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Premature Evaluation: Survarium

Chernobyl intentions

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.

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Marsh Davies