S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Review

Finally the day has come where S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl jumps onto the stage a fair bit late and looking a little worn around the edge. It’s no wonder that this is the case, as this game has been in development for years. Screenshots of this game were out several years ago, and at the time they were stunning. With years going by, more and more doubts and setbacks caused gamers to worry if this game would ever see the light of day, and if it would be worth it when it did. Well, as always there’s good and bad, but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The world of STALKER takes place in Chernobyl (of course), after the infamous meltdown incident many years ago. The area surrounding it was long deserted and unlivable due to radiation and anomalies. Eventually, a hardy breed of treasure hunters made their way into the area seeking rare artifacts and a survivalist life that most of us wouldn’t envy. Yet here in the fallout ridden remnants of a disaster zone, you, and many others, are forced to make a living. Your story (the silent hero’s) is interesting because you arrive unconscious on the back of a ‘death truck’ which normally transports only corpses. Somehow, slipped among them your character is found alive and suffering from amnesia. Your only clue is a PDA with one instruction "Kill Strelok." Who is Strelok? Where do you go from here? That’s the challenge of this world.

What a world it is, by the way. The "Zone" as its called is still a wasteland by most people’s standards, but it’s riddled with atmosphere and detail. Oh yeah, and its huge. Your main form of transportation is your feet, and you’ll find yourself running through an apocalyptic wasteland for extended periods of time. You start out at a small village which resembles a hobo community, but you’ll quickly progress to open plains, forests, run-down cities and factories. Everything is coated in dust and grime and is in part lovingly crafted based off real photos and environments from the Chernobyl area. It pays off; this game looks fantastic and the attention to detail and creepy plotline make this a nerve wracking and dark place to be.

The game also has its rough approximation of an economy. You trade items and earn money to buy better equipment and go on special missions to find artifacts which are basically items that can enhance your abilities or be traded for big money. Your weapons can wear down and misfire, and you have to eat to stay alive on top of just not getting shot/killed, so there’s a fair bit of "Real World" elements at work.

The world itself is big and pretty in its own dark way. The graphics are not the most incredible you’ve ever seen, but that’s not really fair with games like Crysis pushing the bar beyond all reason. The game does look good; it’s a step up from Half Life 2, with more dirty textures and variety of environments and pure level size with streaming areas that makes it all seem seamless. It’s doubly impressive that this game started production several years ago and still has no trouble competing with other titles out today. The radiation ‘pockets’ effect in particular is great. But some of the character models — and most especially some of the enemies — are lacking in finer detail. The guns are all well rendered and appropriate, and the weather effects are downright eerie when it gets dark.

Another weird point about STALKER is that it’s non-linear. You can pursue the main plot or shoot right off on a plethora of side quests. Fans of games like Oblivion will find this sandbox approach familiar. I do have one small complaint: there’s not enough pay off for a large amount of the side quests. But this is a minor gripe, as they’re not really the whole point, anyway. Missions take the form of anything from fetching an item to killing a certain person to teaming up with a gang/faction to wipe out a whole group of people.

So all of this to take in, but is it fun? At first you’ve left disoriented, confused and not sure where to go. And this exactly where the game wants you to be. It does a good job of putting you off guard and realizing that the people around you aren’t your friends, and they aren’t pointless NPC characters. If you rush into a camp of thugs who don’t know you with your gun drawn and start waltzing around, you’re liable to get yourself killed even without ever firing a shot. The game’s AI and sense of atmosphere are great and incredibly engrossing. You learn quick that you can play your own way — loner or team player — but you better get good at it quick. Besides the armed treasure hunters, there’s the wilderness and the radiation-mutated creatures that come out of the woodwork. Transformed and hyper aggressive packs of dogs, wolves, bears, and things I don’t even recognize wander across the wasteland more than willing to chase you or ignore you depending on their mood.

Eventually you finish some missions, make some money, and find the better areas of the game. You’ll upgrade your weapons and armor and learn to guard against radiation with anti-rad kits or even just plain old Ukraine Vodka. The weapons are generally what you’d expect, but they get better as you go on. The fallacies of real life are in full effect and a machine gun or shotgun in wildly inaccurate, and a sniper rifle is very accurate but very slow to load and fire. On top of all this you can only carry so much stuff. Carrying a bunch of weapons, ammo for each type, armor, food, and other items all gets to be a bit much. You have to pick and choose your weapons carefully.

There’s already been a few reports of some glitches with Vista and a forthcoming patch. However, on a standard XP system the game seemed to run with no problems, although it does need a pretty decent video card to run fully amped. There is a multiplayer aspect of the game, but unfortunately it’s rather bland. With standard deathmatch and team DM and CTF modes, there’s not much to write home about, although it is fairly solid.

Essentially, a lot of work went into this game, and while its probably not everyone’s bag of tea it’s a damn good game. It’s got personality coming out of its pores, good graphics, excellent positional audio and a very muted creepy soundtrack that has you grinding your teeth during the tense moments. There’s some rough voice acting and a lot of chatter in Russian that most of us simply won’t understand, but it makes the immersion of this game and the brutality of the zone that much more real when you’re not sure what the hell is going on. The main plot is a little vague and hard to discern, but it’s well thought out and worth playing by a long shot. This is the first great FPS game I’ve played since Half-Life 2, and it’s a perfect way to tide you over till Crysis or Bioshock make us all buy new computers.


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Author: GamerNode Staff View all posts by

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