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Thoughts on the Metro series after finishing the whole thing earlier this year

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About 5-6 months ago, over a week and a half, I played Metro 2033 Redux, Metro Last Light Redux and Metro Exodus. This is the first time I've played these games, apart from 2033 which I bought on launch and got as far as Bourbon teaching you stealth before I shelved it.

I forgot about the Metro franchise after shelving it until the Metro Exodus gameplay trailer, which tweaked my interest for the way it reminded me of the design of STALKER. Then Game Maker's Toolkit did a video on


which was all about stuff that appealed to me. I'm a big fan of STALKER and Far Cry 2. I bought the game, fought through the first bit and reached Anna. Immediately I twigged that she must be someone from the previous games, just from the way she was talking to me. As story and character are a huge part of my gaming motivation I quit so as to play the first two games. I owned Metro 2033 Redux from the Epic Store giveaway and picked up a copy of Last Light Redux to complete my collection.

And then off I went.

I played through all games on Hardcore, using Survival mode where available. I did try Ranger mode briefly, but removing the pickup UI is a huge mistake. The game does not feel well suited to this, with pickups and containers not being well contrasted to surrounding junk, or even consistent in their design or interaction range and zone. Most annoying was when one object would block interaction with another, which when you're trying to turn off a light is a killer. It felt more annoying than immersive, and the game already has an immersive design with remaining HUD elements primarily being a nod to gaming need, and so I was happy with my choice. All Ranger did was cause me to spam my E key a lot more. In Exodus you can play Ranger Hardcore and select Minimal Interface, which allows you to keep key UI elements such as pickup. Much better and this is the first game where I'd say Ranger difficulty is worth bothering with.

When researching what difficulty to play I found numerous instances of the community recommending Ranger Hardcore, which I think is just a dreadful recommendation to make to new players and will likely drive them away.

I do want to give a compliment to the save system in all three games. Really frequent autosaves are a pleasure as they save me from spamming the quick save, and I came to rely on them completely. Only one or two were in silly locations, which for something so frequent is a fine achievement.

Metro 2033 Redux

This game is such a throwback to a school of FPS design that you don't really see that much anymore. A series of different scenarios with the feel of having been created first, then someone brought in to create a story to tie them together. While I know there's a novel the game is based around, the feel remains.

I loved this old school feel. The game wasn't afraid to chuck some monster, or specific idea in for a single level only for it to never be seen again. Because of this the metro never loses its sense of fear and tension. You never truly understand the metro, you're always learning. A particularly painful instance was the overrun station filled with Lurkers which never stop spawning. I have a pretty slow and methodical style, so my instinct is to find a defensible position, eliminate the threats, then lawnmower the level. Doesn't work here, and the game smartly uses your filters as a way to hurry you along. Also, fuck the librarians. God were they scary, with the stare down mechanic I never really understood and proved unreliable at best. I killed the final two on the upper level because I just couldn't trust to facing them down and my fight-or-flight instinct was kicking in a little too strongly for me to hold my nerve. A lot of memorable encounters in this game.

Sometimes the old school design suffers from needing a little more direction than it gives. The surface levels aren’t always clear in where you should be going, causing you to lean heavily on the compass in an unsatisfying way. I found the Nazi building where you need to send the distress signal especially guilty of this, with the level design in no way helping give you direction as to where or what your objective is, leading to a separation between you and Artyom. In other cases it’s that the game will play vital dialogue when you are not present, specifically the station defence with Khan, where you will be told about the bomb even if you’re not there to hear.

As a liner shooter the game is pretty satisfying, with strong pacing maintained through the game endlessly switching it up, leaning neither too heavily on mutants nor humans.

A testament to how much fun I had is that I am a massive scaredy cat, yet I pushed through every terrifying instance. The whole thing concludes in the very satisfying tower push, which was a perfect final level. The dark one mind interruption hurts that pacing a little, since it's a single gimmick and once you realise to run away there's little else going on here to challenge you. But the tower is a great feeling of the final push against a final demon, a foe that by the end of the game still feels like a significant threat.

One thing I did not realise during this game was that it had takedowns. I'm really glad I didn't, because I find takedown mechanics to be utterly dull, turning all gameplay into a button press. I stealthed through the bandit station using my pneumatic rifle and headshots, a far more interesting way to stealth since it’s far more dependent on player skill and so feels more interactive.

I can't imagine trying to stealth without the light icon though, because none of the games are very good at tying local light level to actual stealth level.

My biggest criticism of the first game is that the characters are pretty flat. It also amuses me that the trilogy kicks off with you telling your dad you're off to Riga and will be right back, and that's the last time your dad is ever mentioned in the trilogy.

Another criticism I’d throw at 2033 is what a noob trap shopping is. You’re presented with guns you probably shouldn’t buy. Customisations you definitely shouldn’t buy. Ammo you probably don’t need to buy. All you need is to top up health packs and to buy filters. All the filters. Filters are about the only thing worth buying, but by the time you realise this you may already have made the game so much harder for yourself than it needs to be.

I got the good ending on my first run. I didn't know about the morality system until Last Light.

By the way, did I miss something about the location of the Dark Ones? My whole journey I knew them only as a threat to my home station and thought we'd need to locate them. Then in the finale we know where they are and are going to launch a missile strike. When did we learn about their home? Did the game tell me at some point that they were just up the road from my station?

Metro Last Light Redux

The weakest of the three games, suffering both in pacing and mechanics.

One of the problems with this game comes from when I'm playing it. At this point 2033 feels fresh, which might not have been true in 2010. Whereas Last Light feels like a game I've played a hundred times before at this point. Here is a room of guards, they will converse, then they will patrol in a way that allows you to pick them off one at a time. Not in interesting or risky ways, you will instead crouch move and press an "I WIN" takedown button. You will be presented with two forms of takedown, with absolutely no benefits to lethal over non-lethal. Yay!

It also doesn't help that I learned about the morality system between 2033 and Last Light, so I was extra careful not to kill anyone, otherwise I might have headshot a few people. This game seems far more sensitive than 2033 or Exodus about human kills, with morality rewards almost every time you made it through a room without any death.

Pacing is the other glaring weakness, and Last Light actually heavily reminded me of going from Half-Life to Half-Life Opposing Force. While Opposing Force was a fun game, it didn't understand how Half-Life used quiet moments, and so front loads all the platforming stuff, then goes all in on action heavy sequences. So it is with Last Light, which heavily front loads the human sections and stealth and then in the back half of the game puts much greater emphasis on mutants and wave combat. 2033 struck a much better balance (apart from the insufferable Khan tunnel crawl).

Where Last Light does shine is in the improved characterisation. It's a mystery as to why your backstory isn't in the first game, but I guess this is a sign of the growing maturity of the studio. Pavel felt like a natural growth of Bourbon too, someone who sees you through a lot of the early content, but with more personality and more depth of character. He's charming, and utterly shameless in how he betrays you. Really enjoyed him as a character and a great antagonist, who helps ground an otherwise “larger than one man” fate of the metro plot.

Anna on the other hand is a sign of the growth still needed for the studio in its writing. She will constantly use one insult in the fist level. Oh, you lived and now we will have sex and I will carry your child to term. The fuck? I could buy the sex in a world where old age is a luxury and two people think they may not have long left (though it's creepy that at this point a guard's patrol will bring him to just watching you through the plastic, lol!), but the game goes on to portray it as a romance with her watching you leave on the train for D6 and the narration in the "bad ending". Just shoddy, shoddy writing. Especially disappointing given this is what actually spurred the trilogy play-through.

The removal of filters from the shop is both a blessing and a curse. I thought the surface levels were better designed for it, because now they were play tested purely with filter discovery in mind, making them much less variable in their difficulty and removing most of the frustration. Design was also improved so that I didn’t feel lost in a way I often did in 2033 (especially that bloody radio tower after Defense). But it also means money is relatively worthless. I used MGR almost exclusively for combat, and they are very effective in combat. They ended up being my aid for any section I was finding tricky, and for the last part of the game I was using my Kalash 2012 with MGR almost exclusively.

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I did need to replay the marsh level though, as I somehow managed to waste 19 minutes worth of filters as I wandered lost throughout the level, forgetting what the hell I was doing and getting completely turned around. On the second attempt I breezed through. That one was on me. I don’t think the game reminds you about the flags though, which is fascinating, so unless you recall a conversation from very early in the game which you happen to overhear, this might be trickier than it needs to be.

The backend of the game drags though. I did not enjoy "let me discover what it is to be human" shoehorned into yet another sci-fi, this time in the form of the Dark One child. By the point it turns up the story felt like it was ready to conclude, but there are subsequently FIVE(!!) overground levels with this kid just talking AT me. I was so ready to be done with the game by then, an utter drag. The final shootout isn't much better. I had to look up how to beat the last wave, because I shoot them and a ricochet sound plays. Same if I grenade over the shields. So I try to hit the tanks on the flamethrower and same deal. Then I find out the solution is just to shoot them a lot. Awful, just awful design.

The morality system rocks up again at the end. While the basic ideas make sense in isolation (spare people so the kid learns the value of saving life), in context it has the classic gaming issue of murdering 100 dudes but then you're a good guy because you spare the named characters, one of whom you spare after shooting them in the face a lot.

Story suffers too. I love the idea of all the politicing going on, but it's all happening outside of your view, and then there is a huge dump of information towards the end. At one point I found a FOUR PAGE diary entry. That's how much information the game wanted me to catch-up on. There has to be a better way for me to discover this during gameplay. Given you're already overhearing conversations, let me discover as much of the story as I care to this way.

Metro Exodus

My favourite of the three, and given the user rating on Metacritic I sense this might be controversial.

The game appeals to my gaming sensibilities, which is the need for characters I care about in a game to provide me the motivation to push through content. A story or character reward is always something I care about more than a gameplay one, and Exodus is a great game for that with simple little optional activities like finding the teddy rewarded with nothing but character moments.

Having a core cast of distinguishable characters is a great move, because it makes the whole thing more personable. This isn’t fighting some world ending threat, it’s a group of soldiers and friends who are just living day-by-day and hoping for something better. It’s a touching story and one that’s easy to get into. I think they could have done more with it than they did, with one diary entry touching on the idea of this tight company scattering to the winds as they each follow their own dream. On the other hand while writing this I found that the fate of your fellow soldiers could change depending on your actions, which is really cool, so I guess that’s why I managed to hold on to almost everyone (Damir left to join the local cause). It also explains why people like Duke are so quiet after the Bridge, because he can be dead by that point I believe. I’m tempted to do a playthrough as a total shit now.

As I mentioned at the start, it was the appearance of Anna which caused me to start from the beginning, and after her disappointing arc in Last Light, she’s effectively reset in Exodus, but to great effect as she (along with Colonel Miller) is a much stronger character here. I just wish the game didn’t lean so heavily on tell instead of show at times. Your diary talks about growing friction between you and the Colonel, but that doesn’t come through in your interactions at all, it’s something that happens completely offscreen.

This is a very modern game design, complete with crafting and open world, because every game has to have those now. The crafting isn’t so new to the Metro series of course, but being able to do it in the field is a subtle change and I still haven’t decided how I feel about it. On one hand it introduces interesting decisions about how to spend your resources, on the other hand I had a Kalash which I could field mod between an assault rifle and a sniper rifle which rendered the bolt action sniper rifle completely redundant.

The open world is a bit of a mixed bag. I think the question mark system could mostly have been dumped, and locations of interest just designed to draw your attention. No one needed to tell me to go to the bandit tower, it was a power pylon with a search light on it, I instinctively wanted to go there and check it out. On the other hand, what value was added in having a mutant nest marked, which I can’t ever remove again without wandering into the middle of it? The only real use for the ? in my mind was in ensuring that when you ran across a significant collectable, like night vision, you actually picked it up. That’s the right kind of gamey to me. Likewise, if a character mentions a building, giving I can’t ask them for clarification, something which highlights where the hell they mean would be appreciated. “See that tower over there?” “No”, I would mentally reply.

What worried me is how significant some of the ? content could be. In the Caspian Sea I ran across Anna by accident. Are you sent to her at some point if you don’t find her yourself? She highlights a couple of places which you really shouldn’t miss. There’s a cool sniper battle on a tower you might never go to. A ship filled with slaves likewise. I appreciated this more because at this point I was sick of finding so many damn mutant nests, something I liked for giving life and danger to the map, but not something I need marking on my map. There were a couple of markers in the bottom right corner of that desert I never got to which maybe hide a grand adventure, but I was damned if I could be bothered marking off another nest.

But when you’re engaged in the real content it’s good stuff. There’s a really surprising number of ways to approach most encounters, with multiple entry ways. I can’t help but feel that the game actually needs more systems to incentivise using these, rather like how in Deus Ex you might be great at picking locks or hacking electronic keypads, but not both, with the skillset you chose informing what kind of approach you entered through and encounter you got, encouraging replays. I don’t think I ever found an alternate entry way that made me think how cool it would have been to try that and long to replay. But it’s a noble first effort.

I didn’t like the diary redesign, and they suffer from the same problem as the postcards: you never know what you’re looking for. That letter? That’s background detritus. That letter? That’s a diary. That picture? Just a random poster. That picture? That’s a postcard. I gave up on the postcard hunt pretty quickly because of it. Immersion is good, but when you’re arbitrarily defining a collectable system you need to give me something more, and frankly just having them glow is an acceptable trade off to me.

The valley map might be my favourite. This was a very STALKER map, with enough openness to allow you some discovery, and the directed nature also made some of the discoveries more significant. When you come upon the Pioneer camp the different ways you come at it (zip line, cave, and there might be a river approach I’m not sure) do make a huge difference, and they can exist because the map is so restricted. I really enjoyed the blend of wide map mixed with directed content.

This game also has the strongest ending. While the ending level in 2033 was good, both that game and Last Light had some really weak outros, which didn’t feel like an adequate payment for your emotional investment into the game. In Exodus the game gives the ending some time to breathe. It wasn’t perfect, the last conversation you have with your wife (who is the emotional centre of the game for you) is her begging you not to die, but a marked step up. When I look to closure, I’m a big fan of the trend of epilogues in games, such as shown in Red Dead Redemption or Witcher 3. It’s a sign of how storytelling in games is maturing that they don’t always feel the need to end after the most bombastic moment.

On top of this, it’s the first time it feels like the morality system (thanks, Bioshock for this insufferable trend!) really works. The ending smartly ties into the very beginning of the game, where it’s established blood transfusions are used to treat severe radiation poisoning, and if your actions have led to too many people being killed or leaving the train then there’s not enough donors to save you. It’s rather neat, I like it.

One thing I really want to see changed through is Artyom. For God’s sake, let the man speak. The silent protagonist was already struggling in Last Light, and with the amount of conversation in Exodus it just doesn’t work at all. The game even switches his diary entries to present tense, dropping entirely the idea of his memoirs, but for some reason keeps him silent and it feels awkward as hell.

Finally, the game is no longer allowed to ambush Artyom when he walks through doors. This has been done to death by the game at this point. No more.

If they make another Metro game I’m completely on board. I had a blast, and if you’ll now excuse me it’s time for me to experience the post-game blues that are always the sign of a great experience. Yes, there’s DLC, but I thought the Last Light DLC looked pretty uninspired, I’m not really interested in side-stories, I want to see some meaty main story continuation content.

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