The long-awaited sequel S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl is set to release early next year, over a decade after it was first announced. The GSC Game World title is the fourth mainline entry in the series, following 2009’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat. Screen Rant went hands-on with the game this week at Gamescom which gave a glimpse at what can be expected from the full release, while simultaneously raising a few questions about the final product.
Just like its predecessors, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl takes place in the Zone, an irradiated wasteland near the famous nuclear meltdown location. The preview began with the protagonist being awakened by a dog attack; after his own gun fails to fire, he’s saved by a mysterious stranger who shoots the canine – which proceeds to explode into bits. The man then provides the player with a key piece of equipment: a rusted metal bolt, which is what players will use to traverse through anomalies.
Anomalies are deadly distortions to the natural world caused by the radiation in Chornobyl, which look sort of like swirling portals. They’ll harm the player if they attempt to walk through them normally, but throwing a bolt into them briefly resets them and gives an opportunity to pass through unscathed. This is one of the many environmental threats in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, which the protagonist’s Geiger counter makes one keenly aware of. Certain areas are more irradiated than others – the bodies of water near the starting point of the preview killed me almost instantly, for example.
The biggest environmental threat included in the preview was something called The Emission. It began with an announcement over the radio that everyone should take shelter, shortly followed by rain beginning to fall. The storm progressively worsened until the sky turned completely red and crimson waves became visible in the air, at which point anyone unsheltered will immediately die and be returned to the game’s home screen.
After leaving the demo’s starting point, the next encounter involved saving a group from another dog attack, which offered the first taste of the game’s gunplay. Shooting felt a bit clunky – weapons are tricky to control and land shots due to dramatic kickback and long reloading times, and enemy AI was a mix of either deadly spot-on or prone to simple mistakes. It’s easy to get stuck in an unfortunate spawn location as well; after dying to a group of bandits I respawned perfectly in the line of fire for all of them, repeatedly being gunned down before it was possible to take cover.
The conversational encounters with other characters also felt off, mostly due to their visuals. Facial animations during conversations feel somewhat unfinished, with mouth and eye movements that give a bit of an uncanny valley effect. Lips either moved too dramatically or not at all, and actual expressions were sometimes contorted and strange around the eye area. While most of the voice acting felt fitting, the odd delivery of some lines paired with the character’s odd visages was off-putting.
As with any pre-release demo, it’s important to note that what was played wasn’t a final version of the game. Although combat and conversations feel a bit unfinished, the world itself certainly does not, offering strong environmental storytelling and a general sense of dread that the series is known for. With a 2024 release date, players will have plenty of time to revisit previous S.T.A.L.K.E.R. titles and get reacquainted with the series while they wait for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl.
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S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl will release in Q1 2024 for Xbox Series X/S and PC. Screen Rant attended a special hands-on preview event for the purpose of this preview.