Eight reasons we can't wait to play STALKER 2: Heart of Chornobyl

By Steven T. Wright, Contributor

Even in today's crowded gaming landscape, there's nothing quite like the STALKER series. Often imitated yet never surpassed, the original trilogy of STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, Clear Sky, and Call of Pripyat transported players to "the Zone," a fictionalized version of the exclusion zone placed around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant after the infamous 1986 nuclear disaster.

With the long-awaited follow-up STALKER 2: Heart of Chornobyl releasing this September, there's never been a better time to dip your toe into these irradiated waters and see what all the hype is about. Though we don't know many specifics about STALKER 2: Heart of Chornobyl just yet, we can look to the original trilogy for clues to what we can expect from the first new STALKER since 2009.

Here are a few reasons why we’re excited to go back to the Zone:
Stalker 2 1

Revisit one of the most memorable video game settings

There's no doubt that "the Zone" itself is the star of STALKER. The series draws on ideas from the classic Strugatsky science fiction novel Roadside Picnic—especially its depiction of the titular "stalkers," desperate freelancers who brave harsh conditions, mutated horrors, and mysterious "anomalies'' in search of valuable artifacts.

From the first moment you awake in a trader's bunker in STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, you're tasked with exploring scrubby hills, abandoned buildings, and underground tunnels in your quest to "kill Strelok," the only message left on the PDA found in your possession. The original STALKER’s washed-out color palette and dilapidated post-Soviet aesthetic sets the tone for the proceedings, but it's difficult to explain the unique tincture of feelings that it manages to produce: curiosity, foreboding, and more than a little fear.

Surviving a gunfight with desperate bandits or an encounter with invisible "Bloodsuckers" might give you a sense of momentary triumph, but it'll pass quickly. You never quite know what to expect in STALKER—you'll find yourself carefully peering around corners and double-checking your bandage count every few minutes. Pockets of deadly radiation can lay you low quickly, and logic-defying anomalies will catch even the most dedicated player off-guard.

You're exploring a mundane-yet-alien landscape with nothing but a handful of damaged guns and some patched-up armor. The odds are against you, but you push on.
Stalker 2 6

Vastly improved visuals

The STALKER games have always delivered in terms of art direction and atmosphere, but game tech has come a long way since 2009. Heart of Chornobyl is being developed in Unreal Engine 5, which means it'll take full advantage of modern bells and whistles to deliver the most in-depth version of the Zone yet. This includes motion capture and advanced photogrammetry, giving the Zone an authentic look captured from real-life.
Stalker 2 10

Continue a long-dormant story

The original STALKER trilogy is quite story-focused in its own way, encouraging the player to explore the Zone, talk to vendors, and take on side quests in order to learn more about the factions of the region. The various mutually conflicting endings of Call of Pripyat left key aspects of the story unresolved, including the fate of the player-character Strelok and the future of governmental involvement with the Zone.

No matter what ending you got in each game, the series' overarching narrative is a large part of its appeal. STALKER 2 is a sequel, with the player controlling a new character called “Skif” who will have a say in the future of the Zone.
Stalker 2 7

Learn more about the Zone

Building on that last point: Though it's unclear to what extent STALKER 2: Heart of Chornobyl will directly continue the original trilogy's story, the mysteries of the Zone will certainly figure into it.

Each STALKER entry has involved rogue scientists or stalkers trying to harness or understand the vagaries of the irradiated area, and we have no reason to think Heart of Chornobyl will be any different. If you're looking for more lore and worldbuilding—as well as scary monsters and bizarre happenings—expect to find it here.
Stalker 2 3

A renewed focus on survival

STALKER has always included survival mechanics—you could say that it helped usher in the survival FPS subgenre—but Heart of Chornobyl will double-down on this signature trait.

According to pre-release materials, STALKER 2: Heart of Chornobyl includes hunger and sleep systems, in-depth radiation effects, a day-night cycle, and more, making the Zone feel like a living, breathing place. Popular fan-made mods added even more mechanics to the original STALKER trilogy, so you can certainly expect the community to add greater depth and complexity to Heart of Chornobyl post-launch—if that's what you're looking for, of course.
Stalker 2 2

Improved AI for a more realistic world

The original STALKER trilogy took full advantage of the best AI available at the time, and that's a big part of Heart of Chornobyl. The revival will include the A-Life 2.0 system, which will simulate every aspect of the Zone to improve the player's immersion.

From roaming mutants to skirmishing brigands, every day (and night) that you spend in Heart of Chornobyl will be different, and you'll have to be ready for anything. Each play session is its own emergent story, with the changing world of the Zone serving as the impetus. This sense of unpredictability is key to the STALKER experience, so expect your opponents to use the best tactics available to take you down.
Stalker 2 8

The joy of broken guns and shoddy equipment

Back when I first played STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl as a teen, my rusty AKM jammed during an early firefight. I'll never forget when it happened—my reaction was total disbelief, followed by an untimely death at the hands of some Russian-spewing soldiers.

It was the first time my gun ever broke in a video game, and it set the tone for the rest of my playthrough. Whereas most shooters give you fun toys to play with within a few minutes, STALKER challenges you to make do with second-hand guns that literally fall apart while you're firing them, and might even jam at an inopportune moment if you don't take care of them.

Like Resident Evil 4, there's a real joy to investing resources and money into your favorite weapon and upgrading it into a finely-tuned killing machine, and the same applies to that exoskeleton armor you earned through hard-fought sidequests. STALKER 2: Heart of Chornobyl will almost certainly give these systems even more depth.
Stalker 2 5

There's nothing else like it

You don't have to look far to find games that seem to take visual cues from the STALKER series—particularly multiplayer shooters like Escape From Tarkov and PUBG: Battlegrounds—but STALKER ultimately inhabits its own niche, one that no other title has managed to fill. It takes a certain kind of game to inspire hype for and devotion to a sequel arriving 15 years after the last entry, but STALKER has earned it with its unique blend of horror and survival, with a dash of immersive sim thrown in there for good measure.

If you've never taken a trip to the Zone, you should strongly consider it when STALKER 2: Heart of Chornobyl comes around—or consider trying one of the first three games, particularly if you have an affinity for modding.

STALKER 2: Heart Of Chornobyl releases on the Epic Games Store on September 5, 2024.