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