Metro: Exodus feels like it should be the series’ coming-out party. After two fairly niche releases on the previous generation of consoles, the third instalment is quite clearly positioning itself as the best post-apocalyptic experience from developer 4A Games yet. It’s a grand promise, but the finished product doesn’t manage to live up to those expectations. All things considered, Metro: Exodus has many of the ingredients to be the best entry in the franchise so far, but far too many caveats hold it back from hitting the stratosphere.

The most interesting thing about Metro: Exodus, and also the most frustrating, is the questions it never gets round to answering. Following on from the events of Metro: Last Light, series protagonist Artyom returns in search of life outside of Moscow’s underground metro. Conditioned to believe he is part of the only living society on the planet for the past 25 years, that theory is tested when a speeding train careers by one of his lookout posts. Upon further investigation of the convoy further down the tracks, it appears that what Artyom has been told for the past two decades may not be so true after all.

It’s an intriguing setup indeed, one that carries the experience all the way to its conclusion in fact, but you won’t receive many concrete answers once you actually get there. At about the midway point, the plot quickly becomes more of a personal tale rather than an explanation of what has been happening outside of the confines of the Russian capital. That’s fine in its own right – the narrative is always focused on finding a new home for Artyom and his friends – but when these are questions that the game itself raises, it’s hard not to feel at least a little bit mugged off. What’s there is most certainly good, we just can’t help but wonder what could have been had the title capitalised on what its own characters were thinking.

One of the ways in which Metro: Exodus differentiates itself from its predecessors can be found in its structure, opting for a number of vast open world hub areas similar to what you would see in the recent Tomb Raider titles, rather than linear progression through levels. You’ll receive numerous objectives from Colonel Miller as you explore the stretches of wasteland which delve into learning more about the local enemy factions or scouting out routes for the train to take in order to progress, but the problem is that there’s not a lot to do besides that. The map will occasionally circle locations of interest, but you’re most likely going to visit them as part of the main story or pass right by them anyway. There is some very interesting environmental storytelling to be found if you dig deep enough, but the experience is completely devoid of side quests apart from two very basic fetch quests in the first open area.

It feels like an expansion borne out of necessity rather than giving the player a compelling reason to uncover the finer details of Russia. Making it to the next objective is going to feel like busywork a lot of the time, to the point where the more linear missions that break up the hub areas actually provide you with many of the game’s best moments.

Thankfully, Metro: Exodus makes up for a lot of this with its deep and varied combat mechanics that allow you to approach any engagement with the enemy in a whole host of different ways. Stock up on guns and ammunition and assault an enemy stronghold all guns blazing, or wait until night falls and take a stealthy approach with your crossbow and silenced pistol once the guards have fallen asleep. The experience wholeheartedly supports both styles of play, along with every degree in-between. Break line of sight if the situation is getting too hot and hostiles will begin searching for Artyom, allowing you to create traps and kill zones that whittle away their numbers. What the open-ended nature doesn’t do for activities to engage with, it most certainly makes up for it with a welcome amount of combat variety.

Once you have disposed of every combatant in the vicinity, you’re going to want to loot their bodies for every scrap and bullet they have left on them. This feeds into the crafting mechanics that’ll keep you alive in the midst of battle. Accessed via the backpack you carry, you can craft, among others, ammunition, medkits, grenades, Molotov cocktails, and throwing knives. The resources needed to make them are finite, though, so every choice you make within its menus are important ones. Do you sacrifice one extra medkit in order to give yourself another magazine of bullets? They’re important questions you need to be asking yourself on even the default difficulty, so those looking for a tough test are sure to find it when scavenging for one more bullet on Ranger Hardcore.

Alongside the art of crafting, Artyom can permanently upgrade his gear back at the train. The carriages act as a base of operations, and here you’ll be able to rest to restore your health, interact with other squad mates and people you’ve picked up along the way, and of course implement the aforementioned enhancements. Apply a silencer to your pistol for the nightly skirmishes, a scope and grip to better your chances of survival in the midst of a firefight, or an extended barrel to your shotgun so that more shots can be fired in close quarters. It’s a deep and intricate system that complements the variety found in combat, but Artyom himself isn’t left out in the cold when it comes to improvements. Scattered throughout the post-apocalyptic wasteland are upgrades that better the Spartan armour he wears, and these are well worth picking up thanks to ammunition cache increases, improvements to your gas mask, and stronger protection in general.

Metro: Exodus looks utterly phenomenal. Incredible vistas paint a contrasting picture of Russia, as the train whisks you through frozen cities and thawing streets to the desert where sandstorms are a threat to both people and buildings. Take a trip after dark and stargaze as the clouds make way for some truly beautiful spectacles, as well as an enemy or two floating in the air. Indeed, while the title may boast of some outstanding visuals, the same can’t be said for its technical performance.

We did indeed encounter enemies suspended in mid-air, alongside glitches that caused us to fall through the world, a framerate that frequently takes a nose dive during heavy combat sequences, and a complete system crash that took us back to the PS4 home screen. It's possible these issues could eventually be fixed via patches, but we can’t ignore the impact they had on our 15 hour playthrough.

What is going to need some serious attention post-launch though are the load times, which put bluntly, are utterly atrocious on the PS4 Pro. While no loading is done once you’re out in the open, the initial load screen for each area can last up to four minutes. It takes you out of the experience completely and becomes a bit of a joke when you’re met with further load times upon death. While these aren’t quite as long, there’s definitely a good minute between you putting down the controller and picking it back up once the game has loaded. It’s a major technical issue that has a disastrous effect on any immersion you may have built up from the previous scene.

Conclusion

While Metro: Exodus delivers on its promise of deep and meaningful combat situations that let you approach encounters from any angle you can think of, its technical shortcomings are simply unforgivable. Combine that with a plot that doesn’t answer its most intriguing questions and you’ve got an experience that will please at times, but will also disappoint those looking for something meaningful outside of the distribution of bullets.