Metro Exodus was among the most exciting games in development today. We played the title, back at Gamescom, and at first things feel pretty familiar, the weapon designs are essentially the same, and we sneak around, taking out enemies silently and hoovering up their supplies and ammo.
But as we explore we realise that this world is far bigger than anything the game has provided us with before. Freed from the tunnels of Moscow, the game has blossomed into a series of large sandbox areas. And taking your time to explore those areas, rather than dashing around to conserve precious air, looks to be the new normal.
“People ask if Metro is a open-world game, it’s not,” Huw Beynon, head of global brand management for publisher Deep Silver tells us emphatically. “But you do have these huge levels that are miniature open worlds and take several hours to compete… then you get back on the train and roll on to the next environment.”
Beynon tells us that the team has “spent a huge amount of time in pre-production getting the formula right, so it still feels very much like a Metro game, but adding more freedom and player choice.” However, he is keen to highlight that these aren’t typical open-world mechanics.
“We don’t borrow from contemporary open-world conventions. There’s already a lot of very similar open-world games out there, but I think what we’ve shown here, and at E3, is that this is a beast unlike anything else, there’s a lot of STALKER influence in there. It’s a hybrid.
“Just like every Metro game there’s no HUD, we keep the UI to a minimum, we don’t give you fetch quests and objective markers, all the information is still communicated through physical in-game items. There’s no map screen with thousands of different tabs for main quest, side quests and the number of wolf belts you’ve collected,” he reassures us.
The game is bigger “by an order of magnitude,” he continues. “In terms of game length it’s looking like both the previous games combined, in terms of dialogue more than double the dialogue of both the previous games and all DLC combined.”
And we instantly appreciate the extra work. It may be bigger, but the world still cleverly blends scripted and dynamic events to great effect. Coming off a zipline we’re shown a scene where a huge beast chases a pack of wolf-like creatures through a wood. Walking through that wood, we can hear the wolves circling around us, with one flashing out of the trees to attack, and later we see them chasing a pack of antelopes across our path, before we eventually chose to climb up to walkways in the trees to avoid their attentions.
As well as being more expansive, the game is also more varied, set across all four seasons, each with their own unique feel, both graphically and in gameplay terms. The E3 demo, set in spring, was a far more action-packed outing than the autumn section we’re playing.
The E3 and Gamescom trailers are in fact so different in tone they could almost be for entirely different games, so we ask Beynon if that’s a tricky hurdle in terms of presenting the game to a wider audience?
“Trying to find that one thing that will communicate what this game’s about can be somewhat misleading,” he answers. “At E3 we showed a much more action-oriented trailer, but we wanted to show the other side to the game here. We really vary the flow and the pacing throughout the game, so it can go from rollercoaster action set piece, to slowburn survival horror, to pure horror, to stealth. It’s pretty huge in scope and scale, and it’s a challenge trying to communicate all those things.”
4A Games executive producer Jon Bloch confirms that all those changes make for a lot more work: “From a production standpoint the scope of this game is much larger than anything we’ve done before. The ambition of the features and technical challenges required to implement them is greater than anything we’ve done before.”
Despite the triple-A polish and scope, all of this is the work of a relatively small team of 150 people, a number which includes administrative staff and internal QA too. The team is then split almost evenly between offices in the Ukraine and Malta. Though, as Bloch explains, they “have representation of every single department in both locations,” rather than allocating specific skillsets to just a single location.
Working between the locations is largely smooth he adds: “We have a teleconference system that’s open all the time between the two offices, so it’s pretty much like having a window, and stand-up meetings are conducting that way. It’s almost like we’re on different floors in the same building – we can’t go to their desks, but communication is really easy between the two.”
The move to Malta has allowed for “a more diverse talent pool," Bloch says. "We have a lot more ideas coming in, different from what we’ve done in the past. And that helps creativity.”
And that’s a benefit that comes in part from having an office in the EU: “It gets us access to EU talent from all those different countries without having to worry about work permits and all that. It gives a huge labour force to tap into. There’s been a lots of benefits, and some challenges,” Bloch admits. “But even if we expanded in the same place there would be challenges from that, as processes have to change when you get bigger.”
The upsides are bigger than the drawbacks then, making it an idea that some UK developers might want to borrow in the near future; after all, if talent can't easily come to the UK for work, then why not set up an EU outpost?
TUNING THE ENGINE
The team is still using its own 4A engine, which originates from the first Metro title back in 2010. “There’s benefits and challenges,” Bloch says. “Because it’s our tech we get to do what we want with it, and if someone wants something we can build it." Of course the downside being that the vast majority of the engine isn’t simply provided for you.
One benefit is clear, as the studio immediately announced support for Nvidia’s new RTX ray-tracing technology, just after it was unveiled. “Because it’s our tech we know how to integrate that directly into our source code and renderer,” Bloch explains, adding that pushing the game technically was part of their strategy. “Being able to utilise RTX to benefit the realism and immersion that we want, feeling like you’re stepping into a real world, we wouldn’t have been able to do that with someone else’s engine.”
The team has long been known for its cutting-edge PC graphics. And while the game is multi-platform, Bloch is particularly impressed with the power of the Xbox One X: “What we’re trying to do on that platform is true 4K HDR, we’re not doing a fake 4K that’s up-rezzed, there’s true 4K HDR on Xbox and it looks great, really comparable to high-end PCs.”
Whether on console or PC, the game is set to make a big impact when it launches on February 22nd, with the franchise finally taking a big step into the limelight, after long years of toil in the dark.