STALKER 2: Heart of Chornobyl makes a hell of a first impression – the opening moments see your player-character, Skif sprawled across the floor of a rad-blasted forest, looking down, and seeing a mutant dog chewing on their leg. Cue a panic, a jammed gun, and the dog being fortuitously picked up by a nearby atmospheric anomaly and, well, exploding. Like I said, hell of a first impression.
This long-awaited sequel to the cult classic first-person immersive shooter series is clearly aiming to grab attention from the off – and getting the chance to go hands-on with this first ever playable build at gamescom shows that off in more ways than one.
The most surprising element for a showfloor demo is the freedom you’re offered. Developer GSC Game World makes clear that this is a tiny slice of an enormous game, and still work-in-progress, but barring a short scene-setting conversation with a mysterious stranger – who directs us to speak to some locals – the demo makes no demands of you to do anything other than explore. It’s a clear marker of the game as a whole, a world that offers you choices from the beginning, and the opportunities to make them how you’d like.
Those choices haunt me from the beginning – I creep through a body-strewn checkpoint, looting what I can, before reaching a shack surrounded by dogs. Suddenly, I see a figure emerge toting a weapon – and I immediately open fire. Little do I know that I’m taking down the locals I’ve been directed to, simply protecting themselves from the same dogs I will be in the aftermath. Admirably, the game doesn’t give me a fail state for this – I made my (hasty) choice and I need to pay the consequences for that. I lose the ability to finish a sidequest – but the extra loot I gain doesn’t go unnoticed.
Gunplay is quick and brutal – weapons don’t so much fire as hammer, with a distinct kick to even the smallest pistol. I encounter a camp of enemy bandits who attack on sight, and tear through them in short order – but need to make liberal use of my own medkits because of the sheer amount of damage they deal themselves, and some crafty AI that sees some of the pack flank me while others hunker down behind walls and vehicles to draw fire. The lesson here is clear: be prepared, be smart, and be ruthless.
Along the way, GSC Game World makes clear the power of Unreal Engine 5, imbuing beauty to a distinctly nasty world – The Zone (the name given to this alternative Earth’s post-nuclear Chornobyl Exclusion Zone) is packed with detail: abandoned buildings cut through with low, wintry light; threadbare forests broken up by oily, shimmering bubbles of warped reality; and pockets of quiet humanity being scratched out in the wilderness.
Eventually, I make my way towards another objective: trying to find a local village, Zalissya. Just as I reach it, however, I hear a local radio broadcast announcing an imminent ‘Emission’ – I quickly find out what that means as the wind picks up, the sky turns blood red, and lightning begins pelting the ground. I rush to the entrance of a fallout shelter, and see a final cutscene play out – a masked figure emerges from the door and pulls my soon-to-be unconscious character inside in the nick of time.
It’s a neat closer on that first impression – STALKER 2 is aiming for player freedom, set between blockbuster moments, all while retaining the cold brutality and tantalizing mystery of the original games. It’ll be fascinating to see what other horrors and discoveries The Zone holds when it comes to Xbox Series X|S and Windows PC (with Xbox Game Pass and PC Game Pass).