You’d be forgiven for thinking that Eastern Europe doesn’t produce much interesting in the way of games. We don’t hear a great deal about them in the West. Even in Europe, games from Russia and its close neighbors don’t enjoy a great deal of distribution and advertising. It’s not all grey and colorless over there, though. The past few years have seen some genuinely engaging titles surfacing from a swamp of mediocrity, and recent legislation offering Russian game companies government subsidies suggests that there might be more where those came from. With that in mind, here are a handful of the most promising Eastern European games around right now. My only caveats: that they be developed in Eastern Europe, playable in English, and available with reasonable ease.
Allods Online (Russia)
A better-than-average fantasy MMO developed on an impressive $12 million budget, Allods Online unsurprisingly pays its dues to World of Warcraft in terms of aesthetics and mechanics but distinguishes itself with the opportunity to indulge in space PvP. While you start out in what appears to be a standard sword-and-sorcery fantasy setting, you can later board spacecraft and cooperatively pilot and fight with friends. Allods has a strong pedigree — it’s the fourth in developer Nival Interactive’s Rage of Mages series and as such has a background of rich lore and well developed conflicts and races (try playing Gibberlings, tiny panda-type creatures who always come in trios). An original score and smooth visuals round out the package, making the game a much more impressive experience than its comparatively low production cost suggests. Best of all, it’s free to play as long as you don’t mind forgoing the pricey microtransactions for benefits like extra bag slots and holiday items.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (Poland)
The first Witcher may have received mixed reviews, but its sequel more than makes up for CD Projekt’s slow start. Although the combat system isn’t for the faint-hearted, it’s a welcome challenge for the experienced gamer. The Witcher 2 uses the kind of multiple dialogue choices that BioWare have been praised for developing in the past. Like many popular games in Eastern Europe, the story is based on a series of books; the storyline and character development benefit greatly from this influence, a treat for anyone sick of hackneyed game dialogue. Readers familiar with Sergey Lukanenko’s Night Watch books will recognize similar supernatural occurrences and maverick heroes in the world of The Witcher 2.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl (Ukraine)
S.T.A.L.K.E.R is set in an alternate reality, where radiation leakage from a power plant causes dangerous mutations in the surrounding people and animals. It’s another book adaptation, but there is no real storyline here. Instead, the game is an oddly unfocused FPS set in an unsettling post-apocalyptic world that you must explore with very little guidance. The (Russian, but subtitled) dialogue is pleasingly realistic in tone and this realism extends to inaccurate shooting and persistent head-bobbing as your character works his way around the environment. Those of you as prone to nausea as I am can download a mod to turn that off, by the way. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about S.T.A.L.K.E.R, but its unorthodox setting and authentic communication with NPCs make it an aesthetic treat for Russophiles.
IL-2 Sturmovik (Russia)
If book adaptations aren’t your thing, turn to Eastern Europe’s other gaming speciality: war simulations. The Russian market churns out several historical war games every year, although most are mediocre in gameplay and a little revisionist history-wise. By contrast, this offering from 1C Softclub is one of the highest-rated flight sims on Metacritic and kept me entertained for far longer than the genre can usually manage. It offers dozens of historically accurate planes, plenty of maps over which pilots can dogfight, a variety of missions, and some limited craft customization. Admittedly, flight simulations are something of a niche market, but this is worth mentioning for its picture-perfect realism and wealth of user-created extra content.
Fantasy Wars (Russia)
A surprisingly entertaining turn-based strategy game, a little reminiscent of the 1990s Age of Empires series but with the ability to choose between fantasy races rather than human civilizations. There are few frills here. The storyline is pedestrian and the design rushed to the point where even sounds are sometimes absent, but there’s something compelling about its simplicity as it allows the player to focus on honing strategy. A smart turn… countdown mechanic strongly discourages players from being too defensive and hustles play along so that games never creep into boredom territory. A demo can be downloaded from the official site. Although if you want to play with friends, you’ll need the full version.