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Hands On: Survarium

Stalk To Me

The first part of Vostok's grand post-apocalyptic shooter plan, Survarium, has now started inviting batches of sign ups to their beta. It's the multiplayer FPS portion of the game, and as such basically a test of the shooting, running about, and weapon unlocking game systems. It's an experience that will be familiar to anyone who spent time playing first-person games online in the past decade, although set in the most lavish of Ukrainian apocalypses.

So is that offering going to be strong enough to power the game through to its pseudo-Stalker co-op core? Peer into my crystal lake of toxic weirdness to find out.

I've found it helpful to begin my recent games writings by simply saying whether I liked and enjoyed what I played. It sets the tone, and your expectations. So here goes: Yes, I've really enjoyed myself. Survarium's early offering is strong. It plays well and it looks beautiful. Good things. There are moments of frustration, which I will come to in a moment, but it's a pleasing and fierce start, and one that bodes well for the future.

The game takes place across a series of maps, roughly symmetrical, onto which competing teams are unleashed to take on an opposing team in scavenging up a radio transmitter. The team that grabs the most pieces by the end of play, wins. On a personal level, you gain XP and money from playing, and can steadily buy unlocks from the shop as you rank up with various factions. XP levels you up occasionally, and you choose a very slight stat modifier each time that happens.

So far, so familiar, but I should say that the game itself is a blistering FPS. It's all small arms combat - sub-machinguns, pistols, shotguns, grenades and a few rifles - but that tightness is rewarding. It's pacey and feels expertly constructed. It's not a game that I felt punished me with shonkiness, although I feel it does need some concessions, such as a kill-cam, or just something to give you a bit more information about that's going on. (Being able to spot and mark enemies might help, too.) As a game though, it sings to my deathmatch urges: it has simply been me versus my enemies, and even with the servers being in Russia I've felt competitive. That said, there's a touch of frustration for me in there, because it is yet another game of this type which does not feature a lean function of any kind. It's exactly the kind of game that needs this sort of features, even if it would make the currently overpowered snipers even more deadly.

What also concerns me a bit is that it seems to be entirely matchmaking driven. I don't want matchmaking, I want server browser. There's an option to join games as part of a squad, which helps with getting chums into the game, but I still want more freedom and more options. I get that a lot of games run their own servers and want to control things to make the experience smoother, but I'd really like the trend of relieving players of control and choice to turn back. In this case I also assume the level-based systems make it so that high level characters will mince the newbies, but it still does work against making me want to stay.

(Another, very minor, oddity is that there's no way to rearm. It seems as if the game needs to force people to play a support role or something, because a number of times I stayed alive long enough to simply run out of ammo. And then I just had to die. Odd.)

A counter-point to these annoyances is the sheer beauty of the thing. Yes, we've all fallen hopelessly in love with ruined wastelands before, but this really is exceptional. And it's the first time in a couple of years I've looked at my graphics card and known the poor thing is soon destined for my Dad's PC. Survarium at full whack is a beast, and a beautiful beast, and beautiful excuse to buy another fresh wad of roaring silicon. Oh yes, the map designs and large, lavish, and swamped with horrible detail. It's exactly where I want to be fighting, and if the free-roaming parts of the game look anything like this then it's going to be a marvel.

Things are made even more interesting by there being toxic or poisoned areas on the map, which you'll need special equipment to go into. If you've forked out on survival equipment and you're able to flank enemies who are only equipped with nice warm jumpers, there's a distinct advantage to be had.

All in all this is a strong, broad start. What this is not, however, is the part of Survarium is which actually interesting. Because the truth is that I have played many, many competent and pretty multiplayer FPS games in recent months/years. I've enjoyed them, of course, but I haven't stuck around. Some of them have been free to play, and others not. Survarium lies somewhere between Warface and the Tripwire games in both its delivery and its execution, which means that it's relatively unusual, but also looking at competition from both crowds. As a straight up multiplayer shooter - which is all that's available now - it's not going to stand out from the many extraordinarily well-featured FPS games we now have available to us. The level-based stats improvement and unlock system are quite a familiar thing now, so fiddling about in inventory world (and having to make sure you are well dressed and armed for your fight) comes as no surprise.

That said, perhaps the sheer desire for this world and setting, as well as the seemingly limitless enthusiasm of East European markets for brutal hardcore FPS games, will see it through. I hope so, because it's a game I want to see grow and mature.

In conclusion: it's promising. And I say promising now not because I expect this PvP part of the game to become a shining gem, but rather that it might be indicative of the quality of the as-yet-unseen freeplay and co-op game modes which Vostok have said will arrive at a later date. That quality could be enormously high. I just hope that they've done this the right way around. Surely it was wise to create a proof of concept their tech and combat mechanics in a straightforward game mode like this, but I hope that it doesn't find itself foundering in competitive waters before it gets to the stuff that genuinely makes the Survarium world an exciting prospect.

I try not to say the S-word too much, but if Vostok's game does emerge as an online successor to the Stalker games, then they will have achieved much. Stalker, of course, had a multiplayer component too, but it was never that part of the game which truly captured our imaginations.

You can sign up for Survarium now, but getting in is an ongoing process.

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Jim Rossignol