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A closer look at Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition ray tracing features

4A's shooter gets a makeover for its second birthday that offers a monster visual upgrade without the usual performance hit.

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The Metro franchise has long been synonymous with pushing the limits of real-time rendering technology. The first Metro game was one of the earliest to make use of the DirectX 11 API and Metro Exodus was the first title to show the potential of real-time ray tracing in a conventional game. Some two years after it launched on PC, Xbox One, and PS4, Metro Exodus is getting a major update to bring the shooter back to the forefront of next-gen graphics. Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition is set to release on May 6.

It is rather common for previous-generation games to get reissued on newer console hardware and bring along better textures, effects, and other bonuses that were not feasible on older technology. Many times, the PC version of a multiplatform game will offer a much better experience than its console counterparts and for that upgraded PC experience to make an appearance on newer consoles. 

The original Metro Exodus w/Ultra settings — Metro Exodus w/1-bounce ray-traced global illumination — Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition
Left: Metro Exodus w/Ultra settings — Center: Metro Exodus w/1-bounce ray-traced global illumination — Right: Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition

Remedy’s Control is a good example of this. The PS4 and Xbox One versions were plagued by inconsistent frame rates, lower-quality assets, and the complete omission of the ray-traced effects that made the PC version a showstopper in 2019. In February 2021, Remedy re-released the game as Control: Ultimate Edition for PS5 and Xbox Series X. This edition of the game added in some of the PC version’s ray-traced effects and offered smooth, playable frame rates. The Metro franchise already explored this territory in 2014 when the Redux editions of Metro 2033 and Metro Last Light released for PS4 and Xbox One.

Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition takes this idea and instead focuses on upgrades that make the best use of the advancements in PC gaming hardware since early 2019. While the PS5 and Xbox Series X will get a version of this enhanced edition later this year, the team at 4A Games have had most of their focus fixed on next week’s PC version release. 

What’s new in Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition?

An underground tunnel in early in the game. Enhanced Edition on the right.
An underground tunnel from early in the game. Enhanced Edition on the right.

First off, the PC Enhanced Edition is free to all owners of the original release on Steam, the Epic Games Store, Good Old Games and the Microsoft Store. 4A has noted that saves from these versions of the game will carry over and be compatible with the new edition, but only for chapter progress. User progress inside of a level remains with the version the save was created on. This new edition of the game will not be available for Linux or Mac users nor will it be playable through Google Stadia. GeForce Now users will be able to play the new version.

The biggest change coming with the Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition is an overhaul of the game’s lighting. Specifically, massive upgrades have been made to the ray-traced global illumination simulation from the original release. Now, all light sources in the game are fully ray-traced, including emissive sources such as candles, fire, and flashlights. Advanced ray-traced reflections have also been integrated into the game and will be combined with the existing screen space reflections to enhance the final image.

The change in how Metro Exodus is illuminated is drastic — so much so that the development team was able to remove all the invisible light sources that conventional rasterized games use to fake the effects of light bounce and ambient occlusion. The original release of Metro Exodus offered a primitive support for real-time global illumination from a few select light sources, but those effects were limited to a single light bounce. Now, scenes can be rendered with an infinite number of bounces, allowing for more realistic shading, colors, and contrast.

The Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition (right half of image) provides more realistic scenes without light source leaking or the need for ambient occlusion tricks.
The Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition (right half of the image) provides more realistic scenes without light source leaking or the need for ambient occlusion tricks.

The team at 4A incorporated a limited form of ray-traced light simulation from emissive sources in The Two Colonels expansion for Metro Exodus, but the effects were limited to that content. Now, the technology is on display throughout the entire game. The simulation of bounced light also enhances the effectiveness of reflections across a variety of surface types and works in turn with the new ray-traced reflections to bring the visual presentation of Metro Exodus to levels we might not see toppled by the end of this new console generation.

NVIDIA’s DLSS 2.1 has also been integrated into Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition, giving RTX graphics card users extra performance with little or no discernable drop in image quality. AMD GPU owners are not left out in the cold, though. 4A is also introducing a new temporal reconstruction method that offers benefits similar to DLSS. Similar technology was used by Insomniac Games with 2016’s Ratchet and Clank and the 2018 release of Marvel’s Spider-Man on PS4. Additionally, this new edition brings support for variable-rate shading, a technique that can dynamically lower quality on certain alpha effects in return for better performance.

As an added bonus, the creation of video games that use real-time ray tracing to handle lighting can potentially be completed faster. In games with conventional rasterized graphics, artists painstakingly place invisible fill light sources across all environments in an attempt to fake the final look that an offline-rendered ray-traced scene would have. It is incredibly time-consuming and might need to be done multiple times over the course of a game's development. When an artist can simply place a ray-traced light source and be done with the job, resources can be put into other tasks. 4A estimates that thousands of man-hours can be eliminated through the use of ray-traced lighting.

What do I need to run Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition?

4A Games provides this handy infographic explaining the system requirements.
4A Games provides this handy infographic explaining the system requirements.

While all these changes are impressive from a visual standpoint, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Leveraging the capabilities of ray tracing brings a hefty rendering cost versus traditional rasterized graphics. Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition requires a GPU with ray tracing hardware as a bare minimum. Specifically, an NVIDIA RTX 2060 or AMD Radeon RX 6700 GPU is required to play the game. Because all of the lighting in the game is handled via ray tracing, a GPU that can handle the calculations is a non-negotiable requirement.

4A has provided an informative graphic that covers the hardware requirements needed of a gaming PC for each of the enhanced edition’s graphical presets as well as an expected performance target. The ray tracing quality comes in three steps: Normal, High, and Ultra. The Normal preset renders the ray-traced effects at half the output resolution. For example, playing at 1080p with the Normal ray tracing quality preset means that the effects are rendered at 720p, then upscaled for final output. The High preset offers effects quality at roughly three-quarters of the output resolution and the Ultra preset offers ray-traced effects at native resolution.

Players with PCs near the minimum spec can expect to play Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition at 1080p with fully ray-traced lighting on the Normal preset at about 45 frames per second. Recommended spec machines (RTX 2070/3060) can expect to play at 1080p with the High ray tracing preset at 60 frames per second. Players at the highest spec (RTX 3090) can enjoy 4K resolution at 60 frames per second with the Ultra preset. All of these estimated performance tiers are without the use of DLSS or variable-rate shading, so RTX GPU owners can expect even better performance should they enable the features.

Alex Battaglia over at Eurogamer/Digital Foundry got the opportunity to check out the new Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition ahead of today’s announcement. He put the game through its paces and created a wonderful guide video that shows off the differences between the old and new versions of the game as well as comparisons between the various visual presets. He also tested the game client with a few hardware configurations and determined that the new edition of the game offers visual upgrades that can be staggering at times. Even better, game performance is measurably higher across the board on matching hardware configurations between the old release and the new edition coming May 6.

Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition offers players a chance to see the future of video game graphics right now, with little or no additional cost if you already owned the game. For those who missed out on Exodus the first time around, Humble Bundle will offer Metro Exodus as part of their Humble Choice subscription plan on May 4. 

This release represents a milestone in real-time graphics rendering. Prior to now, a fully ray-traced lighting system has never been deployed outside of a tech demo, much less a full-fledged game with AAA assets and production values. It can even be enjoyed on hardware that is available to buy today (assuming that we pretend the ongoing global chip shortage never happened). Those who take the time to play next week will get a glimpse of what the future of video game graphics can become. Hats off to 4A Games!

Contributing Tech Editor

Chris Jarrard likes playing games, crankin' tunes, and looking for fights on obscure online message boards. He understands that breakfast food is the only true food. Don't @ him.

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