The Infinite Zenith

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Portal 2: A Reflection and Recollections of the Perpetual Testing Initiative

“All right, I’ve been thinking. When life gives you lemons, don’t make lemonade. Make life take the lemons back! Get mad! I don’t want your damn lemons! What am I supposed to do with these?! Demand to see life’s manager! Make life rue the day it thought it could give Cave Johnson lemons! Do you know who I am?! I’m the man who’s gonna burn your house down! With the lemons!” –Cave Johnson

Chell finds herself pulled out of stasis by the AI Wheatley, who informs her that the Aperture Science facility has fallen into a critical state and that they need to escape. Leading Chell through old test chambers, Wheatley attempts to work out a plan while Chell locates a portal gun. However, they inadvertently reactivate GLaDOS, who separates the two and sends Chell into a series of test chambers to continue on with where they’d previously left off. When Wheatley figures he’s got a solution, he creates a distraction, allowing Chell to escape into the maintenance passages beyond the test chambers. Chell sabotages the turret production line and disables the neurotoxin generator before heading off to face GLaDOS, successfully inititing a core transfer. Wheatley takes over Aperture Science’s main system and places GLaDOS in a potato battery powered CPU. However, he reneges on his promise to send Chell to the surface, and when GLaDOS reveals Wheatley was designed to inhibit her, he throws the pair into a shaft leading into the bowels of Aperture Science. Making her way through the old Enrichment Spheres, Chell learns that Aperture Science was once a shower curtain manufacturer for the military and received an incredible amount of funding to test their products. Helmed by Cave Johnson, Aperture Science began exploring the realm of science with a reckless abandon, and over time, the company began failing even as Johnson started developing an illness from testing products on himself. His final act was to transfer control of the company to his assistant, Caroline. When Chell reunites with GLaDOS, the two set their differences aside to return to the upper levels and stop Wheatley from destroying the facility. GLaDOS reveals that she has Caroline’s memories and begins opening up to Chell. Upon their return, Chell makes her way through Wheatley’s test chambers to stall for time and manages to elude his crude traps, eventually returning to GLaDOS’ main body. She manages to change out the personality cores and places a portal on the moon, sending Wheatley into the depths of space. Back in control, GLaDOS stabilises the facility and decides to let Chell go, figuring that killing her is too much effort. Wheatley laments his decision to betray Chell and wishes things were different. This is the adventure that Chell goes through in Portal 2, the 2011 sequel to 2007’s acclaimed Portal, a highly innovative and remarkable puzzle game built in the Source Engine with Half-Life 2 assets.

In contrast to its predecessor, Portal 2 is much livelier, and although Chell is exploring an abandoned, derelict Aperture Sciences, Portal 2 never had the same sterile, cold feeling that Portal did. Portal 2 explores a greater range of Aperture’s constructions, and in doing so, also explores a greater range of emotions. Wheatley provides an endless supply of comic relief, driving players forward with an improvisational tone even when he does take over Aperture and develops GLaDOS’ old tendency to want to kill Chell. When she falls into the depths of Aperture Science, Cave Johnson’s old recordings give insight into a once-brilliant mind and his fall from grace. The ruins of the old facility are the only remainders of his legacy, giving the entire area an air of melancholy. GLaDOS is a more multi-dimensional character, carrying out her directive per her programming but also recalling that she was once human and coming to understand why Chell chose to act the way she did. The characterisation creates a much richer experience that ultimately tells a story of regret and longing, as well as coming to peace with what has come to pass, set in the cavernous interior of Aperture Sciences. Besides an enriched story, Portal 2 features all-new mechanics to properly differentiate itself from its predecessor and Half-Life 2. Aerial faith plates propel players to new heights from fixed points, thermal discouragement beams require careful placement to activate exits, hard light bridges to reach distant points, special gels encourage lateral thinking to help players pass otherwise impassible areas, and excursion funnels provide a thrilling way of transporting player and materials across chasms. Like its predecessor, players must use a combination of their knowledge of previous mechanics to devise solutions for clearing different areas, and as Chell edges closer to escaping Aperture Science, she learns more about its storied past. In this way, Portal 2 and Portal share the same relationship that Halo 2 and Halo: Combat Evolved shared; both sequels participate in extensive world-building that enriches the player’s experience of the world, at the expense of the suspense created through the minimalist story-telling of their predecessor. In addition, the sequel’s introduction of new mechanics also changes the strategy players take in completing the game – in the case of Portal 2, the new mechanics cement the notion that the game has evolved into a separate entity from Half-Life 2 with its own distinct elements, but it also creates the caveat that some areas must be cleared a certain way, which restricts players’ freedom to solve puzzles in their own way.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • An indeterminate amount of time has passed since Chell last ventured through Aperture’s test chambers, and in that time, the facility has become dilapidated, overgrown with vegetation and mould. It is through these test chambers that Chell makes her way through, and initially, she’ll find the single-portal gun and advance a short ways before locating the full portal gun. Like its predecessor, Portal 2 gradually introduces players to game elements, although players familiar with Portal will doubtlessly have itched to advance further more quickly.

  • It’s been eight years since I last wrote about Portal 2 – eight years earlier, I had been staring down the MCAT, and at this point during the summer, I had just begun my MCAT course; my physics course had finally ended, and I could turn my full attention towards what would certainly be a challenge. However, in between studying, I was able to unwind by going through a friend’s Steam library: in between study sessions, I was able try a few of his games out, among them Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Portal 2. I blazed my way through the former before beginning the latter.

  • Chell’s gear has changed somewhat since the original Portal: long fall boots take place of her original her knee replacements, and she dispenses with the top of her jumpsuit. I’ve seen a few Chell cosplayers at Otafest in past years: when I first attended, Portal 2 would’ve been two years old. The game’s requirements aren’t steep at all, and even in those days, my old desktop had no trouble running the game smoothly, although there was the minor annoyance that the light on top of the portal gun never lit up owing to a limitation in my old GPU. This particular matter is no longer an issue, and in my current screenshots, the light on the portal gun lights up as expected.

  • Death lasers (formally, “thermal discouragement beams”) replace the high-energy pellets of Portal, and require redirection towards a receptacle in order to activate doors and lifts. Like the high-energy pellets, lasers can kill Chell, but only after prolonged exposure, and they typically must be redirected using a combination of portals and redirection cubes. Portal 2 also introduces hard light bridges, which function similarly to those of Halo. The new mechanics of Portal 2 are fun additions to the game, adding further nuance to various puzzles. Not everyone shared this sentiment, and many regarded Portal‘s simplicity as being more conducive towards creative solutions for solving a particular test chamber, whereas the new mechanics made it clearer how one could solve the test chamber and restrict novel solutions.

  • The lift taking players to the next level have changed in appearance: originally, they were solid, and Portal loaded different segments similarly to Half-Life 2, but by Portal 2, they look sleeker, and the game loads new levels quite separately. The lifts are surrounded by screens that give a visual representation of how a new mechanic works, and one of my favourite animations was the one depicting the turrets in action, showing the automatic chambering and firing of rounds. In Portal, turrets could be disabled by knocking them over, and while this is still viable in Portal 2, there is a rather more entertaining way of dealing with turrets.

  • Using a redirection cube allows one to focus a laser on a turret, which heats up its inner structure and eventually causes it to explode: back in Portal, the high-energy pellets could only knock turrets over, which, while functionally equivalent, was nowhere nearly as satisfying. Because Chell is completing these test chambers to occupy GLaDOS while Wheatley works out an escape plan, there’s the sense that something big is in the making.

  • The new test chambers of Portal 2 have a different aesthetic than the test chambers of Portal, being composed of sliding panels rather than the metal cubes. The amount of portal-conducting surfaces are also reduced in many places. While this initially felt restricting, it’s also a bit of a clever way to subtly hint at where portals should be placed. Here, I grab ahold of a weighted cube and make my way across a hard-light bridge: it suddenly strikes me that, since the Perpetual Testing Initiative days, I’ve not actually gone back through Portal 2 until now.

  • Test Chamber 20 is the only test chamber that’s completed and ready to roll: it most resembles the test chambers of Portal and every surface is capable of conducting portals. While seemingly simple, it involves redirecting the lasers into the right receptacles using a combination of redirection cubes and portals. I’ve heard that it’s possible to finish this test chamber without placing any portals, but this requires precise use of the redirection cubes. Once this test chamber is cleared, Wheatley returns and prompts Chell to go into the maintenance access surrounding the test chamber.

  • Portal‘s maintenance areas had a more Half-Life feel to them, and Portal 2 modifies them to have a different aesthetic. I can’t help but wonder if the design was inspired by areas of Facebook headquarters. Once Chell’s escaped, Wheatley will have her help in sabotaging the turret manufacturing line and disabling the neurotoxin supply before taking her to face GLaDOS. Chell manages to perform the core transfer, placing Wheatley in charge of Aperture Sciences, but the additional processing power drives him insane, and he reneges on his promise to Chell. When GLaDOS insults Wheatley, he loses his cool and smashes the lift Chell is in, sending her and GLaDOS tumbling into the depths of Aperture Sciences.

  • After falling into the depths of Aperture Science, some four-and-a-half kilometres beneath the surface, Chell is briefly knocked out and comes to just as a bird carries GLaDOS away. This is the loneliest it gets in Portal 2, and Chell can only count on her wits to figure out how to return to the surface: there is no Wheatley to lighten the moment up, and no GLaDOS to make snide remarks. The sense of scale at Aperture Science becomes apparent here, giving an idea of just how extensive the facilities are. When I first came here in Portal 2 some eight years ago, I was thoroughly impressed with how the older facility was presented, and it was here that the melancholy in the game became visibly felt.

  • Wandering through the unused sections of Aperture Science, I would come upon the vault door that leads into the next section. Portal 2‘s designers stated they wanted to play with some visual humour, in which they would use an immensely large vault door to conceal an ordinary door. At this point during my first play-through, I was wrapping up a physics course and making more headway into the MCAT preparation course. The timing of this was excellent: I had been a little worried about a potential scheduling conflict, but with physic concluding, I was free to focus purely on the MCAT.

  • By the time I’d set foot in the catwalks leading into the first of the Enrichment Spheres, Portal 2 had been out for just over a year. One of my friends had already completed the game and began using the music to test to in accompanying his videos of his Otafest experiences. Portal 2‘s soundtrack was carefully composed to fit the atmosphere of different areas of the game. The music of the Enrichment Spheres, in particular, create a light-hearted sense of science fiction that suggests a combination of whimsy and cleverness that is needed to complete this section of the game.

  • I’m guessing, then, that for my friend, Otafest represents a similar challenge for visitors in that it requires an open mind and awareness of one’s surroundings to ensure one doesn’t miss anything. This turned out to be true: when I attended Otafest a year later, I planned to attend for one day and played things by ear. While it was a fun experience, I would subsequently learn that I’d missed a bunch of events and a chance to collect special pins. For future conventions, I planned ahead and would go on to have a more comprehensive experience. Here, I pass through one of the older offices, and a trophy case of Aperture’s best achievements of the day are visible.

  • Besides Otafest vlogs, my friend had also made extensive cross-overs of Portal and Team Fortress 2 with The Melancholy of Suzumiya HaruhiLucky☆Star and Puella Magi Madoka Magica. I’ll admit that I don’t fully understand half of the intended themes in crossovers, and upon asking my best friend to take a look, and they were similarly uncertain as to what was going on. If I had to guess, they probably represent how he may felt about certain character interactions and themes in a show, brought into a context he was familiar with. Portal 2 captures the feeling of loneliness and the hubris of ambition in this section, so for me, these sections of the game were the most memorable.

  • Chell eventually makes her way into the control rooms that activate the different mobility gels: these modify the properties of a surface, allowing for movement in areas that would otherwise be impassible. While it’s a lonely journey through the bowels of Aperture Science, Chell is accompanied by Cave Johnson’s hilarious, but also increasingly erratic dialogue, which gives a rather detailed history of Aperture Science, which began as a highly successful company that Johnson ran into the ground with uncertain, experimental projects. While a man of science, Johnson evidently had a stubborn pride about him, as well.

  • After reaching a series of abandoned offices, Chell will find the potato that GLaDOS is stuck to; a bird had carried her away earlier, and GLaDOS becomes deathly afraid of birds for a period after she reunites with Chell. Having GLaDOS attached to Chell’s portal gun, Portal 2 suddenly feels a lot less lonely, and the two work out an alliance with the aim of getting back to the main facility so that GLaDOS can stop Wheatley from destroying everything in his incompetence.

  • Once GLaDOS is back, she’ll occasionally react to Cave Johnson’s recordings: it turns out that GLaDOS was built from Caroline, Johnson’s pretty-as-a-postcard assistant with a bright personality who was also evidently competent. Upon hearing one of Johnson’s recordings, GLaDOS responds with a heartfelt and genuine “Goodbye, Sir“, hinting at her origins. It turns out that Johnson had intended to have his mind transferred, but in the event that he died before the process could be carried out, Caroline would take his place. These exchanges match the melancholy, wistful feeling one gets when traversing these test chambers. The inquisitive player can locate a picture of Caroline and unlock an achievement for doing so in this test chamber.

  • I still have vivid memories of being stuck in this enrichment sphere after arriving for the first time: I had started playing Portal 2 as a bit of a study break, having hit a wall of sorts in revising the new MCAT materials, but wound up without a means of completing this test chamber. I ended up putting the breaks on Portal 2, returned to hit the books and ended up understanding the concept I was looking at. The early summer of 2012 was characterised by me being entirely focused on the physics and MCAT courses; most days entailed me going to campus to take the courses and then returning home in the afternoon to study.

  • By June, my physics course had nearly wrapped up, and all that was left was the MCAT course, which ran until the end of July. I spent many a beautiful day indoors doing review problems with friends who were also facing down the MCAT or had previously done so. I constantly swung between an impatience to take the exam and a gripping panic during this time, but with support from my friends, I weathered on. Most of my days were punctuated by a great deal of gaming, which helped me to unwind and focus in between studying sessions.

  • Finally, August came, and I sat the exam. When I had finished, it was as though a great weight was lifted off my shoulders. With the remaining twenty days of the summer, I spearheaded an effort that some of my colleagues had taken to submit a paper to an undergraduate journal earlier that year: we had become swamped with coursework and the paper was shelved. However, two of the remaining colleagues had expressed an interest in continuing, and since I was not officially doing summer research then, I had unlimited time on my hands.

  • After receiving everyone’s drafts, I ended up writing out the entire paper and then asked that my colleagues review it as they were able. As August drew to an end, and my final undergraduate year started, we had a fully finished draft. My supervisor was happy to review it, and we ended up submitting it to the journal. It was accepted some time later, and I was invited to participate in the undergraduate research symposium with my older project from a summer earlier. Seeing the extensibility of this project led me to build my undergraduate research project off it, and for my troubles, I ended up doing very well.

  • As I return further up the facility, I recall that because I had been in the midst of MCAT season and had wanted to finish Portal 2 as quickly as possible. I therefore skipped over the sections of Portal 2 where Chell and GLaDOS return to the more modern Aperture Science facilities, returning to the point after the pair reach the stairwell leading back into a more modern-looking test chamber, shaving about 15-30 minutes off my run. In retrospect, I needn’t have skipped this part, but what’s done is done.

  • According to the screenshots, I finished my first run of Portal 2 precisely eight years earlier and ended up writing about the new mechanics here. At that time, this blog was really more of a side resource where I could go to write shorter articles, supporting the content at my main Webs.com page. However, as the limitations of Webs.com became increasingly apparent, I transitioned all of my writing to this blog. Here, I make use of a portal conducting gel to coat the interior of this shaft, allowing me to freely place portals in critical areas to reach further up.

  • While I had finished Portal 2 and wrote about it eight years ago to this day, that same summer saw Valve introduce the addition of Perpetual Testing Initiative, adding co-op chambers for players to complete. Any owner of Portal 2 was automatically granted a special discount coupon for Portal 2 to gift to friends so that they could claim a copy of the game for 5 USD. My friend, having heard about my enjoyment of the game, sent me his coupon, and a few hours later, I was the proud owner of Portal 2. I started my journey late in August, and finished the campaign a second time just before term started.

  • On my second play-through, I went through every area of the game, including the shafts leading back to the more modern facility and the crawlspace just beneath the modern test chambers. As I passed through familiar test chambers and the bowels of the facility alike, I recalled with vivid clarity the old thrill of studying for the MCAT. Three days later, my MCAT results came back, and it was to my immense relief that I’d done rather well. I wouldn’t actually use the results in later years, having developed a keen interest in software development following my undergraduate thesis, but the lessons and experiences from taking the MCAT persisted: besides being a better tester, I also relaxed considerably regarding challenges.

  • I don’t believe I have any screenshots of Portal 2 left over from those days: all of the screenshots for this post were taken relatively recently. Upon returning back to the modern facilities, it’s evident that Wheatley has made a mess of things, creating illogical tests. Fortunately, there are solutions to Wheatley’s tests, and the introduction of the excursion funnels, which act similarly to the hard light bridges but also offer laminar flow, allowing players and objects to be pushed across an area.

  • Despite displaying fluid-like properties, the excursion funnels are not liquid in nature. Special switches allow their direction to be switched, and they become an invaluable mechanic for crossing over large chasms opening into the deepest reaches of the Aperture Science facility. Wheatley’s tests leave massive gaps in the floor, which expose infrastructure and also give an idea as to how vast Aperture Science really is. Chell can exit the funnel at any time by means of normal movement, but careless movement at the wrong time will lead to death.

  • Besides Chell herself and objects like weighted cubes, the excursion funnels can also be used to transport mobility gels great distances. Solving puzzles with a combination of the mobility gels and excursion funnels turned out quite fun: by this point in time, familiarity with all of the mechanics means that players will have no trouble figuring out what needs to be done. Of note was the part where one needed to use the repulsion gel on turrets to safely deactivate them: once coated, they begin bouncing around erratically and plummet to the depths of the Aperture Science facility.

  • A distant light can be seen as Chell heads towards Wheatley with every intention of stopping him and restoring GLaDOS’ access to control Aperture Science. Traveling through this excursion funnel, with a distant light illuminating the way, players cannot help but feel that they are almost at the light at the end of the tunnel. This screenshot here perfectly captures how it felt to watch the days between myself and the MCAT count down to the doom of my time.

  • The fight with Wheatley is hilarious: while he takes measures to prevent himself from being defeated the same way GLaDOS was defeated, conditions transpire against him, and Chell is given all of the tools needed to stop Wheatley, by corrupting his main core with alternate cores and prompting a core transfer. Once successful, Wheatley is sucked into space, and regrets betraying Chell, while GLaDOS stabilises the facility and allows Chell to walk free, since killing her was too much work. This brings my third play-though of Portal 2 to an end, and having gone through both Lucky☆Star and both Portal games, I turn my attention towards The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya next, which holds the answers to lingering questions I had surrounding Otafest.

Being more extensive than Portal in every way, Portal 2 ultimately is an immensely enjoyable and immersive experience overall. In particular, I was most fond of the game’s midsections, which sees Chell explore the abandoned ruins of the old Aperture Science. The sheer scope and scale of the old Enrichment Spheres are a monument to Aperture Science’s hubris: Portal 2 demonstrated that level design and voice acting alone can tell an incredibly compelling story: Cave Johnson himself never appears, having long died from being poisoned by the moon dust used in creating portal-conducting surfaces, but old heirlooms and artifacts do much in filling in the gaps. Together with the derelict state of the old facilities, one really gains a sense of the hopelessness and desperation Johnson had to bring back the glory days even as Aperture Science fell further into ruin. These missions are reminiscent of exploring haikyo: although the walls of abandoned buildings might not speak, an entire story lies beyond their silence, told in stone and mementos alike. Altogether, Portal 2 places a much greater emphasis on the human elements of the series compared to its predecessor, which, while succeeding on the merits of its simplicity, left many questions unanswered. Portal 2 answers some of these questions and suggests that behind the events of Portal, there was a human element to things, which help players to really understand the dangers of an unchecked desire for progress. Together with areas that capture the scope and scale of Aperture Science, moments that help characters grow, and a generally livelier atmosphere, Portal 2 represents a novel direction for Portal that adds nuance to the series, and while its story leaves players no closer to understanding the role Aperture Science and the Borealis plays in Half-Life 2, does offer closure for those who had lingering questions after completing Portal.

Portal: A Reflection

Didn’t we have some fun, though? Remember when the platform was sliding into the fire pit and I said ‘Goodbye’, and you were like ‘NO WAY‘, and then I was all ‘we pretended we were going to murder you’? That was great.” –GLaDOS to Chell

Twelve years after Aperture Sciences is abandoned, Chell awakens in a Relaxation Chamber and is given instructions from GLaDOS, an AI overseeing the facility. She acquires a single-portal gun and begins the testing procedure on the promise that cake is to be provided for all successful testers. As Chell progresses through the different test chambers and picks up the full portal gun, things become increasingly dangerous: some test chambers are flooded with toxic compounds, and GLaDOS also introduces test chambers with automated turrets. Chell eventually acquires the weighted companion cube in one chamber, and is forced to destroy it to continue. In the final test chamber, after successfully finishing it, Chell finds herself facing certain death, but uses the portal gun to escape to safety. GLaDOS attempts to persuade Chell into returning back into the facility, but she ventures deeper into Aperture Sciences’ maintenance areas, eventually locating GLaDOS’ chambers. Here, Chell eludes GLaDOS’ attempts to kill her and manages to crippled the system, causing an explosion that propels her to the surface. Beginning its life as a Source Engine re-imagination of an older title (wherein recycling assets from Half-Life 2 and using the Source Engine simplified the development process), Narbacular Drop, Portal was released in October 2007 alongside Half-Life 2 Episode Two and Team Fortress 2 as a part of the Orange Box. The game became an unexpected hit for its clever mechanics and narrative, as well as for its unique aesthetic and promotion of scientific principles in problem-solving.

Because of its minimalism, Portal is characterised by the immense sense of loneliness that Chell faces during the game’s events. There are no other humans in Portal, and as Chell progresses through each test chamber, the only interaction she has is with GLaDOS, an AI that becomes increasingly sarcastic and hostile as the game wears on. Chell also finds signs that everything is not what it seems after finding an opening to the maintenance area in one of the test chambers, where another test subject had hastily scrawled “The Cake is a Lie” on the walls. In spite of these ominous signs, Chell initially complies with GLaDOS right up until the final chamber, where it is revealed that GLaDOS had planned in killing her after all. After escaping, Chell is truly alone, and so, begins to follow signs left by the previous test subject, eventually deciding that the only means of survival is to destroy GLaDOS. In the absence of human contact, Portal succeeds in creating an unsettling atmosphere that suggests loneliness can drive individuals to follow anything that resembles social interaction. In Chell, this first takes the form of trusting GLaDOS and obediently completing test chambers, and then in placing her trust in the previous test subject’s discoveries. With its dark humour and play on the human psyche even as players complete the puzzles of the test chambers, Portal quickly became a success, and Valve would follow up with a sequel, Portal 2, in 2011.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Because Portal was built in the Source Engine and recycles assets from Half-Life 2, the game even utilises the same menus and sound effects. The Portal Gun itself is a re-skinned Gravity Gun with the power to pick stuff up and place them, aside from its portal-making functions. Initially, the puzzles of Portal are very easy, designed to get players used to finishing test chambers, but as the game wears on, they become increasingly challenging.

  • According to my Steam achievements, the first time I played Portal was back in September 2011. This would have marked the start of a new term after a summer of research and adventure: besides building the prototype renal model that would form the basis for my undergraduate thesis, I also travelled about both to the Eastern Seaboard and regional mountains, spent memorable days at LAN parties and enjoyed the beautiful summer weather on campus. Entering the new term, I found myself rejuvenated and quite ready to get my GPA back on track for the Honours programme.

  • Late in September, Valuve made Portal free to pick up, and having seen one of my friend’s The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi mashups with Portal, I decided to grab a copy and began playing it later in the month. The first month of term is always slower, so I hastened to finish Portal before things became too crazy, and I would end up wrapping up the game closer to the Thanksgiving Long Weekend in October. Subsequently, I focused my efforts into my studies and wound up doing okay, sufficiently well to return my GPA to the faculty satisfactory standing of a B- or better.

  • I have no screenshots from that particular playthrough of Portal, but if I did, they likely would’ve been 1024×786. In order to acquire screenshots for this post, then, I beat the whole of Portal in a shade under two hours. While there are no mirrors in Portal, the fact that the game does render portals fully means that it is possible to see Chell, and as such, Valve ensured that Chell has a player model – I do not believe that Half-Life 2 actually rendered Gordon Freeman, but thanks to the simplicity of Portal, no crazy models are needed: Chell only needs animations for running and jumping. In Portal, Chell is equipped with the advanced knee replacement mod, which allows her to automatically right herself when moving through a portal and absorb the impact of a long fall.

  • All of the puzzles in Portal involve reaching an exit to the test chamber, and then variation comes from how to open the door and getting to the door. Weighted cubes can be acquired to activate switches, while other switches are activated by redirecting high-energy pellets into them. The pellets are Half-Life 2‘s Energy Balls, using the same asset and possess the same properties: coming into contact with one is instant death, and since they follow a linear trajectory, it takes a bit of creative thinking to direct them into their receptacles.

  • The relatively small number of mechanics in Portal belies a certain ingenuity in the game. The use of momentum in the fling manoeuvre is probably the feature that defines Portal: after players are introduced the idea that “speedy object in, speedy object out”, the game is really able to get creative with its level design. Obstacles and hazards are incorporated in a way as to challenge the player to see what is possible with portals, and because of the pure number of portal-ready surfaces available, players can also explore novel ways of getting around more quickly even in more ordinary environments: some test chambers are quite large, and portals can be used as a shortcut to traverse great distances quickly.

  • The fifteenth test chamber exemplifies the sort of genius that went into the integration of game mechanics with level design in Portal: it is a deceptively simple setup involving the Emancipation Grill and glass walls that prevent players from easily traversing the level. The lack of pits also means that flinging is not immediately an apparent manoeuvre, so players must get creative in portal placement in order to pass over the glass walls, then make use of the high-energy pellets to activate a platform. Because the platforms move in the opposite direction as one’s destination, use of portals is required to advance towards the exit.

  • Half-Life 2‘s sentry guns are repurposed as sleek, Apple-like turrets with a laser sight that indicates where it’s pointing. The turrets are sentient, and speak to the player. Chell can take a few rounds from a turret before dying, and the turrets themselves can be defeated simply by knocking them over. This is typically achieved by dropping objects into them, directing high-energy pellets at them or else opening a portal in the ground underneath them. In situations where none of these are optional, the old Half-Life 2 standby of picking up an object and using it to absorb incoming fire is also a possibility.

  • The weighted Companion Cube is a Portal icon, and while only appearing in test chamber seventeen, very quickly became counted as an integral part of the Portal universe. It is the only cube that must be destroyed, introducing players to the incinerator, but as it turns out, the Companion Cube is not unique, and others are shown in spin-off media, as well as Portal 2. Players who pre-ordered Portal 2 also received a Companion Cube pin as an in-game cosmetic reward for Team Fortress 2, and during my short-lived days trading for Team Fortress 2 hats to help a friend out, I ended up picking a Genuine Companion Cube pin up for myself.

  • The penultimate test chamber is the trickiest, requiring a combination of everything that players have picked up: flinging, use of the high-energy pellets, weighted cubes, avoidance of turrets and caution to avoid the hazardous sludge, as well as implements that require careful timing to activate. By this point, Portal has introduced everything that players need to survive, so even the most intimidating-looking test chamber suddenly becomes a fun challenge to overcome, rather than a rage-inducing puzzle.

  • The last test chamber supposedly marks the end of Portal, but players will feel a sense of unease: given how quiet its been, the probability of there actually being cake seems slim to none, and the mysterious scrawl from an earlier test subject indicates that there is more to Portal than meets the eye. Once players activate the platforms and prepare to progress into what GLaDOS promises to be a celebration, the truth behind Portal becomes apparent.

  • There is no cake, and instead, GLaDOS means to burn Chell alive by dropping her into an incinerator. Fortunately, armed with what is about an hour’s worth of skill with portals, Chell is able to beat a quick escape and avoid being charbroiled. From here on out, Portal dispenses with the highly-structured environments within the test chambers, and puts the player’s knowledge to the test as Chell pushes through the back doors and maintenance passages of Aperture Science.

  • The fact that Aperture Science possesses monitors and keyboards suggests that it was once staffed by humans: a purely automated facility would not have a need for any HCI and by extension, any I/O capture devices. Because Portal recycles so many of Half-Life 2‘s assets, the game does distinctly feel like Half-Life 2 without the Gravity Gun and things to shoot at: the sterile interior of the Aperture Science offices do have that gritty and worn feel as Half-Life 2‘s interiors did.

  • An ominous orange light fills these back ways, along with bits of lighting from lamps illuminating these areas. Filled with pistons and other hazards, it takes a fair bit of observation to figure out where to go, and even though I’ve already beaten this game some eight-and-a-half years earlier, some areas still required that I slowed down to find a suitable surface to place a portal on. Progressing through these areas, markings hastily scrawled in red paint point Chell in the right direction, and with GLaDOS hellbent on killing Chell, players have no choice but to trust these markings.

  • The page quote I’ve got for this Portal talk is probably my absolute most favourite line from the entire game. While it’s not very convincing, it exemplifies the sort of humour that went into Portal. It suddenly strikes me that ten years ago to this day, Otafest 2010 would’ve been starting: back in those days, Otafest happened on University grounds, and so, the organisers opened the event in the afternoon to avoid disturbing the researchers on campus, and the first day’s events were of a much smaller scale.

  • After clearing an arena’s worth of turrets out, Chell travels upwards into the Aperture Science facilities, passing through a cavernous open area that eventually leads into the chamber where GLaDOS’ main body is held. The use of distance fog in conjunction with the orange lighting creates an atmosphere that is simultaneously ominous, yet melancholy, and the colours stand in stark contrast with the welcoming glow of the portal gun. The scale of the interior at Aperture Science suggests to players that they’ve become entangled in something vast, although Portal does not explain what it is.

  • The rooms overlooking the skybridge leading into GLaDOS’ chamber brings to mind an atrium in the Professional Faculties on campus, which had a similar (but warmer) aesthetic. During my time as a university student, I only ever had one class in the Professional Faculties building, which was located a fair distance away from the events of Otafest: the proximity of the Science department’s buildings to the campus student centre meant that the areas where I took most of my classes in, and where my old office was located, would see host to most of Otafest’s events until they moved the venue downtown during my final year of graduate studies.

  • After surviving numerous perils, Chell finds herself face-to-face with her nemesis. Defeating GLaDOS is a relatively simple task: once the rocket turret is deployed, it’s a matter of using portals to redirect rockets to hit GLaDOS’ main body, and then chucking various personality cores into the incinerator before the molar concentration of nerve gas becomes lethal to Chell.  Eventually, damage sustained during the fighting causes the facility to go critical and explode, forcing Chell up to the surface. It turns out that Chell was dragged back into Aperture Sciences and put into stasis, being reawakened an indeterminate amount of time later for the events of Portal 2.

  • I will, of course, be writing about Portal 2 come June, and for now, the fact that we are sitting a decade after Otafest 2010 means I’m feeling nostalgic, so I will be revisiting Lucky☆Star tomorrow, which was when ten years earlier, the main events of Otafest 2010 would have taken place. The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi is another one of the anime that brings back memories of a simpler time, but since I’d forgotten so much of what happened, I do plan on spending early June on a re-watch before attempting to write about it. Because we’re on course for the end of May, as well, the last post I have planned at the moment is a massive one on Halo 2, which joined The Master Chief Collection nine days ago.

While elements of dark humour typically go over my head, what’s not lost on me in Portal is the strong gameplay. The gradual progression allows players to be slowly introduced to game mechanics, and so, when players reach the later test chambers, a bit of creativity will yield a solution. For instance, using portals allows Chell to “fling” herself great distances: as GLaDOS puts it, “speedy object in, speedy object out”. By applying the conservation of momentum, players can reach otherwise unreachable areas needed to solve a test chamber. Momentum is first introduced in a simple room with a pit, but later rooms with the emancipation grills and impassable glass walls prevent players from simply using portals to enter. Instead, players must recall that they can create a portal in the floor and then near the ceiling, after which they can build up the momentum needed to fling themselves into the next area. The end result is that players feel very clever for having completed Portal‘s puzzles, and after GLaDOS goes rogue, players are assured that they know all of the tricks needed to survive. Using only the most basic of mechanics and the laws of physics as defined by the Source Engine, Portal managed to create an experience that was memorable: this sentiment is shared by countless others who’ve played through it, and the game is counted as one of the best games ever made. My time with Portal began in 2011, shortly after Portal 2‘s release and Valve made Portal free to download for a while: coupled with an interest in the series stemming from a series of Otafest videos one of my friends had uploaded, I finally had the chance to experience what is one of the best-known games in recent memory.

Metro Exodus: The Race For Life in The Dead City by Autumn and Route to the Good End

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” –Albert Einstein

Anna’s condition has worsened, and it turns out the only place that might hold the key to saving Anna is Novosibirsk. Formerly the third-most populous city in Russia, Novosibirsk was hit with a neutron bomb and became eight times more irradiated than Moscow. The city subsequently suffered from a conflict between civilians and OSKOM, the miltiary forces, resulting in the riots that decimated Novosibirsk’s population. Feeling that Anna is his and Artyom’s responsibility, Miller decides to enter the city with Artyom to search for a special medicine known as Renergan-F. Donning heavy protective gear, the two enter Novosibirsk’s metro system and after fighting off hordes of mutants, encounters a boy named Kiril. Kiril explains that his father left in search of a suitable location to move to and amongst the maps Kiril’s father had studied, Miller learns that Lake Baikal is radiation free. Artyom continues towards the Scientific Centre for Clinical and Experimental Medicine, where Renergan-F was developed. After traversing the partially-flooded metro tunnels, he reaches the institute, manages to recover a create and prepares to return to the Aurora, but is attacked by Blind Ones, gorilla-like mutants resembling Metro 2033‘s Librarians. Artyom is critically injured, and Miller uses his anti-radiation drug to save Artyom, dying in the drive back to the Aurora. In the aftermath, Anna is saved from respiratory failure using Renergan-F, and the Spartans donate enough blood to save Artyom’s life. Upon arriving in Lake Baikal, the Spartans hold a service to honour Miller, and Artyom is made leader of the Spartans. This is Metro Exodus‘ good end, the outcome that players earn for their patience, willingness to help those in need and keep an eye for solutions that reduce bloodshed Artyom earns a good ending by acting as people would in good times, with a mind of empathy and compassion even during difficult situations. While my playthrough was characterised by knocking out enemies, sneaking around them and exploring where possible, I saw no shortage of opportunity to put my firearms to good use – Metro Exodus might encourage stealth over going loud, but the game also offers plenty situations where the weapons and attachments that Artyom finds can be put to good use.

The final act of Metro Exodus, titled The Dead City, is precisely where Artyom can (and must) go guns blazing in order to be successful. More so than any other part of Metro Exodus, save the beginning, this final segment handles and feels most like earlier Metro games, placing Artyom in the confines of an underground subway system filled with numerous perils. When faced with resilient and violent mutants, the arsenal that Artyom has amassed from earlier missions finally come into play here. I ultimately ran the Bulldog equipped with a reflex sight, green laser sight, a standard thirty-round magazine, standard barrel and the heavy stock plus grip as my primary: this assault rifle proved to be well-suited for picking off numerous enemies at medium range and offered a satisfactory balance between damage per shot and rate of fire, performing solidly in the underground tunnels. As a secondary, the Shambler I ran with was equipped with a heavy stock, duckbill choke, a closed collimator sight and a box magazine, bringing the weapon’s performance up to that of the Saiga 12K. With a good balance of stopping power at close and medium range, I was more than ready to handle the underground tunnels of Novosibirsk: Metro Exodus‘ final act manages to bring back the same metro feel as that seen in its predecessors: in addition to offering a solid new experience with the large open areas of previous chapters, Metro Exodus shows that the series has not forgotten its roots. In particular, Novosibirsk’s partially-submerged subway tunnels and its worms evoked a similar sense of disgust and terror in me as the biomass level of Metro 2033 had – in conjunction with the simian mutants that resembled Metro 2033‘s, this is a particularly strong testament to the solid atmospherics within Metro Exodus, and so, as I pushed through the grim, terrifying tunnels of Novosibirsk, I recalled elements from earlier games that made them so enjoyable. This time, armed with a better understanding of what to expect, I opted to go with practical weapons, rather than exotic weapons as I did previously, and therefore, even in the face of the mutant simians, I was more than able to blast my way to the next area.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • I know this is two Metro Exodus posts in a row, but I was progressing through the game at a breakneck speed after the Taiga, and so, we’ve come to it at last, the final act of Metro Exodus. In Novosibirsk, there are no human opponents to fight, only mutants, and so, the time has finally come to explore Artyom’s full arsenal. In reality, Novosibirsk is the third-largest city in all of Russia (Moscow and St. Petersburg occupy the position of first and second), and is also the largest city in Siberia. With a population of 1.6 million, Novosibirsk is located on the banks of the Ob River and is a major center in Asian Russia. In Metro Exodus, neutron bombs irradiated Novosibirsk far worse than Moscow, and the city was hit with a civil war of sorts that wiped out the human population.

  • With radiation so intense that even the special lead-lined armour Miller and Artyom use, it is not possible to stay outside for even short periods before radiation poisoning kicks in. Fortunately, in the tunnels below, radiation levels are slightly lower, and gas masks aren’t required for some sections. Whereas Artyom had to use metal and chemical resources to craft filters earlier, the last segments of Metro Exodus returns to the approaches seen in earlier titles, where Artyom could simply pick up gas mask filters from the environment.

  • There will be a few engagements with hordes of mutants in Novosibirsk’s metro tunnels. After beating back waves of mutants, Artyom and Miller encounter a small boy in the tunnels and eventually corner him. After a brief but tense moment, the boy identifies himself as Kiril, whose father departed a few months earlier to search for habitable land after their supply of anti-radiation medication neared depletion. It turns out that Novosibirsk is indeed the place where a powerful countermeasure for radiation was developed, although the journey to this medical institute is treacherous.

  • In Kiril’s hideout, Miller and Kiril share a conversation about Kiril’s father and his objectives. Miller decides to split up, feeling that the leads Kiril’s father had are worth pursuing, and decides to give Artyom his customised Tikhar rifle. Up until now, the Tikhar had been a pneumatic rifle that was unparalleled when it came to stealth combat and whose greatest strength was that ammunition could always be readily crafted, giving Artyom options in combat even when conventional ammunition had been depleted. However, one must constantly be aware of the air pressure levels in the Tikhar, and repeated use of the weapon would render it ineffectual.

  • Once Artyom acquires the electromagnetic accelerator attachment for the Tikhar, the weapon turns into the Volt Driver from previous titles: it is Metro Exodus‘ ultimate weapon. I’ve never actually used this weapon up until now, having never gone through the DLC for Metro 2033 or Metro: Last Light. Here in Metro Exodus, I utilised the weapon to great effect; the weapon can one-shot most enemies, has a high rate of fire and accuracy, and since it uses the same steel balls as the Tikhar, ammunition for the weapon is common.

  • Once Artyom is fully kitted out, nothing in Novosibirsk’s metro tunnels will stand a chance: the tunnels, formerly a suspenseful environment, turns into a shooting gallery where mutants fall to superior firepower. This is the point in the game where one can really enjoy the shooting mechanics of Metro Exodus without worrying about moral points: the narrow, linear tunnels do not provide much in the way of stealth, and the environments here definitely bring back memories of Metro: Last Light.

  • After Artyom reaches a submerged section of the Novosibirsk metro and acquires a boat, exploring one of the side tunnels will also yield a special twenty-round box magazine for the Shambler. Up until now, I’d run with the ten-round magazine that allowed the weapon to handle as the Saiga 12K of Metro: Last Light did, allowing the Shambler to have a decent balance between weapon stability and magazine size. The box magazine doubles one’s capacity at the expense of reload time and stability, but given the sheer number of mutants, this is an agreeable upgrade to find.

  • The submerged metro segments of Novosibirsk rival the biomass in terms of revulsion factor: the area is covered in mutated tubifex growth and populated by different leech-like worms. The smallest worms will attach themselves to Artyom whenever he falls into the water, dealing some damage to him. Medium sized worms will spit acid at Artyom from a distance and when killed, can be looted for chemicals. Finally, large worms several metres long can be encountered. They also spit acid and can knock Artyom from his boat: they are massive enough to hunt Nosalise mutants, but with the Tikhar, they can be felled in a few shots.

  • These sections of Metro Exodus particularly impressed me: it was a creative way to make the tunnels more interesting and also was a clever callback to the Biomass level in Metro 2033: with uneven, slimy and nauseating organic matter covering all surfaces, unease mingles with excitement. The visual fidelity in Metro Exodus is apparent: after killing the medium and large worms, inspection of their carcasses shows just how much detail went into their assets. Unlike my experiences with the Biomass level of Metro 2033, where I had carried specialised weapons for long-range combat, this time, better knowledge allowed me to carry more versatile weapons.

  • In this large hangar-like section, Artyom must locate a boat in order to cross into the next section. The trick is to locate a doorway off to the side, which leads into a series of hallways infested with worms. The medium worms are rather weak, and spending shotgun shells on worms in general is a waste of ammunition. The Bulldog really shines here: one or two bullets will deal with them. Since the larger worms will spit massive globs of acid and small worms at the player that injure and disorient, I prefer engaging them from a distance with the Tikhar. Ten shots will be more than enough to put one away.

  • Between the damage sustained from fighting worms and falling into the water, which causes leeches to bind to the player for some damage, my gas mask became damaged. A patch I applied to temporarily stem the loss of air can be seen on-screen here. There is a workbench located in the hallways, and I was therefore able to repair my gas mask without difficulty. While guides suggest that the small leeches that stick to Artyom’s mask are merely cosmetic, rather like the small spiders that crawl over his arms and face when one walks through a web, they seem to cause small amounts of damage.

  • Once the flooded hangar is cleared, Artyom proceeds into a heavily irradiated tunnel and develops acute radiation sickness, seeing visions of Anna. He applies a dose of the anti-radiation medication to ward off the debilitating effects and pushes on to the surface on his way to the institute. Hallucinations and blurriness will impact Artyom for the remainder of Metro Exodus: the games have always introduced visual disorientation towards the climax, and these elements make a return in Metro Exodus. Unlike its predecessors, however, Metro Exodus is much more restrained when it comes to these effects.

  • Artyom will succumb to a few visions detailing the fate of what happened during the final hours in Novosibirsk: with tensions running high, the armed forces fired on civilians with their main battle tank. Visions in earlier Metro titles were explained as being the psycho-kinetic powers that the Dark Ones were using to reach Artyom. Dark Ones only appear in Metro Exodus as Easter eggs, and are never directly mentioned: the visions Artyom has might be attributable to them, or else will need alternate explanation.

  • After a short journey across the surface, Artyom finally reaches the research institute. This site is immensely unnerving with its icicled-interior, and things are made more tricky by the appearance of another anomaly that stalks Artyom. This anomaly differs from the one I encountered in the Volga, being able to physically manipulate objects in the environment. Despite dealing no direct damage to Artyom, getting too close is still damaging because it seems to emit radiation.

  • Because of the close-quarters environments at the institute, I decided to switch the green laser over to the Tikhar and also swapped out the longer range IRNV optics for the reflex sight, turning the weapon into a powerful short-range solution for whatever I would encounter. The near-absence of enemies was terrifying, and I soon learnt why there are no other mutants in the institute.

  • Once I reached a rooftop, I found myself face-to-face with a “Blind One”, a gorilla-like mutant that possesses limited sentience and telepathic powers. Despite lacking vision, their sense of hearing and smell are exceptional, allowing them to trace Artyom. Like the Librarians of Metro 2033, they will attack when provoked and therefore, can be avoided. There is much speculation as to what the Blind Ones’ origins are, and while I’ve read that they can communicate with Artyom in a limited way, I never experienced this for myself.

  • I thus resorted to my classic method of blowing any Blind One I encountered apart with what has now become an impressive arsenal: while guides suggest that sneaking past the Blind Ones is preferred because of their durability, I’ve found that a Molotov Cocktail and full magazine of ammunition from the rail-gun equipped Tikhar is enough to bring one down with relative ease. Alternatively, if one has enough shotgun shells, they can also just use the Shambler to great effect; having a box magazine extends the amount of damage over time Artyom can do without reloading. Individually, the Blind Ones are actually straightforwards to avoid or fight, but there does come a point where Artyom will encounter two.

  • In the blackest depths of the institute, Artyom will finally locate a crate containing Renergan-F. Once he recovers it, a Blind One will attack him, and both fall out of a fire escape. The Blind One is subsequently impaled by an icicle, and then Miller arrives. Miller himself is suffering from radiation poisoning as well, and he uses his anti-radiation dose on Artyom to save him, at the cost of his own life. Seeing this go down meant I had no regrets about blasting each and every Blind One I encountered.

  • The last segment of Metro Exodus is a long drive back to the Aurora, and once this is done, the game’s outcome is presented to the player. I watched as the Spartans donated blood to Artyom, and while he drifts in and out of consciousness, Miller speaks with him about how Artyom’s persistence has given everyone a new future. He walks off into the sunset, and Artyom is able to survive the ordeal. I’ve actually wondered what the bad ending was like and found it to be much more pessimistic; while Miller compliments that Artyom had done his job well as a soldier, and the remaining Spartans do live their lives out in happiness on the shores of Lake Baikal, Artyom and Miller are consigned to spend eternity in a purgatory for their actions, leaving Anna alone in the world.

  • I would have very much loved to explore Lake Baikal, but the area is entirely peaceful and would not have been exciting from a gameplay perspective. With this in mind, it feels great to have gotten the good ending: I’ve long wondered about the strict requirements of earning a good end to Metro games, and with Metro Exodus, I’ve found my answer. Overall, I am very glad to have taken the plunge and picked up the game. Even if it was for the Epic platform rather than Steam, this does not diminish how enjoyable Metro Exodus is in any way. With Metro Exodus now in the books, I will be going through Star Wars Battlefront II, which was on sale for 85 percent off some ways ago. I’ve heard that the game is due for a major update that will add “Instant Action”, making it the perfect single player arcade experience for days when I wish to relive classic moments in Star Wars.

Metro Exodus marks the first time I’d ever gotten a good end in the series: in Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light, I ended up with the bad endings. However, two games and six years later, I believe that additional life experience and patience allowed me to appreciate the message that the Metro series was trying to communicate to its players. Morality and goodness stems from the patience to assess a situation, whereas immorality and suffering follows from a desire to immediately wade into a problem and then argue that the ends justify the means. This is what I was missing from my play-throughs of earlier Metro titles, and with this newfound appreciation, I am most impressed with how Metro manages to work in such a far-reaching, profound message into each of its three games. Besides these overarching themes of morality, Metro Exodus also shows players the resilience of the human spirit: while the societies that Artyom encounters at the Volga, Yamantau, Caspian desert and taiga forest are crude and barbaric, that a society has reformed at all following the war shows the human determination to survive and make the most of things. Being able to explore different parts of the Russian countryside and wilderness, and seeing all of these little details shows a world that has managed to adapt, while at the same time, gives a glimpse into what life might be like in the furthest reaches of the world. In addition, Metro Exodus also presents the idea that an open-mindedness is needed to bring about positive change; Artyom’s determination to explore the world outside of Moscow, ultimately gave the Spartans a new home and hope. Sometimes, taking a risk is necessary, and while the choice to do so is fraught with danger, the outcomes can be worth it. With the latest instalment of Metro now in my books, I’ve heard that there could be a sequel where Artyom returns to Moscow to bring back other survivors for a better life on the pristine and idyllic life on the shores of Lake Baikal.

Metro Exodus: Hidden Summer Camps of the Taiga

“In a forest of a hundred thousand trees, no two leaves are alike. And no two journeys along the same path are alike.” –Paulo Coelho

The Spartans celebrate Stepan and Katya’s marriage on the Aurora, which has left the desert. When Anna collapses midway through the ceremony, Katya, who has medical knowledge, looks over her and feels that it might be the case that Anna simply needs better air. Analysis of the satellite imagery reveals a valley in Burabay National Park that appears suitable for settlement. While the Spartans are optimistic about this area, they decide to send Artyom and Alyosha to scout out the area so as not to frighten any locals in the area. However, Alyosha and Artyom are swept away by an avalanche, only to be rescued by a forest-dweller. Artyom learns that the forest valley is populated by two factions that splintered long ago, and seeking to link up with Alyosha, Artyom sneaks through several of the pioneer and pirate camps with nothing more than a makeshift crossbow known as the Helsing after his backpack is lost. He is eventually captured, and escapes when a massive mutant bear appears. Recovering his backpack, Artyom navigates around the pioneer and pirate camps, clears out a bandit camp on his own and then, after a harrowing fight with the mutant bear the locals refer to as the Master of the Forest, meets Olga, the pioneer who rescued him. She explains the history of the area and its two factions. Artyom then sneaks into a pirate camp and recovers a boat, encounters an eccentric admiral and makes his way to the dam through an underground passage. At the dam, Artyom links up with Alyosha and prepares to return to the Aurora. It turns out that Olga and Alyosha had struck up a friendship and reciprocated one another’s feelings: Alyosha promises to return for her, and advises her to move her people out, since the dam’s structure has weakened and could collapse, flooding the forest valley with radioactive water. The two return to the Aurora and set course for Novosibirsk as Anna’s condition worsens, in search of a medication that would cure her of her illness.

The biggest surprise of the Taiga region is the loss of Artyom’s equipment; after falling into the river, Artoym’s backpack is washed away, and with it, all of the upgraded gear accrued over the course of Metro Exodus. From the green laser sight I had recovered, to the upgraded Shambler, everything is lost, forcing players to adopt a more stealthy, patient approach towards dealing with the forest’s human inhabitants. As Artyom progresses through the valley, listening in on conversations finds that most of the forest’s peoples are not hostile and can be left alone. An eye for path-finding, and occasionally knocking out the stray sentinel in Artyom’s path will allow him to quickly clear areas without raising an alarm, and a few of the weapons can also be recovered: with the Bulldog and Shambler gone, players have a chance to return to the revolver and Ashot again. With the Helsing as a stealth option, I kitted the Ashot out with my usual two-barrel setup for close quarters, and the revolver became a mid-range intermediate solution after I fitted it with an eight-round double-action cylinder, standard barrel and a 4x scope. The change in play-style brings a new feel to Metro Exodus, and while the taiga might not have the same potential for exploration, it nonetheless is a beautiful region worth taking the time to go through. The only major combat I experienced here in the forests were at a bandit camp, through a spider-infested tunnel and then against the bear itself. In my first encounter, I depleted my entire stock of shotgun shells and pistol rounds to send it packing, while on my second fight, I utilised the Helsing’s explosive bolts to whittle down its health. Having gone through the taiga with the intent of doing as little harm as possible, I was met with respect from Olga, and Alyosha decides to return later to the area.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • While the Caspian was a lifeless desert devoid of life (albeit one where its inhabitants adapted to the surroundings, and where looking closer revealed various points of interest), the taiga is a forested area rich in flora and fauna. Deciduous and coniferous trees cover hillsides that give way to pristine bodies of water while glacially-capped peaks tower above in the distance. It is unsurprising that the area looked so promising to settle in: the taiga seems like an idyllic place to be.

  • I would have loved to stick around in the area and explore, but as the daylight disappears, the priority is to reach Alyosha as soon as possible. Artyom’s backpack disappeared after the railcar was washed into the lake by an avalanche, and initially, all players will have available to them is the Helsing crossbow in its most basic configuration, allowing it to fire a highly-damaging bolt at a very low rate of fire, one at a time. When confronted with the Helsing-wielding forest dwellers, Artyom can be felled in as little as two shots, making stealth a much more critical path to take.

  • After making my way through a village and surviving an encounter with the mutated bear that the forest dwellers refer to as the Master of the Forest, night had fallen. As soon as players locate a IRNV scope for the Helsing, night is actually the preferred way to complete the Taiga with minimal risk of detection from the forest dwellers, but lacking a good close-quarter solution means that encounters with wildlife would be much trickier.

  • I ended up finding a small cave west of the passage leading into the pioneer camp and rested there until dawn. While daylight increases my risk of being caught, an entire post’s worth of screenshots by night would have been very boring – the taiga is at its best during the day, and exploring around then gives the best opportunity for screenshots. By this point in time, I’ve found a three-round magazine for the Helsing, along with different optics and even a compound bow attachment that increases damage.

  • The shores by the lake here is one example of how stunning Metro Exodus looks – the developers have evidently put in a great deal of work into the environments, from the scraps of wood floating and algae on the water, to the mists rising up from the lake by morning, everything in the taiga feels idyllic. In fact, the area resembles some regions of Skyrim and Half-Life 2 Episode 2, as well as the mountains near my city. This Labour Day long weekend, suboptimal weather precluded a trip out there, and I ended up doing some window shopping at a local mall instead before settling down to a satay lobster noodle soup, which was a fine way to ward off the cold weather.

  • I ended up covertly moving through the entirety of the pioneer camp without once alerting anyone to my presence, but I did knock out a few pioneers who stood between me and my destination. Knocking people out is silent and quick, allowing me to take their entire inventory, and because it is non-lethal, doesn’t impact one’s morality any. It is superior to the lethal takedown, and in fact, renders it completely unnecessary to kill anyone all, since knocked-out enemies stay down indefinitely. Future iterations of Metro may do well to balance this by adding a timer so that downed enemies can regain consciousness and then alert their allies, forcing players to be both stealthy and efficient.

  • For the effort of not firing a single shot while in the pioneer camp, my screen flashed white briefly, indicating I’d done something good. The pioneers and bandits are said to be students who were out camping when the nuclear war broke out, and then continued to grow up in the forest once civilisation was destroyed. The pioneers in particular are named after the Young Pioneers (or in full, “Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization”), which were a youth organisation similar to North American scouts and sought to teach young people social cooperation in summer camps.

  • The game Everlasting Summer deals with a Young Pioneer camp, and I might write about my experiences with this exceptional visual novel if there is a wish for it. Here, I arrive at a bandit camp: unlike the pioneers or pirates, going loud in a bandit camp has no impact on morality. I thus put the Helsing to good use here, silently eliminating bandits until my presence was noticed. I promptly switched over to the revolver for increased firepower. The bandits have access to a Valve rifle here, but because ammunition for this was scarce compared to the revolver, my makeshift pocket sniper became the best solution here.

  • I’d actually been itching for a chance to use the pocket sniper configuration of the revolver for the longest time since the Volga, and in the bandit camp, the weapon proved its worth. Readers may have noticed that I almost always run with the same loadouts in each region, and this is because while Metro Exodus may allow for some pretty unusual setups, I found that particular weapon configurations simply worked best for me in a given situation.

  • TheRadBrad had gone through the bandit camp by night and therefore was able to avoid most of the combat by sneaking past the enemies, but in the bandit camp, there’s a captured pioneer that Artyom can rescue only by single-handedly eliminating the entire camp on his own. While having a Kalashnikov or Bulldog here would have simplified things, the revolver and Ashot managed things more than adequately.

  • The church tower in the distance is where Artyom is set to rendezvous with Alyosha, but there’s still a pirate camp between Artyom and the objective. With the day growing late, I decided to find a campfire and rest up, again, so I could carry on with the mission by day. The skies here look very life-like, and one of the nuances about Metro Exodus is the hyperrealistic skyboxes that dynamically change over the course of a day. Dynamic weather means that no two moments are going to be identical, and this adds life to the game.

  • Having spent the night rested, I reawaken to find the pink-orange light of a taiga dawn. I’ve managed to find a lull in the moment and refitted the reflex sight to the Ashot, although quite honestly, the light weight and solid handling of this weapon means that it can be fired from the hip with reasonable accuracy. I thus carried this into battle with me, along with the revolver and Helsing arrows – the quiet of the church yard I enter was unnerving, and I soon had my answer as to why this was the case.

  • It turns out this is where Artyom will have a chance to square off against the Master of the Forest, a massive mutant bear. This bear is tougher than any mutant bear I’d ever fought in previous Metro titles, being able to barrel through obstacles without any trouble and shrugging off an entire arsenal’s worth of damage without flinching. I managed to drive the bear off here, but it turns out there’s a smarter way to fight: Artyom can simply use the Molotov cocktail to distract the bear and then unfurl the rope ladder. Subsequently, Artyom buy himself enough time to escape with a second Molotov cocktail, and upon ascending the ladder, the bear will leave.

  • In my case, I lacked any Molotov cocktails, so after expending my entire stock of shotgun shells and a fair number of arrows, I drove off the bear by force of arms, leading Olga to comment on Artyom’s skill after they meet. It turns out she was the one who saved him and Alyosha from the derailment earlier, and if Artyom takes the time to listen, Alyosha will explain the entire history of the valley and its inhabitants. There’s a work bench here, allowing players to craft up any ammunition and consumables that were spent during the bear fight. While most guides recommend against crafting ammunition, those who take the time to explore will have enough raw materials to constantly top off their consumables. In fact, I would counter-state that one should craft with an eye on the following priorities – medical syringes should always come first, followed by cleaning one’s weapons and repairing one’s mask.

  • Then, ammunition for the shotgun can be crafted: pistol and intermediate rounds are reasonably common. Throwables can be found in the environment and are costly to make, while one to three minutes of material gas mask filters can be made if one still has resources available. They aren’t needed too often in open areas, and one can get by as long as they have more than nine minutes’ worth of filters. Here, I approach the dam, and to the right of the image, a faint cyan glow can be seen emanating from behind the dam, hinting at the state of the world in reservoir.

  • Owing to the terrain and sightlines, it is very difficult to sneak past the pirate camp without raising the alarm, so to tilt the situation slightly in my favour, I moved through the area by nightfall and managed to secure a boat without any difficulty. In the process, I also acquired a Kalashnikov rifle, giving me slightly improved firepower for medium range encounters. Once the boat is secured, players will encounter the Admiral, an insane fellow who keeps company of the corpses of those he once commanded. The Admiral is no threat to Artyom and will have some interesting stories to tell: I listened for a while and accepted his tea, then proceeded on with making my way to the dam.

  • I’m sure that the sights up here would’ve been beautiful by day, but since I chose the night, I got to see a full moon casting a cold blue light on the valley below. The next segments were among my least favourite of the taiga: I entered an underground passage with a spider infestation, and was troubled with radiation pockets that interfered with my flashlight. Armed with only my lighter, I had to lure the spiders towards light, and then engage them there.

  • There’s a generator hidden in the underground complex, and once Artyom activates it, the lights come on. This provides Artyom with a modicum of peace from the spiders: they are still difficult to fight, and careless shot placement will invariably lead to an unnecessary expenditure of ammunition. Exploring the installation will find a reasonable amount of ammunition, which will help in the area ahead.

  • After nearly two thirds of the game has passed, we finally come to the area that was showcased during the 2017 E3 demo. I deliberately outfitted my crossbow with the same setup that was seen in E3 and proceeded down the slope. The area has seen numerous changes since E3, and the animations seen then are gone, but beyond this, the Metro Exodus that we get to experience is more polished and detailed than the E3 version. It suddenly strikes me that two years have passed since I first heard about Metro Exodus, and it is humbling to finally be standing here in the same spot that was showcased shortly after I returned from my trip to Japan.

  • Artyom will encounter the bear a final time after reaching a bridge leading to the church, and must defeat it to continue on back to the Aurora. The best way to do so is to open the fight by securing all of the Molotov cocktails, and then using one to create space while unloading as much shotgun ammunition as possible. When depleted, I switched over to the Helsing’s explosive bolts. After enough damage is done, the bear will charge at Artyom and then slip over the cliff’s edge. Olga will arrive and tell her people to stand down, sharing a farewell with Alyosha before allowing the two safe passage. It turns out that Alyosha had met Olga earlier and the two fell in love: Alyosha recounts his experiences to Artyom as they move through the village here. Once the two part ways, Alyosha promises to come back for her, and then joins Artyom in zip-lining across the abyss back to the Aurora.

Entering the final quarter of Metro Exodus, I am two for three in terms of keeping the Spartans with me, and there is only one more section left in the game to go through. Of the different regions of Metro Exodus, the taiga definitely is the most breathtaking, with its forests, lakes and mountains. However, the area’s biggest threat is the radioactive waters behind the dam: when I exited the underground tunnels and came to the point overlooking a small village that was shown in the E3 demo of Metro Exodus back in 2017, the faint glow was visible even during the day. It turns out that the location in the E3 demo was in the taiga, and armed with the crossbow with a reflex sight, I trudged down the hill towards the church, much as the demo did. While the demo had more animations and more enemies to fight in the area, Metro Exodus‘ retail version sees improved visuals and a more atmospheric experience in fighting the bear. I’ve heard that it’s uncommon for a game’s E3 demo version to be dramatically surpassed by the retail version (The Division and Rainbow Six Siege are examples of two games that saw graphical downgrades in the retail build), and given the overwhelmingly positive experiences I’ve had in Metro Exodus after three-quarters of the game, I can honestly say that the decision to pick this up was worthwhile. The next chapter appears to be the final segment in Metro Exodus, and it looks to be a return into the old, claustrophobic gameplay that characterised previous Metro titles. Having spent three quarters of the game outside, I’m curious to see how the new mechanics of Metro Exodus will play out back in the narrow confines of underground tunnels.

Metro Exodus: Spring Storms in the Caspian Desert

“What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.” –Antoine de Saint

Upon arriving at the Yamantau complex, Artyom and the other Spartans discover that the Russian government had not survived, and instead, the facility’s maintenance crew became cannibals. Fighting their way back out of the underground installation, Miller manages to retrieve a map that indicates the presence of a satellite facility near the Caspian Sea with Giul’s help. Amidst the ruins of the old facility, Artyom finds a photo of Giul’s family and returns it to her. The area had since become an arid desert dominated by bandits: after reaching a lighthouse, Artyom manages to recover the satellite imagery and turns his attention towards securing water and fuel for the Aurora while taking care to minimise casualties to the slaves in the area. After these resources are acquired, Artyom decides to help Giul eliminate the Baron, a local despot who controls the populace in the area. Inspection of the maps leads Miller to conclude that the Taiga in the east has promise, and with adequate supplies, the Spartans set off towards the Taiga in search of more hospitable conditions. Anna, meanwhile, has developed a cough and feels that the forest air would do her some good. Thus, I cross the halfway point to Metro Exodus: following a claustrophobic, close-quarters battle in the confines of the Yamantau bunkers and rescuing Anna, I thus entered the second open area of Metro Exodus. This desert initially appeared to be a dreary, unexciting location composed of sand and rock: upon arrival in the Caspian Desert, there was nothing but the brown desert under a blue sky. However, once Artyom makes it to a derelict building and comes face-to-face with a bandit, he gains access to a van, which dramatically changes the way one can explore the map.

While the Volga had Artyom confined to a rowboat for travelling across water, the wide expanse of desert in the Caspian means that having a motor vehicle is indispensable – Artyom can now cut across the desert quickly enough to reach his destinations, and this in turn encourages exploration. There are, of course, areas that cannot be accessed in a vehicle, but on the whole, being in a vehicle offers players a speedy means of travelling across the map quickly and protection from the mutants. No longer bogged down by slow movement, one now has incentive to explore the ruins of abandoned settlements and ruined ships made into makeshift shelters. For their troubles, players who explore are rewarded with better equipment and options; I did not explore the Volga as extensively as I would have liked owing to the ever-present danger of attack from bandits and mutant fauna, but having a vehicle in the Caspian meant I had the means to safely explore the map to locate an improved helmet, motion sensor, a box magazine for the Shambler shotgun, long-range optics for the Valve sniper rifle and even a high-visibility green laser, amongst other things. The process of exploration also allowed me to marvel at the details and features of the seemingly-unremarkable desert: exposed fields of oil will spontaneously combust and put on an impressive light show, while the cliffs often conceal secret areas worth exploring. The Caspian thus demonstrates what is possible with a bit of exploration in Metro: Exodus, and more so than even the Volga, those who are patient enough to listen to characters talk will learn a great deal about the world following a nuclear war.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Desert landscapes typically bore me: this is why my interest in Borderlands waned, and why the desert maps of any given Battlefield title are among my least favourite maps. Metro Exodus‘ Caspian level initially started out this way, and I saw the area as something to get done. I started the level with the Kalashnikov buffed up with the long barrel and extended magazine, plus 4x optics, turning it into a makeshift RPK. Long range encounters in the Metro series are actually rarer, and thanks to the morality system, the opportunity to use longer-range weapons against human opponents is lessened.

  • Upon reaching a semi-abandoned structure, Artyom gets into a short fist fight with Saul and manages to steal his keys, which goes to a nice van that makes travel in the Caspian much easier, to the point where my dislike of the desert immediately vanished. Artyom can choose to knock Saul out or kill him: this does have an impact on what happens next, and it should not be surprising that leaving Saul alive is the preferable choice.

  • Regardless of the choice players make, Saul will drop the Shambler shotgun. In its initial configuration, it has three rounds and is only effective under ten metres; with a longer reload time than that of the Ashot, the Shambler is useless and remains thus even when a six-round chamber is found, since reloading will take even longer. Until one gets access to the ten-round box magazine and better barrels, the Ashot remains the superior close-quarters choice.

  • The Caspian is also where Artyom picks up the Bulldog, a bullpup rifle superior to the Kalashnikov in every way except for being a rather fickle weapon that needs plenty of cleaning to perform well. With high accuracy, heavy-hitting round and a slower rate of fire, it is a solid all-around weapon for medium range engagements. In exchange for its performance, it is quite rare and only can be found in the Caspian level.

  • After reaching the lighthouse and helping Giul fend off the slavers, she guides him into an underground complex to look for the maps. This desolate complex has a spider infestation, and like previous instalments of Metro, use of the flashlight is essential to combating these mutants – the spiders will flip over in an attempt to escape the light, exposing their vulnerable undersides to fire. Their shells are tough enough to resist several shotgun shells, so fighting them directly is usually an ineffective use of ammunition.

  • Metro Exodus manages to cleverly incorporate underground and dark areas into its open worlds. In general, I feel at ease when on the surface, where the sight-lines are good and lighting is bright. By comparison, the underground areas always strike a sense of fear into me: most weapons available in Metro are best used against human opponents, and are much less effective against mutants, but most of the time where one must go loud, it will be against mutants, and compounding the challenge is the typical lack of light.

  • Proceeding deep into the underground complex, Artyom comes across a mission control-like room. Going into the passage on the right will lead Artyom into the map room, and it is down a hallway here that Giul’s family photo can be found. If players opt to retrieve this, Giul will give Artyom a canteen that he later gifts to Nastya. It’s a simple gesture, but acts of kindness are both essential to Metro as a whole and a good chance to see what results from kindness.

  • The map room will feature maps all the way up to 2019, and after digging through the maps, Artyom locates a reasonably recent collection that he brings back with him. The next phase is particularly challenging: while the lift is being recalled, the power goes out, and the spiders will come out in force. Liberal application of buckshot and Molotov cocktails will keep the creatures at bay, and after what seemed an eternity, the lift finally arrives, allowing Artyom and the players to leave this wretched, if cool-looking, facility.

  • Back on the surface, I enjoyed a quiet night sky: the day/night cycles and weather system creates a very dynamic environment for Artyom to explore. Playing for long periods will result in the time of day shifting naturally, although players can also locate a safe house and rest there until the desired time frame. The process also automatically heals any damage a player sustained, so I typically rest up so I don’t need to consume any medical kits.

  • While I did not bother looking for equipment and weapon upgrades in the Volga and therefore, missed out on several useful gear pieces, I did end up taking the time to explore the Caspian. Besides an improved helmet and night vision goggles, which came in very handy towards the latter part of the Caspian missions, I also located a green laser sight for my rifle. I’ve long been envious of NPCs with these vivid, high-visibility lasers purely for the cool factor, and it’s great that one can be picked up for player use – the one I found is located immediately north of the Aurora in a ravine where Artyom can also locate a suppressor for the shotguns.

  • One of the biggest joys about Metro Exodus is watching the sunrise and sunsets: during my run of the Caspian, knowing that I had access to a motor vehicle meant that exploration was much more time effective. I thus set about driving to various corners of the map and explored an old air base, which provided an upgrade to my night vision goggles. This comes in very handy later in the Caspian, making it a valuable upgrade.

  • I initially had trouble getting to the safehouse at the top of the control tower: the building at the air base is infested with mutants. I’ve noticed that against the humanoid mutants, buckshot is superbly effective: in earlier installments of Metro, the shotguns actually felt quite under-powered for the task at hand, and I found that the Shambler would burn through ammunition in firefights. For more armoured mutants, careful shot placement is more critical.

  • While the Caspian Sea in Metro Exodus has retreated and dried even further than its contemporary extent, there is some coast left in the level, and the increasing salinity creates a rather unique landscape. In addition, oil-spewing geysers pepper the region, and these will occasionally ignite. If Artyom happens to be nearby, he’ll be critically injured. It turns out that most of the enemies in Metro Exodus are weak against fire, making the molotov cocktails the most useful throwable item in the game only next to the cans that can be used for distraction.

  • I spent an inordinate amount of time between the main mission objectives of recovering the satellite imagery and securing water for the Aurora: once I had finished scouring the map for upgrades and equipment, I continued on with the mission. Going through the tunnels, the main enemies are mutants, and so, a good shotgun here is invaluable. The Bulldog is also a suitable secondary weapon, being accurate enough to land headshots on more distant foes.

  • As Artyom exits the underground segments, the Tikhar becomes the preferred weapon to equip. I’m not too sure how the morality system works here, so I figured it would be preferable to employ stealth measures and sneak around the map, rather than enter loud. The underground caverns here remind me of a dream I had long ago, where I stumbled upon a full-fledged archaic city under the desert.

  • I was so engrossed with the objective of securing the water that I neglected to free the slaves here, and it turns out this oversight cost me the good ending to the Caspian mission. The length of the Caspian is quite taxing, and the conditions for securing a good ending here are rather more stringent than they were in the Volga. However, good ending or not, with the water secured, the crew of the Aurora are safe for the time being and focus turns towards securing more fuel for the train.

  • My last objective was therefore to storm the Baron’s headquarters. The leader of the bandits in the Caspian, the Baron is a despot who argues to have given order to the area. Artyom can meet a double of the Baron, alone on the coast and listen to his story, and while killing this false Baron won’t impact the story any, I chose to spare him because that’s the right thing to do. En route to the Baron’s fortress, I cleared out a derelict shipyard and acquired a 6x optic for the Valve, and utilised it to do some true long range sharp-shooting, clearing away the bandits with headshots. This sniper rifle makes a return from the previous Metro titles and starts out as a single-shot bolt action rifle similar to the Martini Henry.

  • With the right upgrades, the Valve can become either a powerful long-range single-action rifle with a straight-pull bolt or a semi-automatic rifle with a large magazine that excels at making follow-up shots. The number of base weapons of Metro Exodus are far fewer than those of its predecessors, but owing to how extensive the customisation system is, and how dramatic of an impact these can have on a weapon, the overall variety in Metro Exodus is exponentially more impressive than that of Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light.

  • My overall actions in the Caspian meant that when I reached the Baron, he offered to do an exchange with me, but the outcome is preordained: a firefight will break out between Artyom and the Baron’s forces. Armed with the Bullfrog, I steamrolled through the bandits, even the heavier ones equipped with man-portable Gatling guns. The Gatling gun is different than the one from Metro: Last Light and can be picked up, making use of the same ammunition as the Kalashnikov and Bulldog, but between its high rate of fire and low accuracy, the weapon is actually ill-suited for most situations despite its raw stopping power.

  • Once the Baron is defeated, Damir stayed behind to help his homeland in my ending, and I progressed to the next part of Metro Exodus. Anna’s cough worsens, and while the Spartans think the desert air is the root cause, something far more sinister is at play here. Folks who’ve gone through Metro Exodus may have noticed that I skipped over providing screenshots of the Yamantau Complex, and the reason for this is because there’s only so many things I can do to make static underground images exciting. During this segment of the game, a good shotgun and automatic weapon is invaluable, and using lethal force on the cannibals won’t impact one’s morality. It’s fun from a gameplay perspective, but I imagine it’d be a bit duller to look at than say, images of the desert landscapes.

I ultimately did not gain enough moral points to retain Damir, who decided to remain behind with Giul and make a better life for the slaves: one must actively free slaves in the area and avoid killing them in order for Damir to be convinced that things will recover. As such, having seen success in the Volga with morality, I suddenly found myself losing a member of the Spartan order despite my efforts to go through the Caspian without leaving a trail of blood in my wake. The morality system of Metro has always been a surprisingly involved one despite its simple design, leaving me to wonder what constitutes as good and evil; on all of my previously play-throughs of the earlier titles, I ended up with the bad endings because patience for stealthy gameplay always evaporated. This leads me to wonder if Metro is attempting to tell players that impatience is one of the paths down to evil – if one is willing to take shortcuts and then argue that the ends justify the means, then one must pay the price for it. Supposing that this is the case, then it would certainly be true that this would be the central theme of the Metro series as a whole: patience towards others is one of the central tenants of being able to approach a problem and solve it in a manner that benefits the most number of people while simultaneously minimising harm to others. This is an unexpectedly, and pleasantly deep theme to Metro considering the simplicity of the moral system’s implementation, and as I move into Metro Exodus‘ next segment, I will take these learnings and adopt a more observant, patient approach towards solving my problems.