In the Metro series, the people of Moscow huddled below the Earth as the bombs fell. The subway tunnels provided shelter and the soil for the seeds of civilisation to take root and re-emerge, once the dust settles. A nice thought. But if the first two games, Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light, taught us anything, it was that the seeds themselves might well be the problem. Nevertheless, hero Artyom hasn’t given up hope. Early on in Metro Exodus, we see him twiddling the dials on his radio, searching for any souls on the wind.

His is a tough life, spent trying to thrive in a tired landscape cluttered with clapped out mechanics – a struggle developer 4A Games is familiar with. There are only so many times you can relish the sight of a city razed to rubble and strewn with ghouls before the end of the world becomes rather rote. So, how do you find freshness on such stale ground? Well, for one thing, the ground, however stale, is enthralling. Take Moscow, for instance: the land, the sky, and all in-between are the same grey-white of worn bone, and the buildings, blasted clear of colour, look like spines stuck in the earth. On top of that, Metro Exodus is more oxygenated than the first two games, filled with light and space.

An early upheaval sees Artyom leave the metro with a band of survivors in tow. Among them are his wife, Anna; her father, Colonel Miller, who leads the group; weapons expert Tokarev, who cobbles together upgrades between missions; and Yermak, who tames the Aurora, an old locomotive that coughs them across the Russian countryside. (If you swoon at those scenes in From Russia with Love aboard the Orient Express – all wavering walkways and wooden panels – you’ll love this.) And what a joy it is not to shoot or sneak, as you do when you alight, but simply to drift along the track.

Not that the shooting and sneaking aren’t fun. Combat is frantic and fraught with error; guns jam when they’re clogged with dirt, and the nervy sway of your aim sees bullets zip wide of the mark. Whether this thrills or irritates you will depend on your fondness for the finicky. Stealth is light-based, dependant on shooting light bulbs and snuffing out candles to avoid patrolling guards. One irritation is that takedown prompts appear at their own sedate pace; it must have looked as if Artyom had had a crisis of conscience – or a panic attack – as I frantically hammered the button. It lacks the lubricated feel of a Call of Duty and the snap of a Far Cry, the glossy execution of shooters with supermen at their centre.

But perhaps that’s the point. The Metro games have never revelled in violence; their heart is in the preparation, in the methodical calm before the storm. It’s about making you feel resourceful, as you pull out your backpack to craft items on-the-fly. But more than that, it’s about the wiping of fog from your visor; the water-pistol-pumping of the Tikhar rifle, with its pressurized ball bearing rounds; and the recharging of your torch batteries with a rhythmic pulling of the right trigger. It isn’t that supplies are scarce; it’s more about the relentless drumming of routine. Artyom has measured out his life in gas mask filters.

Thankfully, in Metro Exodus, he gets a bit of a breather. Leaving Moscow for the first time in the series, the game is a tour of Russia’s various feats of size. His group ventures by the Volga, the longest river in Europe. They head to the Taiga – also called boreal forest – the largest biome on Earth that isn’t ocean. And they stop off in the Caspian Sea, which was the world’s largest lake but now lies reduced to a baked bed. These act as hubs, and offer a number of optional diversions away from your main objective, tempting you with treasures.

More intriguing is that they allow 4A some room to refresh the formula. The Caspian, for instance, flits between shades of Mad Max – a crazed Baron rules over the sandbox with a league of thugs and slaves – and even nightmarish visions of the Gulf War, monstrosities caught in the boiling gleam of night vision goggles. While the autumnal forest, which gives you a rusty crossbow and emphasises sleuthing, takes on shades of The Last of Us, with a blend of The Blair Witch Project – twig talismans dangling from trees.

One shortfall of these hubs is that the thrust of the plot is pulled and stretched like hot toffee; the urgency of the mission ebbs away as you spend half an hour searching out a guitar for your comrade. The side missions urge exploration, and lend warmth and depth to the characters, but I often found myself meandering back to the main objective and wondering just what it was. I was happy to let the plot hurtle past – which is down to a mixture of it crackling over radios and scrabbling about in the vague murk of conspiracy.

The games draw from Dmitry Glukhovsky’s books, which are prone to prolonged bouts of rumination. In place of those musings, in Metro Exodus, are little pockets of down time: the chance to have a smoke with an ally, to sit in the midst of a conversation, play guitar or share a drink with friends. Artyom never speaks outside the loading screens, a condition you might want imposed on the other characters; my teeth are still rattling from all the rolled ‘r’s. (My colleague recommended the Russian language option, with English subtitles; it’s too late for me but save yourself!)

As the journey nears its final stop, you may find, if you lack the proper grounding of the first two games, that you’ve been blind-alleyed by the plot. But I wouldn’t worry too much about that; who needs narrative when you’ve got a train? The only story that really matters is the world outside the windows, scorched and slipping by, and besides, if Artyom weren’t so rapt with his radio, he’d notice a sweet life passing him by onboard.

Developer: 4A Games

Publisher: Deep Silver

Available on: PlayStation 4, PC, Xbox One [reviewed on]

Release date: February 15, 2019

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