In Chernobylite, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. meets, uh… S.T.A.L.K.E.R.?

It has been… a while since my first foray into the radioactive undergrowth of Cherobylite’s Pripyat, but here we stand again, a month from release, staring with raised eyebrows at a still-growing relative and saying ‘My, haven’t you grown!’.

Chernobylite has had quite a few major updates since the demo – so many in recent months, in fact, that I may have had to start new games thrice over in the process of checking them out. The most obvious of these changes is in the game’s opening. Instead of a video introduction leading straight into the geometric spaces in between realities, Chernobylite now opens with Igor’s journey into the belly of the power plant to unearth the truth about his missing fiancé. This is a welcome change, and it presents an intriguing introduction to the story that will follow. Interest piqued, I plunged back in.

Two men in white work uniforms inspect a series of pipes to either side of a flooded corridor. One of them turns a valve. A subtitle reads 'Ghost2: He's there... He's over there... He's not moving... Oh God, oh God, oh God...' The player's hand is visible holding a scanning tool in the bottom right. A warping effect around the edge of the screen indicates that this is a glimpse into the past.
Not only did the new opening present a satisfying introduction to Chernobylite’s background, but also an impressive selection of pipes.

Once you follow the introduction to your base, you fall into Chernobylite’s core gameplay loop: choose a mission; go on a mission; return to the base; build, craft, chat and train. The base acts as the hub for your investigations, playing host to a set of facts, clues and other lore items you can make use of in your eventual heist. The necessity of a heist isn’t immediately obvious at the beginning of the game – you know there will be one, because you have it written on a whiteboard, but it’s not something you would have guessed you needed yet. At least, not until you’d found more clues.

That’s where the missions come in. Each day, you get to choose a mission per team member. Missions vary daily and provide access to a different range of resources depending on their type. Common missions that reoccur quite often (often enough that I couldn’t tell the difference – a little more variety here would have been welcome) are food, medicine and ammunition drops, but you have a chance to come across other supplies and clues during these missions, which tend to be available for a couple of days. At the slightly more urgent end you get the story missions, which you unlock as you go along. Each team member has a percentage chance to complete certain types of mission depending on their strength, so it’s best to send yourself on the missions they’re unlikely to succeed at. They can’t complete story missions for you, after all.

Chernobylite - We overlook a view of Pripyat from a high vantage point, with the Duga radar array in the far distance. Three character portraits are in the top left of the screen, with the player character at the top. Percentages indicate their chance of success on the selected mission. These missions are listed on the right, and three of them have been assigned a character. Key bindings are listed on the bottom of the screen, including one to start the mission.
The UI on this screen can still be a bit clunky – navigating through menus via the keyboard is sadly more reliable than using the mouse.

You teleport into your mission (via what I like to think of as a radioactive Upside-Down) with all your gear ready to get in and out with the goods. That’s the plan, after all – getting involved in a shoot-out with the NAR isn’t a great idea – but it makes for surprisingly quiet runs. Perhaps I was just so scared of running into anything that I was overcautious, but I often managed to clear all the goodies from a map (back before the numbers were reduced to sensible levels) without running into trouble. Stealth is key.

I actually think they’ve pulled off the stealth mechanics pretty well, with some of that polish coming out of recent updates. The yellow arc that expands to show someone’s about to notice you is now paired with an audio cue, making it a little more obvious when you’re about to get in trouble and adding to the atmosphere. Chernobylite’s audio does a great job at setting atmosphere in general – tense music picks out spookier locations and a chorus of ‘is something in here with me?’ noises accompany your travels. Add to that the creepy dolls and items that move of their own accord and the tension’s so thick it’s a wonder your character can move.

In later levels, when you’ve been introduced to strange encounters of the glowing green variety, stealth becomes a little trickier. Perambulating zombie-like creatures make you keep careful watch for openings and patches of radiation stop you just giving them a wide berth. Monsters that can just appear keep you on your toes, scanning around and behind whenever you’re moving indoors. The mysterious black stalker appears and pops two shots into you while you’re stuck in an animation and prompts a string of swearing before you regain control and let off a full AK-47 magazine to delete him. (This was unfortunate timing, but led to a comical pile of NAR corpses when they each came to investigate the noise – their AI isn’t the most intelligent when it comes to hunting you.)

The player's hand is visible holding a revolver in the foreground as they crouch there. They are crouched on a concrete roof above a tree-lined path towards some apartment buildings. To the left, the roof joins up with the roof of another building, which boasts some beautiful stained-glass windows.
Chernobylite does give you a nice range of options to go over trouble, rather than through it. This was the route I took to get away from what I like to call a ‘nope zombie’.

You can craft while you’re on a mission, including temporary cover, but I honestly never felt the need to. I also forgot which button it was bound to after the first tutorial and besides, crafting makes noise, when we’ve already established the need for stealth. Just make sure you clean your inventory before setting out, or you won’t be able to bring any nice loot back. At the moment, if you trade someone some rations for a loot box and there’s no room in the inventory, you’ll lose whatever you traded and not get the loot box. A bit annoying, but hopefully one for fixing later.

Once you’ve finished the quest, or if you need to get out in a hurry (accepting that you’ll fail the quest), you can teleport back to your base. There’s no rush to do this, so you can spend a bit of time clearing up any optional objectives/points of interest before you head out.

That lands you back in your base and the end of the day, where you can see your companions’ mission results and allocate food rations according to how much you’ve been able to scrounge. After that, you’re free – either to head straight to bed and the next day or to build to your heart’s content. For anyone familiar with Fallout 4’s building system, it works pretty much the same in Chernobylite. You can flick through types of structure until you (eventually) find what you’re looking for.

Chernobylite - A buildable object is highlighted in green in the building view. Along the top. building categories are displayed to choose from. On the left, the current object is described as a microprocessor recycler, which you can use to recycle unwanted items into base components. It also shows the effect the object has on the comfort, power use, air quality and radiation security of your base. On the right, it displays a list of the components you will gain by scrapping the object.
Finally, a home for all the spare gas mask filters I have lying around!

I’m pretty happy with Chernobylite’s collection of base equipment – it’s functional and looks decent, and you unlock it at a decent rate – but I’m less a fan of having to juggle statistics in the process. You have four: comfort, power, air quality and radiation. My issue is with comfort. It is far too difficult to keep your base comfortable in my opinion. You end up jamming every available space with potted plants whenever you want to add something that makes the base nasty to live in. Bizarrely, while potted plants increase comfort, planters to grow herbs etc. lower it a large amount. If those values were flipped, building would make more sense and be a more pleasant experience, and those items would feel less prohibitive to use. Sadly, the ‘high-tier’ equipment you can build just doesn’t seem enough of an upgrade to warrant the effort. I was really excited to build something that was meant to negate some radiation in the zone, but it didn’t have much effect. Perhaps it hasn’t been implemented yet.

As it is, Chernobylite’s building system is decent enough, if a bit of a juggling act. I just wish you could turn things like the radio on to liven up the atmosphere.

Cupboards, at least, are useful. You can store whatever you like in there to keep it safe. And the more you build at your base, the more you can craft there. From bandages and radiation pills to gas masks, weapons and body armour, there’s a lot to choose from. I never felt I lacked crafting components after the first couple of missions – I only ever felt that way for building materials (mechanical parts in particular), which seemed to run out as soon as I got hold of them until near the higher-tier items.

Just remember: make sure you haven’t stuffed all your ammunition in a cupboard before you leave on a mission.

Olga – a woman wearing a breathing mask, hood and leather coat – stands behind a table. There are many items next to a rucksack on that table, including a very creepy toy bear. A subtitle says: 'Olga (Placeholder Voice): I weep on the inside. My soul is bleeding when I see the absolute lack of organisation, design or any kind of style or good taste whatsoever. Our place is a messy, chaotic shithole full of junk and rubbish.'
I was surprised when Olga teaching me to increase my inventory size actually took me into a cutscene, but it was a fun surprise. It’s hard to argue with her, either. Someone really ought to scrub the floor once in a while.

You share the space with your companions, and you can find plenty of those scattered throughout the exclusion zone, each with their own personality. Not only are they interesting to chat to every now and then, but they can train you up in skills appropriate to their background. You can learn to sneak quieter, fit more in your backpack and survive falling from greater heights, among other things. The little training scenes you get with them can be pretty funny, and I found some sympathy even for characters who were initially quite annoying. You never get to take them with you on a mission, which is a shame, but they’re useful for the training, if nothing else, and when they succeed on their own missions they can bring back useful materials.

Of course, all of this is towards one goal: find and rescue your fiancée from the clutches of whatever crazy experiment she’s involved in. Throughout your time in Pripyat, this is what you weigh your mission objectives against. How far do you go to find clues? Who do you hurt to get them? When you have enough, you can use a special piece of kit to interact with a reconstruction of the events involved. What that achieves in terms of gameplay, I’m not sure, but it felt great to unlock it and have more of the story revealed.

Chernobylite - A whiteboard with a large map attached to it. Some blueprints are stuck nearby, and arrows connect these to other photos and scraps of paper.
The Heist board, nearing completion.

All of this, eventually, leads to a grand heist in the power plant. Exactly what form this will take, I’m not sure, as the heist itself is not available in early access. What I hope for is something akin to Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission in execution, where you can take at least some of your companions with you and each will have a special role. From the notes scribbled on my heist board, it looks like it’s shaping up that way.

Overall, the individual levels in Chernobylite are enjoyable, especially during the story missions when events tend to get a little more spiced up. That said, it’s more of a slow burn than I perhaps would have liked. After several hours of gameplay, the arrival of story missions seems to have slowed to a halt and it’s not clear where the rest have gone (a possible solution to this may be to ‘die’ intentionally, and use the resultant choices to alter key story decisions, but that strikes me as rather unintuitive and hopefully isn’t the finished solution).

In any case, Chernobylite is intriguing enough that I want to continue playing. The tense atmosphere, coupled with the from-life scenery that never stops throwing up new points of interest, are where it really shines. And, with the speed and size of recent updates, I’m sure the team will have a solid title ready to show everyone on release day.

Chernobylite releases for PC on the 16th of October and is currently available in Steam Early Access.

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