Premature Evaluation: Survarium

Survarium may be one of several games claiming to be a spiritual successor to STALKER, but it offers one substantial twist: the apocalypse that has swept the earth is not one instigated by nuclear catastrophe; instead, the Earth’s very own flora has rebelled, wreaking ecological revenge upon humanity for its many crimes against the natural world. It’s the latest intriguing shift in the deployment of Soviet-era sci-fi motifs that have come to parallel the resonances that Godzilla has in Japan. Both are emblematic of the nuclear catastrophes that each culture has suffered and the overweening pride that impels humankind to create such forces of devastation, believing it can control them.

Each week, Marsh Davies stalks through the reality-warping anomaly of Early Access and comes back with any stories he can find and/or gets turned inside out by a pocket of non-euclidean space. This week’s precious artifact is free-to-play online shooter Survarium, in which the remnants of humanity tussle over abandoned radar stations and chemical plants, long reclaimed by nature (and other, less natural phenomena).

It’s to Survarium’s credit that I want to play a lot more of it. Alas, after a handful of hours, the game data corrupts and subsequent attempts at reinstallation are consistently halted by a recursive nightmare of error messages which can only be broken by pouring a half-pint of lamb’s blood onto my keyboard and calling forth the hissing spirit of Task Manager to devour the process in question. Survarium is not a finished game, then. But, being supported by a somewhat unalluring muddle of microtransactable trousers and gasmasks, neither has it cost me a penny. All the same, after this brief encounter, I am left wondering: how much less unfinished is this since Jim looked at it a year ago?

So firmly have the STALKER games established The Zone as an explicitly nuclear peril that it’s possible to forget that their source materials - The Roadside Picnic, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1971 novel, and its film adaptation as Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979 - both predate and uncannily foreshadow the Chernobyl disaster. In the book, the Zones are rendered dangerous by the detritus unthinkingly left behind by aliens during a brief and unexplained stopover on Earth, like careless campers (hence the title). Tarkovsky’s brilliant film is less explicit about the origins and you can't help but see parallels between the unseeable pockets of death that mark the abandoned, lushly overgrown Zone and the invisible, lethal, lurking radiation that remains in Chernobyl’s own 'zone of alienation' around the carcass of Reactor Number 4.

Somewhere, in the cloisters of Vostok Games, we are told that co-operative story-driven missions and an online survival gametype with large free-roaming levels are still being forged – tantalising promises given the team’s heritage with the unsurpassably atmospheric STALKER series. This Early Access release, however, remains PVP only for the time being, and of the three modes (two of which you must unlock by levelling up) Team Deathmatch is the only one that ever seems to successfully matchmake a game. Even then, it has trouble finding games with folk of equivalent level, which is a little dismaying given that my starting character’s grubby quilted jacket has all the protective qualities of a wishful thought, and the intimidating grind of the game’s skill-tree means that he can’t even draw up his iron-sights with any particular enthusiasm.

My higher-level opponents, however, can aim faster, move faster while aiming and absorb more bullets. Premium-purchased guns also offer marginally better lethality. But, actually, such disparities only feel egregiously unfair during an incautious exchange of gunfire at close quarters. Positioning and forethought are still your most deadly weapons here, and a well-placed double-tap still drops a foe, regardless of their level. Combat is harsh and final, bullets tearing the air in cruel, fricative bursts. In some respects, it feels a lot like one of my favourite online shooters: Red Orchestra – not a game about intense competition, twitch skills or scoreboards so much as it is about the aesthetic of violence in a forbidding land, of squirming through mud and ruination, of putting a piece of metal into the fragile body of a man and watching him crumple, knowing that your life may be ended in a similarly vicious, meaningless shock at any moment. Even if you survive a bullet wound in Survarium, without a bandage to hand you may simply stumble a few feet and bleed out all the same. It’s bleak as fuck. I love it.

Even if the film predates the Chernobyl disaster by seven years, Tarkovsky was certainly cognisant of the deadly effect of such unseen forces, and his films exude a cynicism of humankind’s ability to corral such power for its own ends. In Stalker, three men set out on a quest for the Room, an anomaly said to grant its visitors their heart’s desire. But in this film, as in his earlier, even greater film, Solyaris, the characters entirely fail to understand what their own desires are or really deal with the consequences of having them made manifest. My favourite quote from Solyaris emphasises the arrogance of human endeavour, delivered by a despondent, half-mad and drunken Russian scientist: 'We have no ambition to conquer any cosmos,' he says. 'We just want to extend the Earth up to the cosmos's borders. We don't want any more worlds. Only a mirror to see our own in.'

Survarium captures this brutality, hopelessness and forlorn beleaguered humanity, partly through the gruesome digitality of its combat, but also through incredible level dressing. Cavernous domed structures of some unknown industrial purpose now lie imploded in a sea of grass; a decaying Orthodox church folds in upon itself by the banks of a misty hollow; a colossal statue rises above the twisting trees that skirt the edges of an immense flaming crater. The environments offer an enrapturing sprawl of dereliction, alternately fantastic and intensely credible. Their routes and ways hard to parse, their mysteries begging to be probed and charted – but with caution: the catastrophe that razed civilisation has left in its wake lethal pits of radiation and other strange and alarming phenomena that warp the landscape, rendering areas impassable without the right equipment.

Rarely do these places give any sense of contrivance or design that might betray them as a multiplayer map. It’s unfortunate, then, that they are multiplayer maps – a purpose that both trivialises the environmental realisation and fits them rather awkwardly. (Testament to this is how remarkably ugly the game looks in these screenshots – it’s actually extremely beautiful, but hard to take in and appreciate without having your brainpan shattered.) “This map is weird,” says one player in chat, while trying to comprehend how best to circumvent the bulbous outcrops and irradiated warrens of Mamayev Kurgan, below the baleful gaze of The Motherland Calls. “Yeeeaaah,” sighs another in resignation, probably while slipping down an escarpment to his death. Enemies and allies swarm over the mounds and through its collapsing tunnels with no real sense of direction or purpose, occasionally falling foul of a noxious green haze in its lower parts, or finding themselves funnelled into a peculiarly linear killzone. All of which – the disorientation, the hazard, the alarming asymmetry – feels thrilling and artful. It’s just that the gametype offers a suboptimal means to experience these things.

You might say that’s as much a problem with science-fiction as it is with human endeavour: so much of it is a callow reflection of our present, only with more spandex and funny latex foreheads, that it fails to explore the possibility offered by the entirety of The Future and Space. Solyaris ingeniously epitomises that Russian scientist’s criticism and, in recognising it, simultaneously defies it, using the most ambitious cosmic canvas to deliver transcendent revelation on the nature of human experience, of consciousness, sentience and our own tendency to introspection itself. It really is quite a good film.

Other maps introduce an opposite but equal friction: instead of being unwieldy, broad or indistinct, they are narrow and trammelled, bringing the two teams to collide repeatedly in the same messy conflagration. A team that’s quick off the mark might rush the other’s spawn point, and simply gun them down every time they materialise. Even avoiding this indignity, it’s rare that a match starts without one of your own teammates shooting you instantly. In the last year of iteration, you might hope that such burrs would have been buffed smooth. And yet, even such core tenets like weapon balance seem to have received little attention. I figured I might play a rifleman, squirming through undergrowth to plug foes unseen from a lonesome hillock. But this strategy, and indeed the weapon, feels rather pointless: an uzi has nearly the same accuracy as your bolt action rifle and a rate of fire that easily compensates for its slightly lower stopping power. And while you can crouch, there’s no prone posture here, so snipers are easily exposed.

Presumably these facts help to mitigate the irritation of being repeatedly zapped by unseen campers. Jim suggested in his last article that it’d be nice to have a kill-cam or a way to mark enemies, though I slightly disagree: I find that dying to an unexpected shot to be an acceptable risk given the setting’s sense of vérité, but perhaps Suvarium might make the compromise of revealing enemies on the minimap when they run or shoot in your proximity. In any case, the threat of death should in theory demand a degree of stealth, forcing players to use the environment to flank potential sniper-nests. Such tactical thinking was not apparent from my teammates’ behaviour, admittedly – with most players running at each other, spraying wildly. Perhaps a gametype with limited respawns, or none at all, would engender the sort of precise, tense action that would flatter the level-design and potent gunplay.

Okay, it’s probably my favourite film of all time, actually - and it’s well worth enduring its glacial pace. I don’t totally hate Soderbergh’s English-language remake, but the original makes it look like child trying to copy a Caravaggio with nothing but half a potato and a bowl of ketchup. My second favourite film is the often-compared 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tarkovsky apparently disliked Kubrick's take on things, but they are really very complementary investigations of similar themes. Amongst other points, both films feature golems of sorts, struggling with their own sentience. 2001’s self-aware computer, HAL, is condemned for his artificiality against his will, while those of Solyaris are tormented and driven to self-destruction by the knowledge of their own artificiality. It’s heart-rending, and beautiful and make u think. AND you can watch it online, for free along with a bunch of other Tarkovsky films: http://www.openculture.com/2010/07/tarkovksy.html

Through simply being less of an idiot than my colleagues, I managed to remain near the top of the scoreboards, despite being notably under-equipped compared to my kevlar-clad opponents. When all’s said and done, I don’t think the free-to-play economy here produces any hugely disastrous “pay-to-win” power disparities between players: though you may have to shoot an enemy twice before he shoots you, bullets remain so lethal that there’s not a huge spectrum of power in which to create imbalance and the matchmaking should eventually level the playing-field further. But the economics of free-to-play nonetheless introduce a chilling effect: in order to keep players hooked, the game trickles out reward through miserly grind and busywork. While your ammunition replenishes between deaths, other consumables do not. Bandages, grenades or radiation meds have to be continuously bought from the store and shuffled across inventory screens between matches. It’s tedious and feels like it was designed only as an irritant, keeping players in a state of continuous unfulfillment that they’ll want to escape – but probably never can – by opening their wallets.

All of this amounts to a disappointing team deathmatch game, but an enticing base on which to build other, more subtle game modes which better reward consideration and exploration – which is apparently exactly what Vostok are doing. Some of these already exist even within PVP: there’s a mode in which the teams compete to locate and steal batteries, and a territory domination gametype. But after several twenty-minute-long attempts at matchmaking, I have yet to see these. Assuming I can ever reinstall the game, I am eager to do so – and yet more eager for the pensive PVE modes Vostok have under development. If this article has been rather glum about the game as it’s played currently, then I must again emphasise the wonder of the world in which it’s set. Those places call me back, even if I have to experience them amid the chaotic thrash of team multiplayer. They deserve better than that endless cascade of death, though. Such vivid and mysterious spaces demand to be lived within, if only for a time.

Survarium is available from Steam and is free-to-play. Microtransactions exist for both cosmetic items and stuff that affects gameplay, but only a negligible amount – to the extent that I doubt I would ever be particularly enticed to buy any of it. I played the version available on 16/04/2015 before the game data committed suicide.

28 Comments

  1. SominiTheCommenter says:

    Once again, I read all the alt-text and now to the article proper.
    Solyaris is really great.

    • Premium User Badge

      Waltorious says:

      Solyaris is indeed a great film. For those who enjoy it I highly recommend finding and reading the novel upon which the film is based, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. Then, go and read anything else by Lem you can find. His work is amazing.

      • gummybearsliveonthemoon says:

        Whoa. I am so so glad someone pointed out the alt text. I skimmed the article because as much as I was looking forward to Survarium, the knowledge that it’s just MP right now made me kinda give up on it, and therefore the article.

        But any discussion of Solaris, my favorite novel(la) of all time, and of Tarkovsky’s cinematic genius, I’m down for that. Stalker is just… beautiful. Beautiful quiet imagery of decay.

  2. Veldzhes says:

    Fear not, fellow RPSer! You will not need to type this long URL from the last screenshot’s alt-text yourself, for i am here to save your bleeding fingers in the name of Culture.
    Ahem.
    link to openculture.com

    • vahnn says:

      Thanks!

      I strongly suggest everyone using Chrome to discover, learn, and love the Right-Click > Inspect Element feature. =D

  3. April March says:

    I can’t believe you shortened ‘you’ to ‘u’, Marsh. Are we not men?

  4. Stevostin says:

    Team Deathmatch are mandatory for ten first games which mean that you get a lot of those in your 100 first games. Vostok made this because too much noob would ruin other modes else. At least first they get the ropes on basic modes now before learning the other modes, which indeed are neat, especially find the battery and research.

    It’s an awesome game if you ask me. Very nervous, very unforgiving. The preview above fail to state the essential: compared to every other FPS, it’s the more “hide’n’seek” of all, though it’s not to say it’s a sniper fest (pretty far from it). Important, if you loose, don’t blame gear: it’s either randomness of matchmaking (80% of the cases) or you. Gear does little within a 6 gear level bracket. Same goes for player level withing a 20 level bracket. Just improve and stop whining :P

  5. Tomo says:

    Have to say, I disagree with a lot of the points in this article.

    I downloaded it for the first time last week, so I have no experience of it’s progression since Jim played it.

    I expected a horribly unoptimised, buggy mess as the old STALKER games weren’t exactly polished. To my surprise, I’ve had very few issues with this. The main problem is that from double clicking the Survarium icon on my desktop, it takes literally 5-10 minutes to load. I’ve no idea why, but I expect it’s my creaking PC and beta code. Aside from this, I’ve had no crashes or in-game weirdness of note.

    The match-making has also been excellent for me, although I’ve only tried TDM so far. I’ve rarely been faced with opponents carrying enormous weapons, which was a fear of mine.

    I also disagree that the rifle is more ineffective than the automatics. I have two preset characters, one rifle carrier, one with an Uzi. I tend to lean towards the rifle of anything. From distance, the automatics are awful. The rifles can reach across the entire map on some levels. It can promote camping, but equally it makes for an interesting dynamic because players on the front-line need to keep in cover at all times otherwise they easily get picked off. Something I personally love to do!

    The levels are the best thing about the game. They are beautiful and expertly designed – a real mix of close quarters firefights and ranged combat and tactical flanking. The anomalies are great too, but I would like to see them implemented further into the levels. One anomaly is used brilliantly whereby it is a massive transparent cloud that refracts the light, so you really have to look closely to see and shoot people through it. It’s a really nice unique touch.

    I think a kill-cam is a terrible idea. This is not Call of Duty. The whole point of Survarium is to survive, through carefully creeping through the undergrowth and sharper shooting than others. Any sense of where you shot someone from would ruin this. You’d immediately be a target once they respawn and it would preclude a survivalist playstyle.

    The spawn camping can be annoying, I agree. A solution to this would be to have spawn areas where the enemy can’t access. Some levels do employ this, and they are better for it.

    I find the free-to-play elements generally fine. I don’t wish to buy any of the equipment that’s unavailable to me. And I disagree with your assessment of the home screen – I like tinkering with my character, upgrading his weapons, giving him perks, seeing what new gear I’ve unlocked once I’ve levelled-up. In fact, I’d go as far to say that I enjoy the RPG elements you have to do. I enjoy trying to reach the achievements, get 5 headshots, help your team to win X matches etc. Once the level is over, it’s always exciting seeing if I’ve edged into the next rank of Stalker, to see what goodies I’ll get.

    I don’t mean to piss on your chips Marsh – I just want to give folks another point of view. I loved STALKER – all three of them – and I was disappointed when I found out Survarium was going to be an online shooter, and free-to-play to boot. But, this has really maintained my attention and I urge people to give it a go if they like STALKER or want a good online manshoot.

    • Stevostin says:

      There is no blocked spawn camp although there are some invulnerability zones (turned to invulnerability timer on spawn in TDM). Spawn camp is simply unavoidable in case one team dominate the other outrageously. That being said in case of TDM it doesn’t even need that and the game is actually clearly designed to make spawn attack/defense interesting. Now of course in noob games spawn camped tend to run outside like headless chickens death after death. At higher level though it can turn to a Fort Alamo configuration and can indeed be super fun.

    • phelix says:

      I find the free-to-play elements generally fine. I don’t wish to buy any of the equipment that’s unavailable to me.

      • phelix says:

        From a business perspective, this means the F2P incentives don’t work, or don’t work well enough.

        (forgive the double reply, lack of edit button yadda yadda)

        • DrollRemark says:

          This is what I find really odd about the F2P models. The games that are always said to “do it well” by people online are the ones that apparently don’t make them want to spend money. Do they realise that the game they’re enjoying is probably unsustainable if they don’t spend any money on it?

          • jonahcutter says:

            My understanding of the basic economics of F2P is that the whales provide the lion’s share of the funding. Players willing to drop a *lot* of money, even on purely aesthetic items.

            But to attract those probably requires a healthy, active playerbase. Which in turn requires a welcoming atmosphere to many who want to spend very little or nothing.

          • smisk says:

            I’m not sure if I’d agree with that. I think that the Free to play games that “do it well” are the ones in which you don’t have to buy anything to be competitive and enjoy the game. This doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t want to.
            Look at Dota 2. As far as I know the only items sold for real money are cosmetics, and it’s one of the most popular games in the world so I’m sure there are plenty of people spending money on it. League of Legends and SMITE also seem to do really well and have what most people consider to be fair business models.
            Hopefully at some point other genres can learn to be as successful at F2P games while still having a balanced economic system.

  6. Monggerel says:

    “It’s the latest intriguing shift in the deployment of Soviet-era sci-fi motifs that have come to parallel the resonances that Godzilla has in Japan. Both are emblematic of the nuclear catastrophes that each culture has suffered and the overweening pride that impels humankind to create such forces of devastation, believing it can control them.”

    I do believe that this is mostly the legacy of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games and Metro 2033 here, as they were the ones that relocated the “Zone” to the actual one (that is, the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation) and World War III respectively.
    The model here is the Strugatsky Brothers’ book, Roadside Picnic (1971) as well as its more famous film adaptation by Andrei Tarkovsky, STALKER (1979). Whose production the Strugatskys were involved with. Both are, of course, from before the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The ravages of nuclear power are not specifically relevant to either story, though the general desolation of Soviet industrialisation, both in the world and in the culture and the mental realities of people, are central. As is Communism’s wholesale intellectual slaughter of religion (broadly) and faith (personally).
    Matter of fact, faith and belief in general are probably more important to these stories than actually reconciling the physical fallout of history. A desolate Bible for the Soviet waste. The Binding of Isaac in particular is always engaged in some fashion in these stories.
    “These stories” being stories of “Zoneology”, since The Zone is the universal constant. Even Metro 2033 has it in Moscow.

  7. Dorga says:

    Is it possible to read alt text on mobile? Everybody is always talking about it, but from my phone I can’t read and I don’t have a computer in this period…

    • bill says:

      I don’t think there is, although it might depend on your mobile browser. You’d think that long pressing on the image would give you some kind of option, but it doesn’t seem to.

      I wholly support funny/weird alt texts as a logn standing RPS tradition, but it’s a shame that there’s no way to see them on mobile as I tend to read a large amount of sites on my phone these days.

      In theory, it’d be possible for the RPS website design to show the alt text when accessed by a mobile device, but that’d take coding on their side. (and since they still haveb’t managed to get the login page to redirect back to the post you were reading AFTER SEVEN+ YEARS! I wouldn’t hold out much hope. )

      SIDE NOTE ON WEB DESIGN: Actually, they should be using the TITLE attribute for stuff like this, as the ALT attribute is for accessibility and is supposed to describe the image in the event it isn’t displayed. TITLE is for whatever you want. Browsers that follow the standards are supposed to show the TITLE attribute on mouseover, not the ALT one. Though some may show the ALT if the title doesn’t exist. I haven’t tested all browsers recently so I don’t know what they’re each doing these days.

    • ffordesoon says:

      A long press on the images shows the alt-text on my iDevices. It’s right above the Save Image/Copy popup menu.

      Dunno if that helps.

  8. jingies says:

    For anyone curious, the statue in the screenshots is real. It’s ‘The Motherland Calls’ in Volgograd.

    link to en.wikipedia.org

  9. Holysheep says:

    Lots of missing important info here IMO.

    1 – The weapons are indeed very lethal. The starting mosin nagant will kill you in either 1 or 2 shots most of the time. The moving pace is slow, but the maps allows some hiding potential. It’s a bit close to stalker in terms of movements. HOWEVER you’ll find that a leaning feature lacks terribly, when slowly moving very powerful, long rifles slowly around corners.
    The feeling, however, is nice. Weapons have proper feelings, you’re really not shooting the nerf guns from Crysis.

    2 – The starting character is pretty much my idea of a civilian with a rifle. Takes multiple seconds to switch to another firearms, reloading times are long, aims not really good, can’t run very fast, can’t throw very far… All of this is changed and made better through a skill tree that remains realistic. Skills won’t make you bullet proofs but you’ll gain better stability, better accuracy when shooting from the hip, and so on. Some greyed out (for now) skill trees hint that there will be more when the free mode is available (survival and suchlike.)

    3 – While optimization isn’t fully done, I guess, the game runs generally between 80-90 FPS on a GTX 780, i7 4770k and 8 gigs of ram. I installed it on a HDD, I still load fast enough. However framerate can drop below 60 (sometimes down to 40) when you’re in anomalies, with all the volumetrical smoke effects and suchlike. In terms of stability, it’s hit and miss. I didn’t find any bugs and the general experience is cool and polished for me, EXPECT some days I will get up to 6 crash to desktop, and somedays none and feel like I’m playing a finished PVP game.

    4 – The graphics aren’t extremely wonderful but everything is still very detailed. Some stuff is pretty, STALKER style. Ambience is neat, especially for a multiplayer game.

    5 – Another problem is the spawnkilling. You are protected for 5 seconds or so, then you can pretty much get killed right out of your spawn because the entire enemy team camps it. It’s not as bad as in some games but it’s sometimes a bother.

    6 – FOV can’t be changed. Sometimes it’s a bother in close environments.

    7 – Game isn’t pay to win. Currently I have like 50 000 … coins or whatever that is, and the best sniper I can get for my level is worth 17 000. I don’t feel restricted at all. Some cosmetical stuff is restricted to real money (Flag of your country, coat of arms, etc). I kill people who paid for stuff like I kill the rest.

    In the end, I pretty much fucking love it. This game really rewards good players, And when you go a bit high in the matchmaking you find some challenging opponents. There’s ballistics, and a lot of long range kills, but don’t worry too much about that, SMGs and such are still reliable if you don’t wander in the open too much and play fast. I really can’t wait for the free mode.

  10. Dorga says:

    thank you both, I’ll just wait to have a pc at my disposal :)

  11. Mellifico says:

    This is “Tarkovski” and not “Tarkovsky“, ok!?!

  12. Cvnk says:

    Woah. “Fricative”. Now there’s a word I haven’t seen in a long time. Nice.