Last week I finally got a chance to meet two heroes of the Stalker years, Joe Mullin and Oleg Yavorsky, who are now working hard as Vostok on the free-to-play shooter, Survarium. There's an immediate tension when you mention the F word, and I think the legacy that resides in Survarium means that Vostok have to go that extra mile to prove themselves. Good looking shooters with a touch of persistence are becoming increasingly common in this new era. That said, Survarium is looking promising, and I was fascinated to see the game in play for the first time.
It's my feel that the popularity of Survarium will be a slow upward curve, that will increase dramatically once the game reaches its open world objective. Until then it seems to me that it will be catering to audiences that are already well served in the free-to-play zone. What I mean is this: the initial Survarium offering is going to be PvP matches in which players fight for control of artifacts across a large map. These maps are beautiful indeed, and capture much of the “zone of alienation” atmosphere that we so love. However, there are a lot of multiplayer combat games out there and this one – with its guns and men in gas masks – has some work to do to stand out.
Mullin explained to me that the alpha version of the PvP game would likely be launching into Europe in a few weeks, and that it is already being played in Russia. It would be a beta version of PvP by end of year. There's a richness to this that does beckon to me: skill trees which later unlock perks, which allow for character specialisation. These systems might be to do with firearms, or they might be to do with electronics. “You are going to want a collection of specialists,” explained Mullin. “You need a guy who is able to collect artifacts, and someone who will who will be able to really deal with a stand up fight, a marksman, a medic.” Like an MMO party then? “Something like that, but obviously skewed to our shooter mechanics,” he says.
Mullin shows me the moody-looking bunker in which missions will kick off – right now just launching into PvP games – and it's looking incredibly lavish. Players can get at their skills and their inventories out here, and of course the shop. Most of the things you can buy are meta-bonuses, increasing XP take and so forth for the “real” unlock. Yavorsky describes these as “benefits and time savers, but nothing that locks off playable game content.” There will of course be a bunch of vanity items for the characters, and even faction outfits, which will benefit you as the game develops. Play dressed as a particular faction – just the Scavengers and the Black Market exist for now – and you'll get more missions from them as the game opens up.
Next year, once this PvP mode is a “complete package” Vostok will move to work on their co-op mode. “I've always wanted to play...” I didn't know if I should finished the sentence, but Mullin completed it for me: “Stalker in co-op, yeah.” Using the same characters that players have brushed up in PvP, there will be co-operative missions in the zone. Missions that you'll be able to undertake for the various factions. These are going to be a sequence with some kind of story, and will feed some of what people like me always yearned for when playing the original Stalker. They're going to be tied into the kind of things you get up to on behalf the zone's factions, and as you gain reputation with them, you will open up more options when dealing with them. Tantalising stuff, and doubtless starting to appeal to the Stalker community that already exists.
Mullin launched into a PvP game and ran around a couple of the meticulously detailed maps. Vostok's level design flare is in evidence, immediately. It's a new engine, built specifically for the requirements of the project, and it certainly looks capable. It also looks like Vostok have gone with the kind of more wild fantasy aspects that began to emerge in Call Of Pripyat, where the terrain and flora, not just the beasts and atmosphere, were being mutated by the forces at play. A giant, aberrant tree has twisted itself around a looming radio telescope on this first map, and the entire thing hulks above the battleground. Mullin clambered the tree before being picked off and plunging to his near-death.
It demonstrated the hit-locative injury system the game will use: both legs down means you're on the ground. One leg would just be a limp, and other body parts are similar affected. A headshot means death, but a helmet will save you from the first hit.
The combat looks pacey, and violent. It's not realism as such, but close enough. With the skill system and a wide range of weapons it could make for a terrifyingly unpredictable experience. Yavorsky and Mullin both acknowledged that the technical hurdles of networking for a game like this remain a challenge, but the closed alpha they're currently plugging away at is a test lab for such issues, and they were confident these would fade with time.
Would they – though – be able to support modding? Because it was that sustained support that had kept their previous game so alive. To some extent, says Yavorsky, with skins and things like that, but this is a very different game. What they allow in terms of modding – and they do want to allow it, and open up the UI and so on to user modication – will have to not alter the core of the game, which Vostok themselves want to keep in balance. It'll be interesting to see how they handle that, especially as the other two paths of the game materialise.
Returning to that roadmap, then, and my feelings about Survarium's long term appeal: once co-op is packaged up, then it will be on to the final, and most ambitious act of Survarium's development. It is that this point, I think, that we should expect the widest interest for the game. And I can see why Vostok would want to save the best (and toughest to develop) for last.
Yavorsky explains that the final maps – those of Survarium's freeplay mode, a sandbox open world in which teams of players will be able to decide their own paths, do missions, and encounter other players in the zone – will be “many times the size of what you have seen before”, suggesting an ambition to create a multiplayer world of dereliction and decay that dwarfs what we saw in the Stalker games. We'll be able to hook up with a friend, and hike off into anomaly-riddled horrors, to fight and outwit bandits that have human players behind them. I hope with all my heart that these guys can pull it off. It seems like a long dark road they're going to have to walk, but it also seems like the place they're going to with this game could be anything but derelict.
Seems like the sort of thing we do.
Survarium's beta should be available by the end of 2013.