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Metro Exodus hands-on: Out of the tunnels and into the daylight

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A walk in the post-apocalyptic woods with mutant bears and bloodthirsty pirates

An environment screenshot in Metro Exodus 4A Games

The surface world of 4A Studios’ Metro series used to be a toxic nightmare. The scars of a nuclear war made living above ground unthinkable, forcing humanity into the titular subway tunnels. Metro Exodus seeks to rewrite what players know about its vision of post-nuclear Russia, and brings the setting out of the cramped underground and into the light.

At E3, we got our first look at how Metro Exodus is changing up the formula. Series protagonist Artyom begins a year-long journey across Russia aboard a train. Much of the land is now habitable; enough time has passed since the bombings to alleviate the need for gas masks in many locations.

Metro Exodus is broken up into four segments representing each season in the year-long journey. The E3 demo featured winter. At PAX West, we got to play a new section that takes place during autumn.

4A Studios has created a much larger world that deviates from the linear feel of the past games. Each of the seasonal hubs offers multiple points of ingress, which helps accentuate the need for stealth. To aid in our sneaky pursuits, we were given a new weapon: a crossbow.

Like the other weapons, including the bastard gun (a Metro-made submachine gun) and the Ashot (a pistol shotgun), the crossbow can be customized with scavenged parts. Ammunition is still sparse, but the crossbow is an economical solution. Bolts can be recovered from foes, and most enemies drop in a single shot. Given the overwhelming odds, being a smart predator can mean the difference between life and “game over.”

The demo begins with Artyom being pulled from the river after nearly drowning. He is saved by a pirate, who recognizes he isn’t a threat. Unfortunately, one of Artyom’s travel companions has been captured.

The path branches, giving a sense of expansiveness. While the destination is the same, players can experiment by taking different paths. And though there are no side quests as we typically think of them, exploration can reveal a bit more of the story and yield valuable resources. A new crafting system feels similar to The Last of Us, with chemicals and metal parts among the generic resources that can be used to make crossbow bolts, ammunition, health syringes, gas mask filters, and more.

Metro Exodus also features a new inventory system that allows players to modify weapons in the field. A backpack allows you to tinker with your gear in real time, but you can also use stations found while exploring.

Pushing forward, I encountered our first set of pirates, swinging down from the trees like Robin Hood’s merry men. They aren’t immediately hostile, but warn that entering their home will be considered an act of war. There are multiple ways to progress: cross the bridge and enter the town overtly or jump down and sneak around. I tried both, thanks to carelessness that drove home just how vicious the enemy forces can be.

The enemy AI is quick to respond if players aren’t careful. A loud bell rallies the troops, making anything but a stealthy approach a dangerous proposition. It’s worth exploring every house, just make sure you cut down traps that will make noise and alert the pirates.

It’s also smart to switch out your crossbow for one taken from a fallen foe. Weapons get dirty and less effective over time. You can either use some of your chemicals to repair them, or simply swap for something you find. The latter is a good solution until you start modifying your weapons and there’s a reason to hold onto your gear.

After clearing the town, I’m introduced to a new zipline mechanic. Looking out over the forest as the leaves turn color and start to fall, we see a number of ziplines connecting parts of the region.

Human enemies aren’t the only threats in Metro Exodus. After delving further into the forest, a terrifying roar stopped me in my tracks. A large mutant bear chased a herd of deer across the path. I was certain this was just the first animal encounter, and I wasn’t disappointed. A few minutes later, the sounds of footsteps grew loud quickly as the deer rushed toward me with wolves chasing.

I failed to dodge all the deer and took some damage as I scrambled from the pack up a ladder. The world is hostile, but at least I don’t need to worry whether if ammunition I’m spending to protect myself would be better saved to buy something later. In the underground, bullets are currency. That system has been completely removed from Metro Exodus.

The expansive forest is deceptive in its beauty. 4A Games continues to deliver stunning visuals (this time in 4K running on an Xbox One X dev kit). It’s only the run-ins with mutated bears and wolves or pirates that snaps me back to reality.

The Metro games have always delivered oppressive, claustrophobic survival horror. The darkness of the underground is perfect for jump scares. Metro Exodus tweaks that formula, further emphasizing stealth without abandoning the tension of trying to eke out an existence in a world that has been mutated to kill you.

Metro Exodus is slated for launch on Feb. 22, 2019, for PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.