing play­ers the chance to cus­tomise their ex­pe­ri­ence ac­cord­ing to just how dif­fi­cult they want things to be – HUD el­e­ments can be turned on or off, ammo can be in­cred­i­bly scarce or widely avail­able, scrap can be im­pos­si­ble to find or plen­ti­ful and so on. Ex­o­dus can be set up to play as a hard­core sur­vival game, as you might ex­pect from 4A’s pedi­gree, but there have been more than enough con­ces­sions made to the main­stream play­ers. It can only be a good thing to make the ex­pe­ri­ence more ac­ces­si­ble – un­less these tweaks are manda­tory, which we’ve been as­sured they haven’t. “The way we have it set up at the mo­ment, it’s quite well bal­anced right now,” Beynon ex­plains. “We ab­so­lutely want to of­fer that chal­leng­ing, hard­core sur­vival ex­pe­ri­ence – like our core fan­base, that’s what we want. That’s what they want and ex­pect and you will def­i­nitely be able to play the game in a mode where every bul­let counts, you re­ally need to take a stealthy ap­proach to con­serve your am­mu­ni­tion.” At the same time, it’s recog­nised that this isn’t the ap­proach every­one wants: “There are peo­ple who want to en­joy the story much more,” he con­tin­ues. “Yes, the game needs a de­gree of chal­lenge, but there are peo­ple who won’t want to be pun­ished by it… At the mo­ment I don’t know ex­actly how we’re go­ing to ap­proach it, but we would like to cater for some dif­fer­ent styles when peo­ple fire up the game for the first time. It might come up with that warn­ing like, ‘This is the hard­core ver­sion, you need to know what you’re do­ing,’ or, ‘This is for if you en­joy the story a bit more.’ I don’t know ex­actly how those are go­ing to pan out but I think we need to do a lot more tun­ing and balancing over­all. When we’re close to fi­nal con­tent and we’ll fig­ure that prob­lem out.” An­other fac­tor to con­sider when think­ing about how Metro Ex­o­dus has grown be­yond its smaller roots is a straight­for­ward one: the sim­u­la­tion of the world play­ers can ex­plore. When things were lim­ited to un­der­ground tun­nels, it was much eas­ier for de­vel­op­ers to make things run well, for AI to know its way around, and for un­wanted events to oc­cur – eas­ier, though not easy, that is. With Ex­o­dus tak­ing place, for the most part, above ground, and in maps much larger than any of those seen in pre­vi­ous Metro ti­tles, there’s the ques­tion of just how well the team is man­ag­ing to keep ev­ery­thing run­ning along with­out the game trip­ping up over its own sys­tems. “Metro’s play­ers have al­ways been… I think this is typ­i­cal of Eastern Euro­pean and Ukrainian play­ers, they love sim­u­la­tions,” Beynon

ex­plains. “They like com­plex mod­els for lots of quite deep emer­gent sys­tems. “That re­ally suited us in the first games where we tried to make those com­bat en­vi­ron­ments a lit­tle bit more freeform, but I think it re­ally comes into its own now that we have these larger en­vi­ron­ments.” With a huge amount of sim­u­la­tion go­ing on be­hind the scenes – time of day, weather, biomes of hu­man and mu­tants and how they in­ter­act, there’s a lot more go­ing on that can go wrong. But 4A has a han­dle on it – and has been mak­ing sure to en­cour­age that con­trolled chaos wher­ever it can. Af­ter all, what’s a semiopen world with­out a bit of a food chain go­ing on? “You might be fight­ing a gang of ban­dits,” Beynon says. “And then, as guns were fired, you at­tract a nearby pack of mu­tants if they’re pass­ing through at that time. Sud­denly they come in and get in­volved in the mix…” It might sound like a sound­bite – a bul­let point for the back of the box based on lit­tle more than hy­po­thet­i­cal mar­ket­ing blurb – but the fact is we gen­uinely ex­pe­ri­enced this when play­ing the game. It’s noth­ing new for gam­ing as a whole, but it helps Metro Ex­o­dus to feel like this re­ally is tak­ing place in the liv­ing, breath­ing world above ground. On res­cu­ing a mem­ber of the afore­men­tioned anti-elec­tric church and find­ing out in­for­ma­tion from him on where a stash was lo­cated, a pack of ma­raud­ing – well, they looked like they used to be dogs – turned up and laid waste to the few re­main­ing ban­dits in the area, and the zealot we had just freed. Sorry friend, but that’s just how life is in Metro: sad, tragic and short. If you do have the ca­pa­bil­ity to sur­vive, how­ever, it will be be­cause you’re us­ing the in­for­ma­tion avail­able to you. Yes, you might have turned off all the HUD prompts and what­ever else gets in the way, but your tools are al­ways there. Lis­ten to the sounds of peo­ple and mu­tants around and fig­ure out where they are so you can en­gage or avoid ef­fec­tively. Plan your jour­ney us­ing a de­light­fully (and Far Cry 2-evok­ing) low-tech

map, which you have to press a but­ton to get out and can’t be scrolled or other­wise nav­i­gated – your com­pass will see a lot of use. Hunt ev­ery­where –though watch out for those jump scares when you do – to gather as many ma­te­ri­als as pos­si­ble for your craft­ing. And don’t ever for­get to craft, mak­ing the es­sen­tials along with tweak­ing your weapons and mod­ding them to un­recog­nis­able lev­els in a sys­tem that has been fun­da­men­tally tweaked since Last Light. This new gun-tweak­ing sys­tem re­sults in weapons that can be made into much more per­sonal killing ma­chines, as well as firearms for all oc­ca­sions. Again it’s not some­thing we haven’t seen else­where – larger clips, sup­pres­sors, dif­fer­ent stocks and so on – but it is some­thing that’s a very nice fit for the world of Metro. It makes sense. All of the es­sen­tial craft­ing does, even if it is noth­ing par­tic­u­larly new: rather some­thing you see be­ing a nec­es­sary part of Metro Ex­o­dus, and some­thing that adds that ex­tra layer of ten­sion as you ap­proach an area rid­dled with hos­tile creatures or peo­ple. Can you af­ford to fire any bul­lets? Is there a way around this with­out wast­ing any­thing? Might it be worth it to go in all guns blaz­ing and hope the sal­vage re­cov­ered in the after­math is enough to cover your losses? It’s all a fun tac­ti­cal thought process to go through, if you so choose, and has the added ben­e­fit of back­ing up Metro’s fic­tion nicely. With Metro Ex­o­dus, 4A Games wants to show off its devel­op­ment chops like never be­fore. It wants to in­tro­duce play­ers to far more of post-apoc­a­lyp­tic Rus­sia than they’ve ever seen, and it wants to throw all the weird and won­der­ful it can through the jour­ney. With many mil­lions more be­hind it, Metro Ex­o­dus could have been an epic open world sur­vival game full of all the epic, or­ches­tral blus­ter we’ve come to ex­pect from the big guns. So it’s ac­tu­ally to the game’s ben­e­fit, then, that it’s be­ing made with a rel­a­tively mod­est bud­get, with a rel­a­tively small dev team, mean­ing we have to – by de­sign – end up with a game that is more hand­made, that is less padded, and that is more mid-tier. That, dear read­ers, is not a bad thing – it’s a pretty good thing, in fact. And Metro Ex­o­dus could well play a big part in the re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion of a tier of gam­ing we’ve been miss­ing out on for years now. And even if it doesn’t, at least you’ll be able to ride your su­per­train across what was once Rus­sia shoot­ing bad guys and mu­tants in the face be­fore ex­pos­ing your­self to ra­di­a­tion and dy­ing hor­ri­bly. Like we said, it’s clas­sic Metro.

“push­ing play­ers be­yond moscow takes ex­o­dus into un­charted ter­ri­to­ries for glukhovsky’s orig­i­nal sto­ries”

There’s more than one rea­son to err on the side of stealth in Metro Ex­o­dus as too much noise can at­tract un­wanted at­ten­tion.

Metro Ex­o­dus of­fers a fairly lin­ear struc­ture with strict mis­sions and ob­jec­tives, just in much more open lev­els.

Some ad­di­tional free­dom of move­ment out in the wastes goes both ways. En­e­mies could come from anywhere.

Graph­i­cally, it should go with­out say­ing that Metro Ex­o­dus is hugely im­pres­sive.

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