Our Gamescom 2023 preview for Stalker 2: Heart Of Chornobyl begins with a mutated dog trying to chew our leg off, and ends with a painful death by radiation poisoning. The 20 minutes in between are just as merciless, soundtracked by gunfire and the ticking of a Geiger counter measuring the fallout of Chornobyl power plant’s meltdown. Is it all quite gruelling? Of course – but it’s also very fun.
The latest hardcore shooter in Ukrainian video game developer GSC Game World’s Stalker series, Heart Of Chornobyl is not an easy game. Set in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, an irradiated wasteland left in ruins by the 1986 disaster, you can’t go five minutes without running into bandits, mutated animals, or reality-warping “anomalies” that will gruesomely kill you if you get too close.
The dog we’re fighting learns this the hard way, when it’s hoovered up by an anomaly and spat back out in a shower of blood and gristle. Our Stalker – someone who sneaks into the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone to salvage its valuables – is unphased, and we’re soon off to explore the world and its many dangers.
Stalker 2: Heart Of Chernobyl. Credit: GSC Game World.
Stalker 2′s wasteland is dangerous, but hauntingly beautiful. GSG Game World has done a fantastic job at making its setting feel desolate. Nature has reclaimed much of the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone. Fields of poppies and lush forests are gorgeous, but there are reminders of the disaster everywhere. Corpses and abandoned vehicles litter the world, and brutalist concrete buildings are irradiated eyesores – get too close, and your Geiger counter starts to croak in warning.
We get our first taste of Stalker 2‘s intense shootouts in one of these structures. A pair of fellow Stalkers have been forcefully evicted from their camp by a group of bandits, leaving it to the protagonist to reclaim. Though only a handful of enemies pop up, the shootout is challenging. Humans you’re fighting can usually be killed with a single shot to the head, but that goes both ways. You’re always a stray bullet away from death, and unforgiving gun recoil means shootouts feel incredibly scrappy. Though our fight begins with a head-on assault on the bandit camp, it bleeds into the surrounding woods as the game’s aggressive AI turns the attack into a struggle to find cover and avoid being flanked.
It took several retries to recapture the outpost. The next few minutes were spent hoovering up ammunition and supplies from the dead bandits, as we’d fired most of the bullets we brought to the fight. As with Shadow Of Chornobyl, ammo can be hard to find in Stalker 2’s barren wilderness – and winning a shootout is only half the battle. Surviving the next encounter is even tougher if you don’t have enough bullets left to load your gun.
From our half-hour preview, it’s clear that Stalker 2 has all of the grit, atmosphere and brutality that Stalker fans expect. While the English voice acting leaves a lot to be desired and the build we play still struggles with bugs, we’re optimistic that the game – now delayed to 2024 – will get more than Geiger counters buzzing at launch.
Stalker 2: Heart Of Chornobyl will launch in early 2024 for PC and Xbox Series X|S.