There are two sides to Metro Exodus, 4A’s third and probably greatest post-apocalyptic adventure – two varieties of space engaged in a hesitant dialogue. On the one hand, there are the wilds of post-nuclear Russia, absurdly splendid, absurdly deadly and moderately open-ended, from dessicated ports where beached tankers jut like dinosaur bones, to ice-locked cities whose sewers have become intestines, clogged with squirming radioactive polyps. Here, you’ll act much as you do in other virtual wilderness escapades – trotting to the points of interest you’ve circled on your paper map, shaking down corpses for crafting resources and avoiding or murdering the many people and things who want to make soup from your thighbones.
These are spaces in which life is cheap – cheaper, certainly, than medical kits – and the risk of ambush is unrelenting. Exploring them is a breathless yet resolutely workmanlike experience, in which you’ll spend a lot of time crouched in the undergrowth, wondering whether your last three shotgun shells are enough should the bandit upstairs catch sight of your weapon’s laser pointer. But running through these vistas is another kind of space, in which other kinds of action – kinder actions, in fact – are possible. This is the mighty steam locomotive that carries protagonist Artyom and his comrades from map to map, as you journey eastward from Moscow’s underground in search of a new home. Between lengthy stopovers in each region, usually for the sake of fuel or to deal with obstructive locals, you’ll spend an interlude aboard the train – rattling past arid woodlands, poisoned waterways and wilting apartment blocks, in one of 4A’s trademark masterstrokes of location design.
Each interlude corresponds to a season – Exodus’s 20-30 hour campaign spans a year in-game – and it’s a joy to watch those variations play out across the train’s dented hull, sand caking the engine in the dry salvages of the Caspian Sea, ice brightening the fittings in the depths of winter. You can even walk along the boiler to the prow to watch the miles disappear under your feet, like Leonardo DiCaprio glorying in the view from the Titanic. But the real triumph of the train is that it’s a living place, in each sense of the word – a space that evolves during the narrative as carriages are added to serve various plot purposes, and new faces join your ranks. Metro Exodus is, in this regard, both a quest for home and a story about how journeys create their destinations, as you nourish a haven whose greatest strength is that it’s utterly transitory, always in motion.
What begins as a dingy cabin crowded by rowdy blokes in converted welder masks gradually becomes a little village on wheels. Making my way down to the passenger car I find the squad’s amateur guitarist, Stefan, playing a melancholy folk ditty, and Sam, our lone American, fussing over a stewpot in the canteen. To the rear somebody is showing a little girl we rescued how to repair a leather strap, while the train’s engineer Krest sneaks a cigarette break behind the toilet. It’s reminiscent of BJ’s submarine headquarters in Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, though 4A doesn’t really need the inspiration – the first two Metro games are stuffed with comparably makeshift and cosy NPC settlements, scraped together from the rubble of Moscow’s underground stations. And as in Wolfenstein’s submarine, you can exert forms of agency aboard that train – “verbs”, to lapse into armchair designer parlance – that are seldom available when you disembark.
You can mess around with a radio, for one thing, searching for one of Russia’s few surviving DJ stations or to eavesdrop on conversations at your next stop. You can share a smoke with the group’s cantankerous leader, Colonel Miller, discussing the previous chapter’s events (characters often pick up on your choices in each chapter, especially if it involves bloodshed, though none of these substantially change the story’s outcome).You can cuddle up on a bunk with Anna – Artyom’s wife and the squad’s ace sniper, though she’s more often found playing the part of damsel in distress. You can escape, in short, from the well-thumbed fantasy of the apocalyptic world as a kind of post-historical firing range, and explore a prospect videogames seldom really investigate – the reforging of connections in society’s aftermath, the gentle process of rebirth.
All of which may sound rather grandiose, and I shouldn’t overstate how far Exodus strays from type. This might be a shooter with a heart, but it is still very much a shooter. The weapons are still dirty great handfuls of pipe, wood and wire, and you now have the gratification of clipping them together yourself from scavenged parts – plonking down your backpack to attach and remove scopes, barrels, different magazine sizes and stocks, the effects of which are immediately apparent in the handling. In addition to rifles, shotguns, SMGs and pistols, there’s a choice of pneumatic ball-bearing rifle or crossbow as your special weapon. The satisfaction of cranking the former’s Super Soaker handle aside, their appeal is that you can craft ammo for them on the go, while bullets, grenades and shells must be manufactured at workbenches that are few and far between.
The general scarcity of ammunition makes for more considered gunplay, as does sluggish character movement and the absence of automatic health regen. There are plenty of stretches in which combat can’t be avoided – bunkers full of giant spiders, for instance, and a bossfight with a bear large enough to plough through cover – but Artyom is no Master Chief. Given the choice, you’ll probably hold fire more often than not, scouting positions through your binoculars, then sneaking around them after sunset with the aid of night vision and motion trackers. I think there’s more, however, to this ethos of restraint than the heart-stopping click of an empty chamber. Like many a video game narrative greased by shooting before it, Metro wants you to question the role violence plays in its world. Unlike most such games, it goes about this convincingly.
Partly, that’s because it isn’t really an open world game, however much it might resemble one. There are only two wasteland environments that feel anything like Far Cry; the rest are roomy canyons or winding, scripted corridor encounters in the style of Half-Life. Nor are these maps systematised to the gills, as in the average Ubiworld: there are no territory bars to fill, no thickets of side-mission categories to hack through, no outposts to cleanse and turn into fast travel points. Each region has its spread of optional weapon and gear upgrades, and as in Far Cry 3, you can tag objects of interest through your binoculars, but all of your objectives are bespoke, part of the main plot or a slight departure from it. If the game is to some degree a response to the open world, Metro’s borrowings from that genre are as delicate, as thoughtful as the process of dividing up crafting ingredients between ammo and health kits. As such, it stands firm against the open world’s propensity for empty, cyclical violence in the name of piecemeal content drops.
Beyond that, it’s a game in which you’ll often leave people alive because they appear to be, well, people, even when bluntly labelled “THUG”, “TRIBAL” or “BANDIT” in dialogue, and even – or perhaps especially – when committing obscenities. Metro harbours plenty of anomalous mutants, unhinged sorts and predatory animals who can be gunned down with impunity. The writing can also be very clumsy, not least because Artyom only speaks during (lengthy) load-break voiceovers, which means you sometimes feel like a post-apocalyptic Lassie. “What’s that Artyom? You say Anna’s fallen down the hole into the underground biowaste disposal plant?” But the game’s wealth of incidental overheard chatter is good at making you question those dialogue labels, thinking about the grayzone between stranger and enemy.
Besides clownish rants about rape and pillage, you’ll hear bandits grumble about their leader’s decisions, joke about lazy friends, muse about the lives they nearly led, comment on the weather. Far to the east there’s a forest tribe who are undergoing an existential crisis about whether killing can be justified in self-defence: while sneaking around their encampment, you’ll overhear arguments about whether to actively hunt intruders or just chase them away. In the Caspian Sea, oilmen turned false prophets have enslaved the surrounding tribes: their followers are fanatical and armed to the teeth, but they are still victims of exploitation, and if you’re surgical, there are ways you might spare them.
Stealth is valuable, here, not just because it’s more economical or less risky, but because it allows you to get close to these lives, pull the two sides of Metro Exodus together. While touring a treehouse settlement at night I encountered a sentry sitting at a small table, lost in thought. On the table there were books, dented crockery, faded pictures of children – a small, candlelit circle of belongings and memories. I spent a few moments looming over the man, the kill/stun HUD prompts framing the back of his head, thinking about Artyom’s own bedside table back on the train, with its sunflower-pattern linoleum and typewriter, and about the miles of hungry emptiness all around us. It doesn’t take much to suggest that a fictional construct might have an inner life, a value apart from its value as a pleasing hazard or an inconveniently mobile collection of resources. It’s a bit of an indictment of games, or at least of blockbuster action games, that this feeling has become a novelty. We need more experiences like Metro Exodus that know how to resist empty bloodshed and kindle such closeness, finding the warmth in the wasteland.