Hands-on before next month’s release
My lack of familiarity with the Metro franchise is painfully evident to everyone in the room less than 10 seconds after I’m handed the controller. As my comrades on the Aurora, the massive train jettisoning Artyom, Anna, and the rest of his crew of survivors across the Russian landscape, discuss what to do next now that we’re low on fuel and water, I’m doing my best Dean Takahashi impression, running around the engine room like a frightened bat that just flew into an open window. It’s embarrassing, it really is, but any feelings of inferiority quickly dissipate as I find the open door and head out into the harsh wilderness of the Caspian Desert.
Metro Exodus breaks from the prior two games in the series by introducing massive, open environments to explore and survive rather than just the small, frozen corridors of past games. Each level takes place in a different season and players will experience the blistering cold and swamp-ass-inducing heat as they complete a year-long trek that spans winter to winter. The Caspian Desert is the game’s “summer” level. This big, massive open-world stage is the largest level in the game. I’m told the area is larger than the last two games combined. For this hands-on session, I get just two hours to see anything and everything I can. And while the environment is vast and wide, my journey through it is arguably narrow.
As soon as I find my way off the train, I take control of my gun and follow a fellow traveler up a hill to overlook the setting. The Caspian Desert appears to be quite large and while a smackerel of the former sea still exists, the rest is a dried out husk of a once fruitful land. Desert environments in games have never really done anything for me. Outside of the sweeping sandy landscapes found in Lawrence of Arabia, I’ve always found it difficult to see a desert as something that’s supposed to be enticing to me.
Now, to expect the wasteland of the Caspian Desert to be enticing is to not understand the point of it. This isn’t some majestic desert littered with oases, it’s a mechanical graveyard where evidence of a once-booming oil industry stands almost fossilized amongst the burnt-out cars, remnants of buildings, and the false grama and tanglehead that dot the land. It isn’t a desert but an area well on its way to total desertification, though any concerns about the survival of the little vegetation left in the land quickly take a back seat to making sure I can even survive it.
My first objective here is to venture to a nearby outpost, looking for people, supplies, or anything else that can help us. I see where I need to go in the distance and with a completely open environment, I’m free to approach it as I want. I choose to go through the remains of some old buildings and stumble across what looks like a makeshift memorial. After scavenging for some supplies, three of the humanoid creatures who were lying the ground a moment before get up and attack. I barely survive shooting them down with my rifle, severely cutting my ammo supply minutes before I even reach the outpost.
After I disperse with those desert demons, one of the two PR representatives on-hand explains to me that I should have used my shotgun to more effectively kill those creatures. Obviously, my inexperience with the franchise is to blame for that blunder but when I switch over to the shotgun, preparing for more their ilk up ahead, I realize the next two hours won’t nearly be enough time to wrap my head around Exodus‘s controls.
I’m sure series vets will scoff at this, but hot damn is Metro Exodus one game that’s not beginner friendly. Shooting is a no brainer, but the control scheme on hand is easily the most involved I’ve ever experienced. Every button has a single function, but many buttons secondary functions when pressed in tandem with another button or when held for a certain amount of time. The PR reps have to help me right up until the last ten minutes of the hands-on when I’m struggling to get a pressurized sniper rifle to work properly, and I still don’t think I have everything figured out. I’m sure it’ll be a lot easier to stomach when starting from the level one, but being thrown into the middle of the narrative only adds to the feeling of helplessness the actual gameplay seeks to impose on players.
When I reach the outpost, there is indeed an army of those desert creatures staggering around the place. Armed with the correct tool, I eliminate them quickly as I head inside. The screams of a survivor fill the air, but it’s soon muffled out by a sudden sandstorm. When I equip my gas mask, something I do many times through my playtest, it becomes difficult to see clearly and my shots at the creatures trying to kill me become more haphazard. I survive though, and when the storm clears I’m given access to a burnt-out work van I can use to drive to my next location.
Because the Caspian Desert is so large and there are so many things lurking in it that want to kill you, players have the option of traversing the land in this old, beat up vehicle. Don’t expect world class driving controls. Much like the van you’re taking control of, they get the job done and it’s not long after I am handed the keys that I arrive at my next destination. A survivor, holed up at a now useless lighthouse, is fighting off non-mutated invaders. I hear her distress call, and while there are many other places I can go, I make a beeline for her location. Even though the Caspian Desert is pitched as an open-world environment, I’m quite obviously beckoned down a pre-orchestrated path.
This section of the desert is where I experience most of my completely avoidable deaths. I reach the base of the rock the lighthouse sits upon and immediately head into a cave to work my way up. Are there other ways of reaching the top? Maybe, but I’m now down to about 90 minutes of playtime and I need to get as far in this as I can. So I head into the cave and come across the forces trying to capture this woman. She was prepared for any invaders as the narrow passageway up is riddled with death traps. Many of the men trying to reach her fall victim to them, and I finish off those who don’t.
I’m repeatedly told that I should approach this encounter using stealth, though I’m more or less forced to do so due to my dwindling supply of ammo. So I crouch, I sneak, I silently kill from behind, but not well enough that I don’t die due to the various traps these men didn’t set off. In one moment, I’m immolated by an unseen fire trap. In another, I trigger a tripwire that eviscerates Artyom. In fact, I hit that tripwire three times in a row until I finally learn how to cut it.
After I’d say 10 or so attempts I finally reach the top of the rock and take out the men trying to get to her. She invites me up and I finally get access to a crafting station. While some supplies like med packs can be crafted in the field, ammo and gun parts can only be crafted at designated stations. With ammo no longer used as currency as it was in past Metro titles, this is an effective way to force players to be wise about how they play.
After the woman spills her life story to me, I’m sent into an underground bunker to retrieve a map of the area. If Exodus is supposed to have horror elements, this is the area most likely to make me shit my pants. Dark, dingy, and crawling with giant mutated spiders, the representative guiding me through tells me a prior press person couldn’t make it through this section because of their arachnophobia and he had to complete it for them. It’s an absolute gripping setpiece, but it’s also the one time the graphics look anything else than stellar.
This is one great looking game. Outside of some pop-in during the opening cutscene of the level, there isn’t a blemish in this world I can find until I head underground. I know it’s silly to point this out, but spiderwebs that decorate the dreary hallways of this bunker don’t fit with the rest of this world. They look incredibly fake and burning them with my lighter looks cheap and unworthy of being included in this otherwise stunning game.
When I find what I need and leave the bunker, night has fallen on the desert. Looking out to the remaining sea at the cranes and rusted out oil tankers is the first time I really appreciate the design of the desert. Maybe it’s perhaps this is the first time since stepping off the train that I have a moment of peace. Nothing is attacking me, nobody is shooting at me. It’s just me, alone with my thoughts as the voices on my radio try and pull me towards my next destination. The moment of brevity is cut short when I remember I’m on a deadline. Back in my van, I hurry to my next destination where, for the first time, I’ll actually get a sense of what having an open-world adds to the Metro gameplay formula.
I meet up with Anna who points me in the direction of a crane just a short zip-line away. I can choose to take the zip-line all the way to the crane or cut it short and hoof it on foot to remain undetected. I choose the latter and end up in a hotbed of mutated men. I waste nearly all my ammo on them, having to bludgeon the last one to death. The decision is ultimately a stupid move on my part because that crane is crawling with soldiers looking to kill me.
The stairway of the crane I need to climb sits at the end of a walkway littered with broken vehicles and other hiding spots. Someone high in the structure works a searchlight while another man tries to take me down with sniper fire. At the base of the crane itself, a half-dozen well-armed men await my arrival. Anna is trying the snipe the sniper from her position, but it’s really up to me and my near complete lack of ammo to take them down.
On my first attempt, I’m gunned down as I reach the base of the crane. I take two of them down with me, but it’s not good enough. On my second attempt, I’m sniped before I even reach the walkway. I catch a break on my third attempt. Anna, who I thought was just shooting at the crane for dramatic effect, actually kills the sniper. Someone is still on the spotlight, so I can still be seen, but making my way to the base of the crane is less stressful than before. After the PR reps explain to me how to properly use my pressurized sniper rifle, I kill the remaining men and make my way to the top of the crane where, thank God, there is another crafting station.
At this point, there are about 10 minutes left in the hands-on session. I make my way back to my van via zip-line and head out onto the road until I come across an enemy soldier station. Unlike the crane and the bunker which both had limited ways to approach them, it’s completely in the open and can be tackled in multiple ways. My first attempt goes downhill fast as I’m spotted — even though I shot out the searchlights — and gunned down. On my second try, I go right instead of left and stealthily kill the soldiers one by one.
I’ve enjoyed the game up until this point, but this encounter is really when I start to see the potential of applying Metro’s survival shooter formula to an open-world environment. It doesn’t always work, such as when, in the final minute or so of my demo, I venture over a hill and have to waste almost all my ammo when I stumble across some mutated beasts roving the land. But in the moments where I can approach a situation however I think is best, that’s when the design of Metro Exodus really starts to shine.
Two hours in an environment this large is really a drop in the bucket. Spending as much of that time as I do just getting back to the point where I last died certainly doesn’t help. Despite a near-complete lack of familiarity with the arguably convoluted control scheme, Metro Exodus does enough to get me excited about seeing this train trip through to the end. Nothing I experience is a game-changer or genre-defining, but forcing me into situations where I can’t just shoot my way through every problem is certainly going to refine how I play through first-person shooters going forward.
Metro Exodus releases for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on February 15, 2019.