At Gamescom 2018, we went hands-on with Metro Exodus on an Xbox One X and came away feeling elated.

Metro could be called a "cult" shooter franchise from 4A Games. The series, based on apocalyptic novels of the same name, takes place in a post-societal Russia following a devastating global catastrophe.

The first two games, Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light, we're well received in general, but the franchise never seems to have gotten the widespread attention it truly deserves. Metro Exodus could change that.

Blue skies above, apocalypse below

Metro Exodus takes place some years after the events of the first two games. Traversing Moscow's winding metro systems was an incredibly dangerous, claustrophobic affair, forcing the player to use a gas mask that severely limited field of view, while your oxygen filters slowly degraded, creating an anxiety-inducing sense of urgency.

Atmospherically, these oppressive systems are incredible to experience and form part of Metro's signature gameplay, but they also created some limitations on the types of environments 4A could create for the non-radioactive areas. In Exodus, much of the most aggressive pollution seems to have cleared up. Wildlife is returning, and flora is growing again, albeit often twisted by radioactive and supernatural mutations. Exodus has blue skies, and it's a breath of fresh air.

Ranger purists will be happy to know Metro Exodus still has its more dangerous survival elements. Protagonist Ranger Artyom still has his gas mask, which takes damage and has limited filtration. He also has his hand-crank dynamo, used to charge your torch and, eventually, night vision goggles. You will have to use all of the tools at your disposal to survive in Metro Exodus's vast play spaces, that take inspiration from Metro Last Light's more open areas and expands upon them exponentially, cramming them with detail and reasons to explore.

Fight or flight

During my play session, Artyom had been pulled from a lake and resuscitated by a Mad Maxian "child of the forest," clad in animal leathers and bones. Humanity might have survived Metro's apocalypse, but it has regressed to scrapping tribes and warring factions, rife with death and tribal law. Stalking through the painstakingly-crafted undergrowth, I happened upon the corpse of a marauder bandit, crucified, with a bullet wound to the groin, "rapist" written in blood on a scrap of paper impaled to his chest.

If you let it, Metro Exodus's sobering journey may immerse you like few games can.

Every building was bristling with small details, which are often overlooked as unimportant in some titles. Discarded toys languished on decrepit floors, next to a note penned by a small child addressed to Santa, requesting the opportunity to see her parents again for Christmas. If you let it, Metro Exodus's sobering journey may immerse you like few games can.

Metro Exodus's visual quality on the Xbox One X is truly striking. Light plays a huge part in Metro's stealth gameplay, and it returns with gusto for Exodus. Sunlight realistically dances on the water, which is painted with floating debris and stagnant overgrowth. Grass brushes aside as you stalk through it, and ominous ambience accompanies every step.

Gameplay-wise, Exodus feels familiar but refined. There are a few new systems to help players indulge their inner apocalyptic drifter, including in-the-field weapon modification and crafting, and upgrades to the game's enemy A.I. and combat tactics. It feels as though "immersion" was a guiding mission statement for this game, with 4A adding some really smart touches that helped bridge that uncanny valley.

Like previous Metro titles, Exodus supports both stealth and gung-ho guns blazin' gameplay styles, providing silenced weapons for sneaky kills, as well as a powerful double barrel shotgun pistol for going loud. Weighing up my options, I noticed a fallen road sign pointing left, giving me a hint that there might be a hidden entrance into the camp. Sure enough, I found an entrance off to the side through the undergrowth, shooing away some large radioactive hares as I went.

I could catch the "pirates" unawares. Two of them were discussing the gallery of crucified bandits I'd seen on the way to their camp, with one raising concerns that their last kill probably wasn't a bandit, but just a traveller. It gives you some narrative context for your combat options. Maybe they were only killing bandits before, but now, it looks like they have killed an innocent drifter. You could stealth past this group completely and proceed on your mission, or take them all out – there might be a hoard of crucial supplies inside their base. I chose the latter option.

After killing a couple of enemies with the silenced crossbow, I missed the third, unaccustomed to the crossbow's arrow-drop physics. They raised the alarm and began to attack. Bullet holes in Exodus ooze cascades of gore realistically, leaving bullet deformations in the targets you shoot. It's not as gory as say, DOOM, but feels more realistic in the context of the game's world.

In-keeping with Metro's immersive priorities, I was surprised to hear enemies calling out my location, contextually. Few games do this, and it might seem like a little thing, but hearing an enemy yell to his friends "he's by the window!" added to the sense of realism in a big way.

Biology and biomes

The radiation and supernatural phenomena unleashed by Metro's apocalypse has warped the games flora and fauna in the process of wiping out civilization. In Metro Exodus, you'll live among these rabid creatures, as you stalk towards your objectives.

Exodus features dynamic day and night cycles that will dramatically alter the way you'll approach the game.

It isn't an "open world" game, but it is extremely wide in its approach to level design. If you played Metro Last Light, you may remember the swamp levels which were far more open, built for exploration. Exodus applies this "wide linear" approach to its entire game, giving you optional paths to traverse and uncover.

While Exodus features some scripted encounters, it also features biome-based, dynamic A.I. ecosystems that interact organically with each other. A stampede of mangy deer rushed past me, flanked by a pack of mutated wolves hungry for meat. A gigantic bear-like creature was also stalking the wilds, grunting ominously in the distance.

The remaining humans had set up a series of pulleys, zip lines and tree houses in the gloom, allowing you to escape the danger of running into one of the game's nuclear predators. It was around then my demo ended, soaked in the incredible lighting effects of Exodus's moon, cascading through the trees and mist.

It was awe inspiring.

Keep an eye on Metro Exodus

There are a lot of apocalyptic titles on the market. I've always felt like Metro didn't get the attention it deserved, but with Exodus, that could surely change. Even with these brief demonstrations, Exodus felt like the definitive, polished, post-apocalypse experience I've been yearning for since the days of STALKER and Metro 2033. If you put ANY shooter on your watch list, make it this one.

Metro Exodus looks utterly stunning in 4K on the Xbox One X, and you'll be able to crank the experience even higher on PC, as Exodus plans to support ray tracing dynamic lighting on NVIDIA's new RTX graphics card line.

Metro Exodus should launch on February 22, 2019, for Xbox One, Windows PCs, and PlayStation 4, and it's available for preorder now starting at about $60.

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