The demo of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 disappoints with a certain rasp from the start... but for none of the reasons you're thinking about! It was only a matter of the English dubbing, as we did not hear characters speaking with a harsh, eastern accent. Stalkers spoke to each other in exemplary English straight from college, and the impression is roughly comparable to listening to Darth Vader speak Spanish. It just doesn’t add up. Luckily, it's just the "charm" of the demo version. The full release will arrive with original, Ukrainian voice over along with subtitles.
The audio experience aside, it's very classic and nostalgic – in other words, we're back in the familiar, long-unvisited Zona, which – well, "glows up" would not be quite the right way to put it. It's hard to talk about the beauty of a place that’s haunted by rusty, post-Soviet wrecks and is full of derelict ruins. But the Zona certainly looks much more natural and realistic now, making it an even more compelling place. Maybe it's not quite the level of Kingdom Come Deliverance when it comes to flora, but there's nothing wrong with buildings and objects – they look just like irl. I had only fifteen minutes to explore the Chernobyl zone, so I had to hurry up.
Who’s the third voice?
It started with the classics. First, an attack of mutated dogs. One almost got me because the gun jammed, but after a solid kick, a sudden anomaly took care of the rest. Then, out of nowhere, a stalker appeared and reminded me that the best way to deal with such surprises in the field are bolts with a solid thread. After scattering the scrap, we could proceed further – again, to fight some dogs – and this time it was us who saved some poor soul from being eaten alive.
In a brief exchange, we got hints about where to go to pursue the main quest, but then a very interesting plot point came up. Though only two people were visible on the screen, three voices took part in the conversation – the extra one, named Gloomy, seemed to speak exclusively to our protagonist. The game developers standing next to me didn't want to explain it for now, saying that everything will become clear when we play the full version.
The remaining time was cleverly limited by the arrival of a far more serious anomaly, and everything became shrouded in red fog. You had to find shelter in the village and that's where the demo ended, along with any story matters. Up to that point, I only had a few moments to explore the area and check what looked promising and what seemed somewhat lacking.
First shoot, or ask questions?
Before the anomaly arrived, I managed to get into a few gunfights, see a familiar scene with a stalker playing guitar in a gas mask, visit a few buildings, and loot several bodies. As a result, I tried a few additional weapon models, besides the default Makarov pistol, AKS rifle and a shotgun. Overall, gunplay is good, although I think the protagonist moved way too fast. The recipe for several opponents turned out to be quick maneuvering between them, because the AI would get lost and couldn’t keep up with our movements. I hope this will be addressed because it didn't fit the survivalist style of gameplay and visual realism.
I really liked the ambiguity of who is really an enemy and who’s an ally. Some NPCs fight shoulder to shoulder with us, talk to us, are friendly, and a moment later somebody else appears in the middle of a skirmish and starts to attack us. It's the same when approaching unknown buildings. One visit ended in a fierce fire exchange, the other in dismissing allusions, presumably part of an unfinished quest. I hope this feeling uncertainty is maintained throughout the game.
The biggest part of the quarter of an hour I’ve spent with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.2 was the visual spectacle of merely watching the locations – an abandoned barn, some barracks, a smashed wreckage of a Mi-24 helicopter, Soviet-made trucks and military vehicles abandoned everywhere. Everything looks properly old, rusty, and neglected, verging on photorealism. The only minor issue was limited interactivity. Wooden pieces can be smashed, but various crates, doors, and gates are usually part of static decoration. Sometimes, you want to open something to loot it, and you find out that you can't.
If I had anything else to complain about, it would be the facial animations during dialogues and the lip sync. The game isn't short of animation issues, and it seems to me that perfection in this regard can't be achieved, although things may still improve by release. And finally, on the lighter side, there's the inventory menu, which hasn't received much work, but strongly resembles previous installments in the series. Even the icons of some items have remained virtually the same.
This game doesn't have to be perfect
In many cases, when presentations of upcoming games end, you just move on to the next title. With S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, I restarted the demo to take advantage of every moment given to me – trying to take a different path, checking out the graveyard of BMPs, and shooting some more with an MP5 I’d found. It will likely not be the most technically polished game on release day, but I have no doubt that many of the flaws will pale in comparison with the vibe of the Zone, which simply draws us in once again like a bog with its unique atmosphere and mystery. Many things will be handled later by the modders, as the game will receive mod support after release. Anyway, after the demo I feel a huge void and I want more, and we also have to give huge kudos to the Ukrainian developers for staying committed to the development despite the war that’s been going on in their country for the past year and a half.
Darius Matusiak | Gamepressure.com