Open world post-apocalyptic shooter sequel Stalker 2: Heart of Chornobyl is as brutal as it is buggy. Here’s our hands-on preview:
At this point, it feels impossible to think about Stalker 2 without also considering the challenging (to put it mildly) conditions of its development. Game dev is already hard, but making a game while your country is also fighting an ongoing invasion? It’s frankly a miracle to even get to play a tiny slice of the game.
Even though Ukraine-based developer GSC Game World relocated a sizable portion of its team to Prague last year in order to continue work safely, it has also encountered a range of other setbacks, from cyber attacks to an office fire that reportedly destroyed its backup servers. In other words, when I go to play the first hands-on of the post-apocalyptic open world shooter, I’m prepared to be more considerate and forgiving of any bumps I might encounter. But then this is also Stalker, set in a world that is anything but forgiving.
It begins with your player character waking up and not in the best of health: you open your eyes to discover a rabid mutated dog gnawing on your leg. Then your pistol jams when you attempt to get the beast off you. Fortunately, you’re able to kick the mutt away, which sees it flying into the air and caught by a gravity anomaly that crushes it to pieces. All of this is just a first-person cutscene with no interactivity on my part, but it’s still a hell of an introduction to the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone.
Once I’m free to let loose and explore this gruelling yet hauntingly beautiful post-apocalyptic landscape for myself, there are some issues to deal with, however. I’ve gotten used to FPS demos on PC being configured for controller as well as mouse and keyboard, so as a predominantly console player, I was somewhat dismayed that the current build for Stalker 2 was only available using the latter. This series is already known to be brutal, so it feels like I might be hamstrung by a control interface I’m less used to. Still, given PC users claim how much more accurate aiming with a mouse is, you would assume I’d have some advantage. Perhaps it was the mouse not being on an optimal surface, but for me, aiming felt less than smooth, a situation hardly helped when I encountered more mutant dogs (it’s always the dogs) that moved around erratically.
The dogs were the least of my worries, however. Even in this short, 15-minute demo, there’s a degree of freedom to wander in different directions around the Zone, though you’re constantly in danger of wandering into irradiated environments you’re not equipped to endure, as you’re alerted by the nauseating click of your Geiger counter, or maybe another anomaly that will do to you what it did to that dog at the beginning.
Worse than the hazardous environments is when, having evidently gotten ahead of myself, I encounter another wasteland mutant – this one resembles Half-Life’s head crabs, which with next to no warning rushes at me. A few seconds later, I’m dead. Either this was an overpowered enemy that’s meant to one-shot me as punishment for wandering too far off the main path, or I’d not been paying attention to my health and what else might have caused it to go down. In any case, there wasn’t time to find out as at this point the demo suffered a crash, meaning I had to restart the demo with that dog on my leg once again. (Fortunately, I was also allowed to reset my hands-on time.)
With that in mind, I attempt another direction, maybe somewhere a little less threatening. This time I explore an abandoned area where a couple of other stalkers have already met their demise, which allows me to search them for loot in peace. That was of course to just ease me in before I actually have to take on proper human enemies – some bandits that have taken over a scrapyard that was once a stalker camp. As I soon learn, walking right up to them spells immediate doom.
Not only does weapon damage have a brutal realism – a headshot means instant death, and you can also easily get flanked. Meanwhile, there’s little in the way of UI or radar to help you with your bearings. As it turns out, I try so hard getting a good aim on one bandit firing from inside the scrapyard that I’m oblivious to a mate of his that has been behind me the whole time, taking shots at me. By the time I realise, it’s already too late.
The checkpoints are at least generous enough that I can try again while still seeing the camp in view, so I go for a stealthier approach by trying to flank them while crouched. It only takes one enemy to spot me, however, before the others are also alerted. Or maybe not quite; as I try to inch around the perimeter, I notice one of the bandits hasn’t come out to find me – I instead find his gun poking out through the fence. Although that should have given me an advantage, my undoing this time isn’t just a case of bad aim, but running out of ammo before the fire fight is even over. Once again, I’m dead.
At this point, time is almost running out of my demo, but third time’s a charm: I manage to overcome the camp simply because, after skulking around it for a few minutes, I realise that it’s completely empty. That bug means I also haven’t technically completed the objective of clearing the camp of hostiles, but no matter – I just have to press on. Although as you might expect, it doesn’t get any easier as the demo concludes with me not only being chased by mutant dogs but also trying to find shelter from a sudden electrical storm. Seeing the blood red sky and lightning is yet another terrible beauty of a sight before I eventually find a safehouse that sees a masked stranger pulling me in before the demo cuts to black.
It wasn’t the most optimal way I would have liked to have made my first visit to the Zone, but despite some notable bugs, Stalker 2 does succeed in conveying its brutal post-apocalyptic atmosphere. You also have to commend GSC’s openness to sharing its work with the public, warts and all.
With the game already having gone a long and troubled development cycle, let’s hope the studio gets all the time it needs to complete it as best it can. Stalker fans have waited a long time already; they can surely wait a little longer.
Stalker 2: Heart of Chornobyl releases on PC, Xbox Series X/S and Xbox Game Pass in Q1 2024.