It’s 1972 in Moscow. Nuclear annihilation is a real and present danger. The Cold War is still waged, silently but actually, on the world stage. But in the minds of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, it is not nuclear annihilation which forever changes the face of the planet—it’s first contact.
The fantasy of world-ending events has resonated in Eastern European media for almost half a century. From the classic Strugatsky brothers novel Roadside Picnic to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker—one of the greatest in cinematic history—the idea of a catastrophe of such magnitude has permeated popular consciousness and has been the de facto centerpiece of creative imagery.
At the end of April 1986, fiction became fact. The disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine changed history. It was almost as if the popular imagination of the Soviets manifested a reality so truly bizarre and ultimately horrifying.
But where has the creative exploration of such a topic been so vital? Not since Tarkovsky’s film has there been an excellent piece dealing with the subject. Interestingly, it has been in digital media—in video and computer games—where such a setting could be examined.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: The Shadow of Chernobyl, possibly the most realistic game in its day, gave us the ability to explore the terrible aftermath of such an event. It was a great game, but it lacked a certain narrative power.
Outside of the videogame world another piece explored the possibility of an Eastern Europe ravaged by a civilization-ending sequence of events: Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033, and its two sequels. These wildly popular books and their adaptations as games have successfully blended all of the narrative and iconography of the “incident” in Stalker and the first contact event in Roadside Picnic. It is as if the two married, had a child, and that child did them both right by popularizing the themes in each respectively.
What Is It?
Metro Exodus is the third installment covering the events of 2036 after Metro 2033 and Last Light. Again playing as Artyom in the post-apocalyptic Russian Federation, you are now leaving the Metro and exploring the rest of the countryside. From Moscow to Vladivostok, you traverse the Russian landscape in hope that you could settle a new and more stable home.
This, apparent as it may be from the media which has been released, should be thoroughly confusing to anyone who has been following the story so far. You might be wondering, how exactly could they leave the Metro? Isn’t it completely irradiated and destroyed? Hasn’t civilization effectively collapsed and the only livable arena underground in the Metro of Moscow? Put simply, yes. The rest, you’ll have to find out on your own.
It’s a wild ride that really does not let up from its first act to its last.
The plot plays out over the course of a calendar year and this is crucial to its gameplay. There are four major seasons, naturally, and three open worlds you’ll explore which are directly impacted by every season (minus winter, which is on rails).
The three seasons through which you play impact the gameplay deal with the vastness and diversity of the Russian landscape and also the plausible shifts after a nuclear event with ecological ramifications. In one of the regions you’ll play in the high heat of the summer in a now dried up region of the eastern side of the Caspian Sea. Each of these open worlds is radically different from each other and also from the past games in the Metro series.
If you’ve ever played the past Metro games you’ll know that these games are largely on rails and they are rooted in a sense of claustrophobia. You are supposed to feel cramped, closed off, and always near death. In Metro Exodus you’ll have many experiences like this, but you’ll also have a lot of others which are more similar to Fallout than its predecessors. That, depending on what you are looking for, can be a good or bad thing.
Why Should I Care?
Metro Exodus is a mixed bag in a lot of ways.
In short, it is an outstanding game trapped inside of a good one. The plot, the characters, the world they’re living in, and the gravity of the events are second to none. It shows that the Ukrainian developers 4A Games are on the right track and undoubtedly will net a classic after they master their craft.
On the other hand, there are many small glitches—from sound errors to clipping to crashes (which may indeed be fixed quickly after launch, mind you) which take you out of the immersive and intense experience. Beyond this, there are some strange gameplay choices which reduce the tension and immersion as well. For example, there are a lot of QTE (quick time events) and unnecessary button pressing which makes it feel too much like an arcade experience at times. That said, it could be argued that had they not gone that route it would have felt too cinematic. It is always a hard balance to strike and overall they did well but could have done better.
Beyond minor sound glitches, there are some bizarre choices for sound design. An example of this is that there will be dialogue occurring in the world which is of course a scripted sequence. That sequence will be triggered by proximity of the player to the NPC, and then pause should the player move on. But if one goes right back the loop will begin as if the player stayed. That is fine for the sake of offering the material to the player should they want it, but it appears wildly unrealistic and is almost laughable at times.
All this said, I want to make it clear that these are minor technical issues which are holding back an otherwise excellent game which really brings this series home.
What Makes it Worth My Time And Money?
If you have played the other Metro games, this is a must-play.
If you have skipped the other Metro games, it’s still worth a shot—potentially when it’s discounted.
This is about a twenty hour game, which makes it longer than the predecessors. The open world design also offers more variety than the predecessors, and will allow you to attempt to go at it with different play-styles.
It’s also a difficult game if you are playing on any difficulty setting above the easiest one—which is called “Reader”—intended for those who are interested only in the story. This means that should you find this game compelling enough, you may want to consider having a go at it in a way which might put the “survival” in survival horror more seriously.
To survive in the game you’ll need to learn to scavenge, upgrade your equipment, and master the utility of your resources—use them wisely because they are sparse! Your backpack can only carry so much while you are on the go.
The thing which is most impressive to me about the game is how it continuously upped the ante at every chapter. Where you think a cult of fundamentalist Russian Orthodox luddites are seriously bizarre, it only gets crazier and crazier with each chapter. From cultists to cannibals to a slave colony, this game gets more and more intense at every turn until it culminates in one of the most insane, nauseating end-chapters you can find. It’s really a fun and unforgettable ride.
Also, if you’ve ever had any interest in Russian or Slavic culture, this game does a great job of attempting to be authentic (after all, it was made by Ukrainians). You’ll hear Russian phrases, see Russian writing, and see Orthodox iconography everywhere. Getting out of the Metro and exploring the countryside means we’re no longer trapped in the logic of the Communist versus Fascist fight of the first two games.
But, this stated, there are other aspects of the first two games which are missing. If more was to be said, it would be a big spoiler—but some elements of the story are missing or seriously reduced. That should understood going into it if you are a die-hard fan.
In all, Metro Exodus is a fantastic game that could have benefited from either delaying for a new generation (to improve its technical production) or another period of time being perfected before release. Like stated previously, it’s an outstanding game—but it’s trapped or held back by this myriad of technical issues.
If you are interested in nuclear annihilation, alien contact, post-apocalyptic worlds, Russia, or Eurasia in general then this is the game for you. If not, at least it’ll be a fun and intense action game.
The Metro trilogy, now coming to a satisfying close, will situate itself as one of the best to explore this topic. It is among Roadside Picnic and Stalker as a vision of the future should we not be more careful.
It’s 2019. Can we avoid the events of 2033?