Stalker 2 could redefine action horror – in the same way its brilliantly terrifying forerunners did

Stalker 2
(Image credit: GSC Game World)

As any action horror fan will tell you, GSC Game World's Stalker series is up there with the best the genre has to offer. First introduced by way of 2007's brilliant Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl, followed up by the equally unsettling Stalker: Clear Sky in 2008, and rounded off by Stalker: Call of Pripyat the year after that again, the trilogy – set deep within the real-world Chernobyl exclusion zone, albeit unfolding in a fictional timeline – set new standards in survival scares almost 16 years ago. 

When Stalker 2 was first teased way back in 2010, it was an exciting prospect. Fast forward 13 years, however, and the game has been canned, restarted and delayed several times – the most recent of which came as a result of the still-ongoing Ukraine war. Based in Ukraine themselves, the devs at GSC Game World were forced to relocate amid the turmoil to neighboring country, the Czech Republic, and have since committed to a tentative launch date of "2023" for Stalker 2: Heart of Chornobyl (with revised Ukrainian spelling). If the game winds up slipping to 2024, that's totally fair given the circumstances – but from what we've seen of Stalker 2 so far, we've got everything crossed that it manages to land in 2023 as planned.

Cross the line

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 screenshot

(Image credit: GSC Game World)

Simply put, Stalker 2 is shaping up to be one of the most impressive upcoming horror games of the year. Built in Unreal Engine 5, everything we've seen so far from the post-nuclear disaster Chornobyl exclusion zone looks absolutely terrifying, taking everything the original games did and turning the dial up to 11. In the gameplay trailer that was shown off at E3 2021, snippets of the game's irradiated locations, grueling firefights with contaminated monsters, battles with hostile factions, and, um, a dancing shopkeeper, were spliced between scenes of a group of men huddled around a campfire somewhere in the outskirts of Chornobyl – all of which showed off Heart of Chornobyl's photogrammetry technologies and full-body and facial motion capture.

Moreover, as outlined in our Stalker 2 guide, GSC has promised that the high level of fidelity and atmosphere evident in the Stalker 2 trailers is representative of what will be delivered (hopefully) at some point in 2023. And while the slices of in-game footage the devs have teased to this point have been fleeting, they really do look incredible, and, at times, pretty ghastly – which is exactly what long-standing fans of the series are after. Given the prevalence of horror games in today's gaming landscape – a solid mix of new ventures and revived and reworked classics – it appears GSC Game World is keen to entertain newcomers too with a story that directly follows the original games, but requires no prior knowledge of the events that unfolded within. 

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 screenshot

(Image credit: GSC Game World)

"To this end, Stalker 2 marks the first fully seamless open-world in the series".

New factions, anomalies and mutants will help that current-gen shift along, as you guide protagonist Skif around a non-linear narrative FPS wherein your actions have short and longer-term consequences. Players are told to expect familiar locations such as Cordon and Pripyat, with new areas  like Duga presenting unforeseen challenges and GSC suggesting "hundreds of other familiar and new locations will be up for exploration." To this end, Stalker 2 marks the first fully seamless open-world in the series, with the devs confidently citing the game's playground as "one of the biggest open worlds in video games to date" in previous interviews. This will see players fumbling around a space over 60 square kilometers in size, in something that'll take "more than 100 hours of gameplay to explore its secrets."

Given the real world challenges GSC Game World have faced over the last several months, it very much feels like a waiting game on the players' end. If it launches this year, great. If it doesn't, we'll wait until it's ready. But if it does manage to release in 2023, it has absolutely earned its place on this list. And if it doesn't, expect to see it here again in Big in 2024 – because Stalker 2: Heart of Chernobyl is shaping up to be an absolute cracker. 

Big in 2023

(Image credit: Big in 2023)

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Joe Donnelly
Features Editor, GamesRadar+

Joe is a Features Editor at GamesRadar+. With over seven years of experience working in specialist print and online journalism, Joe has written for a number of gaming, sport and entertainment publications including PC Gamer, Edge, Play and FourFourTwo. He is well-versed in all things Grand Theft Auto and spends much of his spare time swapping real-world Glasgow for GTA Online’s Los Santos. Joe is also a mental health advocate and has written a book about video games, mental health and their complex intersections. He is a regular expert contributor on both subjects for BBC radio. Many moons ago, he was a fully-qualified plumber which basically makes him Super Mario.