You’d be excused for mistaking Metro: Exodus for an open-world game. That’s what I thought it was before I played it. Even as the game loaded in, I was still convinced it was an open-world shooter. After all, the first thing I saw during my 40-minute, hands-on demo was the sprawling, abandoned, desolate winter wasteland of post-apocalyptic Russia, spreading out in front of me and zooming past my train, the Aurora. Yep, I thought, that looks like a big freaking open world to me.
But as soon as I stepped off the train and into the world, things began to fill suspiciously empty.
The game gave me a primary objective objective and marked it on my map, but where were the side quests? Where were the points of interest? Where was all the stuff?
None of the conventions you’d expect from an open-world game are to be found in Metro: Exodus, and that’s because, as 4A Games executive producer Jon Bloch explained to me later, Metro: Exodus isn’t an open-world game.
“We’re not [calling it an open-world game],” Bloch told me. “We’re calling it a sandbox survival, and when we’re talking about these open areas, we’re saying that you can consider it a linear progression across different types of levels. Some are linear levels, some are these sandbox survival levels, and the player is still being carried through everything.”
Metro: Exodus once again puts you in the shoes of series protagonist Artyom. Following the canonical “good” ending of Metro: Last Light, Metro: Exodus finds Artyom and the rest of his group, the Spartans (which includes familiar faces from the franchise like Anna and Miller), headed on a train journey across Russia to find a new home.
The structure of a train journey is the key to understanding how Metro: Exodus works. Metro: Exodus might share a striking resemblance to Fallout on the surface, but deep down, it’s probably closer to BioShock or the original Doom in how each level is structured. That’s to say, there will be open areas to explore, but once you’ve finished the story there, you’ll move to the next one, and in between those, players will tackles more traditionally Metro linear levels.
The sandbox survival areas will allow players to get out and stretch their legs. There will be room to explore, but Metro: Exodus won’t fall into the same traps as, say, Fallout 4, which killed my enthusiasm for the world by tasking me with saving the same settlement 80 times in a row.
“When we talk about side content, we don’t want to deliver it to the player in the traditional open-world sense where you just get fetch quests,” Bloch explained. “You’re not an errand boy for all these people you come across.”
Instead, exploring the sandbox areas will reward players in the form of more story content and more organic narrative moments. One example that Bloch gave was finding an NPC that was locked up in a cell. Players can choose to let him out or not, but discovering him isn’t prompted by an objective given to you by another character. It’s just a possibility that will come from exploring each open area on your own.
Once you give up on the notion that Metro: Exodus is a fully open-world game, the perceived emptiness suddenly seems like a bold design choice. The only objectives the player will ever get will be tied to the main narrative. The only reason players will have for exploring the open areas is their own curiosity, not to mention the potential to find new resources, story moments and workbenches that will let players craft new weapon and armor attachments, among other useful items.
Of course, there are some traditionally open-world moments in Metro: Exodus. Wandering off the main path, I encountered a pack of lurkers that resulted in one of my more tense moments during the demo. Low on ammo, I quickly went into my backpack (a portable workbench of sorts) and crafted some metal balls for my pneumatic rifle, just in case. The catch is that the game doesn’t stop while you’re in your backpack or checking your map, giving the lurkers enough time to notice I was there. A tense battle ensued, and I barely survived, but it was my moment. I created that moment with the tools the game gave me, and yet it was still a very Metro moment.
Sure, there are open areas now. You can craft ammo and medkits and weapon attachments at workbenches or (in some cases) with your backpack. You can step off the beaten path and maybe find something useful.
But this is still a Metro game. It’s a tense survival horror shooter with a compelling narrative. You still have to manage items It just happens to be set outside the metro, with seasons, weather, and a day-night cycle.
Just don’t call it an open-world game, even though you might be tempted.
Metro: Exodus launches for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on February 22nd, 2019.