Metro Exodus Review : Full Steam Ahead
SPOILER WARNING: This Metro Exodus review contains minor spoilers for the story and some levels of Metro Exodus and also spoilers for Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”.
Metro Exodus is a game of two halves. It’s one half an almost perfect immersive experience with some truly terrifying moments. On the other half it’s bad voice acting, baffling character animations and a script which at times is so bad it had me laughing out loud.
Metro Exodus Review
- Developer: 4A Games
- Available on: Xbox One/PS4/PC
- Played on: Xbox One
Single player shooters are a rare species in today’s always online and micro-transaction global gaming landscapes. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 discarded its single player campaign entirely and Respawn Entertainment’s recent entry; Apex Legends, is an always online battle royal shooter which comes at the expense of the eagerly sought after Titanfall 3. As such, when a story driven single player shooter like Metro Exodus is released, we should embrace it with open arms, put down our money and say to publishers that we definitely do want games like this.
If you have played the last two Metro titles, you will be familiar with the basic premise of Metro Exodus. You play as Artyom, a survivor of a nuclear war who has spent too long living in the Metro Tunnels of Moscow. He believes there must be other survivors out there and a safe place of refuge on the surface world. You board a locomotive steam train, later named the Aurora, and begin your journey across post-apocalyptic Russia in search of survivors. In fact, a better way to describe the story would be; you play as a Russian Michael Portillo, but instead of wearing colourful shirts, exuberant hats and soaking in the local culture, you wear an oxygen mask, are armed with an AK-47 and are constantly fighting off waves of mutated monsters against a bleak and ravished landscape.
The story is unfortunately generic for the post apocalyptic genre with plot points delivered with better results elsewhere. For example, facing mortality was significantly more harrowing in The Road by Cormac McCarthy. In this book and later film adaption a father must ensure his young son gets to safety after contracting an incurable disease. As the son relies on his father to survive, the consequences of his death are unthinkable, especially in a world full of ruthless infant-eating cannibals. The same can’t be said here. If any of the characters died, there would be no life threatening consequences given that the majority of the Aurora crew are military trained and battle hardened.
There are some good plot points towards the final act of the game though. You are forced to venture into the hazard zone – an area so irradiated it’s inhospitable to human life and what lurks there is unknown. At this point my imagination began to run wild and thankfully I wasn’t disappointed. Prepare for some truly nail biting moments.
The biggest reason the story isn’t engaging is due to its style of its delivery. 4A Games wanted to create a fully immersive experience, which is commendable, but unfortunately this isn’t a visually interesting method of storytelling. Cut scenes are absent with plot points delivered through first person with characters either talking directly at you or through group discussions. This results in static scenes as you more often than not are forced to sit on a chair and listen to exposition. Because there are no visually interesting camera angles each scene therefore relies on dialogue alone, which sadly isn’t strong enough to make up for each scenes visual shortcomings. In other games which use static delivery like the Witcher 3, the scenes are engaging because the script is well written and the voice acting is superb. I can’t say the same about either in Metro Exodus. I’m not sure whether it’s all down to the script or partly down to a combination of the poor voice acting and wax work-esque facial animations, or all three. At times the script is serviceable, but at other times it’s so bad I genuinely laughed out loud.
Bizarre Script, Bizarre Facial Animations
It was in the introductory level where I encountered my first laugh. While exploring the surface with Artyoms wife Anna, she shares her dreams of a better future before solemnly expressing her concerns “What good are these fantasies in a silent world?” Okay that’s quite metaphorical and thought provoking, but she immediately follows with “Silent because it’s dead” making the metaphor as subtle as the games freight train. There’s another unintentionally hilarious moment in the introduction where the Commander of ‘Hansa’ shouts “Shit! This fucking sucks!” after you destroy his radar equipment, like he’s a toddler throwing a tantrum. This is the commander of an insidious military regime by the way.
And there’s a handful of over the top cliche moments sprinkled in there for good measure too. For example, in a scene after Anna and Artyom have sex Anna proceeds to immediately smoke a cigarette while smooth jazz plays in the background. Again I laughed.
More and more layers of humour are unintentionally added like the facial animations. Most faces lack enough detail to make them look realistic and usually remain expressionless during conversation. I noticed this the most with Anna who only raises her eyebrows slightly while her eyes glaze over. Turns out it’s quite unsettling seeing a dead eyed character talking at you with little emotion. Other characters are animated slightly more effectively such as Miller, but he only seems to have two facial expressions. He either looks like he is about to murder somebody or like he’s in a daze with his eyelids drooped craving sugary snacks.
In fact, I got a lot of enjoyment from following Miller around the Aurora and examining his bizarre facial expressions and unhumanistic actions – like he was an alien sent to Earth trying to blend in with society. I really wanted to know what he was thinking because his facial expressions gave away no clues. In one section I noticed this the most when the crew gathered round to listen to some live acoustic guitar in what should have been a optimistic moment. But Instead my mind raced and I was fixated on Miller. Does he like the music? Does he hate it? Is he thinking about the relentless steps we take closer and closer to death in this post-apocalyptic world? Are you actually high Miller?
Usually I would mark these points down as a negative, but like with the script, these bizarre, baffling and unintentionally charming moments created my favourite memories of Metro Exodus.
It’s hard to say whether the facial animations are really that bad or if they only seem that way when compared to the unbelievably beautiful world design. Any aspect without the same polish will likely look cartoonish in contrast. The developers chose to apply a more realistic touch to the world aesthetics in pursuit of glorious immersion. It was a great choice with every realistic environment excelling due to the outstanding lighting effects. Dim Moonlight illuminates a forest as a huge mutated bear roars in the distance, or subtly shines into the Aurora signaling a sombre moment and a time for reflection. The lighting alone can set the tone immediately.
The lack of a HUD in non-combat areas such as the Aurora amplifies the immersion by stripping away unnecessary game elements, allowing us to focus on the smallest of details. Liquid in cups sloshes wildly as the Aurora accelerates forwards, or simply admiring the Russian landscape strewn with abandoned settlements pass by and taking a brief moment to imagine what came before this infinite post-apocalyptic environment.
If nobody spoke on the Aurora the level of immersion would be endless, shatterproof and free from characters spewing baffling lines of dialogue at Artyom. If the train wasn’t so small I would encourage Artyom to go to the quiet coach, where he could watch this beautiful world go by in peace.
Vulnerability in the Post-Apocalyptic World
While the Aurora is the games safe haven, the rest of the world is designed to make you feel vulnerable. Firstly your pool of health is low resulting in fast deaths even on normal and especially on hardcore (this is partly due to the bandit AI being a front runner for the most ridiculously accurate human AI in any video game, but mainly because of the design choices). The maximum amount of ammo you can carry at once is cleverly restricted which leads to you frequently running low, the guns feel extremely realistic with high recoil making them hard to handle, the hit boxes on enemies are seriously unforgiving requiring pin point precision and guns require cleaning over time or they will routinely jam or misfire.
It constantly feels like you’re battling with your equipment, fighting for it to keep you alive. This feeling extends to the Tikhar rifle, which uses a pneumatic system to fire small cylindrical ball bearings at a high velocity. The ball bearings can be crafted at your mobile workshop for a low cost which means you generally have this gun as a minimum. But in order to maintain the pressure, you must pump the gun manually. I’d fire a few shots, then pump up the pressure, fire some more, reach for the pump handle and my flashlight would need charging or my oxygen mask would need a filter replacing. With so many equipment failures occurring simultaneously, combat against monsters is frantic, high energy and always engaging.
Another thing I appreciated throughout my time with Metro Exodus was the lack of hand holding. Initially you’re taught the mechanics of the game with prompts on screen indicating you need to put your gas mask on, for example. Over time these prompts fade and visual or audio cues are utilised instead. When the prompts abandon you, you’re forced to learn when to use the oxygen mask as Artyom coughs in irradiated zones. A beeping sound signals that the oxygen mask filter needs replacing and literal cracks on the screen show the masks visor needs some quick DIY (this involves applying duct tape over the crack saving Artyom from suffocation as well as proving the life-long theory that anything can be fixed with adhesive).
The lack of prompts increases the chaotic nature of each encounter as you quickly scramble for the correct button to save your life. I lost track of the times I pressed the wrong button and made the situation far worse. Of course, this type of vulnerability was all of my own inept doing.
This feeling of never quite being safe truly excels during the expertly crafted psychological thriller and horror moments. Each linear environment is often dimly lit, unsettling (rats running around, slime dripping off walls, lights flickering) and you can often hear terrifying noises behind you. When it becomes clear you must venture into these areas, the heart rate drastically starts to rise.
There are also a handful of jump scares which are never over used. They are even cleverly spaced apart leading you into a false sense of security (there is one involving a giant shrimp in a cave where I literally yelped). While these moments give an almost popcorn like enjoyment, I did find however, that the greatest moments are associated with the overall atmosphere, level design and never-ending suspense.
Metro: Exodus Review – Final Thoughts
The Aurora arrived at the perfect time for Artyom. He dreamed of a world not covered in darkness, a world where he and his family could live peacefully in the light. And I, like Artyom, dreamed of a single player only shooter in a world where triple-A games were not always online and not always full of micro-transactions. Metro Exodus perfectly proves that there is still space for single player, linear focussed shooters when created by developers who understand and love the genre.
Even now I’m looking back fondly at Metro Exodus, but admittedly due to its frequently polarising tone. I remember the first time I laughed at Anna’s ridiculous dialogue or Miller’s bizarre facial expressions. And I remember the moments I couldn’t put the controller down, faced with fear, knowing that I must venture deeper into the lair of whatever horror awaits. I hope this entry proves that gamers want something different, something that looks backwards rather than forwards and something that reminds us why we fell in love with video games in the first place.
Thank you for reading my Metro Exodus Review
I really enjoyed this game and I hope it never changes. Keep the ridiculous script and poor facial animations, they were unintentionally hilarious and charming. I always felt as if I was laughing along with the characters never at them (if this design choice is intentional it is absolute genius) and I would love to go for a pint with Miller, he is one of the strangest game characters I’ve ever met.
Check out my previous review here – Red Dead Redemption 2 Review: A Fistful of Details