Perhaps it shouldn't come as a shock to me, but it's only as I'm surrounded by lurching, beige-colored mutants that I realize just how scarce ammunition is in the post apocalyptic era. Within 20 minutes of being let out to roam the huge desert map - one of the game's open world areas - I'm reduced to beating irradiated monsters to death with the butt of my rifle. Welcome to Metro Exodus.
The big change for this, the third entry in the series, is a new open world take on the adventure. You still play as Artyom, but instead of scurrying through tunnels, getting only briefs looks at Moscow above ground, Exodus sees our hero onboard a train called the Aurora, travelling across Russia on a nightmarish commute towards the East. As the train travels the story pulls you through different open world areas - we've already spent some time with religious fanatics in a swamp - and then you're left to explore at your leisure. The desert is one of these areas, filled with violent bandits called the Munai-Bailer, ruined ships used as fortresses and bunkers full of spiders. It's not somewhere you'd pick for a vacation, but there is something striking about the landscape of metal trawler carcasses and ruined towers. Still, after life in the tunnels, the new open world order is a bit of a shock
Munai munai munai, must be funny
Apart from some chit chat from your companions - the Spartan Rangers, your wife Anna - and marks on your maps, you're left to decide your own objectives, and are free to go off and explore the sands at your own pace. Which is how I ended up blowing all my ammo and health packs mere meters from where I disembarked from our home on rails. If I'd just headed straight to the first obvious point of interest, a towering fortress of rusting metal, I'd have had the chance to bolster my item reserves and grab the keys to a battered van, making working through the unforgiving dunes a whole lot less frustrating. Instead I learned the hard way that ammo is a rare sight - forget about it glinting or glowing - and making it at the few workbenches dotted around the map costs valuable scrap.
As well as worrying about your ammo, there's an anxiety inducing number of tools on your person at all times. There's your torch, which is essential in dark areas - but makes you stand out to enemies - that helped me fend off spiders in a bunker. Of course, the battery needs charging regularly, and always fails. We need to use our lighter in the bunker too, to burn away webs, and our gas mask, to keep out bad air. The gas mark is a really worry, not only do its filters need replacing - and yes you can run out of those too - the mask can get broken in combat, leaving you gasping until you patch it with tape and extra vulnerable until you can get to a workbench to repair it properly. I always used my scrap resources on ammo, so my mask was smeared with blood throughout.
So while it has the look of an open world map, the survival mechanics - the lack of ammo, the wear and tear on guns that can only be fixed at a workbench - really kills the joy of exploring. Sure, you might find a stash worth raiding, a nice note with a bit of environmental storytelling, or you might just attract one too many low level mutants and see them soak up my precious precious bullets like ugly sponges, leaving you vulnerable when you actually needed to get some story business done. It's not like I'm new to the Metro series, and the outside was always super inhospitable, but this felt particularly stingy. Maybe if I had been playing the full game, rather than being dropped into a specific section, I would have been better at hoarding, or had a more impressive inventory. Or maybe I would have just learned not to be such a nosy little scrote and stuck to the mission?
Once I did get to the first bandit tower, things eased up, and I felt more of the old Metro magic working on my exasperated synapses. Lack of resources is actually much less of a problem when you're in one of the more enclosed areas. The human bandits drop their own guns and ammo once you kill them, after all, and you have the option of using stealth to slaughter them without even tickling a trigger. Even if you get spotted slaughtering someone, the AI's don't have greatest short term memory, or a strong grasp of how walls work, so ducking down and switching off your torch is usually enough to throw them off your scent. All the major buildings and bunkers seemed blissfully free of the beige filler mutants that roam the sands, and clearing an area gave me the chance to breathe and really root around for weapon mods and notes. The best part for me was hunting for maps - and someone's family photo - in an old communications center. Of course, this was also the underground part, the part that felt the most like the old Metro.
Despite my tough time in the desert I'm still eager to see how the game works as a whole when it's released next month, if nothing else the series has a one of the strongest stories of the post-apocalyptic bunch, and I'm damn invested in Artyom and Anna. I just hope those crazy kids make it.
Metro Exodus will be released on February 15 on PS4, Xbox One and PC.