Discussing the direction of Stalker 2: Heart of Chernobyl feels fittingly otherworldly. Developer GSC Game World's sequel to a trilogy that helped to define the melancholic RPGs of today has been stuck in development hell for almost a decade, having been cancelled and re-announced enough times to make your head spin.
Thankfully, numerous showings in recent months – including an impressive demo at the Xbox E3 2021 showcase – have cemented the game's existence from the abstract like an anomaly in a gravitational field; S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 is real and, if you're to believe the information revealed by GSC, it has the potential to break the boundaries of the endearingly archaic trilogy that came before it. Here's five things Stalker 2: Heart of Chernobyl will need to do if it can hope to reach that height when it launches on April 22, 2022 for PC and Xbox Series X.
1. Adjust the difficulty
Stalker is a game about power – it just isn't yours. The zone makes you feel small in the face of a world beyond your comprehension, like an ant pondering upon a skyscraper. It's a dangerous, threatening hellscape where ethical quandaries are solved by those with the largest munitions stockpile.
However, the game's difficulty has a hard time showing this in its worst moments. Don't be mistaken; Stalker is not an easy game, but once you start to get a feel for the mechanics, things go from sneaking past bandits out of fear to completely obliterating military cordons like you're playing paintball against 12-year-olds. Making Stalker 2: Heart of Chernobyl more difficult isn't necessarily the answer (an easy mode is still crucial for those who need it). Rather, it should rely on different elements of gameplay such as AI autonomy or accuracy. It needs to convey just how small a cog you are in this machine that you barely understand.
More Russian localization
Part of Stalker's elusive draw is how well it manages to define the bleak, Soviet-era depression of a post-meltdown Pripyat. The game is fantastical in so many aspects, yet there is a layer to the world that pulls your feet firmly to the ground – by the side of the other stalkers that have found themselves enticed to the zone like moths to a bug zapper.
It's with this accomplishment of immersive world-building that makes it rather jarring when Ukrainian nomads are yelling at you in perfect English. Having an option for exclusively Russian voice lines (in a similar fashion to mods like Call of Chernobyl) could really help add a tinge of credibility to the wastelands – the gameplay trailer revealed at the Xbox E3 2021 showcase has made us hopeful that this could happen.
Despite the awkward charm of hearing a Duty officer repeat 'get out of here stalker' more times than you can bear, there's this strange, burgeoning feeling of belonging as you delve deeper into the heart of Pripyat. You want to feel as though the separation between the boots on your feet and the soil beneath them is more blurred than you would imagine. Listening to those around you have to forgo their native tongue for your benefit almost severs that tie, as though you're an outsider, a thing beyond the zone, the other.
3. Improved gunplay
The biggest complaint from newer Stalker players is often about weapon functionality. Especially in 2008's Stalker: Clear Sky, where your first weapon is about as effective as a water-logged Nerf gun, the gunplay can feel especially ungratifying and downright frustrating at times. A mixture of weapon condition, player positioning, and extraordinarily fast fire-rate means that even the finest of weapons feel completely inaccurate.
Take the story where I was stationed near a military encampment as an example. A rival faction had tasked me with taking out a sniper in a tower just behind a concrete wall. As I crouched there, shrouded in foliage just meters away from my target and wielding my fully repaired GP-37, I shot at his neck hoping it would recoil into his head. To my amazement, the shot flew directly to the right, missing the sniper who was now alerting the entire cordon to my location.
I'm no gun expert, so I don't know whether this is realistic or not, but I know it isn't fun, nor is it gratifying when one of your shots finally hits a target. Even the most accurate simulations require some arcade-level shooting because it adds to the experience. Stalker shouldn't be a game where you need to accurately assess your recoil patterns, it's a game where, while shooting is important, delving into the heart of the Zone's mysteries is the real focus.
4. Closer ties to Roadside Picnic
Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic – the book which Stalker is based on – is one of Russia's most influential Sci-Fi books and the inspiration for numerous pieces of media. Originally published in 1972 by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky during the later years of the former Soviet Union, it is the foundation for several adaptations including a film, an upcoming tv series, and even an album. The book differs from the games in a multitude of ways. In the book, an extraterrestrial encounter is responsible for spawning the zone. A loud clap of thunder marks their entrance into our world, leaving those who heard it completely blind. After several hours, the beings disappear, leaving artefacts that are beyond human comprehension.
Having the hindsight that the Strugatsky brothers didn't, GSC Game World used the striking parallels between Roadside Picnic and the Chernobyl disaster that occurred 14 years later to create Stalker's premise. While being interesting, It doesn't quite hit the same level as the book, especially when considering the anomalies. Endless batteries that asexually reproduce, sentient goo that slithers aimlessly on surfaces, and autonomous duplicates of dead relatives which stumble to their former homes are just a few of the artefacts found within Roadside Picnic.
If Stalker 2: Heart of Chernobyl manages to capture a glimpse of this captivating world, either by imitating some of the stranger anomalies or by streamlining its premise, it would be better off for it. This is not to say it should completely retcon the previous storylines, it should take notes from a book that defined its existence.
5. Stronger characters
The characters in the original trilogy of Stalker games are best described as interestingly dull. Sure, Strelok's vague backstory makes him a great protagonist for the player to shape as they see fit and Sidorovich's charming sleaze is felt upon his first appearance devouring a turkey leg that looks much too delicious for the zone, but their existence serves only as a method to progress the story.
There is never a time where you feel that you truly connect with these characters. You may sympathise and even feel for them at times, but never connect. Compare this with the 1979 movie adaptation Stalker directed by the late Andrei Tarkovsky. The film takes a much more metaphorical view of the zone. Its anomalies are not merely meta-physical occurrences, but representations of the three characters; the writer, the scientist, and of course, the stalker.
Weaponry is virtually useless in the movie's rendition of the zone. Much of the exploration is not to seek out artefacts to sell to the highest bidder but as a rite of passage. Throughout the film, the characters project their own desires on the zone as though they're looking upon the divine. They go in seeking treasures and leave finding themselves as lesser men, bound by their own petty intentions.
Applying that kind of profound characterization to the STALKER series would improve it ten-fold. Considering the diplomatic aspect of the game's factions, the petty squabbling of men for control over something that they can barely comprehend is almost begging for more fleshed out storylines.
Stalker 2 release date is set for April 28, 2022 for PC and Xbox Series X, with Heart of Chernobyl also launching through Xbox Game Pass on day one.