chernobylite_demo_hands-on-first-impressions

It’s no secret that HBO’s highly-acclaimed Chernobyl miniseries sparked a new wave of interest in everything surrounding the 1986 nuclear disaster. Russia is apparently creating its own series based on (I use that term loosely) the tragic events, the Ukrainian president wants to turn the nuclear disaster site into a tourist attraction, and new video games set in and around Chernobyl are being announced constantly. Most of these upcoming titles look fairly bland and uninspired, but there is one game that managed to catch my attention in a big way. That game is Chernobylite.

Developed by the folks over at The Farm 51, Chernobylite is a first-person survival horror game that was initially announced back in 2018. The big selling point here is that the developers actually went to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on numerous occasions and used techniques like laser scanning and photogrammetry in order to recreate it in-game as faithfully as possible. This level of dedication did not go unnoticed because the project managed to get funded on Kickstarter in just over a week.

Back in May, The Farm 51 released the first public demo for Chernobylite, which was meant to give gamers an idea of what to expect from the final product. The game is currently in pre-alpha and obviously still rough around the edges. However, after playing through the demo a couple of times I can honestly say that the game already shows a lot of promise despite being so early in development.

Welcome Back to the Zone, Stalker

Chernobylite is a game that draws inspiration from a number of different titles and isn’t ashamed to show it. The biggest source of inspiration is, of course, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and in many ways almost feels like a continuation of the series. Almost. Chernobylite is very much its own game with an original story that focuses more on exploration and less on the cheeki breeki. There is a fair amount of shooting involved but you seem to be able to avoid combat in most situations by simply using stealth instead.

Unlike S.T.A.L.K.E.R. where you take on the role of an experienced… well, stalker, Chernobylite puts you in the shoes of Igor Gumenyuk (I probably misspelled that), a scientist who doesn’t really know how to use the gun. Trying to aim properly was a bit of a nightmare during the demo’s only mission, which seems to have been an intentional design choice. It’s only after I beat the mission and leveled up that I was able to get some shooting lessons and from my trusty sidekick Olivier.

Chernobylite features some RPG elements, which I like, and a realistic method of acquiring new skills, which I really like. Instead of freely assigning points to the skills you want to improve upon leveling up, you need to visit a trainer who can teach you that skill. This reminds me a lot of the progression system used in Piranha Bytes’ Gothic series and is something that should be present in more games if you ask me

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What I particularly liked about Chernobylite’s take on the system is that Olivier actually took me to an improvised shooting range to practice while he was giving me a lecture about the importance of aiming. “This isn’t a Western movie where you shoot from the hip,” he said, “you need to aim.” I’m not exactly sure what other skills you can improve in the game or if you have to visit trainers to improve all of them, but I do hope that ends up being the case.

Not Exactly Sure What’s Going on But Color Me Intrigued

Chernobylite features a hauntingly beautiful world where nature is slowly but surely reclaiming what was once an area brimming with people. These days, The Zone is populated mainly by stalkers, soldiers, and the occasional supernatural entity. Like most games that use this popular setting, Chernobylite features plenty of supernatural elements, as well as a healthy dose of science-fiction.

chernobylite_demo_the_zone

The sci-fi themes were obvious from the get-go, as the demo starts off with the main character walking through some sort of parallel dimension while vividly reliving old memories. The introduction was a bit confusing at first because the game doesn’t really explain where you are or what that place represents. However, you get to learn later on that Igor is a brilliant physicist who, among other things, invented space warping technology.

From what I could gather, The Zone is guarded by soldiers who don’t like intruders so your primary means of traveling between different areas is via portals. Igor can create these portals using some sort of device powered by an exotic material, which I assume is the titular Chernobylite. The science of how things work in this universe wasn’t really explained in the demo and I’m speculating a bit here, so don’t quote me on that.

In addition to the military, The Zone is also inhibited by ghostly apparitions and other types of entities that I don’t quite know how to describe. They look humanoid but I’m hesitant to call them mutants because I’m not sure if they’re native to The Zone or another plane of existence. I only had one face-to-maw encounter with such an entity and it didn’t disappear after I killed it so I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a ghost. Maybe.

Specters are also a part of the game but they don’t seem to be hostile. At least, not all of them. One of the ghostly apparitions you’ll come across is that of your fiancé’s, the beautiful Tatyana, who may or may not be actually dead. Igor certainly doesn’t seem to think so. In fact, the main reason why he returned to The Zone is because he wants to find out what happened to her.

Igor apparently worked at the Chernobyl NPP and Tatyana was a music teacher in Pripyat back before the disaster. Tatyana mysteriously vanished shortly after the explosion and Igor seems to think her disappearance was no mere accident. Although Igor’s primary goal in The Zone is to find out what happened to Tatyana, it seems like there will be plenty of other objectives you can pursue as well.

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Your Choices Dictate How the Story Unfolds

Chernobylite is a non-linear game where the story is shaped by the player’s actions. I’m not quite sure to what extent, though. I intentionally failed the mission available in the demo during one of my playthroughs and was able to try again the next in-game day. Despite failing the first time, I successfully completed the mission afterward. However, I imagine there will be long-term consequences for failing missions in the final version of the game.

That said, it’s not really advisable to keep failing missions even if there won’t be any consequences for doing so. As far as I can tell, you can only do one mission per day and you need to be careful about how you go about it. While wandering The Zone you need to keep an eye on food rations and other supplies that you can bring back to your home base after each mission.

Rations, in particular, seem to play an important part in the game as you’ll need to share some of them with your comrades in order to keep them healthy and happy, as well as trade them with other stalkers for loot.

chernobylite_demo_rations

Luckily, scouring the world for supplies doesn’t necessarily have to be your primary focus during missions because your comrades can help you out with this task. Every time you decide to go on a mission, you can assign members of your team to other parts of The Zone to pursue various objectives.

I’m fairly certain The Farm 51 drew inspiration from This War of Mine when implementing this system because it works quite similar to the one used by 11 Bit Studios. And just like in This War of Mine, you’ll need to be careful about where you send your friends because they can get hurt during missions they’re not equipped to handle.

I’m not sure how large your team can ultimately get but there’s certainly plenty of room in your base for more than a couple of people. Your base is strategically positioned to overlook the entire Exclusion Zone and will be your main hub where you can resupply, train your skills, interact with people, and more in-between missions.

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Some Sources of Inspiration Are Better Than Others

The game features a crafting system that some players will like more than others because it seems inspired by the one found in Fallout 4 and more recently, the dreaded Fallout 76. The system is well implemented in Chernobylite and doesn’t actually play as big a role here as it does in the Fallout games. You’re certainly not being asked by an Ukranian Preston Garvey to rebuild settlements in The Zone (I hope).

However, I’m afraid this crafting system and the way it is presented may give some people the wrong impression of what this game is really about because of Fallout 76. There used to be a time not that long ago when developers could take pride – and rightfully so- when their games were being compared to Fallout. Sadly, that time has passed. Unless, of course, you’re being compared to the older games in the series. Those are still great. But anyway, I digress. Let’s get back to the topic at hand.

Chernobylite’s crafting system allows you to scrap things you no longer need in order to build things that you do. Most of the crafting takes place back at the base but you can also build crafting stations out in the field where you can prepare healing salves and other useful items. A lot of the components you’ll need to craft these things can be found by using your trusty scanning device while wandering the world.

chernobylite_demo_crafting

In addition to functioning like a dosimeter, the device can also be set to point you in the direction of plants, metals, chemicals, and more. The device has a pretty wide range and can show you these materials even through walls so it’s pretty handy. I found myself using it fairly constantly throughout the demo.

Exploration is Essential

Given that I’m a massive loot hoarder who loves exploring every nook and cranny of every game I play, I think I spent more time wandering around aimlessly looking for scrap and taking in the sights than pursuing the actual mission objectives. Unfortunately, this brings me to a point that made me feel a bit conflicted while playing the demo.

Chernobylite puts a lot of emphasis on exploration and many of the horror elements come into play when you stumble across abandoned buildings that may or may not be haunted by monstrous apparitions or who knows what else. Such buildings often times contain clues that can give you a better understanding of what happened at Chernobyl or the secret experiments that, among other things, lead to the disappearance of your beloved Tatyana.

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And yet, exploring these places at your leisure and immersing yourself into the masterfully recreated Exclusion Zone doesn’t feel like a good idea a lot of the time. Missions have timers – or at least the one in the demo did – and you are reminded at regular intervals to stop wandering around and get back to the task at hand because time is of the essence. Although this sense of urgency is somewhat fitting in the context of the game and working under pressure should add to the experience, I felt like it mostly detracts from it.

Exploring the Exclusion Zone is definitely the main selling point of this game and I think the developers dropped the ball a bit by adding mission timers because they essentially force you to focus less on exploring and more on the main objectives. Consequently, this also puts a lot of pressure on the devs to create very compelling main objectives. Because if I’m being forced to rush toward an objective instead of exploring a rundown Soviet-era military installation that may contain valuable information about what happened to my beloved Tatyana, well, that objective better be of monumental importance.

chernobylite_demo_eye_of_moscow

I feel like timed missions very rarely work in a game’s favor. As good as the first S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was, the ending was definitely a drag due in no small part to the fact that you were forced to rush through Pripyat to get inside the Chernobyl NPP instead of being allowed to explore these iconic locations at your own pace. Granted, there was no timer when you reached Pripyat but you couldn’t exactly check out the place at your leisure, with snipers hidden everywhere that could essentially one-shot you.

‘Cause Opportunity Comes Once in a Lifetime

It is my understanding that The Farm 51 spent a lot of time recreating Pripyat in a way that hasn’t been done before in a video game and that the developers plan to expand it even further if they are able to secure some more funds. The Chernobyl NPP itself is also said to play a major role in the game as Igor will likely have to travel there to find out what actually happened to Tatyana. I genuinely hope players will be allowed to explore Pripyat and the NPP without having to worry about timers.

Given the amount of work put into this project and the fact that the developers worked under hazardous conditions (the amount of radiation in the Exclusion Zone is significantly lower now than it was back in the day, but still, it’s Chernobyl), I think it would be a shame if players would have to rush through the game and miss out on the fruits of that labor.

Chernobylite seems like a game designed to be highly replayable, but let’s be honest here. In the age of instant gratification where people’s patience and attention spans are getting increasingly shorter and where high-profile titles are coming out almost on a weekly basis, it’s a bit of a gamble to hope that gamers will take the time to finish your game and then replay it a second or third time.

In spite of what companies like EA or Bethesda would have us believe, most developers only get one chance to impress their audience so their game must be as good and as compelling as it can be on day one.

I know I went on a bit of a rant there but I wanted to mention all of that because I genuinely think that Chernobylite has the potential to be an amazing experience. There are some very good ideas here and the developers have managed to combine elements from a lot of different genres into a cohesive product. However, balancing all these different aspects is very challenging and must be done carefully.

Chernobylite is currently set for a Fall 2019 release, which might be a bit too soon. Although I would love to check out the full release asap, I think the developers should take as much time as they need with this project because they have something really special on their hands.

Final Thoughts

Chernobylite’s visuals are top-notch, to the point where my PC was struggling to keep up at max settings so I ended up lowering the graphics a bit. Though I suspect the ‘pre-alpha status’ may have had something to do with that. The game ran smoothly for the most part but I did run into some screen tearing, frame rate drops and even a couple of freezes here and there.

At this stage, I would say the optimization still needs some work. In the words of Anatoly Dyatlov, the performance was not great, not terrible. Based solely on my personal experience of course. That said, the game is still months away from launch so there’s plenty of time to work out the technical kinks.

chernobylite_demo

Based on the demo alone, which admittedly isn’t necessarily representative of the final product, I feel like more work has to be put into the technical stuff, the pacing and the AI, which is too easily exploitable at the moment and glitched out quite a bit during both my playthroughs.

Also, the crafting is a bit hit or miss for me. Again, the system is well implemented and a good addition to the game but it’s a bit of a bummer that it looks so much like the one in Fallout. Hopefully they can change the UI a bit to make it look more unique.

As far as the positives are concerned, there are quite a few of them to talk about. Chernobylite is a very atmospheric game backed by a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack that did a great job at keeping me immersed in its creepy and twisted version of the Exclusion Zone.

I also really like the fact that the characters, for the most part, speak in Ukrainian. Don’t worry, there are English subtitles. As great as the Chernobyl miniseries was, hearing everybody speak with a British accent was a bit strange. That’s not really the case here and everybody sounds like you would expect them to, which is always a nice touch.

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The devs also did a great job with the visuals and the progression system looks pretty solid so far. I’m not sure about the enemy variety just yet having played only one mission, but the ones I did come across fit in quite nicely with the overall theme of the game. I also can’t say a lot about the story because I don’t know much aside from the basic premise. What I will say is that Chernobylite feels like ones of those games with lots of twists where you only gradually get to learn what’s really going on.

There’s a bit of an emphasis on gathering clues and investigating various aspects related to the Exclusion Zone. Given that you’re a scientist, it seems like you should also be able to conduct some research but I haven’t really seen evidence of anything like that so I’m just speculating here. Maybe you could create devices to repel the otherworldly lifeforms present throughout The Zone or develop weapons based on the technology that allows you to create portals? Yeah, that would be nice.

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I guess we’ll just have to wait and see the full extent of what Chernobylite has to offer when the game officially launches, which should happen something later this year assuming there won’t be any delays. Chernobylite’s Kickstarter was a success but the developers are still accepting late pledges for a limited time.

Make sure to check out the project right here if you want to support this ambitious game and maybe grab a sweet Collector’s Edition of Chernobylite that comes with a whole bunch of awesome goodies. There are two physical editions to choose from, one of which even includes an original Cold War-era gas mask. Pretty awesome.

If you want to learn more about Chernobylite make sure to visit the official website and add the game to your Steam wishlist if it sounds like your cup of tea.