Stalker 2 hands-on: I played Heart of Chornobyl, and it's finally becoming the immersive-FPS I always knew it could be

Stalker 2 screenshot
(Image credit: GSC Game World)

Stalker 2: Heart of Chornobyl has come a long way in a short stretch of time. When I played the long-awaited shooter at Gamescom last year, I was left a little worried by the state it was in – to call that early in-development build exceptionally rough around the edges would be an understatement akin to calling the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone a small hazard to your health. It wasn't long before the game was delayed again. But the Stalker 2 I sat down with at Summer Game Fest 2024 hasn't merely offered up a refinement of that foundation, instead it demonstrates an absolute transformation. 

The visual fidelity has been overhauled entirely; where the Zone last appeared somewhat flat and washed-out it's now overwrought with dense detail, a violent sky illuminating deadly anomalies off in the distance of the open world. The artificial intelligence is sharper, enemies doggedly pursue me through thick foliage as they share their bullets between my position on an irradiated ridge and Blind Dogs stalking through tall grass. The framerate holds steady as firearms kick back like a jackhammer, prone to jamming whilst you squeeze at the trigger as weapons gradually degrade over time – a real problem when Bloodsuckers dip in and out of view, the mutants shifting around you faster than the reticle turns. 


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That's all to say that I was left impressed by what I played of Stalker 2 this time around. Developer GSC Game World essentially let me blast through the opening 40 minutes of the game, an opening cutscene displayed in first-person led me from outside the Zone, through a fracture in the protective wall, towards first contact with the survivors living within the deadly, alienating landscape. It's a harrowing journey, the game world thick with decay – a heavy atmosphere that would be tough to stomach were it not for the heightened intrigue GSC so effortlessly generates across the horizon.

Spheres of energy hover in the air, reality warping around its outer edges. Electro anomalies tangle around decaying constructs, pathways are illuminated by the warm glow of radiation pools, and familiar sights sit at perpendicular angles. There's plenty to draw your attention in the Zone, but I need to focus on fighting my way through to a waystation. Enemies of both the human and mutated variety are brutally efficient, healing reserves quickly surrendered to incoming shrapnel and sideswipes. Factor in the need to manage dwindling ammunition reserves, radiation sickness, anomaly incursions, and inventory weight, and it quickly becomes apparent that few concessions are being made for a playerbase who may come into Stalker 2 unaware of the series' legendary challenge spikes – despite GSC positioning Stalker 2 as a day one title for Game Pass and Xbox Series X, launching alongside the PC release on September 5, 2024.

Fighting shape

Stalker 2 screenshot

(Image credit: GSC Game World)

That being said, Stalker 2: Heart of Chornobyl is undoubtedly more approachable than the games which preceded it – something you can discover yourself right now, thanks to Stalker: Shadow of Chornobyl arriving on Xbox. While I think the UX could use a little refinement, even when using a controller it's easy enough to manage resources and equipment, apply modifications to your weapons, check points-of-interest on your physical map, or equip a variety of anomaly trackers to your off-hand – the click of the geiger counter as haunting as ever. It's intuitive, and everything feels grounded to the reality of the game world to heighten immersion. 

We're just a few months out from launch now, and Stalker 2: Heart of Chornobyl is looking increasingly like the video game its countless trailers have presented it to be. The character models are richly detailed, the Zone is dense with dangers, and the interweaving combat systems are delightfully brutal. If there's anything GSC needs to focus on right now it's polish of the underlying codebase – there were bugs aplenty in my play-session, from checkpoints creating deathloops to objectives failing to trigger. Still, I have confidence that the developer has what it takes to deliver the sequel so many would-be Stalkers have been waiting over a decade to play.  

Josh West
Editor-in-Chief, GamesRadar+

Josh West is the Editor-in-Chief of GamesRadar+. He has over 15 years experience in online and print journalism, and holds a BA (Hons) in Journalism and Feature Writing. Prior to starting his current position, Josh has served as GR+'s Features Editor and Deputy Editor of games™ magazine, and has freelanced for numerous publications including 3D Artist, Edge magazine, iCreate, Metal Hammer, Play, Retro Gamer, and SFX. Additionally, he has appeared on the BBC and ITV to provide expert comment, written for Scholastic books, edited a book for Hachette, and worked as the Assistant Producer of the Future Games Show. In his spare time, Josh likes to play bass guitar and video games. Years ago, he was in a few movies and TV shows that you've definitely seen but will never be able to spot him in.