Stalker 2 plays like the most brutal, difficult game in the series

It’s no secret that I’m excited about a lot of this year’s videogame offerings. Dragon Age: The Veilguard, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2, overnight sensation Supervive – while 2025 is the ‘big year’ for videogames, the latter half of 2024’s looking pretty damn good. But amid all these adventures – some of which I’ve been waiting for for years – there’s Stalker 2. As someone who has played Shadow of Chernobyl many times, I’ve been silently excited for its highly anticipated sequel; it’s not one many would put on the ‘list of games Lauren likes,’ but it’s there, trust me.

My lovely colleague Ed Smith played Stalker 2 back at Gamescom last year, calling it a “brutal, cruel, and deliciously realistic shooter” and likening it to Fallout and Dark Souls. Since then I’ve been on the edge of my seat, waiting for more details to slither out of their radioactive hellholes and devour me whole. I’ve had my fingers to my racing pulse, hoping to catch a glimpse of what GSC Game World’s FPS game has to offer. After a series of hype trailers and the official Stalker 2 release date reveal, I had a feeling that Summer Game Fest would be the moment that I finally got to go hands-on, and I was right.

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For reasons that I’ll keep secret for now, I’m thrust out of the back of a truck and into the heart of The Zone, the ever-changing radioactive wasteland that frames Stalker 2’s action. It’s desolate. The soil is blackened; the sky has morphed into a raging thunderstorm, with sparks of lightning drawing fault lines across sheets of thick cloud. It’s loud, it’s violent, and yet what’s more scary are the moments of deafening silence; oppressive, eerie, and fraught with tension.

Stalker 2 begins as most RPGs do – find your (presumably dead) contact. I tiptoe through a series of viaducts, water sloshing gently at my heels as I navigate my way into The Zone itself. I drop down and am immediately set upon by something, which I dispatch with a few frantic swings of my combat knife. I’m barely five minutes into the game, and I’m letting out audible squeaks that are hopefully being drowned out by the hustle and bustle around me.

Beastie felled, I continue on my mission to what appears to be a bunker turned science lab. As anticipated, my contact is very dead, but he does happen to have a mysterious piece of kit that quickly becomes integral to my survival. Bodies successfully looted and new, bigger gun equipped, I make my way back into the night.

A dark area in a forest with shanty houses, people lounging outside in front of a fire

I’m tracking an artifact, you see, characterized by sparkling blue lightning and a whole lot of weirdness. As I plunge into the heart of swampy water, I can almost feel the radiation seeping into my bones, leaving me wondering whether or not this odd little contraption is actually worth it. Ten years of my life down the drain, I scoop it up and load it into my inventory, which is a box management system akin to games like Diablo, as well as what we’ve seen before in the series’ earlier entries.

As I clear the radioactive lake and attempt to sort out my gear, something lunges at me. I say something, because it’s invisible. OG players will immediately recognize the Bloodsucker, but given it was trying to rip me apart, I wasn’t exactly trying to work out what it was. I fire a slew of bullets into it in panic, quickly realizing I have no ammo left. Its tentacled jaws wrap around my face, and for the first time in Stalker 2, I meet my grisly demise.

All of this stems from trying to sort out my inventory in the middle of the open-world; something that’s essential given your limited carry space and the JENGA-style mini-game you have to play to get everything to fit. It’s a small part of a bigger picture, but survival is essential in Stalker 2. A moment of hesitation will earn quick punishment; pausing for one second will likely end in your untimely death. In Stalker 2, literally everything wants to kill you – you’re completely and utterly alone

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Round two, then: Bloodstalker, one, Lauren zero. This time, however, I’m prepared. I snag the artifact and raise my weapon, stalking the creature as it stalks me. It leaps, and I headshot, presumably taking a chunk out of it. A few more shots, and it’s dead – but so am I. I’m perplexed, then I realize – the water is radioactive; slowly but surely, it’s been eating away at my health bar which was already dented by the Bloodstalker. A gentle reminder to myself that everything – literally everything – wants to kill me.

In fact, even the game itself does. As I respawn I die over and over again, and I’m quickly saved by a member of the dev team who notes that, because the Bloodsucker and I died at the same time, the game saved my death sequence as the autosave. I load back in on an earlier save, setting me back a few paces, which, while not the attending devs’ fault, is a little frustrating – especially when you only have 30 minutes with the game.

My remaining time is spent heading towards another anomaly; a bigger one this time. As I plant my handy new contraption into the ground and rush to safety, the soil becomes charged with electricity, meaning that I need to watch my footing in order to retrieve it. My time in The Zone ends as I pull the needle from the ground, blue static dissipating around me. It’s almost beautiful in its own, macabre sort of way.

A screenshot taken in an FPS game where a player walks through an abandoned house area

Game crash aside, my experience with Stalker 2 is everything I’d hoped for. Combat is slow, methodical and gritty, the monsters are genuinely frightening, and the environment is beautiful and lethal in equal measure.

What Stalker 2 does so well, however, is create that sense of pure isolation and complete terror. A quick glance over your shoulder isn’t enough when invisible enemies can appear out of thin air, and keeping your eyes ahead means you may miss the murky toxic waste that swims around your feet. Nowhere is safe in The Zone.

And yet, I’m somehow compelled back towards its depths. I want to explore, I want to loot; and I’m willing to die for it, over and over again. The heart of Chernobyl awaits, and I’m determined to claw it out and stow it in my inventory when September finally rolls around.