Metro Exodus is a tough one. As a reviewer, you ask yourself if a game is good or bad. You look at graphics, gameplay, story, and then you appraise how well they all blend. Obviously, there's a lot more to it but reviews are mostly boiled down to those components. Is a game as good as the sum of its parts? Does it transcend them? Metro Exodus is complicated because it's often impressive and a struggle within the same instant. It's jarring and heart-touching at the same time. It's got a dedication to a unique vision but is bogged down in a muggy play experience.
So, let's try to untangle this.
To provide a brief history, the Metro series is based on the sci-fi series of novels of the same name by Dmitry Glukhovsky. There've been two games in the series which explore the grim setting of a post-nuclear war Russia. Now those in Moscow are relegated to the underground Metro system where they must contest with survival, human power struggles and a never-ending horde of ginormous mutated rats. You play as Artyom, who has had dreams (or delusions) of leaving the Metro into the irradiated landscape above to make a new life for him and his partner Anna. Even though Exodus is the third in the series, that is more or less the extent of the knowledge you need coming into this game. (I know because I never got to the previous games.) Developer 4A Games do a great job of catching you up with what is important and through the game's 25 hour-ish runtime, you're carefully introduced to the rather large community you amass.
It shouldn't be a huge story spoiler that with a name like 'Exodus', that this game is about getting out of the Metro and seeing what is out there in the world. Not getting into the specifics of how it all plays out, you and your small enclave end up on a beautiful steam train, The Aurora, unable to return to the ravaged Moscow. That's when it becomes clear, Metro Exodus is a road trip.
That sets the structure for the entire game. You will hop around, from one expansive environment to the next. There's a rich diversity on show here, from frozen Arctics, deserts full of sandstorms and lush forests, Metro never gets boring in its scenery. In fact, it's environment work is one of the game's best strengths. Existing in these microcosms is something special. The way the frozen mist wafts through the air as you trudge solemnly through the snow, the hope the sun brings as it breaksa forest's trees, or seeing the crushing despair of a metropolis levelled by a nuclear bomb. There are a lot of diverse environments that crucially evoke different feelings. It's genuinely impressive.
The other aspect Metro Exodus has going for it is a dedication to its vision. There aren't a lot of big budget games that try to do what 4A has done here. While at its core, Exodus is a first-person story-driven shooter, 4A imbue the game with a specific personality. It's a survival game, but not the kind of survival game Steam has been inundated with ever since DayZ hit big. This is a more old school, S.T.A.L.K.E.R brand of survival. It's less about crafting and gathering materials and more about instilling a sense of dread rooted in realism. Bullets hit harder. It's harder to move around. Your guns can jam. You have to put on, wipe and fix your gas mask. You manage your survival by way of filters, bullets and medkits. It has a similar lurching uneasiness as the original Resident Evil trilogy that has you on edge knowing you are a few wrong shots away from having no firepower. It's perhaps not as strongly implemented as in say S.T.A.L.K.E.R, but it's definitely a unique flavour in the current landscape of AAA first-person shooters.
This comes at a trade-off though. For a lot of people, the muggy and sluggish nature of your engagements will be a hard pill to swallow. From your movement to just aiming, Exodus has a much slower pace than many might expect. It's the kind of thing that, in theory, sounds like what you might want. As a rogue, you might say, 'No more of this instant gratification shooting while wall running. I want to play a realistic shooter'. The problem is, eventually you have to play that. That will work for some, and not for others.
That is all a deliberate artistic choice, of course. It's easy to appreciate what the developers are going for, even if you're having a rough time with it. What's hard to pass off though is the game's AI, which undermines that survivalist tone. The enemies in the game are both irrationally silly and improbable. Be that them running out of cover while they know I'm watching them or not noticing me sneaking up on them as they look straight at me. It's a real shame too. It undercuts the experience 4A are trying to craft here. When you're striving for a tense combat experience and achieve what you want on the player side, but then have enemies that aren't on the same level of execution, it makes that experience frustrating. Towards the end of the game, I found myself begrudgingly getting involved in fights. A monotonous obstacle. A mild annoyance I need to deal with in order to advance the story.
However, the narrative does prove to be a driving force. Even though I only met these characters in this game, I came to appreciate each one. While for the most part, you are alone in these bubble environments dealing with one dangerous situation to the next, the game pulls an interesting swerve. As each season progresses, you will get to spend some time on the Aurora and talk to everyone aboard. These can be pretty lengthy sequences if you go to each character and hear everything they have to say, but for the most part, they are worth it. You get personal facetime with everyone, each going from similar-looking NPC quest givers to characters with defining personalities. That can come by way of just sitting with Anna for a while and smoking a cigarette while she talks about her hopes and dreams, or sitting down to play the guitar alongside a friend. It creates these lovely human moments that do create this forward pull through the story. These quiet moments where you're encouraged to step away from the action and just enjoy being around the people in this world. It reminds me of terribly underrated The Darkness in spots, which is never a bad thing.
With all that said, the caveat nature of Metro Exodus rears its head once again. While the writing is compelling for the most part, especially in these smaller moments, the delivery can be a slog. The voice acting in the game is largely weak and the audio mix doesn't help. Characters talk over each other, which was probably done to have more natural dialogue flow, but they aren't blended well at all. Instead, it gives this effect of trying to listen to two songs at the same time. The voices also don't sound like they exist in the space they are in either. On top of the incredibly hammy performance of some characters, it can undercut the seriousness of some situations. While it gets easier to jibe with as you go on, it never quite lands on the right side of 'good'.
Adding to that is Artyom's bizarre character in the fiction. He is a silent protagonist (except for the times he is not, like in the loading screens), always listening to what is going on but never part of the conversation. While I prefer a protagonist who is a character, the bizarre context with which people interact with you in the game is jarring even for a silent protagonist. Sometimes it seems implied that Artyom said something or made an acknowledgement, but other times characters reference him not talking. There's a lack of logic here that makes the character you're playing as hard to latch onto at times. That's made worse by the way characters continuously and exclusively refer to how great you are. Maybe I'm a bad person, but in my day to day life I don't walk into every conversation, everyone greeting me with how great I am. If Metro Exodus is anything to go by, I don't want that either. It's lacking nuance. Good people suck sometimes too. I get video games like this are supposed to be a power fantasy, but to hear someone bigging you up over and over again, it eventually comes off as insincere.
And that's what makes Metro Exodus hard to contend with when trying to grade its successes and failures. It has both in great abundance. In the same instant, no matter whether we are talking about the conversations, the narrative, the combat, the tone in isolation or a combination of all of them, it's a game pulling from one side of the quality scale to the other. It's like a critique version of the medieval rack torture device… only one side is popping your back in just the right place.
For the most part though, I do think Metro Exodus holds up. Its achievements are more lasting than its flaws. The story did end up grabbing me and pulling me through this war-torn world. The quiet moments traversing an unnerving new biome not knowing what kind of nuclear-twisted wildlife might jump out at you – these are the moments that will stick. It's has a confidence that is infectious. It strides forward from the norm, putting an emphasis on slow, old school survival combat and long stretches of enforced character time. There's an aura the game walks with that feels unique in 2019. Sometimes it's a frustrating experience, but overall, I've come out caring about this series. That's plenty.