Stalker 2: Heart of Chornobyl preview - impeccable vibes, but a little wonky

 Stalker 2 landscape shot
Stalker 2 landscape shot

TechRadar Gaming is reporting live from Gamescom 2023 on the latest and greatest developments in gaming and hardware.

First-person shooter Stalker 2: Heart of Chornobyl gets the vibe right. The 20-minute playable chunk at Gamescom 2023 has you waking up to your leg being gnawed by a mutant dog, tossing bolts to get through anomalies, scuffling through a few dilapidated buildings to get your hands on some loot, and getting into a pitched battle with black-clad enemies for reasons that weren’t entirely clear at the time - or even now.

It is, at this early glance, a shinier version of Stalker. This is pretty much everything fans of 2007’s Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl wanted, but also the perfect single-player offering for fans tired of the multiplayer brawling of Escape From Tarkov which is - like an influence ouroboros - itself inspired by Stalker.

You can see it in the weapons: a mix of Soviet-era weaponry with the occasionally grubby bit of NATO kit. You can feel it when you use those weapons to engage the mutants and thugs that you run into during the demo. Bullets are rare and full-auto fire is inaccurate, so you’ll often be winging occasional shots at your enemies, or in the case of the mutant dogs that can sneak up on you, unloading an entire magazine inaccurately while backpedaling.

Not quite ready

Landscape screenshot from Stalker 2 Heart of Chornobyl
Landscape screenshot from Stalker 2 Heart of Chornobyl

In our brief playtime things weren’t quite coming together for me, but I suspect a large part of that was down to the bugs I ran into. Our Stalker 2 hands-on was tremendously buggy. However, this shouldn’t be taken as a judgment on the game’s overall quality: it’s worth acknowledging that while game development is uniformly difficult, few games can claim to have a development period quite as difficult as Stalker 2’s, with the FPS being developed with a large part of its staff in Ukraine, which is an active warzone. Several members of the team are taking a hiatus from development to fight on the frontlines as the country seeks to defend itself in the war against Russia. I can’t even speak to how difficult that would be, and the sort of trauma living through this sort of thing can incur.

This is important because when I say there are a lot of bugs, it’s hard to feel like it matters. There’s plenty here: during my 20-minute demo, I had to restart the entire game once because my character's legs had decided to stop working; I got myself snagged on several objects; died seemingly at random; and saw several other weird quirks. But the weirdest bug is around respawning and how dying didn’t seem to reset the instance.

When I died, I respawned in the same instance at a nearby respawn point. The enemies I was fighting continued to push towards me, firing wildly. Each time I respawned, I came back to life at the same spot, but the enemies were even closer. My death didn’t earn me a reload either, so eventually I was just being assaulted in my spawn from all sides and once was killed twice by the same burst of gunfire. Eventually, I switched to my knife and won by throwing out a few errant stabs with each life, killing the attackers through sheer perseverance.

The first Stalker and its sequels were all about this kind of wonkiness in fairness, so I’m choosing instead to focus on the fact that beneath the Unreal Engine 5 shine, it still feels like that classic game. The shooting feels brutal and the looting is nerve-wracking which is as it should be.

It just feels like Stalker 2 wasn’t quite ready to be shown off yet. I’m hoping to put the buggy time out of my head and focus, instead, on how comfortingly familiar it feels, and how beautiful the team has managed to make a murky swamp and some ruined buildings look. Based on what I've played here, in early 2024, no matter what happens, I'll be returning to The Zone.

Our list of the best FPS games offers a variety of action-packed experiences to tide you over until the release of Stalker 2 in early 2024.