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Since the launch of the post-apocalyptic survival first-person shooter “Metro 2033” in 2010, the series has kept its action confined to the tunnels running underneath Russia. “Metro Exodus,” due out next month, takes the gameplay to the surface for the first time, going above ground with sprawling levels against a changing backdrop of weather conditions and seasons. Variety was able to play a couple of these environments at an event in London earlier this month, and after several hours exploring the icy Volga riverbanks and sunny Caspian desert, it’s safe to say that this approach does make the game feel less confined and linear, though the fight for survival is as tough as ever.

Moving Beyond Stations and Tunnels
The “Metro” franchise has a history that predates the games, which are adapted from a series of novels by Dmitry Glukhovsky. “Metro Exodus” is unique in that it’s the first game not directly based on one of Glukhovsky’s books, though it does serve as a sort of companion to the novel “Metro 2035.” Set two years after “Metro: Last Light,” “Exodus” continues protagonist’s Artyom’s story as he navigates a toxic wasteland, deadly mutants, hazardous conditions, and a disapproving father-in-law over the course of a year, all while in search of a safe place to call home.

Much of the story takes place aboard the Aurora, a train heading east, where Artyom, his wife Anna, and their small team of survivors journey on in hopes of finding sanctuary. The move out of the tunnels is significant because, as Glukhovsky told Variety, Artyom’s “biggest dream ever was for humanity to return to the surface, to repossess it, re-explore it, and repopulate it.” Glukhovsky also served as a writer on all three “Metro” games, working with the developers at 4A Games to flesh out the story and bring the characters to life.

According to Glukhovsky, “Metro Exodus” marks a shift in narrative, going from a story about saving humanity to a “much more personal, much more dramatic” plotline about Artyom’s relationship with his wife and father-in-law, “solving some very important personal issues and personal conflicts.”

However, players won’t get much of that story in the open-world segments of the game, which are more about showcasing life on the surface and forcing the player to use limited supplies, careful strategy, and tactical crafting to stay alive. Ammo and medicine are as scarce as ever, so you can’t just run and gun your way through hordes of mutants or electricity-shunning cults. Sometimes, it’s about knowing when to avoid a fight or having the patience to approach a situation stealthily rather than going in guns blazing, which makes the “Metro” series different from many other shooters on the market.

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Having the story of “Metro Exodus” take place over a year provides a lot of variation in environments, both structurally and weather-wise. In the Volga section, for example, Artyom and Anna depart the Aurora after hitting a roadblock on their way to Mount Yamantau. The only way to get around is rickety old rowboats, which you’ll somehow have to steer around the monstrous creatures both on the shore and in the river. Here, the couple comes upon an unsettling church where worshippers chant about how “electricity is a sin;” they’re quickly attacked by armed guards, but manage to rescue a couple of survivors who have valuable information. It’s snowy, foggy, and desolate, and as ever, there are no location markers on the screen—the HUD is clean, which requires frequent checking and re-checking of the map and compass to find your way.

The Caspian Desert, which was only just shown to the games media for the first time, is quite the opposite—brutally sunny, with occasional sandstorms forcing Artyom to reach for his gas mask (with limited filters, of course). The few puddles and old shipwrecks are the only reminders of the body of water that once existed in its place. Guns must be cleaned regularly, lest the sand render them unusable; of course, that uses valuable supplies, making fewer available to craft ammo, gas mask filters, and health packs. The Caspian area also showcases a few optional objectives and map markers, giving players a sense of freedom not usually found in the prior games. It’s not a truly open-world experience; eventually, you’ll have to return to the Aurora and continue Artyom’s journey, but it is nice to escape the claustrophobia of confined spaces.

A Global + Local Story
Glukhovsky told us he’s “very proud” of what the team at 4A Games has accomplished with “Metro Exodus,” even if it’s not a direct adaptation of one of his novels. “I don’t think video games, being a different form of art, should follow to the letter the description of the books.” “Metro” was always meant to be a “trans-media saga,” according to him, with pieces of a bigger plot being found in video games, his novels, and spin-off stories set in regions outside of Russia. The “universe of Metro” includes over 100 books from other authors, with tales set in Poland, Italy, the Ukraine, and Cuba, to name a few, each written in the country’s native language. Glukhovsky calls this approach “glocal”—global and local.

We discussed the “glocal” approach to “Metro” a bit more when the recently-shelved “Metro 2033” film came up. In Glukhovsky’s opinion, the film didn’t work because the writers tried to make a literal adaptation of “Metro 2033,” a distinctly Russian story with Russian themes, and set it underneath Washington, D.C. in the United States. The film tried to replace landmarks like the Lenin Library and the Ministry of Defense with the Library of Congress and the Pentagon, but ultimately, the adaptation failed.

The differences between the western and Eastern European approaches to a post-apocalyptic world can be seen when comparing “Metro” to similar games, Glukhovsky says. “In the west, usually, with very few exceptions, post-apocalypse is your license to kill, basically, or… the reincarnation of Wild West.” In Russia, “it’s very much about longing for the old good days, or the golden age of civilization,” which parallels how some Russians believe that things were better when “we were bigger, we were stronger, we were one of the two world superpowers… A lot of people are longing, probably over-idealizing, the old imperial days,” which is why “Metro 2033” and its sequels can only work in that region.

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That’s not to say a “Metro” story can’t exist in the United States—just not that one. Now that the film rights have reverted back to Glukhovsky, he’s hopeful to be able to continue “Metro’s” media expansion and feels that a series on a streaming service might be a good fit. “As we’re re-entering the era of a Cold War, even if it’s a fake Cold War,” seeing what’s happening on the other side of the ocean and another perspective on this world would provide “two parts of the same story of survivors of a nuclear way that probably nobody even wanted.”

“This is not Star Wars”
Going from writing solo to being part of a team making an interactive, visual experience might have been challenging for some writers, but Glukhovsky says he enjoys the collaboration: “That’s actually my credo, you know, instead of working with idiots and dictating every step they should take and controlling everything you’re going to go in and you find talented partners and you share the responsibilities and you give them creative freedom.”

While he wrote backstories for many of the main characters and contributed to the game’s storylines, he was happy to let 4A Games take the reigns, and only butted heads with the developers when his suggestions weren’t possible due to the resource limitations of the game. “And after all, this is not fucking ‘Star Wars,’” he said with a laugh, “with everything under very strict control… everything has to be approved a hundred thousand times, you know, this is just about being who you want to be and doing what we want to do.”

He says that level of creative freedom is one of the only ways a smaller studio like 4A Games can stand out against the juggernauts like EA and Ubisoft. Glukhovsky doesn’t shy away from social and political messages, even if they might be controversial, and ultimately, is very passionate about the world he’s created. “So much is at stake… we’re not too big to fail, we’re too vulnerable to fail.”

“Metro Exodus” launches worldwide on February 15 and will be available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

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