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STALKER 2 is a merciless trip down memory lane

GSC Game World modernizes the classic series

The first-person player character keeps their assault rifle at the ready, following two other armed characters in full-body protective gear towards a thickly overgrown cottage and windmill in STALKER 2 Image: GSC Game World

Skif is lying in the moss, a mutated dog gnawing at his shin. He pulls a pistol to fend it off, but — gasp — the clip is empty. Just before it can chew on his neck, he musters a deft kick, booting the pooch into a gravitational anomaly. The dog floats delicately in its gentle embrace before being compressed into a shower of meaty chunks. This constitutes my warm welcome into the unforgiving world of STALKER 2: Heart of Chornobyl.

It has been 14 years since the last official STALKER game (2009’s Call of Pripyat), and GSC Game World has returned with what looks to be another complex blend of FPS, RPG, and survival horror. Like its trio of predecessors, Heart of Chornobyl is set in an alt-history version of the Chornobyl Anomalous Exclusion Zone, where a second disaster in 2006 summoned strange environmental phenomena, coveted supernatural artifacts, and a rogues’ gallery of mutants.

As one of the titular stalkers, you come to chart “the Zone” in search of riches and answers, dodging its hazards and liaising with its lone wolves and various factions. How it all shakes out is very much up to the choices you make. The series’ hands-off approach and treacle-thick atmosphere are why the games have nurtured such a die-hard cult following (and countless fan-made spinoffs).

It doesn’t take long for me to find comforting hallmarks in STALKER 2. After the doggy debacle, a curious stranger throws me a single metal bolt (a trademark tool of the series), which I can chuck in various directions to detect and avoid the anomalies that litter the Zone. The spatial distortion that mutilated the mutt was either a Vortex or a Whirligig — but there are so many more varieties beyond those, and players will come to know their names and their subtle differences if they aim to survive in this hostile environment.

The player character of STALKER 2 holds up a metal bolt while facing a spatial distortion up ahead, one of the many hazards of the Zone Image: GSC Game World

Once I make it to my feet, I notice I’m surrounded by these anomalies, ripping through the fabric of reality with an oil-slick soap bubble effect, evocative of the Hiss in Remedy’s Control. STALKER 2 is an Unreal Engine 5 game, and a good-looking one at that, but striving for the very seams of graphical fidelity has come at a price. The build I played was rough around the edges; I experienced a couple of hard crashes, as well as some placeholder assets and bugs that went beyond the charming old-school jank I was expecting.

Even so, nothing made me want to stop playing. Every time I was kicked back to the demo’s starting point, I always ended up stumbling into something new and intriguing in STALKER 2’s dynamic open world. I listened to the bolt-giving guardian angel in one run, resulting in some valuable guidance. In another, I threw a grenade at his feet and ran the opposite way. It was nice to know early on that, like its ancestors, STALKER 2 allows you to completely disrupt the content funnel if you’re so inclined. Quests would randomly fail as I fought through the Zone, leaving chaos and casings in my wake, and as annoying as it sounds, this was music to my ears.

The demo’s main path almost always led me to a rotting shack where hounds had beset some unfortunate stalker. After saving him, I had a bizarre, eventually hostile conversation with him; he wanted me to leave him alone. His ingratitude didn’t leave me without threads left to tie up, though. He told me about a nearby outpost, dilapidated but tattooed by the persistence of nature (and bandits).

The player character lifts a gloved hand in front of their first-person view, as though to protect themselves from a masked figure coming towards them in a red-lit room from STALKER 2 Image: GSC Game World

Here, I got to test STALKER 2’s gunplay, which feels closer to a military simulator than a modern shooter. Enemies don’t just run out of cover like spongy sacks of XP; the wily crew I faced preferred to outthink me with gradual flanking movements. The AI has a refreshing caginess to it, and there are no health bars, so accuracy is paramount. The guns feel nice and heavy, too, with severe kickback and lengthy reload animations.

But it was the game’s more surreal encounters that left a lasting, tantalizing impression. Close to the end of my first run, I cautiously opened a barn door to find impossible spouts of fire — Burner anomalies, it turned out — emanating from the concrete. Before I could even have the time to react, a band of buff quadrupeds with terrifying, noisy faces started lurching at me. They looked like headcrabs with a family gym pass.

Once I’d dispatched them, I quickly scanned for any equipable artifacts that could have spouted from the anomaly — the remnants of a Roadside Picnic. I couldn’t find any in this build, but you can spot them in trailers for STALKER 2, so I’m sure they’ll factor into the full game.

A close-up of the mutated, tentacle-bedecked face of a mysterious enemy in STALKER 2 Image: GSC Game World

Eventually, the “Steamed Hams” segment of my 22 Short Films About STALKER 2 reared its head as I went to loot the remnants of an old house and noticed a Bloodsucker’s invisible silhouette aberrating in the corner of my eye. What followed was a lengthy, exhilarating battle during which I had to account for its lunges and time my health injections to avoid certain death. Thankfully, I had unintentionally lured the beast toward a wandering faction of space-helmet-wearing soldiers, who helped finish it off before turning their guns on me.

I ran as far from the soldiers as I could as the sky started to burn into a beautiful burgundy, foreshadowing an imminent, deadly emission. This tide of hue dominated the environment, illuminating that I had no chance of making it to the haven of my on-screen objective. I sought shelter in a large complex, hunkering down in an unfinished office, its walls lined with checkerboard textures. But after roughly 20 minutes of compelling mini adventures, I was content to be lost to the Zone.

The spirit of the series is alive and well in STALKER 2, but despite how excited I felt after my hands-on demo, I got the impression that the game still needs more time in the oven. STALKER 2 was delayed to early 2024 during Gamescom, but I’m sure fans won’t mind waiting a little longer to get their hands on it, especially considering the unimaginable disruption to the game’s development caused by the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, where developer GSC Game World is based.

I’m fascinated by the prospect of STALKER 2 coming to Xbox Game Pass on launch, given its oppressive atmosphere and old-school immersive principles. This is a niche series that is sticking to its guns rather than adapting for a modern audience. Inevitably, the game will overwhelm some new players, or even leave a bad first impression, but the hope is that they stick around long enough to see the forest for the trees. It’s all in service of an inimitable world and an atmosphere unlike anything in a very long time.

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