Despite its sci-fi RPG trappings, Chernobylite feels real. Every barren landscape, vast grey sky, and mortar-shelled building somehow feels familiar. And while this is partly owed to real-world Chornobyl's myriad guises in TV and film over the last 36 years – and, sadly, in reality amid Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine – it's also a direct result of state-of-the-art 3D scanning on-location in the Exclusion Zone. Developer The Farm 51 has spent years capturing Chornobyl in real life, you see, and whereas video games often strive for realism through an artistic lens, Chernobylite aims to recreate a gamified 1:1 scale setting, where the setting itself is as much the star of the show as its cast of fictional characters.
Released on PC in July last year, and then on PS4 and Xbox One consoles in September, The Farm 51 is now on the cusp of launching Chernobylite on PS5 and Xbox Series X. In doing so, the developer is pushing the capabilities of the latest tech to great effect. "We already believe Chernobylite looks fantastic on last-gen consoles, but it's been a great experience making it look even better on PS5 and Xbox Series X," says All In! Games producer Kuba Karolczak, the publisher who has helped bring Chernobylite to current-gen hardware. "We definitely had some fun with my favourite star of this generation, which is the PS5's DualSense controller."
In the zone
Set around the present day, some 30 years after the Chornobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, Chernobylite sees players filling the shoes of Ukrainian physicist and one-time Chornobyl nuclear plant employee, Igor Khymynuk, who is searching for his missing fiance. Since the disaster, a strange, unidentified material has begun to surface in the Exclusion Zone – the eponymous Chernobylite – which has in turn drawn the attention of the military and an extraterrestrial and distinctly hostile race named Shadows. Like the Stalker series, Chernobylite paints the Exclusion Zone in a dark light, with the player's survival constantly threatened by a number of factors, not least the unforgiving environment itself. Unlike Stalker though, Chernobylite wanders deeper into the realm of fantasy, with an end-product our sister site PC Gamer described as a "curious mash-up of ideas" in its review.
With the foundations laid via its desktop and PS4/Xbox One iterations, Karolczak says making the jump to PS5/Xbox Series X hardware was, for the most part, a smooth process. "That first step into next-gen was pretty easy, I would say," says Karolczak. "We obviously already had the game on consoles for the previous generations. So when we ran the game, mathematically, it was quickly a night and day difference. On [PS5 and Xbox Series X] it was much, much better running, we were able to increase the frame-rate, and introduce more fidelity to the game."
"What was more challenging, however, was the ray tracing stuff. Ray tracing isn't brand new, but it's still relatively new in the grand scheme of game development and optimization. It's an incredibly powerful technology, and everyone has done exceptional work on adding this into the next version of the game. Adding this technology increases an already gorgeous game. If we consider the PC version, though, we have to tame the beast – the beautiful, powerful beast – and squeeze it into the console. And that was quite challenging, but also fun. Again, the DualSense is one of my favourite things about the new generation of consoles, and I'm in love with its new vibrations and adaptive triggers. They are always so much fun to toy with."
Karolczak reckons the DualSense controller's adaptive triggers add an extra step in allowing players to become immersed in any given game's world, and I'd have to agree. Having played the PS5 version of GTA 5 recently, a game now pushing nine years old, I couldn't believe how much haptic feedback improved the feeling of shifting through the gears of a sports car or discharging an automatic weapon.
This, combined with the aforementioned in-the-field 3D scanning, and the fact that The Farm 51 team are constantly thinking ahead, is what helps make Chernobylite maintain a degree of realism – so reckons studio co-founder Wojtek Pazdur. "Our idea was that Chernobylite was intended to be a next-gen game from the start," he explains. "When we started thinking about and working on this project, we wanted to reach a new level of visual fidelity and quality, regardless of what might be possible in the future. We st– arted in 2017, we didn't have access to ray tracing video cards, we didn't have access to the next-gen consoles, but we knew that when we finished making the game – something that took us four years – there would be better devices available."
"At that point, we have work to do, but it's easier work because the 3D scanning technology that we use provides us with a lot of redundant data. We end up with much more detail than we need, and a lot of highly optimised detail that previous generations of hardware cannot use. But, when new hardware comes along that can use it – and engines such as Unreal Engine 5 – we can then optimise our games to make them even better, and that's what this step up is for Chernobylite."
Having spent the last decade making trips to and from the Exclusion Zone to capture and record data on site, The Farm 51 has familiarised itself with Chornobyl and its surrounding area more than the vast majority of its visitors – and certainly more than any other video game developer. Pazdur is so confident in the 3D scanning tech he and his peers use, that he reckons future projects will fare just fine, as the developer continues to scale what it has against the limits of current technology.
Between times, it's the job of Karolczak and the team at All In! Games to bring Chernobylite up to speed on PS5 and Xbox Series X – upgrading the game for those already familiar with its workings, and, on the flip side, welcoming a new audience to those who are not. Karolczak adds: "We've kept all players in mind throughout the process. This was also one of the challenges, not from the technical side, but from us strictly as publishers, to make sure that all existing players can enter into this new generation. Hopefully, they can transition from the previous generation to the new one pretty seamlessly."
"Likewise, this is a great opportunity to bring the game to the masses, again. It's a kind of a relaunch of sorts. And that's the overarching goal: we want to keep everyone as happy as possible, even in a super-realistic, harsh survival setting."
Chernobylite is set to launch on PS5 and Xbox Series X on Thursday, April 21, 2022.
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