This article originally appeared in PC Gamer UK issue 251.
When Stalker developers GSC Game World went nuclear last year, it looked like they'd be taking the gloomy open-world shooter series with them. Instead, they scrambled out of the crater, formed a new company, and got back to work. To no one's surprise, the game they're making seems a little familiar.
It too is (partially) set in Chernobyl's irradiated exclusion zone and strikes a similarly forbidding, unheimlich tone. Warped horrors lurk in the wilderness, and bizarre, mind-crashing anomalies puncture the landscape, corrupting the fabric of space itself. The nature of the post-apocalypse humanity faces has changed and broadened, however: instead of Stalker's metaphor for scientific hubris and nuclear disaster, Survarium describes a 'global eco-catastrophe' in which the world's flora and fauna have turned against humankind. And that's not the only way the game has mutated.
“Survarium is an MMOFPS,” says lead designer Alexei Sytyanov, listing all the ways in which this makes it a very different technological proposition from Stalker's single player survival tale: servers, lobbies, chat systems, forums and stores. “We offer several play modes – team-based combat, cooperative adventures of a small group of friends and a free-play mode where players are free to both cooperate and compete with each other, alone or in group, which allows totally unique gaming situations to appear spontaneously.”
Though the way Sytyanov describes the free-play mode makes it sound a little like DayZ's free-for-all, the other components are 'session based', some sessions lasting as little as 15 minutes depending on the mode.
“Thus, the players make sallies into the world of Survarium,” says Sytyanov, going on to describe various mission parameters: the protection and capture of important territories or camps, world exploration and simple survival. In each case, Vostok limits the number of players on a given map, ensuring the atmosphere remains desolate.
“The anomalies and artefacts will be in PvP clashes, in co-op play and during the exploration of the Survarium world,” Sytyanov says. “Players will need to help each other when coming into contact with certain anomalies.”
Sytyanov also confirms that resources, like food, will have some sort of impact - but players won't find themselves going hungry in the shorter session-based modes.
If session-based gaming suggests something fragmentary – more like the rounds of a competitive shooter than the perpetual fiction which underpins most MMOs – then Sytyanov is also keen to stress that all three modes are united by a single ever-evolving world, shaped by the actions of the players within it.
“For instance,” he says, “one part of [the playerbase] chooses tasks based on defending a story-related object, which other players will attempt to get destroyed. Ultimately, the side accomplishing more tasks will impact the story and decide whether that story object is preserved or destroyed for the entire world.”
That sense of persistence will be compounded by the ability to join factions – clans or guilds in any other MMO – with their own insignia, outfits, alliances and enemies. Also like any other MMO in the F2P era, it'll have micro-transactable goods. Just what Vostok chooses to sell here will be critical: a survival game in which survival itself can simply be bought would cheapen the sense of struggle integral to the genre. Sytyanov is emphatic that this will not be the case.
“[We'll sell] premium accounts enabling you to speed up your development,” he says. “In addition: exotic goods, decoration and small additional possibilities. We do not plan to sell any items which would break the game balance. For example, a weapon which is much more powerful compared to similar ones purchased with the in-game currency. On the battlefield players should be under equal conditions.”
The picture emerges of a hybrid game offering both brief instanced action and a free-roaming survival simulation, within a persistent world that is both massively multiplayer and suitably desolate. The pay-off for this juggling act becomes clear when I ask Sytyanov what a player will experience across an evening's gaming:
“Participation in massive battles among the destroyed towns and settlements, on dead military bases, in the places of ecological catastrophes,” he lists. “Accomplishing faction tasks to earn money to purchase new equipment and weapons; exploring the world to reveal the story behind the catastrophe and its consequences; by joined effort, saving mankind's remains from the expanding forest anomaly; influencing the fate of the Survarium world; and, certainly, surviving, surviving and once again, surviving!”