While S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl is still several months away I sat with a preview build of the game at Gamescom in Cologne. It provided me with the opportunity to test some of the mechanics and see what appears to be the beginning of the story.
While drinking a much-needed Non-Stop energy drink (yes it exists, and it's even pretty good) I found myself waking up in the middle of nowhere with a mutated dog obviously intent on using my leg as dinner. That wasn't the end of my problems either as I was also surrounded by anomalies.
With a swift kick to the dog (I know, I'm sorry) I was able to make it barrel into the anomalies giving myself some breathing room. At that point a mysterious and rather talkative stranger threw me a bolt which I could use to get out of the predicament.
Exoploring S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl
If you're not familiar with the series, Anomalies are environmental hazards that you can find in the Zone (the setting of the franchise) in the form of distorted space.
At least those present in the demo I played will tear you (or anyone else) to shreds, and throwing a bolt into them will reset them temporarily and let you run through. You definitely have to be quick though. There is some level of suspension of disbelief required as it appears that you have infinite supply of bolts.
After breaking free of my predicament I was set out into the Zone armed with only a few hints from the stranger mentioned above on what to do next. I don't know whether the final game will be the same, but there was absolutely zero hand-holding in the demo I played, which I quite enjoyed.
It's also worth mentioning that I was loaded with guns, likely for the purpose of testing them. I highly suspect this won't happen when you wake up in that ditch in the final game. You're likely to have only a handgun and no ammo (as trying and failing to shoot the dog proves).
The environment of the Zone is a dangerous place outside of the Anomalies too. There's plenty of radiation so you better be ready to change direction when your Geiger counter start clicking. I notice that water also appears to be rather lethal.
After reaching a village, I rescued a pair of locals who were being attacked by more dogs and was told about a building overrun by enemies.
During the dialogue, my character appeared to be very eager to take them on, so I did just that (but as far as I could sumrise, you don't need to). This was an excellent excuse to test out the variety of guns in my possession and the enemy AI.
After that, a radio transmission warned me of the arrival of an Emission (a powerful environmental phenomenon that S.T.A.L.K.E.R veterans will be familiar with).
The sky turned ominously red as the Eldritch storm approached. I managed to take refuge into a small cave which saved me from being obliterated before the demo ended.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl Initial Thoughts
While my time with the game was fairly brief, it certainly provided me with a chance to get an impression on a few of its elements and quirks. First of all, if you're a veteran of the series, you'll definitely feel right at home. Its most iconic elements are returning and the wheel isn't being reinvented.
The demo was certainly rough around the edges in some areas, and it was quite easy to understand why GSC Game World decided to delay the game to Q1 2024.
We obviously shouldn't forget that this title is being developed in Ukraine. Creating a massive game in a country that is suffering from a criminal and brutal invasion among air raid sirens and blackouts, isn't exactly what I'd consider a walk in the park.
The developers are certainly doing the right thing in taking their time to polish their baby.
The Zone Is Still Foreboding but Beautiful in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl
One of the elements that certainly needs work is the character models, which weren't very fetching in the build I tried. On top of that, voice acting and animations were visibly unfinished.
The environments however were really lovely to witness. GSC Game World did a great job in capturing the eerie beauty of a Zone devastated by both man and nature and applying contemporary visual glitz to it.
I found myself using some of the time I had with the demo simply looking around and enjoying the vistas (even at the price of getting a bit too close to irradiated areas, but you do what you have to). I can certainly see those who enjoy virtual photography having a great time with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornoby.
The gameplay itself is definitely on the 'challenging yet satisfying' side. Guns suitably lack precision (I tested a pistol, a rifle, and an assault rifle without any precision optics), so they require careful aim and recoil compensation. Ammo was also limited and staying stocked up required plenty of looting.
That being said, inventory management was a big factor, because you can't carry everything you can grab, lest you find yourself stuck in place, encumbered by the weight. I can see the balancing between looting and managing weight being rather relevant in this game.
Enemies certainly contributed to the challenge. Especially in the occupied building mentioned above, I found myself flanked and surrounded when I overextended, and had to try again with a much more careful approach to come up on top.
I did get the impression that you'll have a lot of freedom to approach issues (including how to deal with enemies) in plenty of different ways in the final game, which is perhaps not unexpected, but always refreshing.
The building I had to storm definitely appeared to be purposely designed to enable plenty of avenues of approach if you're willing to take your time and explore.
Ultimately, while the demo was a bit rough and reinforced the fact that the decision to delay the game is a wise one, I also found a lot of promise in it.
I think S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fans don't expect a tightly-packaged, ultra-refined Call of Duty-like experience, but instead hope to be let loose in a foreboding but eerily beautiful world with an unique atmosphere which is both oppressive and intriguing.
The demo I played already shows that direction in a way that I found satisfying and made me want to explore more. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl may yet be worth the wait.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl was previewed in person at Gamescom 2023, hosted by Xbox.