When Vostok Games' community manager Joe Mullin describes existence in Survarium as being “like Bear Grylls, but with a gun,” I can't help but think he's severely overestimated the TV survivalist's abilities. Bear Grylls has never killed a man for a bottle of vodka to stave off radiation poisoning, for example. Bear Grylls has never waited for sunrise to loot an abandoned radar tower, fearing mutant infestation. Bear Grylls has never walked the irradiated landscape of the ex-Stalker developer's post-apocalypse. With a bit of luck and a lot of time, we might.
Everyone should be excited about Vostok's vision for what they want Survarium to be. In free roam mode players will have to survive in huge, deadly zones full of mutants and wandering human survivors. A mysterious event has scarred reality. Shimmering anomalies can tear apart unwary creatures. Warped foliage releases deadly spores. Gas-masked humans form alliances where they can, running regular salvage missions to retrieve weapons and food supplies. Vostok are planning for it to be Stalker 2 in all but name, but expanded with a multiplayer mode that lets 45 players take their persistent survivors onto a single server in an even more intense and dangerous take on DayZ.
That game doesn't exist yet. The team left their Stalker assets and tech behind when they left GSC, and have spent their time building a new engine from scratch while searching for monetary backing. Tough gig. To shore up their finances, test their technology and to give fans a taste of what's to come, they've built a free-to-play shooter set in the Survarium universe. You create a persistent survivor, and then level them up across short-session shooter bouts in which teams of survivors brutally compete to steal artifacts from ruined urban environments.
Problem: how do you reconcile the slow intensity of Stalker with the speed and accessibility of a free-to-play shooter? Survarium doesn't even try. It's tough, and contains many of the punishing survivalist elements that you'd expect to see in a Stalker game. There's location-based damage – take a slug to the leg and your movement will slow, take one to the head and you're dead. Areas of the map are locked off by anomalies that can only be accessed by players with the correct protective gear equipped. Joe encouraged me to run into one of these deadly areas so I could see the strange, warped plant life and gently ascending red death-spores. I had a few seconds to admire it before my character choked up and dropped dead.
There's an extensive gear system that'll let you spec your survivor to be better at stealing artefacts or sniping enemy carriers. Vostok also want to add faction missions that'll help endear you to some of the wasteland's most influential gangs. You can use these relationships to earn new weapons, armour and in-game cash – another nod to the factions that patrolled the Stalker universe. I played as a high-level character, which meant I got some very basic body armour and a handy helmet. Survarium survivors tend to sport the dirty, threadbare look of a bunch of postapocalyptic bandits.
More than anything, it's the environments that got me excited about Survarium. The abandoned industrial complex and radar tower I fought through contained some of the most effective scenes of urban decay I've seen since Stalker. On the underpopulated test server I played on, there was plenty of time to admire the maps from many angles, and they're more colourful than you might expect. The factory level provides a snapshot of a crumbling complex being reabsorbed by nature, bathed in a dull orange sunset. The radar tower's enormous dish has rotted into a skeletal form that dominates the skyline. The artists at Vostok have a talent for fracturing mundane architecture into beautiful, sad new shapes. It's is encouraging for those who eventually hope explore in Survarium's free-roam mode.
I'm more worried about Survarium's life as a free-to-play shooter. Competitive shooters require a greater degree of precision and responsiveness than the singleplayer survival games that the team have become famous for. Lag on the alpha server made it difficult to assess the heft and precision of Survarium's guns, but I found myself being picked off repeatedly by snipers whenever I braved the factory courtyard's wide open areas. The high damage values of Survarium's guns place it closer to Red Orchestra than Battlefield.
Beta sessions later this year will reveal more of the progression structure that will support your survivor and the different team roles you'll be able to spec for, but I'd rather spend my time investigating Survarium's ruins than running through them, shooting. This free-to-play shooter feels like a testbed for something much more interesting. Will Vostok get the opportunity to mutate it into something special? Fingers, and tentacles, crossed.