The battle for the legacy of Stalker may yet prove to be as intriguing and complex as any tall tale from the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
Shady development entity West-Games keeps plugging away in its attempts to coax crowdfunded coin from fans - its latest effort is now apparently Stalker Apocalypse - but actual gameplay details remain suspiciously vague. Meanwhile Vostok Games, founded by people who were actually and actively working on Stalker 2 when it was axed in 2012, has been quietly creating Survarium, the true continuation of the radioactive fan favourite, in style if not name.
For anyone who played and loved Stalker, the prospect of finally returning to the bleached and broken world of Chernobyl is enticing. Survarium's current open beta trial, however, doesn't immediately offer the game you'd expect. This is a test of the game's multiplayer, which means team-based Capture the Flag variants and - gulp - free-to-play micropayments.
Before you throw your hands up in disgust, know this: it's actually really good. In the finished game these competitive matches will be just one of the things you can do in an environment touted as an MMO FPS, but even in isolation it catches the tone and depth of Stalker while marrying it to tropes that will be familiar to shooter fans. It's quite a balancing act.
Just as shooters gradually inherited and mutated character progression mechanisms from role-playing games, so Survarium sees those features being turned back into the RPG form. You'll create a character, you'll build up an inventory, you'll craft new items, work for factions and pore over the stat increases offered by different bits of gear and multiple skill trees. It's just that, in this slice of the game, you're doing so before going into battle against other players rather than pitting yourself against a stark survival sandbox.
Only two game modes are currently available. There's the obligatory Team Deathmatch, which plays much as you'd expect, and a variation on Capture the Flag based around batteries. The idea is that a terrible magnetic storm is coming, and each team needs to find and charge batteries that will power the shields to protect their community. Unlike a traditional CTF game, however, there are multiple batteries in play, all plugged in, and any one of which might be the next to charge up. In the meantime, enterprising raiders can head into the enemy base to steal from their stockpile of batteries as well. It's a small twist on the formula, but a welcome one, keeping play moving in multiple directions rather than succumbing to a monotonous tug of war.
Even so, in terms of what you must do, there are few surprises. The depth comes from the systems at work in the character development side of things. You enter the game as a factionless nobody, clad in grubby tracksuit pants, scruffy trainers and a tatty festive jumper. As well as your default pistol, you can pick from a standard rifle or an assault rifle, and that's pretty much it.
Thankfully, this isn't like Call of Duty where death comes the instant another player has you in their sights. Maps are open and organic, ranging from a crumbling village on the banks of a toxic river to a derelict school. It plays more like a smaller scale Battlefield, or more specifically like a less ruthless ARMA or Flashpoint.
Encounters with other players feel like genuine cat and mouse firefights rather than the quick-draw showdowns found in most modern FPS games, with damage indicators for your limbs, torso and head, and you'll find that caution, strategy and intelligence are just as useful as fast trigger fingers. Weapon accuracy aims for, and often hits, a sweet spot between a more realistic ballistic model and the satisfaction of arcade aiming. No-scope headshots are thankfully a rarity and you'll often limp away wounded from a fight, rather than die immediately.
There are various ways to improve your chances of victory. Experience points are earned for victory, naturally, and these generate skill points that can be spent in five skill trees. To begin with, only firearms and physical training are available, improving factors such as accuracy and strength, but later you'll get the chance to develop trap-making abilities and more specific survival techniques.
Getting better gear means aligning with a faction, however, since the type of weapons you can buy depends on which faction's favour you have earned. Scavengers offer stealth-based items, and their armour tends to be little more than a leather jacket. Black Marketers dress like bikers and tend towards fast, brutal up-close hits. Shotguns and SMGs are their trademark. The Renaissance Army is the closest Survarium's world has to an organised military, but their hand-me-down assault rifles and body armour don't give them an automatic advantage. Finally, there's the Fringe Settlers, who incorporate animal skins and other natural materials into their armour.
You can align with any faction, and they'll give you optional "missions" to carry out during matches. These are really just bonus objectives such as getting a certain number of melee kills or using particular weapon types. Success in these missions earns you more favour with that faction, which in turn opens up more stock from their shop. Key desirable items are only available once you've proved your worth, which means that you can't just jump in and grab a sniper rifle. That's a right you have to earn by becoming a veteran Scavenger.
The accumulation of improved gear is paced like a role-playing game, but this slow build combines with the game's more thoughtful pace to create a multiplayer experience that is actually a lot less intimidating than the current crop of shooters. It's still tough, but not the sort of game where newcomers will end up trapped in a fruitless die-spawn-die cycle. They may not look like much, but your starting weapons are capable of scoring some decent kills and you can start meeting objectives right from the start.
That's not to say there aren't wrinkles still to be smoothed out. There are some fairly blatant camping spots at the moment, which are almost always being exploited by more experienced players who have earned better kit. Lobby balancing is going to be a real issue, I suspect, given the sheer wealth of options open to players through the RPG systems. Hopefully this is just a result of the beta environment, and once on fully populated servers there'll be a better segregation of players.
There's also the ominous cloud of F2P to contend with. Survarium has two currencies, silver and gold. Silver is the one you earn most often, gold is handed out only rarely - either as a post-match bonus or for returning to the game daily. You can also buy gold in bulk from the website - $100 gets you 10,000 gold - or you can pay for a premium membership, which doubles your XP and offers other perks for a week.
Gold is mostly used in the crafting of modified weapons. This feature will be familiar from lots of RPGs. You take the weapon you want to improve, combine it with a lower quality weapon you don't want, and hopefully the result is something better than you started with. It is possible, however, to create a weaker weapon - or even lose them entirely. Funding this process with silver means a 50/50 success rate, and can only be done once every six hours. Pay for it with gold and those limitations don't apply. The gold prices don't seem to be exorbitant - 100 gold will last a decent while - but it's still hard not to remain a little cynical about how such divisive pay features will impact a game that is already going to be difficult to balance successfully.
Those doubts can be set aside for later, though, when we have the full game to judge. Right now, Survarium looks set to be both confident and interesting, honouring its lofty legacy but aiming for more than just a timid retread. As familiar as the surface details are, there are a lot of bold ideas and genre combinations in the mix and that in itself is reason enough to be excited.
Yet even if Survarium were only ever going to be an online shooter, this beta is promising enough that I'd be looking forward to it. Knowing that it will be just one part of a larger experience, with all the sandbox survival gameplay that Stalker fans will want, makes it even more enticing.