S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl hands-on preview — Making something special takes time

Yeah, the game really does look this good. (Image credit: GSC Game World)

Shortly after the conclusion of the epic Xbox Games Showcase 2024 event, I made my way back to Summer Game Fest Play Days to go hands-on with two upcoming Xbox console exclusive (and day one Xbox Game Pass launch) titles. One was S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl, the long-awaited survival-horror shooter sequel from GSC Game World.

STALKER 2 is finally coming to Xbox Series X|S and Windows PC later this year after a multitude of (highly understandable) delays, and I was curious to see what drew so many to the STALKER franchise. I don't have much experience with this sub-genre of video games (I've played the first Metro title, and that's it), so I was going in mostly as a brand-new player. At the end of my 30-minute hands-on period, I could tell STALKER 2 is shaping up to be something special.

What is S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl?

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl — The Time of Opportunities Trailer - Xbox Games Showcase 2024 - YouTube S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl — The Time of Opportunities Trailer - Xbox Games Showcase 2024 - YouTube
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The STALKER franchise is a long-running series of first-person shooter survival-horror games centered around The Zone, an area plagued by supernatural occurrences and mysterious mutations following a second detonation of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant (which, you guessed it, is a fictional version of Chernobyl). The series resides in the same genre as the Metro franchise, characterized by tense environments and dangerous encounters.

STALKER 2 finally continues the franchise with a new mainline entry 14 years after the previous release, and brings with it all the advancements in graphics, open-world design, and gameplay systems that players wanted from the older games. It's being developed by Ukraine-based GSC Game World, which has undergone struggles and delays due to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Despite the hardships, though, the studio has continued to work to bring STALKER 2 to players, and it's finally arriving later this year.

Heart of Chornobyl is an all-new adventure set in The Zone that doesn't require players to have prior knowledge of the franchise, and it boasts an evolution of the same purposefully clunky, incredibly strained gameplay of the original series. You'll have to survive the dangers of The Zone, learning and avoiding hazards while scavenging for resources, supplies, and gear. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl officially releases on Sept. 5, 2024 for Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, and Xbox and PC Game Pass.

A tense atmosphere fraught with danger

There are so many dangers in The Zone, and I barely scratched the surface. (Image credit: GSC Game World)

The first thing I noticed when I sat down to player STALKER 2 at Summer Game Fest 2024 was how stunning the game looks. Visual fidelity, advanced character models, and incredible environmental detail come together to craft an extremely dark, ominous, and tense atmosphere that immediately puts you on edge. STALKER 2 doesn't waste much time making sure you're aware of how vulnerable you really are in The Zone, even after you've acquired your first weapons.

There was only so much I could see in a 30-minute time frame, but I got my first in-person peek into the story of STALKER 2 and how it'll be affected by your choices in the semi-open world. There's a lot going on in The Zone outside of your control or knowledge, but Skif, the character you play as, seems to have an objective in mind from the beginning. It's a tall order completing that objective, though, given how dangerous this world seems to be.

Other humans armed with powerful firearms are the least of your concerns, as you'll also have to be constantly aware of sources of debilitating radiation, enigmatic anomalies that overwhelm you in moments, and even mutated monsters that pose wholly unique threats to your wellbeing. GSC Game World has clearly invested a lot of effort into making STALKER 2 the visual and atmospheric showcase the series always had the potential to be, and it's stunning (and terrifying).

An action game where you're not an action hero

Okay, I'm officially sold on this game, even if I barely know anything about STALKER. (Image credit: GSC Game World)

Contributing to this persistent sense of danger is the fact that you're simply not an action hero. This isn't Master Chief or Doom Slayer; you're a human being with very squishy insides, and everything you see could potentially kill you. Highlighting your fragility are the awkward controls, which I believe are intentional. STALKER 2 doesn't feel bad to control in the slightest — instead, the way you move and aim constantly reminds you that you're wearing a lot of gear, that guns are inherently unwieldy, and that regular humans can't jump five feet in the air or slide 20 feet along the ground on a whim.

The controls did take some getting used to, and there were times toward the end of my playthrough that I felt at a loss for what to do, as STALKER 2 seems happier to give you gentle prods in the right direction but mostly leave you to your own devices... Even when that means blindly figuring out some new control mechanic. These are things that can be improved in the final months of development, however. What isn't likely to change is the difficulty.

STALKER 2 was brutal, even in my initial demo. Toward the end of my session, I encountered a terrifyingly fast and powerful foe that just happened to also be able to turn almost completely invisible. In the poor light of the early morning, it was nearly impossible to pick out among the shadows of surrounding foliage and wreckage. Even when I did manage to lock on, the creature took an astounding amount of gunfire before it finally collapsed. I admit it took me a few tries to survive this encounter, and it was another reminder that exploring The Zone is not a casual walk around the neighborhood.

Overall, I'm very intrigued. My first encounter with the STALKER franchise was a positive one, even surrounded by the din and movement of the Summer Game Fest Play Days building, and it left me wanting more. My brief exploration yielded unexpected results, and I'm eager to see what other secrets The Zone holds. The challenge offered by the hazards within only seek to entice me more. With months left for optimization and improved onboarding, I believe S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl has all the pieces it needs to become something truly special, and one of the best Xbox games of the year.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl is set to launch on Sept. 5, 2024, and is now available to preorder for Xbox Series X|S and Windows PC.

Zachary Boddy
Staff Writer

Zachary Boddy (They / Them) is a Staff Writer for Windows Central, primarily focused on covering the latest news in tech and gaming, the best Xbox and PC games, and the most interesting Windows and Xbox hardware. They have been gaming and writing for most of their life starting with the original Xbox, and started out as a freelancer for Windows Central and its sister sites in 2019. Now a full-fledged Staff Writer, Zachary has expanded from only writing about all things Minecraft to covering practically everything on which Windows Central is an expert, especially when it comes to Microsoft. You can find Zachary on Twitter @BoddyZachary.

  • AtlasMKII
    Chornobyl is not a fictional version of Chernobyl, it's the Ukranian spelling of the Ukranian nuclear plant. The spelling of the game was changed following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.