Recently got S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl, and after playing through the first area or two, I think I have enough of an impression on the game to form an opinion.
Immediately, the game reminded me of Deus Ex – the near-future plot, the mystery, the fact that you start with a crappy pistol, etcetera. STALKER, of course, looks far better, but in essence, it plays the same. Moving on.
As the name suggests, the entire game takes place in a recreation of Chernobyl (apparently, GSC Game World actually went there to research the place) after a fictional second meltdown, which covered the entire area in radiation and caused strange mutations in the flora and fauna and the land itself. You are a nameless man known only as the Marked One; your origins and identity are mysteries which you (apparently) discover as you journey through Chernobyl. You were delivered into “The Zone” – the name for the irradiated areas – by unknown means, and you have a PDA on you which orders you to kill a certain person in The Zone. Why, you don’t know, but as you progress, you find out bits and pieces about the place.
The term ‘Stalker’ describes any person working (illegally) within The Zone, finding the strange artifacts that resulted from the second meltdown’s radiation fallout, clearing out the dangerous creatures, or just acting as a hired gun. You yourself become one pretty much the moment you wake up, and The Zone’s human population pretty much consists entirely of Stalkers.
“Oblivion with guns” is actually a pretty accurate assessment – like in Oblivion, there are tons of NPCs moving around doing their own thing. Unlike Oblivion, however, the relationships between the NPC factions – and sometimes even individuals – are much more complicated. When you start out, you belong to the ‘Loners’ group – meaning you work for yourself, but wouldn’t mind working with others – but there are also military, para-military, and just plain bandits roaming The Zone. You take ‘jobs’ (aka, quests) from NPCs, and when you finish them, you get a reward and that faction likes you a bit more, though obviously, if you piss off a group, they’ll start shooting on sight.
You ‘level up’ by acquiring better weaponry and equipment. Aside from the inventory being weight-based ala Hidden & Dangerous, it’s also limited in space (represented by tiles) like in System Shock. Note that I’m not making comparisons to these games to say that STALKER is stealing material – on the contrary, I’m making these comparisons to show how good this game is. I’m also really tired of people calling complex inventories and questing (etc.) simply as “RPG-style”, since that is untrue.
Anyways, the graphics are acceptable – the game’s been in-dev for quite a while now (bordering on vaporware at one point) so don’t expect bleeding-edge, Company of Heroes level of eye-candy. Instead, it’s a much darker and gritter gaming atmosphere, and the whole places looks pretty post-apocalyptic, with trashed buildings, constantly-cloudy skies (though the weather does change), and a whole lot of dark places.
One issue people have with the audio department is that there are a unsubtitled Russian, and most of the conversations are text-based affairs. Personally, I don’t mind this at all. You are in Russia, and every character is (presumably) Russian, so if they start yelling at you for pointing your AK at them, I think they’d do it in Russian. All the important stuff is in English anyways, so what’s the difference? Aside from dialogue, the sounds are pretty good… all the weapons sound very ‘light’ (I won’t say ‘realistic’) and the whole game is usually pretty quiet (except for the never-ending winds), with things only getting loud during the odd firefight you get into while traversing The Zone.
Since the game is extremely open-ended, there is a general lack of directions as to how to proceed. Though you can keep on pressing on the main storyline, if you do, you’ll probably miss half-a-dozen or so sidequests, not to mention that most mission rewards are minimal, and in the beginning, you’re constantly strapped for equipment and cash… to say it badly, most of the Stalkers in The Zone are basically homeless bums and criminals trying to leech a living off the dying land.
The shooting aspect is a bit hit-or-miss, with most weapons being fairly inaccurate, unless (of course) you get on your knee and bring up the sights. This isn’t really a run-and-gun game, so action gamers may have to adjust accordingly. I’m not saying the combat is bad, though – in fact, it’s quite fulfilling, especially when you take on larger numbers or better-equipped Stalkers. Because of the relative freedom of the game, I managed to get an assault rifle and a better pistol about 15 minutes into the game because I (with great effort, a medkit and 2 grenades) ambushed a military patrol on the road and looted their bodies.
(This is a fairly subdued entry… mainly because I’m still playing it. Iunno why, today I just don’t feel like writing with the same gusto and enthusiasm I usually do.)