The people behind gritty survival shooter Metro Exodus are designing the game to be the best of the Metro series and the best of the STALKER series - combined.
Metro Exodus was unveiled during Microsoft's E3 2017 media briefing last week with an eye-catching trailer that suggested the series had gone open world.
While it's not accurate to say Metro Exodus is an open world game, it does feature multiple large areas for players to explore alongside the more linear environments the Metro series is known for.
It's this fusion of linear and non-linear environments that lends the game a STALKER feel. STALKER was not a true open world game; it was made up of 18 different maps, each separated by loading screens, that combined to form The Zone. You could only transfer from one area of The Zone to another at specific passageways.
Metro Exodus' similarity to STALKER should come as no surprise - many of the people at developer 4A Games created STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl while at Ukrainian studio GSC Game World.
Speaking to Eurogamer at E3, creative director Andriy "Prof" Prokhorov, who was also lead designer on STALKER, said the initial idea for Metro Exodus was to blend the two series together.
"From the beginning it was the idea that, because of our experience on STALKER and our experience on Metro, it would be easy to make a friendship between these two projects, and we would meld them easily.
"It was not easy because immediately when the player received freedom, it was difficult to control his narrative gameplay. But we are satisfied with what we are seeing now, and we definitely believe other people will like that."
Executive producer Jon Bloch reiterated the point:
"It's the goal to try and find that fusion, to make something fun out of what we enjoyed from STALKER and Metro and what we think the fans will enjoy from both."
To that end Metro Exodus takes the action outside of the Moscow tunnels the series is known for and into the open, with protagonist Artyom seeking out a new place to live over the course of a year. The developers welcomed the change in scenery. "We spent 10 years in the tunnels," Prof said. "Everybody was like, let's do something more, let's smell the air."
So, how exactly does Metro Exodus work?
Bloch describes it as a "sandbox survival" with linear levels that build upon the classic Metro gameplay from the previous games. Layered on top of both is an overarching storyline.
"You'll play in the classic linear style levels, and then you'll play in the non-linear levels, and you'll move between the two," Bloch said.
"In the non-linear levels you do have freedom. There is story inside of each of those levels that will carry you through them, but you can make the choice to explore and find other things to look at and interact with and immerse yourself in the environment and learn about the world and everything that's going on in that area and the people who live there. But it's still a story-driven game that will carry you through the whole journey."
As for these non-linear levels, Bloch said they're larger than any levels 4A Games has ever created. "In Metro Last Light there was a swamp level that was above ground and it was relatively open," he said. "But that dwarfs in comparison to what we're doing in the non-linear levels we have now. They're pretty large. There's hours and hours of gameplay."
Metro Exodus, which has been in the works for three years, continues on from the good ending of Last Light. Artyom joins forces with a small group of survivors and boards a train to escape the ruins of Moscow. He wants to figure out what's out there, to find a new place to live and see what the world is like. The game takes place in post-apocalyptic Russia, as you'd expect, but it occurs over the course of a year, so you'll experience the four seasons. (The game's trailer revealed an environment from later on in the game, and so takes place in the autumn.)
Metro Exodus' reveal trailer hit the headlines for its impressive visuals and level of detail, but some wondered whether it was representative it was of what we'll play when the game itself comes out in 2018.
Bloch insisted the trailer "is representative of gameplay" and was captured from a gameplay sequence at the end of a level that takes place later on in the game. "But we did do things to tighten it up a little bit," he explained.
"We had restrictions for how long our trailer could be, so we had to make sure we were showing all the things we wanted to show. Maybe think of it more like it's choreographed. But it is representative of gameplay and visually of what the game looks like. We did things like turn off HUD and quick time prompts, but that's what the game looks like."
As for gameplay systems, Bloch said the team has built upon the gameplay of the previous Metro games. For example, weapon customisation has been expanded upon. Resource management returns, scavenging for resources is once again a key part of the game and the watch that tells you how much time you have for the filters that protect you from the poisonous air on the surface, or the toxic pockets of air caught in the Metro system, also makes the cut. And of course the iconic Metro gas mask is back, but there's more to it this time around. "In Last Light we added the wiping of the mask," Bloch said. "There are additional things like that we've added for this one as well."
And as you can see from the trailer, you don't have to wear the mask all of the time.
"You saw in the trailer that he takes the gas mask off so obviously there are areas now above ground where you don't need the gas mask to breath," Bloch said, "but there will be some where you do. And there are still places below ground where you need the gas mask, or not."
The reveal of Metro Exodus certainly got fans of both Metro and STALKER talking - and the reaction has not gone unnoticed by the developers at 4A Games.
"It was a lot of fun reading comments," Prof said. "Hey guys, technically the new Metro is not in a Metro. Stop complaining! Do you understand that this way we are receiving STALKER 2?!"
An official STALKER 2 was once in development, but it was cancelled as GSC Game World collapsed back in 2011. GSC reopened in December 2014, but there has been no word so far on a new game in the series. Back in March I asked GSC about the future of STALKER, given 2017 marks the 10-year anniversary of Shadow of Chernobyl, but was told there was no news to share.
An official STALKER 2, then, looks increasingly unlikely. Thankfully it seems we have a spiritual successor on our hands with Metro Exodus.