Family is thicker than thieves. I think that’s how the saying goes. Regardless, the point here is that surrounding yourself with people you love – or, at least, individuals with whom you can easily resolve petty conflicts – is important. 4A Games knows this, and that might be one of the reasons Metro Exodus is changing tack.
Rather than wander the dangerous subway and wastelands between outposts on foot, series protagonist Artyom has the Russian equivalent of a VW Camper van to travel across the world of Metro. It’s a hulking armoured locomotive called the Aurora.
Artyom uses this steel-clad monstrosity to make a continent-spanning journey in this third Metro game. But it’s more than a means to salvation – the Aurora is a home away from home, with Artyom accompanied by his now-wife Anna and an expanding cast of refugees, soldiers, and other hitchhikers.
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While the train will be just an engine at the beginning, the group aboard it will find and attach more carriages over the course of their year-long trip. The most reductive reading of the train is that it represents little more than a mobile version of the settlements from the first two Metro games. But it actually has the potential to profoundly alter the character of the series.
“One of the objectives in the level you played is that Artyom needs to go and find a passenger car to attach to the back of the train,” executive producer Jon Bloch tells us after we spend our first hour with Metro Exodus.
“In the beginning of the level you try to save a mother and her child, and there are other survivors you’ll meet along the way that might want to come with you. So there’s a progression of the group, and a progression of the train. The train is their home, and in that tinyhome there’s all these people living together… it’s a tight-knit group.”
Indeed, the notion of family – and home – is ever present in the level we play. At the start of it, our train is halted in the middle of a vast, snow-covered area by a rudimentary ambush. The culprits scarper after a short exchange of fire, and then work begins on clearing the line. It’s the perfect opportunity to shirk responsibility and go exploring – oh, and deal with the pesky sniper that’s firing on the train.
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Once the shooter’s taken care of, a ramshackle church on the other side of a swamp piques our interest. Once it’s reached, we sneak about and render unconscious a bunch of luddite cultists before rescuing that aforementioned mother and daughter, then we fight a giant, mutant croco-whale creature on the way back to the train.
After that we trek across to the other side of the map, panickedly brain some Watchers when they leap out from some wrecked cars, make our way through a destroyed factory filled with distressingly quick humanoid enemies, then clamber up a crane in order to reach an engineer called Krest.
There’s a lot to do, but all of it radiates out from the train at the centre of the map – we return to it periodically to find a campfire established, washing being hung out, and fresh conversations to be had each time. The mother, daughter, and Krest can all be recruited and join your travelling party. All of this feeds into a sense of familial warmth which makes the coldly contrasting wastelands all the more foreboding and lonely.
It’s a tonal shift which somehow manages to emphasise everything that you fell in love with about the original Metro games. But it’s also one that has required quite a bit of extra work.
“Anna is back and so is Miller,” Bloch says. “There are new characters and returning characters, and they’re all on this train taking this journey together. You’ll have the opportunity to meet all of them, and learn so much information about all of them. The depth of the narrative, and the dialogue, is something that’s core to Metro as well. We’ve brought that back, but we’ve also ramped it up to another level on this one. Our script is actually twice the size of Metro 2033, Metro Last Light, and all the DLC combined.”
We’ll get to delve into this deep story when that Metro Exodus release date rolls around. But even on this early showing, 4A’s game is inspiring enough that we’re already thinking of having the PCGN summer party aboard a stifling First Great Western train.