S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl Review
|Developer:||GSC Game World|
|Genre:||First Person Shooter|
|Release Date:||March 23rd, 2007 (UK)|
|Reviewer:||Craig Laycock (Cragtek)|
I am a stalker. There, I said it. And I don't feel ashamed, oh no. I feel proud.
When I first started playing Stalker, I half approached it almost expecting a miserable disappointment. It's almost invariably the case that a game delayed for as long as this ends up being poor, or forced out of development to cut losses. It turns out I was in for a pleasant surprise.
But I won't lie: Stalker is a bit rough around the edges. I experienced a couple of crash-to-desktop bugs while playing it and was perplexed by some unusual uses of English, but it was worth it. Oh boy, was it worth it.
You are the Marked One. The game picks up with you being flung from a death truck, turning up knowing nothing about yourself or your environment. Think Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity, although slightly more radioactive and slightly less charismatic. You exist within the Zone, an almost post-apocalyptic land created from the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion (and, according to Stalker, another in 1989). Mutants litter the landscape and it's your task to go on a journey of discovery into the unknown, ultimately heading for the core itself. And you kill lots of stuff too.
We'll start with the bad stuff. S.T.A.L.K.E.R may as well stand for "Stalker Takes Ages Loading, Kills Every Reviewer" (although it actually stands for Scavenger, Trespasser, Adventurer, Loner, Killer, Explorer, Robber). You'll need at least 2gb of RAM to get the best out of this clunking behemoth - anything less and you may as well get a cup of tea and a biscuit or two during the loading screen. Which I actually did.
Once you're into the game, though, the open-ended environments are terrific and are undoubtedly Stalker's trump card. The world feels real, right down to a dynamic, active ecosystem and a full day/night and weather cycle. Mutants will hunt dogs if they get hungry, dogs will hunt you. If they kill you, they'll drag your body into a bush and eat you. Stalker is all about making the gamer feel a part of this eerie environment, but also at odds with it: the emphasis is entirely on survival. Anomalies - bizarre side-effects of the intense radiation in the zone - litter the landscape, further adding to your worries. They're as beautiful as they are deadly.
You really feel as if you're up against it, right from the moment you hear the very first pips of your Geiger counter. Although not confined to a set path, you're often reluctant to roam in order to avoid the hideous dangers the Zone poses. But as you adapt to your surroundings, exploration becomes a way of life and can be key for locating powerful artefacts - items produced by the deadly anomalies that can offer great benefits when worn on your belt. Bandits are everywhere you turn and you'll need to fend them off with some of the many weapons available to you in the Zone - but you won't be able to walk around like a human tank, because you're limited in what you can carry. An RPG-style inventory screen limits both the amount of physical storage space you have and the upper weight of what you can carry. In a brilliant move, it's incredibly stingy, meaning you'll have to be very smart about what you pick up and what you leave behind. Despite all this though, sometimes the illusion of being in a huge expanse is shattered by a message asking you if you want to change levels. An understandable inclusion from a technical perspective, but does it really need to pop up and ask me if I'm sure?
Firefights are thrilling experiences. Enemies are extremely clever, using the environment to their advantage. They'll duck behind cover, set up ambushes and have you outflanked if you're not careful. You'll need to keep moving from cover to cover if you want to stand a chance against them and go for a headshot. This isn't easy due to the inaccuracy of the weapons in the game, but lends to a hugely satisfying experience.
I was approached by numerous bandits on one particular wander through the Zone. They opened fire, so I legged it to the nearest bush. Moving from bush to bush, I picked off what I thought was all of them and headed off again. I'd missed one: he opened fire from my right. With no cover around me, I was forced to run straight for him, gun blazing. My weapon jammed. Fortunately, he needed to reload at the same moment and I managed to take him out with my knife. Heart pounding and hands shaking, I returned to my travels.
Interiors are handled just as well as the outdoor environments in Stalker. Often it's the case with games that rely on huge outdoor expanses that the interior elements just don't feel right (Operation Flashpoint, for example). Or conversely games based around interiors handle the great outdoors very badly (Doom 3). Stalker excels at both. The abandoned buildings and empty office blocks serve as a keen reminder that the lands you walk weren't always like this. Children filled the classrooms and workers filled the offices. As you penetrate the dark with your flashlight to reveal the stopped clock on the wall, or the upturned chairs, you're filled with a sense of ghostly longing for the people to return. But soon your longings are shattered by another mutant jumping out of the shadows, trying to eat your face.
As well-executed as the RPG element of Stalker is, the storytelling aspect is not so great. For a lot of the game, unless you use your in-game PDA religiously, you will struggle to keep track of everything that's happening. Poor English and gobbledegook plot developments will make you frustrated at times, but it's worth persevering. Indeed, the confusing nature of the game at times complements the loner, survivalist feel of Stalker and it kind of feels right, in a strange way.
As well as meeting bandits and mutants along the way, you'll also come across other stalkers braving the Zone. You can trade with them, learn interesting information or - if you're particularly sick - just kill them and steal their goods. You can take tasks and side quests from some of your fellow humans, although the rewards for taking on side quests do not provide much incentive and often they serve more as a distraction than anything.
A brief foray into the multiplayer world of Stalker did not leave any outstanding impression on me. A standard affair in the most part, there are no real innovations to draw gamers to this element and it feels a bit tacked-on. But that's excusable, because you won't be buying Stalker for its multiplayer.
No, you'll be buying it because you're an explorer. You're the kind of person who seeks danger at every opportunity. You're a stalker, just like me.
- Satisfying ballistics
- Clever AI
- Open-ended nature
- Atmospheric environments
Not so good stuff
- Occasionally confusing & poor storytelling
- Switching levels destroys illusion of freedom
- Slightly dated graphics engine