Bright Horizons, Dark Horrors: We Faced The Nightmares Of ‘Metro Exodus’
Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, is one of the most common phobias in the world. It's estimated that up to 6.1 percent of the global population suffers from it, falling to pieces whenever a daddy long-legs winds up in their bathroom, crying out for partners, family or flatmates to come running with an upside-down glass and a magazine.
So that's, by our basic reckoning, something like 432 million people who should go nowhere near Metro Exodus. As while 4A Games' third Metro title has extensive sequences set outside, in the post-apocalyptic Russian wilds, it still sends series protagonist Artyom into the dreadful dark of subterranean bunkers and tight, twisting tunnels.
And down there, in the gloom, the chill, there be spiders. Huge, hungry, deadly spiders. (Which, to be honest, have a little of the scorpions about them - but the characters call them spiders, so.) Keep your torch on them, and they'll scuttle backwards, into corners, into vents, wherever they can find refuge. But turn your back on them or - worse still - allow your battery to die, leaving you blind in the blackness, and they'll make a meal of Artyom in seconds.
There was a worry - amongst players of the past two games in this series, 2010's Metro 2033 and 2013's Metro: Last Light - that the singularly claustrophobic atmosphere captured by said shooters would dissipate, potentially disastrously, in Exodus. Rather than a linear affair set in the Moscow underground, this first Metro to be developed for current-gen consoles widens its horizons significantly, bringing open-world exploration to the fore.
But while all things environmental have been expanded, horizontally and vertically (as, yes, you'll still be venturing downwards), a few hours with the game reassures us that this still feels like a Metro game. It helps that there are returning cast members from past titles - Artyom is joined by his wife, Anna, and the ostensible leader of the group, Miller. But moment-to-moment play is evocative of the past, even when we're exploring generously proportioned maps - smaller than contemporary RPGs, but big enough to get lost in, and swallowed by.
Guns still crackle and spit with uncertainty, like their barrels could split at any second. Fear pervades every scene, even when nature has blossomed and the world around Artyom has found its colour again, the winter bite of 2033 and Last Light chased away by south-eastern momentum. Mutants stalk the night, bandits patrol the days. This is no cakewalk of a cross-country trip.
Scraps must be salvaged to improve gear or craft makeshift ammo. Gas masks and radioactive protection remains a must in areas where the post-bombs fallout hangs low. And Artyom is no Marcus Fenix, a beefcake soldier of a bullet sponge - if you're not smart about combat, he'll easily be riddled with holes in a handful of heartbeats.
So, stealth soon becomes a valuable tool in the player's arsenal - knocking mutants and humans alike out cold with your hands, or plunging a blade into their exposed necks, is the prefered means of thinning opposition numbers without bringing an army down upon your position.
Exodus follows Artyom as he travels on a train, the Aurora, to a destination unknown - both 4A and the game's publisher, Deep Silver, are staying tight-lipped on the narrative at play here. But Huw Beynon, Deep Silver's head of global brand management, does share a few details with us when we grab him during a brief break in our preview.
"What's exciting is that you don't know what you're going to encounter when you set off on the Aurora," Beynon explains. "I think one of the exciting things is that every time you rock up in a new destination, you'll have no idea what kind of landscape you'll find, what creatures you'll encounter, and how society is - as each of these levels has its own micro societies that have grown up in isolation."
But why the almost complete radio silence on what Artyom's motivations are, here? "It's nice to hold something back," says Beynon. "But what happens to these characters, seeing that is going to be really powerful. It's like sinking into a box-set - you don't want to know what the story is, but you have your hopes and expectations for resolutions."
"With Artyom surrounded by this group, we've been able to explore his relationship with Anna and Miller," he adds. "Exodus is a much more personal story in many ways, compared to the past games, and a lot more emotionally powerful."
Back to the action, and we visit three of Exodus' four regions during a long preview session. First is the winter-gripped Volga, where a broken bridge blocks the Aurora's way, necessitating a cautious visit to a nearby settlement. And no, the locals aren't exactly friendly. Next, we reach what was the Caspian Sea, now a vast desert overrun by savage mutants and histrionic bandits, the shattered shells of ships decaying under an unforgiving sun. Here, we get a set of wheels for faster travel, and find an ally residing at the top of a communications tower; but soon have to descend into forgotten control rooms coated in dust and rot, and hopelessly overrun by those nightmarish arachnids.
And then comes the game's prettiest location, the forests of the Taiga. Here, Artyom finds himself in an especially challenging set of circumstances, stripped of his weapons and supplies, via a dip in some raging river water, as nighttime encroaches - bringing with it the horrors that emerge as the stars blink into life. And, reassuringly, crouching for cover in the undergrowth feels every bit as tense and panicked, malformed beasts a snapped-twig away from pouncing on our position, as it ever was behind rusted rapid-transit machinery in the bowels of a broken metro system.
Metro Exodus, by going overground and embracing a freer roaming gameplay loop, feels like its honouring the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series past of its makers - 4A was founded by developers who worked on the cult PC survival-horror shooter franchise. But it also manages to feel like a very fresh, very 2019 game, when compared to the likes of Far Cry 5, Fallout 76 and the upcoming Rage 2. It still stands apart - and, frankly, that can be more than enough in the crowded FPS marketplace to guarantee success.
Not that anyone with a fear of everything eight legged will be able to stand it, at all.
Featured Image Credit: 4A Games/Deep Silver