Are You Afraid of the Dark?
For as long as the video game medium has existed, developers have searched for ways to make survival horror unique and fresh. Titles such as Resident Evil and Dead Space are among titans within the horror genre, and to this day remain inspirations for what makes a good survival horror. Despite their initial success, these two franchises were not immune to underperforming releases, as their desire to adapt to industry trends ultimately did more harm than good.
The Resident Evil and Dead Space franchise are special because they are titans within the industry and the genre. Their successful entries serve as inspiration for new titles every year, and more often than not whenever a new horror game is released, they are immediately compared to these two. This is where the Metro franchise found itself back in 2010 with the release of Metro 2033 on the PC and Xbox 360.
The Metro franchise always presented a unique spin on the survival horror genre, where the player could, at times, forget that they should anticipate tension around every corner. Within the underground metros of post-apocalyptic Russia, the enemy threat consisted of both humanoid and monster combatants, with the possibility of either one being in any given situation. Metro 2033 and Metro Last Light embodied survival horror through their atmospheric tension and desolate environment.
As the third entry in the franchise, Metro Exodus seeks to uphold the legacy that came before it, while simultaneously innovating and modernizing the series to take advantage of current-gen hardware. While maintaining the claustrophobic atmospheric horror of its predecessors, Metro Exodus introduces open level design and quality of life changes thanks to a determination to create an immersive survival horror experience.
To Boldly Go…
Set after the events of Metro Last Light’s good ending, Metro Exodus finds series protagonist Artyom searching for traces of life outside of Moscow’s metros. After an act of defiance early in the game, Artyom and crew must cast off from Moscow to search for a new haven to live in. Metro Exodus takes Artyom to numerous locations, each represented by a different environmental season.
In Metro Exodus, Artyom is now married to Anna, the daughter of Colonel Miller and partner from Metro Last Light. The pair, along with the rest of the Spartan militants, travel in search of survivors on the Russian train known as the Aurora. Since previous titles mostly featured Artyom alone, the change of perspective and narrative drive is a welcome addition. On top of all the issues that Artyom had to worry about in previous titles, he now has Anna. This relationship aids in humanizing Artyom, as moments spent with Anna feel natural and serve as a symbol of hope in the game’s ever-growing chaos.
Throughout the narrative Anna becomes enthralled by the idea of hope and the idea that others could be surviving on the surface after the nuclear war. Her perspective within Metro Exodus is a driving force for Artyom to expand outward and search for survivors. After every successful mission she is there waiting for him to confide in and discuss the potential future that awaits them. These narrative moments serve to humanize Artyom’s journey throughout Metro Exodus and provide background to his motives for leaving Moscow behind.
When not on an expedition, Artyom can interact with everyone on the Aurora and often participate in small activities while conversing. Taking an extra second to spend time with Anna before getting briefed on a mission can lead to quality time, where she confides her fears and dreams of a better life. Additionally, taking the time to explore and accomplish optional tasks can yield items that can be given as gifts to other members of the crew. A guitar that is retrieved in the open world can be heard playing at various moments throughout the game and is even used by Artyom during one interaction.
Even Artyom himself has noticeable improvements from previous titles and similar experiences within the genre. In Metro Exodus, Artyom feels more human than most first-person-shooter protagonists. In other FPS titles, the protagonist is often depicted as having superhuman tendencies where they are able to emerge victorious from most situations unscathed. Artyom is not as lucky, and, when ambushed by enemies or monsters the player is able to feel the weight and struggle of the character’s stamina as he desperately searches for whatever strength he has left. Every physical altercation Artyom has feels like it could be his last.
While Metro’s first attempt at open environmental storytelling seems small in comparison to other titles, the tools 4A Games uses for narrative storytelling should be recognized. Metro Exodus’ implementation of side-quests is to be praised for their influence on the overall narrative of the game. Taking time away from the primary objective to free some slaves on the outskirts of the map, for example, could yield an item that will present an optional reward later in the level.
Additionally, these side objectives can have heavy influences on the story of Metro Exodus, primarily towards the characters and ending. Previous Metro titles featured a morality system that was hidden behind player actions and choices. The game never told the player that what they were doing had consequences; the player had to decipher right from wrong. Metro Exodus continues this legacy but takes it further. Accomplishing certain side objectives can lead to either direct or indirect influences on the people around Artyom. As a result, player choice and immersion is more meaningful than in previous titles.
If it Ain’t Broke
As a sequel to 2033 and Last Light, Metro Exodus takes the series’ atmospheric horror and seeks to replicate the tension-filled gameplay both above ground and below. Where the previous titles saw Artyom trekking through narrow subway tunnels and towering structures, Metro Exodus takes players above ground and removes the shackles of linear exploration.
After the opening events unfold, players are immediately shown how the game will differ from its predecessors, as the first area is a marshland full of new threats to discover. From then the game presents a healthy balance of open world exploration with smaller confined experiences intended for linear progression. This healthy balance comes as a saving grace due to the games heavy and often clunky character movement.
Due to the previous Metro titles being primarily underground and in confined spaces, the methodical gunplay and movement speed enhanced the horror elements. In those titles, slower gunplay did not present any issues because it felt natural. In Metro Exodus, however, the heavier controls serve as a detriment to the game and its goal of taking the series to new heights.
The problem stemming from the restrictive movement speed becomes more apparent when above ground. Within underground structures, the player is able to predict enemy encounters due to the limited attack possibilities. Above the surface, however, the enemy AI has free mobility throughout the open environment to execute their attacks. This design may be intentional to intensify the encounter and increase its difficulty, but, due to the clunky gunplay, it comes across as poor combat design and frustrating mechanics. Having Artyom’s health drain from full to critical within seconds because the player cannot turn 180 degrees in time to face the attacker is not skillfully implemented terror; it is poor game design.
Most combat encounters throughout the game are manageable and succeed in offering enough tension with the desired levels of action. Within smaller structures and confined spaces, the threat level of enemies is multiplied due to the player’s limited access to mobility and resources. Despite this amplified terror within smaller environments, the enemy AI in the overworld possesses flaws that are inconsistent with their underworld counterparts. In the open world levels, enemy encounters only exist when NPCs have a line of sight on the player. Once the enemy is unable to detect Artyom for more than a few seconds, their state of emergency diminishes as they forget he was even there.
The arsenal found within Artyom’s possession is similar to that of the previous entries, however Metro Exodus introduces a new customization system that can greatly alter the user’s combat experience. In the previous titles, players would only be able to customize their weapons at safe houses and crafting benches. At any point in Metro Exodus, however, the player has the ability to open Artyom’s backpack and physically alter the design of their on hand weapons, changing their optimum performance on the fly. Using the resources found in the environment, players can craft second hand items like grenades, clean their weapons to increase performance, and adjust the attachments of each weapon. Weapon ammo can also be crafted in Metro Exodus, however this resource requires players to locate crafting benches scattered throughout the game.
Eye of the Beholder
More often than not consumers are treated to groundbreaking experiences that are sure to influence future titles and aspiring technologies. Metro Exodus is one of those experiences, as regardless of the platform of choice, the game is truly stunning. The breathtaking visuals are further accentuated by the title’s rustic, post-apocalyptic environment.
Throughout the game, the desire to appreciate all of the finer details that Metro Exodus has to offer can result in the player walking to each objective instead of running or driving. The level of detail that 4A Games has crammed into this experience subconsciously encourages further exploration into each environment to uncover hidden items and objectives.
Further amplifying the hyper-realism found within Metro Exodus is the lack of heads-up display on screen. When loading into the game for the first time, players will notice that they are truly witnessing the Russian wasteland through the eyes of Artyom. Metro Exodus offers no health icons or mini-map that overlays the screen, with the intention to achieve as close to complete immersion as possible. The decision to remove gameplay assists from the display is remarkably liberating, as it forces players to personify Artyom and live the journey through his eyes.
Unfortunately, Metro Exodus’s over the top visuals and level of detail also serve as a hindrance to player progression and experience. Due to its hyper-realized environment, object collision rate is more frequent than in other titles. Players will often find themselves repositioning numerous times when passing through structures due to a small piece of metal that is sticking out from the door frame.
Furthermore, the goal of complete immersion is also impeded by audio bugs. Throughout the game were numerous times where the audio did not match the scene of play, whether it was character dialogue registering at inaccurate distances or gunfire queuing in halfway through the clip. Additionally, the game had an occasional issue where the game would inaccurately recognize the terrain that characters were standing on, misrepresenting the sound of their footsteps. In an early snow level, character footsteps would sound like walking on broken glass instead of crunching snow.
The NPCs in Metro Exodus are incredibly detailed and for the most part, well-acted. As a problem that has plagued the series since the beginning, the voice acting for Metro Exodus can often come across as a westernized interpretation of Russian accents. Despite the accuracy being sometimes questionable, the accents presented by the supporting characters are convincing enough to maintain enough immersion within its Russian environment.
Unfortunately, immersion could only go so far as most NPCs were prone to animation bugs. For the most part, character animations were proper as they acted out each scene, but players will inevitably see some clunky movement and random gestures, as if the character’s do not know what to do with their hands.
Metro Exodus demands to be judged by the sum of its parts. When dissected and examined for its individual features, Metro Exodus can be seen as being outside of its element. Taking the series’s successful formula of claustrophobic terror and expanding that into open-ended exploration introduces new problems that question the franchise’s integrity within the survival horror genre.
From the beginning, the identity problem of Metro Exodus is apparent. Coming off of the success of the previous two titles, Exodus finds itself in its own morality struggle. Does the game take the franchise into a new direction and innovate for potential future releases or stick to a formula that was mostly successful and remain relative to a niche audience?
For the most part, Metro Exodus succeeds in finding a compromise between the two. When underground, the game feels like a swan song to its predecessors and truly conveys the survival horror experience the series is known for. When above ground and in an open environment, however, the slow and clunky gameplay serve as a detriment to what the title seeks to achieve.
As the game progresses further many of Metro Exodus’s problems begin to alleviate themselves as the experience becomes more defined. This allows for the game’s unique blend of gameplay and narrative storytelling in a horrific environment to shine through. While most titles in the horror genre focus on jump scares and other classic tropes, Metro Exodus allows the environment of post-apocalyptic Russia to do all the work. Players who take the time to experience what this new entry into the Metro series has to offer will no doubt witness one of the greatest narrative survival horror experiences present within a video game.
Reviewed on Xbox One.
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
A Conflicted Beginning
The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.
Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.
As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.
Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.
With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).
Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.
Gunplay To Die For
Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.
Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.
The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.
Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.
Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.
The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.
The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.
However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.
A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast
The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.
Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.
With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.
To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).
Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.
A Slipshod Structure
Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.
Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.
Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.
On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.
Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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