The terrible Chernobyl disaster of 1986, where one of the nuclear reactors in Ukraine blew up and sent deadly radiation over a 50-mile radius and then the rest of the world, was the setting of a brilliant HBO series a couple of years ago. It’s been a place of myth and story setting in games for years now – Call of Duty set one level in the abandoned town of Pripyat, Chernobylite ran the roguelite route and then you have S.T.A.L.K.E.R. too. S.W.A.N.: Chernobyl Unexplored takes the disaster as a starting point, but builds a whole different fantasy around it; a fantasy that is clever yet a little bit scary.
S.W.A.N.: Chernobyl Unexplored is a first person shooting puzzle adventure game set a few months after the Chernobyl disaster. It tells a story of a secret facility that is in the danger zone – it is called the S.W.A.N.. You are part of a research team heading in to find out what has happened there. You enter the facility and soon find out there are strange goings-on; radioactive apparitions in there that will scare the bejesus out of you. The story is drip-fed through the documentation you find along the way, through old fashioned tape recordings of scientists and communist officials describing the world, and what the SWAN facility was actually trying to do.
The science-fiction and horror writing in this game is particularly well thought out and superbly written. It deals with multi-dimensional realities and other gateways to universes in a clever and – more importantly – respectful way to the victims of the terrible disaster. It had me hooked from the beginning and I truly looked forward to gathering up some more information about the story from the documents that were scattered, as I wandered through the world.
Gameplay-wise it works like a normal horror-themed FPS. You walk around the space you are in, running if you need to. You were not initially armed with anything except a torch and your wits, but can interact with items to get documents and tapes. You can also collect keys to open doors, or look for clues to open digital doorways or safes. There are some puzzle elements included, but nothing here is ever too straining on the brain.
What S.W.A.N.: Chernobyl Unexplored does well is that it places you in situations where it ramps the horror levels up to maximum. Strange creatures are suspended in mid-air. Walls close in on you. Lighting changes and you find yourself placed in different environments, without knowing how you got there. It’s all very clever and inventive. The game also places you in a variety of situations, giving you equipment that enables you to see across different dimensions, switching your vision with a touch of the button to see both environments and the secrets they hold.
Talking of controls, and this is my main criticism of S.W.A.N.: Chernobyl Unexplored as a whole. I feel that it is all overly complicated at times, especially in terms of operating the special gadgets you get to use. Maybe this has to do with a PC to Xbox conversion, but I never found it as intuitive as I would have liked.
The game’s visual design is however pretty great, particularly in terms of the horror shocks. 1980’s Russian safety instructions and posters adorn the walls and the detail in the documents is decent, as well as some of the office interiors. The corridors and room areas can feel a bit basic, but what the developers do with lighting and jump scares make up for this tenfold. There are bits in the game where you find yourself in a different reality, almost like a VR training room, and that helps inject some variation, but it must be said that the creatures which roam the world ensure this can be a pretty terrifying experience.
The soundtrack is amazingly atmospheric throughout and does an equally fantastic job with its jump scares as well. The audio design is nicely placed, with an English almost documentary-style commentary introducing the world and the Chernobyl disaster. Inside the facility, you’ll be treated to a great piece of Russian voicing, from an actor with gravitas as you unlock various tapes throughout the journey.
The team who have made S.W.A.N.: Chernobyl Unexplored have managed to create a fascinating bit of original sci-fi, even though it takes us to an area and place in time that we’ve seen many times before. The story is solid throughout with some nice surprises and shocks galore; I’ll admit that the game made me jump a fair old bit, which is a big tick for a game which firmly places itself in this genre. The visuals are good with some nice attention to detail in posters and documentation, but the corridors of the facility can get a bit bland. The main issue is in the controls, something which S.W.A.N.: Chernobyl Unexplored on Xbox struggles with; thankfully though, not quite enough to ruin a step into the strange.
S.W.A.N.: Chernobyl Unexplored is downloadable from the Xbox Store