Before 2022, if you were to ask the average person on the street to tell you one interesting fact about Ukraine, the vast majority would probably reply with something like “Isn’t that where the Chernobyl thing happened?” and besides the odd misguided comment about Chicken Kievs, that would most likely be your lot. It’s a shame, then, that it has taken a horrific and sad turn of events to encourage many people to greatly expand their knowledge of Ukrainian geography, history, and politics, and to a growing desire to learn more about the country and its people.
That said, if you are to dig deep into Ukraine’s impact on media beyond some beautiful folk music you will find that there is a reason the events of the Chernobyl incident stand out as being so ubiquitous to the country’s cultural heritage – having been responsible for inspiring great art and creative works that will immortalise the disaster by finding the beauty and philosophy deep at the heart of a uniquely human tragedy.
It’s no wonder, then, that many writers, directors, and game developers risk appearing cliché in order to explore the themes of the Chernobyl disaster; probably most notably in HBO’s excellent TV series Chernobyl , the fantastic S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of games and one of the most memorable levels in the Call of Duty franchise.
Enter Chernobylite, a sci-fi, horror, sort of survival game that seems to take a good deal of influence from S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and the Metro series, but without stealing any of its ideas directly from them. The game puts you in the shoes of Igor Khymynyuk, a physicist who worked at the power plant before the meltdown. Igor has a great deal on his plate, as he’s trying to find out what happened to his fiancé Tatyana, who mysteriously disappeared 30 years ago, whilst also seeking Chernobylite, a rare power source created during the meltdown. Igor needs to accomplish his goals whilst also avoiding the mysterious Black Stalker, a whole host of bad guys and monsters, keeping his sanity in check and collecting supplies and to craft resources and build up a base to keep his allies happy and healthy. The man seriously needs a rest.
Chernobylite is tons of fun (in a depressing sort of way) to play, missions can be fairly short, but scavenging for supplies to take back home can extend play time, and there are tons of choices to make, some will affect the story, such as deciding which characters to side with and which missions to undertake, while others are more subtle, like the fact that killing enemies and enduring stressful situations will harm Igor’s psyche, meaning choices need to be made as to whether to engage in combat to try and get more precious loot, or sneak by through the radioactive murk and preserve your sanity. For a more in-depth look at the game and its mechanics I highly recommend our review of the original release of the game from October.
So, what’s new for Xbox Series X|S owners? Pretty much what you would expect – the game now has the option of playing in Resolution mode, which brings you 4K at 30fps with Ray Tracing, or Performance mode, which runs at 2K and a silky smooth 60fps. It’s nice to see a game handling performance mode at 2K rather than 1080p, and it really does look wonderful. The lighting effects in particular are incredibly atmospheric; exploring underground bunkers gave me the same feeling as when I first played Condemned: Criminal Origins back near the launch of the Xbox 360; that same feeling of dread and claustrophobia, twitching every time a shadow moves or you bump into something.
It really does look beautiful, and the photoscanned environments go a long way to immersing the player into the game’s world. Similarly, when you’re outside in the forests, with god rays piercing the trees, it just feels incredibly immersive, and that’s what a game like this needs. The framerate holds up flawlessly, too, creating a smooth playing experience, even when it’s kicking off and there are bullets and particles flying all over.
Chernobylite’s 4K mode does as it says on the tin and, as usual, changing to this setting straight from Performance mode makes the drop in framerate very noticeable. I found it difficult to adjust, as turning and aiming started to feel sluggish, and even the menus felt slower. The improvements to visual fidelity were just not enough to justify the performance drop; the Ray Tracing effects are nice but the lighting looks so good in Performance mode that it’s hard to justify a significant drop in performance for some slightly lightier lights and shadowier shadows.
Do not take this as a major criticism of Chernobylite, however. If anything, it speaks to the game’s favour that it just looks fantastic in Performance mode, so much so that I find it hard to see why anyone would want to swap to the Resolution setting. The game runs smoothly, it looks great, it loads rapidly, the lighting effects are eerie and atmospheric and other than that not a great deal has changed from the base game. The only real issue I noticed during my time with the game was occasional stuttering when moving around the main hub area; fortunately, this doesn’t seem to persist in the open world, and the hub area is only small so it shouldn’t cause anyone too much grief.
If you love Chernobylite and can’t get enough of it, or are interested in giving it a go for the first time, the Xbox Series X|S version is a worthwhile purchase. If you enjoyed S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Metro 2033, or even tangentially related media such as Tarkovsky’s amazing film Stalker based off the influential post-apocalyptic novel Roadside Picnic, you could do much worse than give Chernobylite a go on your Series X|S console.
You may not come away learning a great deal about Ukraine, but you will be a better person for learning how to make a radioactive suicide booth using only a handful of mushrooms and some chemicals. Don’t ask.
Chernobylite is available on Xbox Series X|S from the Xbox Store