Developed by: 4A Games
Published by: Deep Silver
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Every winter I’m seized by a desire to read Russian literature. One reason for this is that I tend to think of Russia as a wintry land. It was the cold weather, after all, that decimated the armies of Napoleon and Hitler, and made Solzhenitsyn’s descriptions of the Gulag so unfathomable. Another is because winter is a time I associate with reflection, making me want to take up the great Russian writers who have given us so many gloriously introspective characters. This winter I’ve only lost myself in a little Isaac Babel, but over the last several days I’ve scratched a bit of my seasonal itch by roaming the expanses of post-apocalyptic Russia with Artyom the ruminative ranger and the hero of “Metro Exodus.”
Based on the fiction of Dmitry Glukhovsky, “Metro 2033” (2010) and “Metro Last Light” (2013) told the story of Artyom and others eking out an existence in the Moscow subway tunnels after a nuclear war laid waste to the ground above them and seeded the land with monsters. “Metro Exodus” picks up with Artyom risking his life to prove that mankind has survived outside of the tunnels. Far from being appreciative, the leaders and medical staff who preside over the section of the Metro Artyom calls home reprimand him for placing an unnecessary strain on their limited resources with his exploits. Quietly defiant, Artyom refuses to accept the conventional wisdom of his community that human life cannot be sustained anywhere else. “Between endless years of hopeless existence, and even a simple moment of hope,” he says at the beginning, “I must choose hope.”
Eventually, Artyom proves to his sympathetic wife Anna that people are living on the surface of the Earth, however precariously. This knowledge makes them fear to return to the Metro because Anna’s father has confessed to them that the community’s leadership had conspired to keep the Metro’s inhabitants sequestered in the tunnels for fear of revealing their location to hostile enemies. Consequently, Artyom, Anna, and a group of companions find themselves on the run in a train they stole from the Hansa, the Metro’s richest faction. Away from Moscow, they pick up a transmission asking for people to rally in the Urals at Mount Yamantau. Anna’s father is eager for them to get there because he believes they’ll find what’s left of the Russian government. Instead, what they find is a horror show.
The game begins in winter, with snow falling over the ruins of Moscow. As the seasons change during their trek, Artyom and his group cross icy bodies of water, a scorching desert, and a vibrant forest. There is a sense of breadth to the experience that pays homage to the geographic diversity of Russia. “Metro Exodus” is an expertly paced, first-person shooter that values atmosphere and exploration as much as action. Artyom’s (mostly solo) expeditions into dangerous surroundings are contrasted with warm moments shared between him and his companions aboard the train. There are drinks to be had, smokes to be shared, guitars to be played, and caresses to be given. When some of the burly guys on the train briefly extolled Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, I wasn’t surprised. I’d long pegged them as a sensitive bunch. (One of the guys is named Idiot, in tribute to Dostoyevsky's novel. And the famous bit from “The Brothers Karamazov” about how if God doesn’t exist then everything is permitted is mentioned at one point when Artyom encounters a bunch of religious zealots.)
When the action happens it’s usually in short, quick bursts. (I often found myself relieved when such encounters were over because the longer they went on the greater the chances that Artyom would die and I’d have to endure a long loading screen.) In combat situations a stealthy approach is generally preferable to falling back on brute force. Weapons in the game are jury-rigged contraptions that degrade with use and must be upkept. And resources, like ammunition, are limited.
A number of missions ask you to employ restraint in meting out violence. In a nice touch, many of one’s potential human enemies are given dialogue that sketch out their humanity as more than eager-to-kill, or eager-to-be-killed henchmen. Some of your human enemies are cannibals who play to type --“Meat!” — but a greater number seem like exhausted men with other things on their minds besides walking patrol. Sensible enemies will voluntarily surrender or scatter if they reckon the odds are against them. In this game, running from a conflict is sometimes a good strategy.
4A Games does a good job of grounding the player in the world. Some first-person shooters can make players feel as though they are controlling nothing but a gun-strapped, disembodied camera. “Metro Exodus,” on the other hand, is filled with animations that strengthen the illusion of Artyom’s corporeality, such as his tender interactions with his wife, or the manner in which he stumbles head over heels when a water monster knocks him out of a boat. The game’s art direction is often stunning. I played “Metro Exodus” on an Xbox One X hooked up to a Samsung 4K QLED TV and was dazzled by the visuals but less than enthused by the number of crashes I encountered, particularly in the desert level a.k.a. The Caspian. (According to Digital Foundry the game offers a preview of next-generation graphics when played on a PC with one of Nvidia’s RTX graphics cards.)
Notwithstanding the few technical issues I encountered, “Metro Exodus” has been an engrossing game to play. It is a first-person shooter that retains a sense of humanity even as it piles on corpses. It may well be my favorite post-apocalyptic game since “The Last of Us.”
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
Recent game reviews: