Subterranean Homesick Reds
Fun fact; it was a Metro review back at the time of 2033’s release that snagged me my first boyfriend. I gave a reply; we got to talking then bam! A year later we are together. A week after that, bosh! We are apart again. Upsetting it sure was but in the end it was a question of logistics, personality was fortunately never a concern, but it does mean that 4A Games’ FPS series has an almost automatic emotional connection for me. 2033 was good, Last Light was better, and Exodus is, well, something of a departure (bah-dum tish!).
To be fair the Exodus of the title is not an idle usage; in fact the allusions to the biblical tale in the setup are so obvious and transparent that it borders on the ham-fisted. In an existence that amounts to little more than a prison sentence, Artyom and his Ranger allies escape the clutches of their ostensible masters to set off on a long journey to find a home for themselves. Not exactly subtle, but it does allow the series to trade in the claustrophobic darkness of the Moscow underground for the varied and incredibly vast Russian wilderness.
The change is the most dramatic shift and presents 4A Games with the toughest of challenges; how to maintain the spirit and atmosphere that characterises the series at its best moments whilst divorced from the very environment that it relied upon.
The results are mixed, almost unavoidably so. For many people such as myself one of the great strengths of the series up to now was just how relentlessly oppressive the environment was. Those brief moments of peace and humanity were all the more effective for the death and horror that sat either side, always threatening to consume everything but for the desperate survival efforts of the belaboured Muscovites.
Then there was the sense of journey, almost of pilgrimage. Moving from station to station felt significant for the effort and risk required in getting there. Exodus covers more ground, but the sense of journey doesn’t quite capture that same feeling of relief and accomplishment. Likewise the shift to more open spaces trades in the old claustrophobic anxiety for a much more traditional appreciation of the world around you.
Not that Exodus is lacking in sights to see; its environments create an impressive atmosphere all their own. Tumbleweeds ignite in the blazing desert sun, autumn leaves wistfully flutter by lakeside forests and the weather effects generally are of a high quality. In fact, it’s hard to fault what is there visually, and one has to wonder whether a third game in the same underground setting would simply have been a case of diminishing returns at this point. Nevertheless you are left with a world that is compelling on its own terms, yet ultimately overshadowed by the very specific majesty of its predecessors.
On the story front things are perhaps a little stronger than before. With your merry band there is a greater opportunity for prolonged interaction and Exodus invests a lot of time in helping you get to know your fellow travellers and making everyone feel part of a makeshift family. Some members are more interesting than others of course, but many of the more incidental discussions can be quite engaging. The sense of travel may be lost a touch, but the sense of developing as a group does go some way to fill the gap.
Thematically the game covers much of the same ground as its predecessors, namely how communities and cultures develop out of the ruins of what came before, how the place one finds oneself in has as much of an influence on you as you do on it. It looks at the costs and sacrifices of survival and the moral conflicts that arise from having no good options. All familiar stuff for the Metro veteran, however the change here, beyond the new locations and factions, is that more time is spent involved with them before you move on with your own quest.
In 2033 and Last Light you catch glimpses of the sorts of communities that exist beyond your home, but usually only very briefly as you are thrust onward, back into the dark. Exodus on the other hand thrusts you directly into their internal politics where moving on invariably demands bringing some sort of crisis to its conclusion.
The storytelling and characterisations are as good as anything in the series so far and run a familiar gamut of personalities one might encounter where modern civil society and its vast lines of communication have long since broken down. The use of environmental storytelling remains strong and the last movements of the story were far more affecting than I had been prepared for. The game’s literary underpinnings may well account for much of this, however it does at least remain gratifying to experience something that has a degree of emotional punch. Space is left for more of course but events do happily reach some level of closure.
Discussions of gameplay are somewhat limited in that Exodus has what you’ve come to expect from the series with it’s mix of stealth and out and out gunplay, only with an extra smattering of crafting and upgrading to make the larger areas’ lack of straightforward progress less of an issue. Guns wear out and gas masks need repairs; all the typical elements the series is known for are present and correct. Areas are well designed with secrets to find and alternative routes to navigate, all very well put together with little or no bugs to report.
I do fear however that this is a series at a rather problematic stage in its life. Going over the same ground does little but dilute the magic yet going too far the other way risks alienation from the series’ strengths. Exodus does its best to find a happy middle ground and is a great game in its own right, but leaves a question familiar to its own characters; where do we go from here?