There's a moment in Metro Exodus' engrossing 20 hour campaign where lead protagonist Artyom and his compatriots are desperately fleeing toward their departing train. It's pitch black, voices are shouting out in terror and, oh yeah, dozens of cannibalistic humans are in pursuit, hoping to make the group their next meal. There's no over-the-top soundtrack playing in the background, no helicopter coming in last minute to save them and no quippy one-liners like other first-person shooters. Only pure, unadulterated suspenseful terror. Sure, Artyom and the other soldiers expel dozens of rounds at the crazed attackers, but nothing here feels like an action sequence. That's what it's like to play Metro Exodus most of the time.
Taking place two years after the events of Metro: Last Light (following the now-canon "good" ending of that game), Metro Exodus picks up with Artyom in a place of hope after saving the Dark Ones. He believes there are other survivors still out there, even though the rest of the inhabitants in the metro community below Moscow, Russia aren't exactly buying it. They have good reason to doubt Artyom because life in the metro is only getting worse. A sequence of events eventually lead Artyom and a small group of soldiers (alongside Artyom's now-wife Anna) on an adventure across Russia aboard a train named the Aurora.
Unlike the previous two games in the Metro series, most of Metro Exodus takes place on the surface. Still, the game doesn't trade in any of the intensity or claustrophobic elements that fans of the series have come to expect from the series. In fact, Metro Exodus can be downright brutal most of the time, forcing players to play smart instead of simply barging in guns blazing. While this is nothing new for the franchise, it all feels heightened here, especially at higher difficulties. Developer 4A Games understands what their fans expect from these games and they deliver in nearly every conceivable way.
It's not just the survival elements that have been heightened, either, as Metro Exodus offers a hybrid open-world/linear experience. While there are still smaller contained missions peppered in between, most of the levels in the game are large areas of Russia, free for players to explore to their heart's content. Question marks on the map offer points of interest where upgrades for various pieces of equipment or new items can be found. These are not mandatory but it's clear that 4A Games really wants players to go to these locations to make surviving post-apocalyptic Russia just that much easier.
Main quests have Artyom and his crew of soldiers looking for supplies necessary to keep the Aurora running smoothly while they move through Russia looking for habitable environments to settle down in. During these missions, players will come up against mutant and human foes alike, from maniacal warlord slavers that need to be overthrown to mutated spiders in dark, scary bunkers. The variety of these missions keeps gameplay from becoming stale as you never really know what to expect from one area to the next.
One could argue that the tight spaces that comprise Metro Exodus' more small-scale missions are where the game truly shines, but the hybridization and movement into more open-world environments is a smart move for the series. 4A Games' penchant for creating compelling and well-designed maps bleeds over into these larger areas, feeling big but not exhausting like so many open-world games of today. There's no running in a straight line for ten minutes just to perform a five-second task before running again for ten minutes. Everything is calculated and fair, even if the game's survival mechanics are as tough as they come.
The missions themselves are equally well-designed in Metro Exodus, with each one moving the main storyline ahead in meaningful ways and never coming off as repetitive or fetch-like. 4A Games promised that they would not embrace the trend of fetch quests that a lot of modern RPGs have seen fit to include in abundance. To be fair to those games, a lot of this more than likely comes from the decision of foregoing a traditional open-world map in favor of the larger, semi-open contained missions. It all comes down to 4A realizing the strengths of their franchise and fans will be happy to know that they absolutely nailed it here.
Building on this, thanks to the layout of maps, strategy feels more important than ever in Metro Exodus when tackling missions. The newly introduced day-night cycle means that Artyom can choose when to attack. If you want to go in guns blazing, despite the deliberate lack of resources and ammo, then daytime is probably for you as it makes it easier to see enemies and mutants aren't as pronounced. For the more stealth-oriented player however, night is where you'll spend a lot of time. There's probably no greater thrill than sneaking through an enemy bandit camp, knocking out or brutally killing (your choice, most of the time) enemies without them realizing it. It's the closest the game gets to making Artyom feel like an unstoppable hero as opposed to someone simply trying to survive in a nuclear wasteland.
If sneaking really isn't something you're interested in, the shooting mechanics are solid enough to offer some fun. There's no built-in cover system, but finding objects to crouch behind is never usually a problem in Metro Exodus. Customization is a big part of the game, making up for there not being a large number of new weapons. From adding different scopes and barrels to changing a handgun into a handheld shotgun, there's plenty of crafting variety as possible. Just keep in mind that while you can build on the go thanks to an intuitive backpack crafting system (using resources found in the wasteland), ammo must be constructed at work benches found throughout the game as well as aboard the Aurora. On higher difficulties, resources for making ammo can be scarce so it still might be in your best interest to make all-out warfare a last resort. Like the other games, this is not a typical gung-ho first-person shooter.
Of course, none of this would really mean a thing if Metro Exodus wasn't populated with fantastic characters with deep backstories and excellent voice acting. The game is able to take what the previous two entries offered in character development and expand on it in whole new ways. The joy of Metro Exodus is no doubt in survival and the terrifying or exhilarating moments fighting other survivors or dangerous mutants (or sometimes even the post-apocalyptic world of Russia itself) but there's poignancy in the quiet moments spent on trains chatting it up with Artyom's comrades or listening to their hopes, dreams, and horrific life experiences.
It helps that the graphics in Metro Exodus are breathtaking. When these characters bare their souls at Artyom, the facial capture technology really helps to evoke the emotion. Everything feels so real, even when you're fighting giant mutants that couldn't possibly exist in reality. The fact that the game makes you believe is part of the charm and part of terror. This is also true of the textures that comprise the various maps in Metro Exodus. Each map offers something completely different but equally beautiful. The surface areas feel decidedly post-apocalyptic, with barren and worn out looking exteriors and bizarre weather patterns.
Thematically speaking, Metro Exodus goes beyond the other two games, feeling more like the Metro books by Dmitry Glukhovsky even if it bears little resemblance to the actual stories in this novels outside of the characters and setting. Themes of hopelessness vs. hope, lost humanity and love are nothing new, especially in the post-apocalyptic genre, but Metro Exodus tackles each in compelling ways. There's also a recurring element of humanity worshiping nature as god and tyrants exploiting it to gain power that could have easily come off as hamfisted and needless but in the careful hands of 4A Games and its writers it brings narrative weight to nearly every section of the game.
It's not a perfect game by any means and sometimes Metro Exodus can buckle just slightly under the pressure of its ambition. Movement can be a little clunky, the larger maps can feel just a little empty sometimes and its complete unwillingness to hand-hold players can lead to some frustrating moments. Plus, those looking for a multiplayer experience may end up feeling disappointed as this game doesn't offer it. None of this is enough to detract from everything that Metro Exodus does exceptionally well, and luckily that's pretty much everything else in the game. It's better to try new things and have some of those elements not quite measure up than to have no ambition at all.
While other post-apocalyptic titles like the Fallout franchise seem to be moving more toward action and adventure that just happens to take place in a wasteland setting, 4A Games takes its franchise and Metro Exodus deeper into terrifying horror and suspense that focuses on survival with action and adventure serving as a smaller byproduct to sometimes offer a relief from all the panic. Metro Exodus is the crowning achievement of the franchise, offering a stellar post-apocalyptic world filled with equally beautiful and terrifying moments. If it ends up being the last game in the Metro series (either due to narrative reasons or Deep Silver's controversial decision to skip Steam on PC in favor of exclusive Epic Games Store release) then it couldn't have gone out on a higher note.
Metro Exodus will release on February 15 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC for $59.99 (Epic Games Store will release it for $49.99). Screen Rant was provided an Xbox One copy for the purposes of this review.