Stalker 2: Can it ever deliver on the enormous potential built up over the years?

The history of the Stalker series, its developer, the off-shoots it spawned, and the community of players who continue to mod the games and find new ways to play them to this day, is something well worth talking about. These are all reasons why the odds against Stalker 2: Heart of Chornobyl are stacked.

Consider this: Heart of Chornobyl was announced in 2018 with nothing but a logo, having been initially set for release sometime in 2021. I’ll be honest, GSC Game World’s reputation made it hard to believe that a real Stalker 2 was actually in development. Indeed, the studio itself admitted it announced the game that early to find a publisher, so really, more of statement of intent. Nevertheless, I, like many fans, played along.

It would take over two years for the first-ever trailer to emerge, and it was predictably more of a tone piece than anything, and then another year for gameplay to be shown.

It is so amusing to go back and read that Stalker 2 was one of my 2022’s most anticipated games, right alongside Elden Ring. Just as 2022 began, GSC delayed the game to December of the same year. A month later, Russia invaded Ukraine. Being a Ukrainian studio, GSC understandably had to put development on hold, before the studio managed to relocate to Prague and resume working on the game. Some of its members even joined the Ukrainian armed forces, which no doubt had an irreparable effect on the game’s development.

The impact of war breaking out in the country where you live and work can never be overstated, and I have my doubts that the Stalker 2 GSC had envisioned years prior would ever be possible. That already might offer enough explanation as to why the game, well, just doesn’t look like the one we’d seen in 2021.

In August, GSC released some footage showing various bits of gameplay to coincide with a Gamescom demo. Though the trailer was brief, it showcased enough random exploration, combat, some dialogue, dealing with anomalies, slight inventory management, and a lot of what you could expect.

And still we wait.

I have not played that demo, so I can only go off other people’s impressions of it, and the footage itself. The game looks like a distant cousin to Stalker. It seems to have a bigger focus on action, with not much of the RPG and inventory management elements the classics are known for.

Stalker games are terrifying, and you’re never meant to feel powerful within their worlds. You’re always one shot away from dying, one wrong move or poor rationing decision from landing yourself into an irreversible situation. Stalker is a game of juggling stakes. But that’s not the impression I got from the footage.

How close Stalker 2 borrows from the classics remains to be seen, of course, and it’s not fair to read too much into a short trailer meant to make the game look exciting. No trailer would certainly be able to translate how much jank a game has. Jank has always been part of Stalker’s charm, not because of its mere existence, but because it hid a lot potential underneath; proving there’s a better game there for those willing to put up with it.

There’s also the element of the visual downgrade. But again, we’re looking at an in-development build of a game and a studio that went through hell. Sure, it doesn’t look as good as the initial reveal, but visual splendour was never Stalker’s strongest suit – it was always how strong its atmosphere was despite its outdated visuals.

A towering legacy.

As I write this in December of 2023, Stalker 2 still does not have a release date. For a brief period in the summer, we thought it might be out in December, but it later got quietly pushed back to Q1 of 2024. The most significant events in this development story are yet more tragedies befalling GSC, with the studio suffering a big hack in March, and its offices surviving a major fire in the summer.

We’re well past the point of Stalker 2 living up to that initial reveal, I only hope it lives up to the Stalker legacy – or, at least, be a compelling game in its own right.

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