Metro 2033 and the 2013 sequel Last Light are masterclasses in atmospheric storytelling. The claustrophobic struggle of protagonist Artyom through the underground metro tunnels of post-nuclear Moscow is as uncomfortable as it is gripping, and adds to the chilling beauty of the Metro games.
How, then, will developers 4A games capture this unnerving edge given the latest title in the series, Metro Exodus, is leaving behind the Moscow underground for year-long journey through countryside of the Russian Federation. We managed to get our gnarled, mutated teeth into the Gamescom demo, and spoke to 4A Games executive producer Jon Bloch and Deep Silver head of global brand management Huw Beynon to find out more.
Out of the darkness, into the light
As our playthrough began, it was clear this was a big departure from the foundation built up in Metro 2033 and Last Light. The world Artyom was traversing was lush and beautiful, with a selection of mildly mutated fauna darting out of view. And yet, the quiet and bizarre stillness of the world did somehow manage to elicit a deeply disconcerting atmosphere. This was certainly not the Moscow underground, but it was definitely still Metro.
The thud of a crossbow bolt hit a wooden gate, with a warning note attached telling us to promptly clear off. As we ignored the message and explored the area, the quiet of the forest was interrupted by the screams of a bandit tied to a post, who, surrounded by the blue, bloated-faced bodies of his associates, warned us of the crazy folk inhabiting the area.
The great-outdoors environments of Exodus have been a point of controversy for long-term fans, who worry that the game will suffer from the lack of claustrophobic linear environments. Bloch was keen to dispel that misconception. “The big thing that we’re changing this time around is the introduction of these big open sandbox environments, but there are still those more linear areas that give you that claustrophobic, literal tunnel-vision experience,” he told TechRadar. “And even in the open areas we still wanted to evoke those same feelings.
“You don’t know what’s behind that rock, behind that tree. There could be a pack of wolves hunting you down or a bunch of bandits. We wanted to build that sense of tension and anxiety that Metro is known for. Just because you’re outside and the sun is out, doesn’t mean you’re in a safe environment.”
This proved to be true when we stumbled across a camp of forest-dwelling humans calling themselves the ‘Pirates’. We were encouraged by the objectives listed on our ledger to sneak through the camp, but we were keen to get to grips with combat, and promptly shot the head off the closest enemy, raising the alarm and alerting dozens of Pirates to our presence.
Long-term series fans will be pleased to know that we ran out of ammo for our main gun after killing barely half the group, and were promptly killed. Ammunition conservation and scavenging is back in Exodus, with bullets in the countryside seemingly in even shorter supply than in the city.
The Pirates themselves were using crossbows rather than guns, and as luck would have it we picked one up earlier in the demo – it was clear the game was encouraging us to utilize a completely different style of combat. The crossbow was an easy, instant kill – if a little hard to aim – which meant there were plenty of bolts lying around once you’d felled a couple of enemies.
Smarter enemies in a dangerous world
It was clear that enemy AI had seen an upgrade too. Players of the previous games have been critical of the tactics and movements of human enemies, though Bloch preferred to see them more as misunderstood.
“We’ve always had very complex AI systems for the humans, but the communication to the player hasn’t always been the best,” he explained. “If an AI is doing something that you’re not expecting, it can seem broken, so we really wanted to improve on that communication. On top of enhanced animations there’s a lot of contextual voiceover now, so the player can hear them shout ‘he’s on the balcony, he’s behind the wall’ and so on. And different enemies behave differently.”
This new improved AI really shone through later on as we encountered a pack of wolves fleeing from a large mutated bear in the woods. The animals moved erratically and looked terrified, but a lone wolf hesitated as it came across us, stopping to snap its jaws as it fled. Bloch and Beynon also told tales of wandering human groups and mutant wildlife stumbling across one another, and the ensuing chaos.
Gas mask filters from mushroom spores
Last Light introduced weapon customization to the series, and this is being built upon in the form of a simple crafting system in Exodus.
Rather than having to find workbenches in the tunnels, crafting can instead be carried out in the open world, from Artyom’s backpack. Two resources can be gathered – materials and chemicals – which can then be utilized in variety of ways.
“Your gun accumulates dirt and rust over time, and with chemicals you can clean your gun and maintain it and bring the performance back,” explains Beynon. “Materials are used for more mechanical items, such as for certain ammunition.
“You’re not going to be finding an abundance of materials; the idea is to keep the player in that ‘never quite enough’ frame of mind, always in want of something. That’s really key to the survival experience, encouraging players to hunt and scavenge.”
We certainly found it useful being able to create new crossbow bolts in a pinch once our gun had run dry, but it was pretty surreal scavenging odds and ends and glowing mushrooms, and somehow fashioning med kits, throwing knives, and even gas mask filters. The UI is a very nice touch though, and very Metro. In order to craft, you take off your backpack and set it on the ground before deciding on what to create. It’s the small details like this that really add to the general air of desperation, of barely surviving against the odds out in the wilderness.
Metro: Exodus is certainly a change from the norm, but so far, despite all the fresh air, it still manages to encapsulate the powerful emotions the series has become known for. We can only hope that by mixing in the old with the new, the final experience will be as memorable as the first time we got lost in those tunnels.