Metro Exodus, the third title in the cult classic franchise from Ukraine’s 4A Games, arrives this Friday, Feb. 15. After tooling around with my comrades in post-apocalyptic Russia for a few days now, I have good news to report. And I have a bit of bad news, too.
After about 10 hours with the game, I feel like I’ve just barely scratched the surface. I’m not nearly finished, but already there’s so much to talk about. So let’s start with what works well.
Exodus takes players out of the Moscow subway system and onto the surface. It’s amazing to be playing a Metro game and be able to move around in such large outdoor environments. Combined with clever AI and a relentless approach to environmental storytelling, this might just be the best spiritual successor to the STALKER franchise that I’ve ever played.
The human AI in this game is simply extraordinary. Firefights are a tense combination of stealth, misdirection, and suppressing fire. In the same gun battle, inside the same warehouse, I suppressed a man silently with a throwing knife, punched his friend out from behind, and then surgically took down three or four additional combatants at close range. In the last moments, I switched weapons and unloaded a punishing salvo against the final, heavily armored opponent. The exchange left me breathless, almost completely out of ammo, and cheering out loud.
What makes Exodus’ combat so exceptional is how it allows me to plan and execute these kinds of engagements in a variety of ways. That means it has more in common with the Dishonored series than the average first-person shooter. Enemies constantly give feedback, showing and telling their intentions, explaining how my clever attack or fearless defense is making them react. When I get it just right, the last few remaining survivors simply throw their weapons to the ground and give themselves up.
On top of the excellent combat, Exodus has gorgeous art direction. Everything that I’ve encountered so far in the game’s first environment feels handmade. From each of its dimly lit tunnels down to the NPCs, every location feels unique. But it’s not just the shape of its corridors or the textures on the wall. Common elements in the landscape vary in subtle ways across the same level.
Take the Volga River, which is a major obstacle early on. At one end the Volga is cool, blue, and nearly translucent with small clots of ice from the spring thaw bobbing up and down. Paddling along in my canoe, I notice an oily sheen over the top of the water that breaks and shimmers each time my paddle passes through the surface. By the time I reach the other side of the map, that same river, just a bit further downstream, is covered in a thick layer of algae and mud, its bottom barely visible. In many games water is water is water, but Exodus gives you four of five different interpretations of that same element in a relatively small area.
It’s a small thing that reflects a much larger design philosophy: Everything in this world comes in gradients. How the world looks. How players behave. Who is good. Who is bad. It’s a fascinating place to inhabit.
Of course, I mentioned bad news. There’s plenty of that as well.
Exodus is not as open as I expected it to be. The game is achingly linear, to the point that finding quest-related items before NPCs ask for them creates irritating inconsistencies in the narrative. That wouldn’t be so bad, if not for the fact that Exodus struggles at telling me where to go and how to get there safely.
At one point I’m standing on an overlook while a man in a thick Russian accent points out all of the landmarks on the horizon. I’ll be damned if I can tell which of the gray buildings he’s pointing at. I can’t even tell them apart. A bunch of anonymous check marks appear on my map, but I have no idea what they represent. All I know is that when I move toward the next big, white X on the map, something happens and the story moves forward.
Worst of all is the fact that Exodus has a number of glaring technical issues.
This is the first game that I’ve played this console generation that seems to be pushing the limits of what these devices can do. That’s not a compliment. While the frame rate is high enough on my HDTV, the load times on my original PlayStation 4 can run a full minute or more. For a game that involves so much trial and error, that’s infuriating.
Beyond that, I’ve also run into a few bizarre clipping issues with friendly NPCs. I keep getting stuck to the people in my party, who then carry me through the scene with them.
At one point, my ally physically pushes me out of cover and into the middle of a crossfire. The collision somehow causes a brand-new enemy — or maybe the clone of a previously dead one? — to spawn behind me. The soldier proceeds to leap out in front of us both, startling me enough to throw off my aim. I’m so confused that I capture a video of it, then watch it half a dozen times just to figure out what went wrong.
These sorts of bugs lead me into situations where I’m not always sure if Exodus is being subtle and sophisticated, or just plain dumb.
The biggest culprits are the many enemy mutants in the game. Occaisionally they just stare at me, unresponsive. Sometimes they appear to get stuck in the geometry and just flail around, shrieking. Other times they leap from the corners of my vision and maul me. In one instance, while coming around a corner, I find myself face to face with two huge doglike creatures in the rain. The pair is huddled inside an overturned train car, so I crouch in front of them frozen in place. Maybe they don’t see me. Maybe they’re going to go to sleep or wander off. Eventually, they just sort of snap to attention and pounce on me. Why? Who knows!
In another instance I catch sight of my camp when a massive gargoyle swoops down, attacking it from the air. By the time I arrive, however, it’s gone. I guess it got bored and flew off. Whatever the case, the locals immediately stop firing at their tormentor and turn to greet me as though they weren’t just fighting for their lives.
Fans have always been tolerant of the issues that come along with any Metro game because the team at 4A punches well above its weight. For many, encountering some jank is just part of the allure. But this is the third game in the trilogy, one that was recently delayed roughly six months to give the developers more time to get it right.
I expected more polish this time around and, so far at least, I feel a little let down. The game looks salvageable, and I expect it to perk up after a few patches. But, because of the bugs, even die-hard fans may want to wait for a while before they commit the time to get stuck in.
We will publish a full review in the coming days, along with some additional thoughts on this beautiful, fun and maddeningly buggy game.