Skip to main content

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2's irradiated world is dreadfully peaceful, if a bit confusing at the moment

In a sort of, "I'm going to die" way

The player character in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 lies prone, one arm raised protectively, as a black clad man in a balaclava advances with what seems to be ill intent
Image credit: GSC Game World

Devs GSC Game World are going through an unimaginably difficult time right now on top of leaks and hacker attacks. That has to be taken into account when we think about the development of the game, and it could be why, after 20-minutes spent exploring a bit of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart Of Chornobyl's irradiated world, I'm unsure what to make of it.

Maybe I played a very early build, but while the world itself looks every bit the eerie post apocalyptic survival wasteland you hope, NPC interactions aren't in as great shape. Chats with friendlies are unclear, and in firefights the enemy AI is shonky - to the extent that I think it'll be more useful as a preview to just tell you exactly what happened to me as I played.

My time with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 started with a blistered dog biting at my ankles. A friend shot it off me, and I watched it fall backwards into a rippling, see-through blob, where it exploded into bits. I'm then told by ol' matey to - now, I'm not 100% sure this is the case - chuck the screw in my hand into these killer bubbles and then leg it. So, I do what he says and then nothing really happens to said bubble. I run, but it turns out there are loads of bubbles surrounding me, so I end up leaping into one, which then propels me into another. I die. These, then, are S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s famous anomalies, weird energy pockets that frequently pop up in the Zone. They're one of, if not the, main environmental hazards in the series, and this first meeting with them in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 was confusing, especially if you're not a series veteran.

I awake unscathed from my encounter with them, which confuses me further. Either way, I'm now prompted to explore the world, so I clock a hole in a nearby wall and make my way through it. The world itself is what you'd expect from S.T.A.L.K.E.R., with no music aside from the rhythm of your boots as they squish into mud or slide through blades of grass. Tired grey buildings, dirt paths, downed helicopters: it's S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s classic pseudo-peace that can be broken at any time by the click of your Geiger counter or the scream of some horrid bandit. Despite some early jank, the world really does command your focus.

Observing an anomaly in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, a phenomenon that appears as a large, lumpy bubble in mid air
Image credit: GSC Game World
An abandoned and derelict ferris wheel in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2
Walking through a dark pine forest in S.T.A.L.K.E.R 2
Image credit: GSC Game World

I spot a fella under attack by a pack of dogs. So, like any good neighbour, I shoot the dogs with my AK47, and the heavy kick and a satisfying crunch to reloads make the weapon sing. The guy thanks me for saving him, before we go through some dialogue options and he asks me to help him clear some bandits out from a nearby soviet bloc. I oblige, checking the marker on my compass before heading over.

Unfortunately the bandits spot me immediately, so I get into some more intense shootybang. I wouldn't say the stakes were all that high, though, as the enemy AI would largely either run directly at me, or sort of hide behind cover and stay put. The only challenge lay in guys who wore kevlar vests, so I had to pop their melons instead of pepper their ribs. Still, gunplay felt alright, if a bit stilted, accompanied by the usual sliding of ammo from crates and fallen enemies into your own inventory grid of supplies.

In the last five minutes I looted a big magazine attachment for my submachine gun, but then an announcement played over the radio which said a storm was coming and I'd need to hide. I elected to stay out in the open and took in the swirling red of the sky and ominous crimson waves sweeping through the trees. Sure enough, I took loads of damage and died.

Despite a few fundamentals being in good shape, it felt like very early days for whatever version or slice of the game I'd played. And with a December release on the horizon, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned; the demo left me feeling like I was playing something due out in at least a year or so. Honestly though, it still hasn't dampened my excitement for a game that's hopefully just had a rough outing here - or at least, could use a bit more time. The devs deserve support, and whether it's out in December or not, I'll be there to give it another look.

For more of the latest news and previews from Gamescom 2023, head to our Gamescom 2023 hub. You can also find everything announced at Opening Night Live right here.

Read this next