Stalker 2 is killing me. I’m aware of the cliche, or the kind of running joke, that game reporters are no good at videogames. I also know that if I start outlining my gaming accomplishments, in an attempt to prove that I’m quite good at games actually, it’s just going to sound feeble and silly. But I’m 33 years old, I’ve been playing games since I was four, and I have completed Dark Souls, and let me tell you, Stalker 2 makes me scared. It’s asking me to completely rethink how I approach FPS games, to forget concepts like power and bravado, and adapt to a much more difficult, but also much deeper, shooter experience. It looks like Fallout 4, but one wrong move – and I do mean one wrong move – and you’re just another body, lost to the Zone.
Dark Souls feels like the reference point for Stalker 2’s punishing but beneficial difficulty, while the aesthetic is naturally comparable to Fallout. But playing GSC’s upcoming shooter at Gamescom, I’m also reminded of Amnesia The Bunker, where even the simplest videogame tasks like reloading a revolver have mechanical and dramatic weight. Stalker 2 is giving me simple, RPG game quests – some raiders have moved into a building nearby, so go and clear them out. In Fallout or Skyrim, or any other similar game, this would essentially be busywork, a blithe little thing for me to earn some experience and maybe find a slightly better gun.
But in Stalker 2, even this simple assignment becomes a brutal tale of death, survival, and hard-won, ambiguous glory. See enemy, kill enemy. That’s the established FPS dynamic. In Stalker 2, however, it’s never that straightforward. If there are more of them, and if they have better guns, they will kill you. Every time I leave cover, either to squeeze off a few rounds or charge towards a better vantage, I take my life into my hands.
Reloading is plausibly slow, healing and other actions take time, and my opponents move intelligently to flank me. Stalker 2 upends the emotional experience of videogame combat. Normally, you relish getting into a battle, a chance to play with your guns and enjoy feeling strong. In Stalker 2, my predominant feeling is one of regret. It’s exhilarating, anxious, and still suitably charged, in the sense of being a thrilling spectacle, but given further substance by the difficulty and precariousness.
Perhaps unusual for apocalypse games, which are sometimes nihilistic and kind of revel in their inhumanity, life never feels cheap in Stalker 2. Every kill is arduous. Every attack has to be deliberated and measured. Even the simple act of traveling between locations is laden with danger and decision-making.
Occasionally, the Zone will be hit by an Emission – a very potent, very lethal cloud of anomalous energy that cloaks the entire world in deeply threatening bright red. Get caught in the open during an Emission, and you’re finished. Again, what would usually be a straightforward choice – I want to go to the next map marker to find more quests and get more stuff – becomes a fraught gamble with circumstance. Nothing in Stalker 2 is easily won. But the struggle is always compelling, and every victory, no matter how small, feels substantive.
The question now is how the full game, presumably tens of hours long, balances and maintains this dynamic. If you’re constantly failing and restarting, even when you’ve intimately adapted to Stalker 2’s systems, then it might become frustrating, unfair and fussy as opposed to difficult but rewarding. Likewise, in open-world games, it seems like there’s always a tipping point, when you’re so highly leveled and so well equipped that nothing presents a challenge any more.
When I kill a Deathclaw with a single bullet in Fallout, my heart sinks. Suddenly, the whole dynamic of the world is inverted, and instead of surviving, struggling, and debating all my decisions, I’m just effortlessly and detachedly eating all the game’s ‘content.’ I hope Stalker 2 never lets me reach that point. I want the intensity and the labor. I want an FPS with a low body count and high stakes – it makes for superior drama. Stalker 2, from my time playing it, feels like it could be that game. But it needs to keep up this delicate balancing act for dozens and dozens of hours. Like everything in Stalker 2, it’s no mean feat.