The demo starts, and my health is already draining. Welcome to Stalker 2, I guess. This Gamescom, for the first time, GSC Game World's long awaited sequel is available to play on the show floor—albeit just the smallest possible slice. But while the demo may be only 15 minutes long, it manages to pack in all the grim, dystopian misery a Stalker fan could want.
Case in point, my health. I'm unconscious in an irradiated field full of anomalies. But that isn't what's killing me off. No, my character finally opens his eyes, and I discover the culprit: a mutant dog that's been snacking on his leg. My character pulls out a gun. It jams. The dog lunges at his neck. My character struggles to hold it at bay, weakly kicking it away just far enough for it to land in a gravity anomaly. It's pulled into the air and crushed to death. Life's tough in the zone.
Finally able to stand, I look around to find a stranger who's been silently watching this all unfold. He chucks me a bolt. Right, yes. The field is full of anomalies. Bolts are a Stalker classic—an invaluable tool for pinpointing any anomalies in your immediate area. If I throw a bolt at a gravity anomaly, it'll be briefly weakened, letting me pass relatively unscathed.
Radiation is a factor too, which I discover as I dash past the anomaly and towards a nearby lake. My Geiger counter clicks into overdrive, and static starts to cover the screen. Not that way then. I double back and instead head over to the stranger, who advises I deliver a couple of medkits to some locals in exchange for a safe place to go. And with that, I'm left to my own devices.
To recap: I've been chewed up by a dog, blasted by an anomaly, and irradiated. I'm about three minutes into the demo.
Nevertheless, I get the sense this Gamescom build is taking it easy on me. I check my inventory and I'm well stocked with weapons and healing items. A couple of syringes later, and I'm basically good as new. Still, I'm not feeling particularly welcomed by the Zone, which is why I'm not surprised when, as I crest a nearby hill, I encounter a man who immediately opens fire.
Fine, be that way. I shoot back, taking him down with relative ease. That's when a pop-up in the corner informs me that I've failed a quest to meet some locals near a post office. Oh. He wasn't shooting at me. He was shooting at the dogs that are now charging straight at me. Life's tough in the zone.
In a game that is very recognisable Stalker, the quest system is perhaps the biggest change I notice—specifically the Skyrim-esque compass along the top that marks nearby quest locations and distances. It's perhaps a sign that this will be a more accessible outing than previous games in the series. As someone who prefers open world games with more naturalistic orienteering, it's not a change I relish, but my time here is too brief to draw any meaningful conclusion. We'll see how it plays out in the full game. Certainly, I'm not too worried that this is going to be a less intense experience. After all, I've nearly died three times at this point.
Make that four times. Investigating a building, I anger some bandits who think I'm trying to reclaim their territory back for the Stalkers. These guys are definitely shooting at me. I may have guns, but I'm short on ammo, and the guns I'm using aren't exactly good—they kick like hell, making it hard to land shots. I'm having to use cover wisely, dodging out at opportunistic moments to scavenge ammo from a body, then diving back to safety. My healing items are depleting rapidly. Eventually, though, the last guy falls, and I find a nice stash of ammo and weapons for my trouble.
Near death experience number five arrives at the end of the demo, when the sky turns red and a broadcasting system warns of an incoming emission—a kind of deadly lightning storm. Luckily I'm near the safehouse, and thus the end of the demo, but rather than rush straight there, I stop to appreciate the effect of the sky turning apocalyptic. Elsewhere, Stalker 2 looked good, sure, but utilitarian. It's the post-apocalypse. The buildings are concrete and rubble. The vibes are grey and dour. But here, amid the alien red glow of an emission, it feels like it's making the most of Unreal Engine 5.
Finally, regretfully, I head to the safehouse. I knock on the door, and start to collapse. The door opens and someone wearing a gas mask appears. I can feel their weary disdain as they drag me inside. Life's tough in the zone.