As I crouched in the back of the burned-out car, beset on all sides by ravenous mutant wolves, and watching the timer on my gas mask steadily tick down to asphyxiation, I couldn’t help but think, “This is actually a lot like camping.”
As someone whose healthy distrust of Outside has never been even slightly allayed by my brief forays into woodsmanship, the thing I love most about Metro Exodus is that it understands that the natural world is a terrible and hostile place that would absolutely kill you if it could. Give or take a remake or two, Exodus is the third game in the survival-minded Metro franchise, which previously confined itself to the tunnels and poison-choked byways of post-nuclear war Moscow. As the name implies, though, this new installment sees mostly mute hero Artyom and his well-armed friends breaking out into the surrounding countryside, courtesy of a big, fancy train, and a new interest in taking the franchise open world—albeit one whose arms are less open in a gesture of welcomeness, and more unfurled into an aggressive posture ready to rend players limb from limb.
Whereas games like last year’s Spider-Man reveled in allowing players to propel themselves across big, dramatic spaces the way only a spider can—and even more ostensibly apocalyptic outings like Fallout 76 filled themselves with player-focused conveniences designed to make travel easier—Metro Exodus makes you fight for every inch of blighted, radioactive space. There’s something refreshing about a game that realizes that “How the hell do I get across this river?” can be a more compelling question than “How many super mutants can I gun down before my hunting rifle starts to break?” (Though you do also have to worry obsessively about when your hunting rifle is about to break.)
Let’s tackle that river question, then: Given that this is Russia in the middle of a nuclear winter, it should be taken as read that swimming is automatically out. (Even if the mutated, man-sized shrimp don’t rip you apart before you even hit the shore.) You could grab a boat, of course; be careful navigating, though, because if you piss off the bus-sized catfish patrolling the Volga, it’s a one-way trip into a piscine gullet. The railway bridge is probably a safer bet, at least as long as you don’t run into a roving, lethal electrical “ghost” or one of those aforementioned packs of hell-wolves, which might then proceed to chase you, maul you, and force you to hole up in an abandoned van, praying for a solution that isn’t just “Jam the quick-load button and wait 60 seconds for a new chance to die.” So, you know, take your pick.
As with the previous two games in the series, Exodus wants to make its case that man is the real monster amid all these natural horrors. The problem, though, is all the actual monsters that the game keeps throwing at you, especially when you’re out in the open wilderness. After all, you can sneak up on the game’s assorted cultists, bandits, and various human baddies and easily shank them, ending the fight in a moment. But try pulling that shit with a hostile bat-demon or a super-shrimp, and see where it gets you. (Short answer: Disemboweled.) It’s enough to make you hesitate and holster your weapon any time you see a person walking in the waste; sure, they’re probably murderous assholes, but at least they’re human. As such, there’s only one series of games I’ve ever played that’s made the idea of traversing two inches of in-game map this terrifying, and it’s one that the Metro series has been beholden to since it first began: GSC Game World’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
Exodus’ open-world areas aren’t quite as oppressively hostile as those games’ legendarily nasty Zone—at least you can see the lethal physics anomalies now, instead of shuffling along and stopping every few feet to see if you’re suddenly about to explode. But there’s a sense that 4A Games is finally ready to fully embrace the series that’s hung over them since the days of Metro 2033. Both series understand, on a fundamental level, that there’s little cruelty people can inflict on each other that can stand up to the cold, lethal indifference of nature, especially once humanity has well and truly pissed it off. (Not that people don’t try.) A camp full of bandits is scary and evil, but in a distinctly human way, while a vast expanse of irradiated, frozen water, full of lurking things that deign to break the surface just long enough to remind you that they’re out there, watching, is the stuff of nightmares. Apocalyptic fiction can be about a lot of things—the escapism of freedom from social constructs, the fragility of human society—but out in the Russian wastes, it’s about making it lethally clear that man is no longer in control of the situation, and can survive only when the eyes of the wild deem him too insignificant to devour.
So, like I said, “Just like camping!”