Our train slowly chugged to a halt. Something was apparently blocking the road up ahead, possibly put there by a rival band of survivors. The captain sent my character out to investigate. Moments later, I was killed by a giant floating orb of static. Post-nuclear Russia is not a place to explore blindly.
But explore is exactly what Metro Exodus maker 4A Games wants you to do. Beginning on a train headed away from the Moscow public transit system in which players spent the previous two games foraging for bullets and batteries Exodus will take players to a city far away, consisting of several open-air regions spread across four different seasons and linked by the same set of tracks.
The area I explored in a hands-on demo at E3 2018 took place during early spring, and the unforgiving landscape hid everything from mutant crocodiles and deadly wisps of sentient electromagnetic energy to an outpost of religious fanatics who blame technology for the modern state of the world — a completely reasonable sentiment under the circumstances.
After reloading my last auto-save, I set out on a more roundabout path past an old abandoned train car, a quick, barebones search of which turned up nothing interesting but the broken down ghosts of past civilisations etched into the window curtains.
I headed toward a thawed lake where a rowboat sat. On the other side, there looked to be an old abandoned boathouse, so I decided to head for it. Giant bugs plopped off into the marshy water from the banks on either side as I rowed by, and I did my best to avoid the ripples they left in their wake.
My short voyage went on, uninterrupted.
As I approached the boat house, I found that I was not alone: I could hear someone giving a sermon about the hellscape surrounding us and how those who embraced technology were to blame for it. No one interacted directly with me, though and I was able to make my way up a landing by the dock and toward the top of the building.
A mother and daughter were there, asking for my help. They needed asylum of some kind. It was hard to tell how exactly, but my agreeing to help them sparked a chain reaction that set thugs from the religious meeting below looking for me. What followed was a bloodbath, one I hadn't planned on, but one whose consequences would haunt me for the rest of my time in the Exodus demo.
I slogged my way the muck, weapons dirty and low on ammunition, searching desperately for the resources I'd need to finish my reconnaissance missions.
As the latest series to make its way into the open-world space, Metro's is to accommodate player agency and make different paths and approaches to exploring new areas viable.
The developers at 4A Games, during the demo and afterwards during an interview, explained that choice is important in this new, more free-flowing Metro world. In the large swamplands I explored, that meant giving me an objective to go check something out off in the distance, but not holding my hand telling me how to get there, or preventing me from checking out other buildings or combing the land for potential supplies or hidden secrets.
Building in multiple player paths and planning for different possibilities means that Exodus has also had to leave some of its past behind.
Most notably, the new game dispenses with the series' bullet economy, in which ammunition doubled as the currency of exchange for buying items.
"I think the bullet economy was something that was really cool," the game's executive producer Jon Bloch told Kotaku at E3. "But at the same time, I think that had to be to be sacrificed in order to move into this new design idea of doing these open environments, and players seeking their freedom."
Bullets were laid out like cookie crumbs in the last two games, and 4A Games was able to craft these drops with precision because of the limited nature of most environments and the way players were propelled down narrow tunnels from one story beat to another. In the more open world of Exodus, this planned economy wouldn't be possible.
Bullets will still be precious in Exodus, Bloch said, and a reason to try and take out enemies as stealthily as possible rather than go in guns-blazing like I did.
The end of my time with the game was spent hiding behind a door in an abandoned factory trying to figure out how my three shotgun shells would get me through the unknown number of mutated creatures stalking the halls around me.
An overhauled crafting system means that ammunition and other supplies can be crafted using a portable workshop carried on your back, but you still need to find the right ingredients first, leading to a risk and reward trade-off that adds a layer to the decision-making process.
Diverge from the beaten path and you might find useful stuff or the occasional audio log, but you're also likely to encounter threats that are costly to deal with and potentially leave you in even worse shape than when you arrived.
This heightened danger risk is something most open worlds and go-as-you-please sandbox environments are missing, and shows just how much the series has to gain from leaving the cramped Moscow underground from the first two games.
Where most game areas encourage the player to find a way to overpower and eventually master them, the part of Exodus I played was not keen to have me around in the slightest.
If anything, it left me wishing I could complete my task, get the tracks cleared, and hop back on my comrades' train as soon as possible, like any great survival game should.
Ultimately, this is what's helped Metro feel so grounded and intimate, and what my time with the game convinced me Exodus will still have. Despite evolving to more closely resemble games like Dishonored 2 and Fallout 4, the game is still about protagonist Artyom trying to make his way in a world wracked by nuclear winter and not immediately die of radiation poisoning.
The game's roots in this deeply personal realism are reaffirmed nowhere better than in its still incredibly organic and minimalist user interface. Whether I was rowing in a boat or crouching behind a snow-covered log, I could always pull out a map of the area on my clunky clipboard to figure out where I should head next.
With the game still proceeding in the background, I could study the crude contours of the island I was on with a handwritten X marking my next objective.
As Exodus adds new systems and becomes a more complex game, relying on a more explicit HUD to communicate with the player could have provided easy shortcuts. Instead, it has opted for the more beautiful and brutal alternative.
The game doesn't pause when you're studying your map, or the diary on the flip-side, or when you're checking your guns to clean them or switch out attachments. These aren't secondary activities separate from the open world exploration: they're the heart of it.
"It might take a little more effort on the part of the player, but I like that," said Bloch. "We've used this this term 'It's like the thinking gamer's shooter' — you have to put a little bit more thought into it, and you can't just go around with a bullet hose."