2010’s Metro 2033 and its sequel, Metro: Last Light, primarily took place in the claustrophobic confines of the titular Moscow subway system. The third entry, however, sees returning protagonist Artyom leave the relative safety of his subterranean settlement for a new life on Russia’s irradiated surface. The change in scenery doesn’t just make for the best Metro game yet, but also one of the most immersive post-apocalyptic worlds we’ve ever had the pleasure of braving.

A big part of this is the fact Metro Exodus’ more expansive environments don’t represent a true open-world, but rather a series of separate, sandbox regions ripe for combat, exploration, stealth, survival, and storytelling. Not offering players a single, seamless, sprawling map might sound like a misstep, but the world – and game – greatly benefit from the more manageable size.

Many games boast wide-open worlds, only to offer massive maps cluttered with arbitrary objectives, tedious tasks, and swaths of empty space. Metro: Exodus‘ more hemmed in approach, however, still offers plenty of freedom, but forgoes the unnecessary filler. Each area is carefully crafted to encourage exploration, while also keeping the story, characters, and main objectives at the forefront. It’s a brilliant balance that retains all the engaging encounters, thrilling scripted moments, and epic set pieces of the previous games, but also allows players ample opportunity to stray from the critical path.

Much credit is due to the fact each area features its own defining elements, from different enemy factions and mutants to varied terrain and season-specific weather. While Artyom’s story begins in winter, unfolding in a familiar frozen Moscow, his year-long, continent-spanning journey also takes him through spring, summer, and fall. For players, this means battling mutated catfish on the Volga river, braving sandstorms along the Caspian Sea, and facing an enormous infected bear in the forest.

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Fans of the previous installments’ more confined, atmospheric encounters will be happy to hear these new, non-linear levels don’t come at the cost of the series’ survival horror elements. Metro Exodus still sports plenty of creepy, claustrophobic areas, all brought to life by the sort of lighting effects and slow-burn scares that will fuel your future nightmares. If anything, the more enclosed paths pack even more of a punch because they’re used more sparingly and are paced perfectly into the story.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that everything’s complemented by the series’ signature cinematic presentation. Once again, user interface elements – from Artyom’s map to his oxygen meter – aren’t represented by screen-cluttering icons, but by physical items he carries or wears. Toss in a dynamic day/night cycle and impressive weather effects that’ll literally have you wiping the elements from Artyom’s mask, and Metro Exodus paints a scary-real picture of a post-nuclear winter wasteland.

While many game worlds continue to grow, offering players limitless – but sometimes shallow – opportunities, Metro Exodus favors substance over sheer size. While it’s not as big as its open-world brethren, its richly realized levels are more absorbing than other fictional universe’s miles of empty space. Don’t take our word for it though; take this fresh spin on the open-world genre for a test drive for $3 a night (or $7/three nights) at the Box.

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