It's been a funny week. I haven't spent anywhere near as much time playing videogames this week as I normally would have - I've had a lot on with work, including a European trip that required 48 hours out of my week in exchange for a two hour meeting. The little bit of time I have spent on my Xbox though has been split across two games - Anthem, and Metro Exodus. I've got more to say on Anthem - quite a lot more, actually - but it's a topic for another day. Maybe tomorrow or the middle of the week. It's pissed me off so much that I'm having difficulty processing it, if I'm honest. Metro Exodus, on the other hand, has turned out to be quite the unusual game - the one that's as good as you hoped it would be, if not quite in the way you'd expect.
I played the first game back on the Xbox 360, and went into it not knowing quite what to expect. I mean, I knew it was a fairly linear shooter - what I wasn't expecting was the quality of the world building or the use of bullets as currency. It was the first FPS game in quite a while (by that point, they were everywhere, and the quality varied dramatically) that encouraged active thought, and probably the first one EVER where the simple act of firing your weapon was one with serious consequences as stocks of ammunition were so severely limited. I'll admit I didn't play the sequel - it's a game I've had a copy of for a long time, but which kept falling down the pile of shame as other, newer, shinier games dropped on top of it. My perceptions were formed though. Metro was about tunnels, and darkness. It was about torches, and old dilapidated weapons and equipment. It was about a desperate people, scratching out lives beneath the surface of an earth too toxic for them to venture out into.
Based on that first game, I expected more of the same from Exodus - and what I'm playing definitely isn't more of the same. One thing it's kept though, is that atmosphere. Where the original game crushed you with claustrophobia, Exodus takes a different approach. The outside areas of the game are stunning and varied - and yet make you feel acutely alone. Once you're away from the train that acts as a base of operations for you through the game, you don't need to travel far to start thinking you might be the last person alive in the area - and that you're in constant danger. It's a feeling I haven't had from a game this strongly since the first time I played through Fallout 3. The wind howls, monsters growl in the distance. The signs of past human civilisation aren't so much damaged around you as they are pulverised. Each open area is its own hub, offering main quests and optional sidequests to complete. Wandering off the beaten path exposes you to additional dangers - but also gives you the chance to find incredibly useful equipment that you wouldn't otherwise have been able to find. How useful, you ask? Well, in the very first open area, there's a bandit camp. You don't have to clear it out - but if you do, you'll end up rescuing a couple of villagers who will give you a key. That key can be used in a later location of the area to open a door. Inside that room, you'll find a set of night-vision goggles. I can't imagine trying to go through the area that follows without them - but by following the game as it's delivered without additional exploration, that's exactly what I think I would have been forced to do. So exploration, while served up as an optional activity, is something that's definitely worth doing.
The pacing of the game is dependent on the player in many ways. You can run into encounters and open fire - but dirty guns tend to jam and ammo is limited, and the few times I've tried this approach I've always ended up regretting it - either losing the battle, or worse winning it and then looking at the resources I've burned through and lamenting my impetuousness. The game offers up a stealthy option in almost every scenario - the wise player will take it. Every so often though, the game will funnel you in toward a set piece - and it generally does it without you really realising what it's doing. Particularly in the indoor and underground environments, the game has a habit of showing you the area you're heading into from a distance. It allows you to build up a serious sense of foreboding - knowing that you don't want to enter a particular location, and that ultimately the narrative of the game won't give you the choice.
It's a game from another time, in some ways. Where most first person shooters these days offer deathmatches, online persistence, other people, and endless caches of loot, Metro Exodus eschews all of these things. It's a straight up single player, narrative driven, first person shooter. It's stronger for it, I think. I can't imagine how death matches would fit constructively into this world - and in a world where you're always looking out for ammunition, a deep pool of loot would make no sense at all. It's a tightly focused design. 4A Games knew exactly what they wanted to make, and went off and made it - and the game's publishers were wise enough to leave them to it.
Is it flawless? No. It looks and sounds great, but there are a couple of technical issues that crop up from time to time. I've experienced a couple of crashes - both at exactly the same point in the game. I've had situations where hits haven't been recognised - meaning priceless ammo being wasted. Ultimately though, none of those little issues have impacted me anywhere nearly as badly as my own stupidity did when I lost four hours of progress by selecting the "Quick Load" option thinking it would re-load my last checkpoint. It didn't - it re-loaded my last Quick Save, which had been made hours and hours previously. I put an afternoon aside and re-ran the end of that area - doing a far worse job of it than I had the first time around. It's definitely worth a look though. I think I'm approaching the halfway point, and I'll be seeing this one through to the end. In these days of always-online persistent-world multiplayer-focused shooters, it's quite the novelty to play one with such a dedicated single-player perspective. And it's even nicer that it's really good.