There was something unusual about S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl right from the off. It was never your ordinary game. It was first announced in 2001 by little known Ukrainian developer GSC Game World at a time when PC gaming was about to enter its second golden age.
It had stiff competition. It was up against the likes of Doom 3, Half-Life 2, Far Cry, and Unreal Tournament 2004, which were pushing id tech, Source, CryEngine, and Unreal Engine middleware respectively. Yet S.T.A.L.K.E.R. managed to capture gamers’ imaginations by being so innovative and unique you couldn’t help but place it in such lofty company.
In the irradiated zone surrounding the devastation of Chernobyl, accurately recreated to add authenticity and atmosphere, Stalkers scavenged for artefacts that had a value on the black market. In this area you had to survive against other Stalkers, environmental anomalies, military forces, mutated fauna and flora, and the radiation itself. At the time its semi-MMO approach, large open-world, and physics-driven combat felt so fresh.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadows of Chernobyl missed its intended 2003 release date by four years and launched in 2007 with numerous technical issues. Yet at its core, it delivered a truly unique experience well ahead of its time. It was enough to give the game a cult following. And while a prequel and follow-up emerged, for many the true potential of the game was never met.
Efforts to create a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 continued for over a decade, until GSC Game World was dissolved in 2011.
Enter Vostok Games
In 2012, Vostok Games was formed by the ex-employees of GSC. With Fear the Wolves it is not looking to create a sequel, but a modern gaming experience within the same foreboding world S.T.A.L.K.E.R. started in the shadows of Chernobyl. This time it is a first-person battle royale experience, in a world where radiation and mutated beasts are also a threat.
Can Vostok deliver on the promise GSC began? Because on paper, a battle royale is the perfect genre for the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. universe. In fact, in many ways it’s the mode that the original game was fumbling around trying to find.
Where Fear the Wolves needs to define itself early is with its atmosphere. This is not a bright, colourful world where characters have tomatoes for heads, or a straight up-and-down military shooter. It’s the real wasteland left by the explosion at Chernobyl. A haunting, eerie, mass graveyard. A scar left on Earth’s surface by humanity’s arrogance.
It certainly feels spooky. There is a sense of isolation in this game when you first land and begin making your way through the trees. You come across dilapidated buildings and the remnants of failed military operations. When in a rainstorm or a dense fog that reduces line-of-sight the atmosphere ratchets up. Driving in these conditions is particularly nerve-racking. Stopping and listening becomes key in this world.
Maybe it’s knowing the history of this setting that helps, but aided by the subtle use of music, the atmosphere in Fear the Wolves is off-putting in all the right ways.
This despite the fact the game is visually a fair way below the standards of today’s elite first-person shooters. Animations feel jolty and the world blocky. Perhaps we’re demanding too much of what is in truth an indie game, but it’s trading on the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. legacy, and that legacy includes top-shelf visuals.
Dropping Into Fear the Wolves
In your opening minutes playing Fear the Wolves, you could feel like you’ve stumbled on just another reskinned PUBG battle royale clone. A helicopter draws a line across the map, you parachute out at your preferred moment, hit the ground running, and begin hunting for weapons. There are 100 players in the 25km2 map and you can play in a squad or go lone wolf.
However, Fear the Wolves has delivers some significant twists on the genre.
For starters, this world is not just filled with other players. Mutated wolves also randomly roam the map and will attack if they get close to you. While not awfully difficult to take down and even avoid if spotted early enough, they do throw a spanner into the works of existing genre fans’ strategies.
For example, you can’t simply camp out in a protected area and wait for players to wander by as the wolves will find you first. Plus, your need to defend yourself is often noisy, attracting the attention of other players when your guard is down.
Adding to their impact, the best loot spots are often guarded by a pack of wolves. So making a play for the most powerful gear is dangerous and will whittle away your ammo as well as expose you.
Stalking the End Game
Wolves are not the only random element to consider. The game does away with the closing circle system for herding players towards a close-proximity end game. Instead, the map is broken up into grids that randomly get consumed by radiation anomalies. These begin as low anomalies, giving you a chance to move to a safe spot on the grid before they shift to a deadlier high radiation anomaly.
There are various bits of loot that can save you from some levels of radiation, including oxygen masks, gear, and consumables. So this gives you an opportunity to stalk these zones as injured players flee to safety.
This grid-based approach is far less predictable than a closing circle, ensuring that players need to be adaptable. As well as making do with whatever loot can be discovered, strategies need to be tweaked on the fly as the wolves and radiation anomalies randomise the experience.
The end game is further heightened by the arrival of an extraction helicopter. While being the last person alive is the traditional win-state here, a player can earn an early victory by extracting on the helicopter.
The problem is, the smoke bombs deployed by the helicopter at its chosen extraction point attract wolves. Plus you need to climb a long rope to get to the chopper. This leaves you incredibly exposed to other players, making an extraction attempt a calculated risk. It’s certainly a far more interesting end game approach.
Also intriguing is the use of weather. Fog, rain, and wind all have ways of nerfing certain gameplay tactics, but they are not random. Instead they are voted on by dead players who have stuck around to spectate.
Get killed by a sniper, for example, and you can vote for fog in the hope of disabling their sight range and forcing them into close-quarters combat ill-equipped. Sweet, sweet revenge!
Initial Server Issues
Despite all the promise and these great ideas, it would be remiss of us not to mention our problems connecting to a server. With Europe, Asia, and USA listed as your only server options, our attempts to connect from Sydney, Australia were constantly thwarted. The game could see games, but could not connect to them.
While we’re sure gamers in other territories haven’t faced the same consistent disappointment here, it does point to some general issues in the back end.
There is also a consideration to make here on what kind of battle royale experience you are after. Fear the Wolves really mixes up the genre in interesting ways with the aforementioned features. However, with the environment and the wolves being such a big factor, there’s not as much PvP combat here as genre fans have come to expect.
Instead the focus is on survival, inventory management, atmosphere, and running. Lots of running. Which is a shame for those looking for a fight, given that the shooting mechanics – in particular bullet accuracy – are one of the game’s stronger points.
You can play the Early Access version on Steam now, and console versions are coming in 2019. Vostok Games has promised a second, unique mode is on its way that has never been seen before in the genre. Perhaps it will be the catalyst to work all these great ideas into something that’s more than the sum of its parts. If not, at least GSC Game World has recently reformed and has promised a 2021 release for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2.
So either way, Chernobyl is set to explode again.