We wake up in a daze, the sky above us turning an ominous red color. We hear a loud growl, which gets louder in the first few minutes of Stalker 2: Heart of Chernobyl. A mutated dog is nibbling on our leg; it has probably chosen it as its lunch. Its eyes are glowing red, its fur is rotting, its flesh is rotting. Never mind, get rid of it – one kick later, the mutant dog flies into an anomaly and shreds in a violent blood blister.
It’s like throwing a tomato into a blender, but there are no tomatoes here. Instead, there’s plenty of eye-candy thanks to Unreal Engine 5: abandoned buildings flooded with deep, wintry light; threadbare forests punctuated by oily, shimmering bubbles of distorted reality; patches of quiet humanity sprawling across the wilderness.
That’s perhaps the nicest surprise. Stalker 2 has these cold, gloomy basements that give off more of a horror vibe. But it also has these beautiful, almost paradisiacal scenarios.
4K gameplay of Stalker 2:
We wade through veritable seas of flowers – whole fields full of red, lush tulips, wanting to literally drift and fall, but gunfire shatters the silence. The plants are riddled with holes, these beautiful tulips fly upwards, our life bar drops menacingly.
Stalker 2 is one of those one-hit games where a single attack can really damage us and severely restrict our movement. If a shot hits us in the leg, we limp. Another shot to the arm and our weapon is warped because we suddenly can no longer balance the AK 47, which itself has a considerable recoil.
Atmospheric like Fallout 5, tough like Dark Souls
Stalker 2 is a hardcore shooter that gives you a clear message: “You are part of this world, but you are not important. You’re not the star here, you’re a victim, just like everyone else.”
A world in which we play a part, but are not the center of attention. It requires us to think of shooters differently – more like Escape from Tarkov or DayZ. One wrong move, slipping through the door and being discovered, and we’re just another corpse that’s taken over the zone.
It’s a tactical shooter, because we have to aim low, as the AK in particular has a heavy warp. And the timing of the reload is realistic – it takes time to unclip the old magazine and insert the new one. Reload, let’s move on.
And reloading feels damn loud. We literally flinch when playing – after all, someone might hear the clatter. See enemy, shoot enemy, that’s how we know shooters. In Stalker 2, it’s never that simple: cover only provides limited protection, and if the enemy is of a higher caliber, he simply punctures the overturned wooden cabinets that are supposed to provide us with protection.
A steel weapon cabinet, on the other hand, can withstand much more. We are only ever one stray bullet away from death. And the merciless recoil of the weapon makes shooting feel really rough. Not as smooth and light-footed as in most shooters.
It’s dirty, raw, a fight for survival in which every victory against just two or three opponents is hard-won and tastes all the sweeter.
This is also due to the really smart AI: they throw grenades to destroy our cover. One of them keeps us down with continuous fire, the other runs up the stairs, grabs a sniper rifle and gets into an optimal shooting position.
If we run out of ammunition, we have to look for more and the guys then chase us. They want revenge, after all – we killed their comrade – and so a battle in a garage can quickly shift into the forest. We go from hunter to hunted, just like in … Escape from Tarkov.
The story: We wake up naked in the Zone
In Stalker 2, we wake up naked and destitute somewhere in the Zone, join stalkers, do jobs for them and, above all, look for artefacts – radioactively charged objects that are supposed to give people superpowers.
However, we soon learn that Stalker 2 is no ordinary open-world game, as travelling is fraught with danger and there is no map for the artefact locations; instead, others tell us about what they have seen. “Follow the railway line,” said one guy. Too bad that ravenous mutant wolves lurk there at night.
And something we simply call the mutant armoured deer: The bones of this king of the forest have grown together to form a kind of Kevlar armor. Simple rifle shots can’t stop it, salvation lies in fleeing.
In Stalker 2, there are always enemies for whom we first have to find the right weapons. But if there’s an armored deer near an anomaly, we can of course lure the bandits from the garage a little further ahead. That’s two enemies with one stone.
And thus also change the world, because the workshop was taken from our new friends – a group of stalkers who have now set up camp in the forest by a small fire – by the bandits. They have fled here, but it’s not safe out there.
If we recapture this base, our reputation with the boys will increase and they’ll make themselves at home, which will unlock new quests and, of course, weapons, equipment and crafting. There are workbenches there to saw off a shotgun, for example, which makes it louder but gives it a lot more oomph. Or we can make an improvised silencer.
In general, the quality of the cutscenes is very strong and always has nerve-wracking decision points reminiscent of The Witcher 3 . We meet a general who is blind but leads a sizeable army. We can join him or try to kill him from behind, but he hears us, confronts us and presents his vision of a “fairer zone.”
Is he telling the truth? Is he trying to lull us to sleep? Are the others actually telling the truth? Is there even THE truth or is everyone here making it up for themselves? And then we meet a stalker legend: