Our visions of the post-apocalypse are too cheerful in the West – too optimistic. That's according to Dmitry Glukhovsky, the sci-fi author who has helped turn his Metro novels into a series of bleak, brutal, and distinct first-person survival horror shooters.
Glukhovsky's books have largely developed in parallel with their videogame counterparts, which have each been shaped by Ukrainian studio 4A. As the release of the third game in the series nears, Glukhovsky is reflecting on the reasons the Metro games have thrived, despite – at a surface level – adopting well-trodden genre conventions and themes.
“It was different enough,” Glukhovsky says of his concept for Metro's spin on the post-apocalypse. “Although, at first the game was too exotic for the Western gamer, and felt a little bit too weird, with unpronounceable station names – and is too bleak, probably – because the Western apocalypse is so merry. You just smash everybody with a club. Hey! Chainsaw. Kill the fucking zombies.
“The Russian post-apocalypse has this gloomy, dark feeling. You’re not really hoping to survive it, you’re regretting the old, good days gone forever. It was a very different touch, not artificial, you know. It was all very natural. The outcoming story and game were different because we were different.”
Stepping out into the newly playable levels of the soon-to-be-released Metro Exodus, things are certainly gloomy. Optimism is eroded alongside the decaying vehicles that litter its landscapes. NPCs greet you with a self-deprecating resignation. Hope and provisions are in short supply.
Russian post- apocalypse has this gloomy, dark feeling. You're not really hoping to survive
Most significantly, where the previous Metro games focused predominantly on humanity’s subterranean existence in a world ravished by nuclear war, Exodus releases its long-suffering protagonist onto the surface world. Up there, everything’s a little less linear than before, and there’s a great deal more natural light.
Metro Exodus takes on the story left open by the ‘Redemption’ ending to the previous entry in the series, Metro: Last Light. Once again, 20-something fallout survivor Artyom steps up as protagonist, but this time he has his sniper sights – and even an iota of hope – set on the far East. That grander goal is why the game moves away from entrenched underground stations and out into the open.
It may be Metro’s boldest move yet. That’s because the strength of the series has been the convincing detail of the society that has rebuilt itself within a buried rail network. Sure, there were points in the previous games when the plot demanded skirmishes and recon missions on the surface. But what made Metro 2033 and Last Light memorable was their thoughtful realisation of an existing underground. Overheard conversations, the scattered detritus of day-to-day life, and signs plastered on the walls helped deliver a world that was equal parts nuanced and enthralling.
The write stuff
"Look at that," Glukhovsky insists, pointing to the words in his book Metro 2035. "This is just fucking stains of paint over paper. It's just a story and a description for your fantasy." His point? While PC hardware makes Exodus more convincing, the written word can deliver perfect realism via the reader's imagination. "Books have more depth," he adds. "And games have more immersive experience. So it's a good thing to combine them."
It would even be reasonable to assume that in taking the Metro games away from their titular location, they would become too familiar; too much like those merry Western apocalypses.
One train, however, has followed Artyom out of the tunnel. Serving as a rolling fortress, accommodation block, and supply vessel, the train is a player hub that takes us through the numerous landscapes of Exodus. At various locations Artyom and his collaborators will stop the locomotive, disembark, and set off to battle rival factions, mutated creatures, and perhaps the grunts of a new world cult that rejects the use of electricity. That train appears to provide the consistency previously offered by a Russian tube station.
As before, the gunplay of Metro Exodus feels fast and loose, and pacing is defined by a paradigm of ammo conservation, risky stealth, and methodical exploration that tempers the push forward. In what I played of Exodus, opting to spray and pray never paid off. Instead, circumnavigating enemies via back routes, skulking behind scenery, and making daring, silent sprints through the open usually served me best.
The barren landscape of the Caspian desert stage I worked through often boasted a desolate atmosphere and wide-open spaces, but the gameplay therein was always focused and tense. On that front Metro fans should be satisfied, because the series has always been as much about how it feels as the dynamics of its shooting. Indeed, Exodus might have pushed its survival horror leanings a little closer to the surface in this outing.
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Exodus in its current state does also feature some of the technical ups and downs seen in the previous two titles. While far from disappointing, every so often a character’s lip sync felt too stiff, the lighting of an occasional texture caused it to sit awkwardly with its immediate neighbours, and the odd animation looked a shade ungainly. Such incidents were rare enough, and never tremendously striking, but they were there. Similarly, from time to time I struggled with activating the UI when, for example, stopping to upgrade equipment at a workbench. Hopefully 4A has time left for a little spit and polish.
The Metro games have always got away with modest technical inconsistency, perhaps because the detail of their world is so beguiling it distracts from the moments in which AI staggers or the frame rate dithers.
As I dived aboard a rusting van that appeared to have repurposed parts of a child’s bike – or perhaps a lawnmower’s handle – for a steering wheel, the paperwork on the dashboard and liberal scattering of grime made it feel well-used and imperfect. This tatty interior didn’t tell an explicit story, but it felt like the culmination of several sorry tales. When that level of thematic attention to detail permeates the whole world, you can forgive a texture that pops a little too much.
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The reason that world is so convincing? According to Glukhovsky, it all stems from growing up in the environment that inspired the Metro series.
“I was born in Moscow, and I lived next to the Exhibition of Achievements of [National] Economy, a gigantic park with the pavilions fashioned to mimic ancient Greek or Roman architecture,” he remembers. “My station was Exhibition Station. That was the place where I was spending my free time as a teenager, with my dog and my friends, among these buildings erected to reflect the power of the Soviet economy. But after the collapse they were reminiscent of the ruins of the old Greek temples.”