It’s late in the afternoon on the first day of E3 and John Bloch, executive producer for Metro Exodus, already looks tired.
Part of the reason is likely his trip to Los Angeles from Malta, the tiny island nation in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and the location of 4A Games headquarters since 2014. Another part of that reason, however, is simply the scale of the task ahead of him and his team as they near that game’s release date. Exodus is the third title in the Metro series, and the studio’s largest effort yet.
“Our script this time around is twice the size of Metro 2033, Metro: Last Light, and all of those games’ DLC combined,” Bloch told me. “Twice the size of all of that. So there’s a massive, massive amount of story content in this game.”
But the complexity of the task is compounded by the fact that Exodus isn’t a traditional, linear experience. It’s a sandbox survival game, one with multiple large environments connected to one another by a storyline that spans a full in-game year. The first of those environments is called Bridge. It’s a mostly frozen marshland thawing out after a long winter, its landscape shot through with dilapidated rural villages and sprawling industrial areas. Bloch said that the entire space is roughly two square kilometers.
“The largest level from any of our previous games,” Bloch said, “was just 200 square meters.”
One of my favorite pastimes in previous Metro games was to simply sit in the shadows and listen. Some of the game’s best dialogue came from the enemies, and by rushing into battle you tend to miss out on the little anecdotes that give the game life. Bloch said that the team’s effort extended to these areas of the game narrative as well.
“Some of that script is critical path,” he said, referring to the game’s main storyline. “A lot of that is ancillary though, and you can only find it if you spend the time to just absorb the environment and go around and explore. It’s a similar dynamic to previous games. You can sneak around an enemy, listening to them while they’re just sitting around a campfire.”
But, in addition to the game’s massive environments and its narrative density, the team at 4A have been uncompromising on its background simulation as well. The challenge, Bloch said, is to make that effort visible to the player without showing their hand completely.
“Something we’ve had in a long time that’s never really been explained is the adrenaline system with our AI,” he explained. “When they’re sitting there, when they’re chilling at a campfire say, and you shoot at them they might go down pretty easily. But then, once they’re in combat, they’re ready. They’re pumped up. It might take some more bullets to drop them because they’ve got adrenaline pumping through their bodies.”
Bloch hinted that there are multiple other systems like adrenaline that will be featured in Exodus, especially as it applies to the game’s centerpiece monsters. In the level I played at this year’s E3 there was a massive crocodile-like mutant called the Tsar fish. Bloch said that it will interact with the other mutants on the map, man-sized shrimp-like creatures. But how that interaction plays out isn’t spelled out. It will be up to players to observe their behavior and, ultimately, use that information against them.
But complexity of that simulation and narrative design are all compounded by the sheer size of the game world itself that 4A has created. The extra time needed to tie those systems together is one of the reasons that the game was delayed into February 2019.
Take just one such global system, the game’s AI barks. In Metro games enemies call out to one another, sharing information on the player’s location and disposition. With more ground to cover on each level, that has greatly expanded the amount of work needed to flesh out the game’s signature battle chatter.
“There’s so much more of it this time,” Bloch said, “because we have to account for a lot of these scenarios of where the player can be and give them the tools they need in order to be able to understand what the AI knows about them. The AI understands that that is a balcony. The AI understands that that is a chair. The player is hiding behind the chair, so the AI will use that one line of dialogue to tell the other AI, ‘He’s behind the chair!’
“We love to design really complex things for the sake of realism and then, yes, it might create complexities that we need to solve in other ways to maintain that realism. Because, yes, we’re making a video game. But what we’re making, what we’re really trying to do, is make an immersive experience that players can step into and forget that they’re playing a video game.”
Metro Exodus is expected to launch Feb. 22, 2019 for PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.