I’m (not) going underground.

Roadtrips are a staple for the arts. Many a film, novel, song, and game has focused on the strange, coming-of-age moments that unfold when a person or a group takes to that winding, seemingly empty road. And now, after a fair bit of time away, developer 4A Games is inducting Artyom and his merry band of Rangers into that club with the upcoming Metro Exodus. Having spent a few hours with the game not too long ago, we’re here to tell you what’s what with the new look Metro.

And it certainly is a new-look deal for Metro Exodus; gone are the tight, claustrophobic tunnels of the Metro, instead the game shoves Artyom, wife Anna, and a few select fighters, into the vast wasteland of post-apocalypse Russia. The game doesn’t do away with its roots though and the Metro lives on in the train that you’ll use to go from one outpost to another. You might think that the decision to move away from those cramped, dingey tunnels that invited terrifying mutants to spring forth from the shadows and go for your juggular, might strip away a fairly important layer to the game.

It’s something that I was uncertain of when hearing about Exodus, the move to a big, semi-open world seemed to be one that would only serve to dilute those daunting and frantic moments from 2033 and Last Light, where going to the surface was something you did only occasionally, when no other route was possible. Giving way to a Moscow that was pretty much rubble infested with terrifying monsters. The good news is that wasteland hasn’t gone anywhere; the rise of the vibrant, almost playful post-apocalypse hasn’t swayed 4A so don’t expect to see any Mad Max shenanigans unfolding in Metro Exodus.

Based on what I saw, something you can expect is a set new, semi-open world levels that expand this washed out, grim world. If that sounds a little like Fallout 3 then blame me, because the spots we got to explore in Metro Exodus somehow manage to make that look work for the game. An early section sees Artyom exploring a snowswept terrain that’s probably the closest the game comes to repeating what we’ve seen in 2033 and the Last Light games.

Though the likes of Caspian Sea, an area you explore in the summer (the game sees you travelling throughout the year and experiencing the different seasons) still somehow manages to pop with colour, or it’s just the glow emminating from all the radiation. Either way, the Caspian Sea looks bloody marvellous, with ruins of shacks and buildings half buried under the sand, what were once parks are now crumbling walls hosting lifeless tufts of shrubbery. While outposts that lay in wait for you stand as a testament for how the world has carried on since Artyom has been running around the underground, with towering structures held up with makeshift pylons and the obligatory tin walls. Think of it as similar to the kind of structures that housed the varied communities in previous games, but now they’re bigger, and spaced out in a way that teases you into heading off from one path to see what’s over that hill yonder.

It’s a decision that seems so at odds with what we saw in other Metro games, which strung together these huddled masses in the tightest of spaces, leading the player through as the dire straits of the Metro’s everyday life unfolded before you. But while those segments were something that saw the series regularly draw comparisons with the BioShock worlds, they’re moments that remain in what I played of Exodus, but it feels more fluid now rather than the on-rail tours of the underground villages that 2033 and Last Light had to rely on. There’s a moment in one of the early parts of the game where you row into a canal of a repurposed tower, now home to a cult, and as you row towards your small port, a reverand warns his followers of the heretic, as whispers and accusations get tossed at you. The tone remains classic Metro but the settings have been super-sized and it’s something that seems to have opened up the world, making these encounters feel more monumental and natural as they unfold.

There’s more than just outposts lurking on the surface though, with fairly bloodthirsty wildlife and local community waiting anxiously for you to arrive. Well ‘local community’ might be a bit of a stretch, they’re more like hairless ghouls that seem to be able to hide in plain sight, using their coarse skin to blend in with the grimy sands of the Caspian before scaring the shit out of me as they burst out of the ground or the walls. Similarly, the wildlife has taken a turn for the worse after the bombs dropped, with jacked up meerkats pinning you down and screaming in your face while snakes were a passing threat that had me checking the ground every few paces. Of course, among all these radioactive dangers is the real horror, man (shock!)

Yep, it wouldn’t be Metro unless the few survivors remaining were constantly warring with themselves, and the Caspian Sea is… drowning in them. While the cramped design of other Metro games usually meant you had to rely on stealth for large encounters before being able to go out and mop up the rest with a shotgun. Those same claustrophobic moments are still in the game, with tight cave explorations making a shotgun and throwing knives your best friend but the new playground style of the game means there’s a bit more freedom to these surface encounters too. Admittedly, I tended to approach everything with a shotgun but I saw a few people picking enemies off with a sniper rifle before ziplining down from a tower and engaging up close and personal like. It’s a change that might take some getting used to but one that looks set to open up your playstyle for a lot of different strategies.

The way you fight isn’t the only shake up either, carfting has been introduced in the game as the trusted shops that let you restock fade into the abyss of the Metro. You’ll use raw materials to craft everything from grenades, to ammo, to medikits and filters. A move that’ll have all of us rummaging through corpses and busting into shacks to rifling through anything you can to find the bubbling mixing jar signs. It’s a move that jives well with the overall feel of Exodus, a world that seems on the brink of itself (well, I suppose nuclear war has a habit of doing that), as that “survival” part of the game that wasn’t fully explored in other games, comes to a head in Exodus. Thankfully, you won’t have to spend every five minutes eting – though you can have a nap in some place.

Given the size of Metro’s new levels, I was pleasantly surprised that it’s still fairly easy to get from point A to point B without having to use up every resource simply trying to survive. The game’s map has been reowrked and simplified to show you your location versus where you need to be, a move that might not have the same ingenuity as Last Light’s lighter that points you in the right direction, but it’s a hell of a lot easier. For larger maps, like the Caspian Sea, the land mass gave 4A a chance to try something new, with vehicles, well, vehicle, now available. It’s not so much a killing machine on wheels than it is a rusted out van but it does its job well, letting you tear through the desert to help cut down resorce wastage and watching mutant get flung on to the windscreen before unceremoniously sliding off, leaving behind a trail of their own blood, was something that made me chuckle over and over again.

I came away from the game feeling as if I’d barely scratched the surface of what Metro Exodus has hiding away in its new, sprawling levels. Every direction seems to want to pull you in either for exploration or to gain a better ground in a fight, while the new crafting system and vehicle lend themselves to the survival side of the game in a way that was perhaps overlooked in previous games. Similarly, the train that becomes your hub looks set to offer a home to all the character developemnt between you and your merry Rangers. So yes, it might look bigger and even feel daunting at times, but Metro Exodus is looking in good shape and I can’t wait to jump back into that world.