The crack of distant gunfire catches my ear and I turn, looking for the source but there’s nothing there but rocks, metal wreckage and mountains. Someone is definitely shooting at someone and if I want to find out what's going on I’m going to have to stop what I’m doing. Perhaps one of my bunkers is under fire and it would be better to shore up defences personally. Perhaps some wandering bandits and Zealots have engaged in battle. Perhaps an enemy site is under attack and it would be too good an opportunity to pass up.
But I was on my way to somewhere new on Tölva, do I really want to change course?
I’ve now written a lot of words explaining my reaction to hearing gunfire in The Signal From Tölva (Big Robot, 2017) but it’s a total fabrication because there is no decision. Instinct spins me around every single time. I head towards the sound of laser weapons punching the air.
It has been many years since I played the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (GSC Game World, 2007) and that followed years of excited fascination with its development. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a game that, although it could never deliver on all of its ambitions, was triumphant in many important ways.
Despite the game’s world being carved up into separate environments which couldn’t even agree on the weather or time of day, there was a distinct signature, a dark, menacing consistency to “The Zone” where the game was based. It was wild and dangerous and battles would erupt without you being involved. Breaching a new region summoned the sort of joy usually reserved for opening Christmas presents as a child, yet was also tainted with a terrible sense of dread. That same feeling in Thief (Looking Glass, 1998) when you creep around The Haunted Cathedral and can’t help but wonder: what the Hell am I doing here? The very fabric of space is saying “get out of here, Stalker” again and again. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Thief have always shared this sense of being somewhere you really shouldn’t.
It was easy to make mistakes and quicksave was no protection. We’re not talking about any of that Souls nonsense where you’re thrown back to a checkpoint without experience points and money. If you were not properly prepared, getting through certain areas of the game was nigh-on impossible, particularly the final assault on the Brain Scorcher through to the Chernobyl Power Plant. I lived on quicksaves, having to undo every tiny bit of damage.
That savagery was a double-edged sword. While it defined the beauty of my experience in The Zone, having fought through it inch by inch, it dissuaded me from attempting either of its sequels. Metro: 2033 (4A Games, 2010) was too linear to conjure up the same feelings but I am often chided that I should play the second S.T.A.L.K.E.R. sequel Call of Pripyat (GSC Game World, 2009). But it never seems to be the right time.
When I watched a gameplay video of The Signal From Tölva I didn’t see S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. It looked like some sort of exploration game with squad-based shooty action. Thus I was surprised when Tölva began to throb with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. vibes.
Setting is important. You’re not supposed to be on planet Tölva at all. With the help of “the broker”, you’ve hacked your way on to the world and can take control of any robot from the Surveyor faction, who are doing a spot of archaeology here. It sounds like you’re trying to make a fast buck with anything you find and cannot in any sense be considered to be doing the Lord's work. The Surveyors are sentient robots. It is never clarified what happens to original intelligence when you hack one, neither what happens when you get one into mortal trouble, presumably because your unseen protagonist does not give a shit.
It turns out the Surveyors are not the only ones here. There is also a religious faction of robots dubbed “Zealots” and groups of “Bandits”. Any time these groups interact, there is gunfire and molten metal carnage. I didn't clock early on that the factions were distinguishable through chassis colour, and often walked innocently into a battle expecting to meet friends. I learnt my lesson fast.
Tölva is a modern open world sporting a map peppered with icons to guide you. Initially, the game funnels you through several areas to tutorialize but, after that, you have a free hand. The longer I spent with Tölva the more I felt the ghost of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. upon this land than something like Far Cry 2.
Tölva is not your typical open world game, though. It never barks quests at you, it doesn’t maintain any stats about collectibles or achievements and, perhaps importantly, the world is not saturated with fluff. The planet is composed of mechanically barren space but shares more with secret box games: don’t stare at the map icons or you will miss all the heavenly glory.
Tölva is scarred with shattered shipwrecks and the ruins of giant machines of unknown origin… unknown, at least, from the player’s point of view. The HUD is able to identify some of them, but the descriptions do not really tell you who they belonged to or what they were doing here. Some crazy shit went down on this planet.
Primarily, the player is a wanderer of great open spaces with the game occasionally interjecting with the echo of battle. This was the first signature of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. I picked up, that robots could get into skirmishes without player involvement and I couldn’t help myself from scurrying over to every random battle.
I discovered the other, stronger signature when investigating some of the areas which were more... ancient, shall we say. Sometimes they were saturated with hazards like radiation, and we all know that environmental hazard equals pretty visual effects. Such regions offer a very different atmosphere and, if you're alone, they can feel super spooky especially at night. Get out of here, Stalker.
Tölva is much more forgiving than S.T.A.L.K.E.R. so the comparisons end there. There’s isn’t a great variety in the the challenge and, aside from beefing up opponents, combat does not really develop beyond what you see in the first minutes. It’s pretty much the same robots again and again but Tölva is meant to be more about Tölva than shooting robots. I can’t call it a first-person shooter because the cap doesn't quite fit.
The shooting is not quite what you might hope. Enemies try to outflank you given the chance and if you get caught in the open that way, you will not last long. Yet if you escort an entourage of hacked buddies to an enemy encampment… they rush in like extras at the start of Saving Private Ryan. God damn it, can you just stand over there by the bloody great big crashed starship and wait until I give the signal?!?
You bump into wandering bands of enemies frequently and will occasionally lose hard-won bunkers to the enemy when you're not around. It’s unclear whether Tölva is simulating a world of wandering robots or simply rolling dice to see what random robot turns up over the rise. (Remember, it is very difficult for players to perceive and comprehend simulations of this nature.) When bunkers are lost, it seems just as plausible that you flipped a random Bad Event card this turn. Still, it’s enough to grab your attention when gunfire rattles off-stage regardless and I did have a few lovely moments when a battle became a chaotic three-way skirmish as a third faction joined the fray.
But as I said, this is more about Tölva and the planet has some, well, darn strange places to visit. One of these places I couldn’t escape from. If I wanted to, I could extract myself from the robot I’d hacked and connect with a new one somewhere else without losing anything. But, curiously, I felt bad for dragging this particular Surveyor into a deathtrap and leaving it there to… die? I tried real hard to save it but it was late and I was tired. With some sadness, I abandoned this Surveyor to its prison and went to bed.
Not everything adds up, of course, as there are limits to what the setting can comfortably explain away. There’s the old conceit of being able to pick up individual logs scattered across the surface. Why, in such a technically advanced future with interstellar networking we can find little messages lying on the ground, remains the eternal videogame plot hole (the game tries to fill it, it does try). And there’s a sort of shop where you can equip your Surveyor with the latest weaponry; I never understood why you remained kitted out even if you switched robots. I was also expecting the Surveyors to acknowledge that there was a hacker wolf in the fold impressing groups of them into suicide missions... but that never really happens.
While the Surveyors are jittery about what’s on the planet, the broker continues to suggest it’s probably something far more mundane. This gets a bit annoying after awhile, like the person in a horror movie who insists there’s a simple explanation for everything - right up to the point they get their head chewed off by the thing in The Crate. We all know it’s a sci-fi videogame with ancient tech and a strange signal, so we all know there’s gonna be some weird. There’s a template to follow and players are not going to be satisfied with the Scooby Doo gang revealing that the ghost was Uncle Strelok all along.
However, the story, like the combat, does not sharpen into something climactic. It’s difficult to discern much from the logs other than there are some different factions facing off on Tölva and they’re hunting around on the planet for the source of “The Signal”. And you’ll probably guess what the signal is all about before you get to the end of the game.
There’s a plethora of detail in here but it just doesn’t cohere, at least on my first run, into something deeper than robots fight on planet containing weird ancient shit. Jim Rossignol of Big Robot told me they had fully fleshed out Tölva’s universe and decided to add a lorebook to the final release for those players who want to learn more of the backstory.
The lorebook has nearly 50 pages of material to sift through but I’m not sure it’s an adequate fix for the feeling that something is missing, narratively speaking, from the game. As a result, the game’s climax feels somewhat arbitrary and not earned through momentum. In the Zone, you were propelled northwards towards the CPP and this drives the narrative; the further north you go, the more history the game yields for your pleasure until you reach your ultimate destination: Exposition Central (unless you decided to stop at the Monolith). S.T.A.L.K.E.R. mapped story to geography. Tölva prioritises the needs of the explorer-player and the story gating is weaker as a result.
In Tölva, although everyone is looking for the source of the signal emanating from the planet, you’re not really doing much other than wandering the map and expanding your influence until you’re safely able to reach certain distant and hazardous locations. You don’t get a sense of a story thrusting forwards. At the end of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. it feels like reality is coming apart at the seams; Tölva reaches for similar but the ending is too brief and rushed. I got over my story concerns because I judged it was an acceptable price to pay for such a fascinating environment to lose myself in.
I am little mindblown that The Signal From Tölva is the work of a small team. While it often feels the player was robbed of The Stalker From Tölva, frankly it’s a canny judgement call for a team to work within its limits rather than No Man’s Skying it, trying to juggle the stars but ending up with the world’s premier rock shooter. It reminds me of what I loved about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and makes me consider now might be the time to have a crack at Call of Pripyat. And I’m sure I’ll have another pass at Tölva, especially as DLC was hinted at in the future.
In a nutshell, it’s a cleaner, less aggravating version of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. that cares about the landscape and the things that happened there, then deliberately declines to explain what those things were. It worships mystery, the majestic and the alien, as well as guns that make cool noises.