Nobody glorifies misery quite like the Russians. Across centuries of literature, poetry and music, some of humanity’s most brilliant minds have elevated the struggles of ordinary Russian men and women to incredible symphonies of suffering. Times of unparalleled political and social upheaval – the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of Leninism, the Stalinist purges, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the fall of the Berlin Wall – has led generation after generation of creators to explore what it means to be human in a cruel and unknowable world.
Contemporary Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky’s series of science fiction novels fits firmly into this canon, combining grim realism with post-apocalyptic mysticism. Metro 2033 and its sequels take place in a world in which Russia has been all but destroyed by nuclear war.
The surface of the planet is uninhabitable and the remaining pockets of civilization reside in the terrifying curves of the Moscow tube network. Stations have become cities in microcosm, with their own ideologies, economies, squabbles and ambitions.
Outside these relative safe-zones, strange “anomalies” roam the deserted tunnels, artefacts of unimaginable horror burned indelibly into the present.
Ukrainian games developer 4A faithfully recreated this world in 2010’s Metro 2033 and its sequel Metro: Last Light; having been brought up in the shadow of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, it’s hard to imagine a studio better suited to the task.
Metro Exodus, a full six years in the making, opens with longstanding hero Artyom picking up a mysterious radio signal hinting at life outside of Metro. He steals a Soviet-era steam train in a grand set-piece – the first of many grand set pieces – and sets out into the Russian wilds.
But those expecting a fast-paced, cinematic action shooter are in for a surprise; this is a slow-burn rumination on the human condition, on the passage of time, on the power of hope in a hopeless world. The pacing is laborious, your progress slow and constantly subject to interruption.
The 30-ish hours of gameplay are split into four chapters: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, each one so disparate in tone and presentation that they could be from entirely different games.
You’re first cast onto the icy banks of the river Volga, which combines the sombre tone of the original games with a semi-open world reminiscent of Fallout 3. Artyom feels small and fragile here, with even the lowliest of irradiated creatures capable of splashing his insides across the snow; given a choice of confrontation or stealth, you’ll soon default to the latter.
Subsequent chapters take you even further from the familiar: you visit the baked plains of the dried-up Caspian Sea, a Mad Max-style dystopia where a dieselpunk warlord controls the precious supply of water; a Far Cry-esque forest town overrun by lethal boy scouts; finally you descend once more into the metro system, where the tone veers towards psychological horror, complete with a piano playing in an empty room and horrifying shapes flashing across the periphery of your vision.
While there are elements of open world design, Exodus is always tugging you in a prescribed direction, frustratingly so for the first few hours, when control is frequently wrested from you as yet another cut-scene takes hold.
The chapters are bookended with sections set aboard your train as it hurtles through the endless Russian landscape. This mobile hub is functionally similar to the submarine in Wolfenstein 2, allowing you to collect your thoughts and interact with your crew. There’s hours worth of dialogue to take in here, making rounded human beings of your companions and sewing narrative seeds that pay off much later in the game.
New additions include a day/night cycle that allows you to approach situations in a way that plays to your strengths, and a light crafting system that rewards exploration.
These build on the previous games’ foundations, including their tactility: if you’re knocked to the ground, the gas mask that protects you from radiation will spatter with mud, which you must wipe off if you wish to continue seeing through it. When aboard the train you can descend into its bowels and shovel coal into the furnace. These sound like incidental mechanics, but they anchor you in this strange and beautiful world.
And “beautiful” is the right word – Exodus is as pretty as the aftermath of nuclear apocalypse could possibly hope to be. Whether you’re lost amid swirling red sands, basking in god rays breaking through a woodland canopy, or just staring out of a train window at the skeletal remains of rusting Soviet architecture, it’s consistently breathtaking.
The good work is only slightly compromised by recurring problems: enemies have a tendency to dislocate from the ground – at one point I found myself taking pot shots at a bandit sprinting through the sky – and crashes are far too frequent for a game with such unforgiving load times.
But Exodus rises above. It slogs on. Few games paint such a singular, vivid picture, or make you feel such a part of their world. It’s a portrait of beauty in the face of terrible adversity, of the human instinct to survive even when all that remains is squalor and pain. Nobody glorifies misery quite like the Russians, except, perhaps, for the Ukrainians.