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April 19, 2007D. Riley

What everybody knows about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (hereafter: Stalker, to save my fingers) is that it had a painfully long development time. The kind of delays that kill a game, or at least makes it into a laughing stock -- let us not forget Duke Nukem: Forever, go-to joke of the internet after Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. Stalker was delayed so long that I forgot it existed. I hold strong to the conviction that the only reason the game even came out is because Prey, a game with an even LONGER development cycle, was finally released and the Stalker crew got embarrassed and finally decided to ship their product out the door.

The basic concept of Stalker is simple. It runs down a path well trodden by the First Person Shooter: there are mutants, you have a gun, shoot them while making your way to the candy coated center of the world in order to unearth some great conspiracy. These are things you should be very familiar with, but Stalker does them in a way we haven't really experienced before. It'd be easy to describe it as part-Oblivion, part-Doom, but those genre-mishmash-recipies writers throw into their reviews can get a little grating. Let's leave it at this: Stalker is an astoundingly robust, wide-open game with absolutely nothing in it.

Your character has amnesia, surprise! Never heard that one before, but we won't hold it against him. Luckily our protagonist has not forgotten how to fire a gun. He is a Stalker, a future-time scavenger who plunders the irradiated containment zone around the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant. You're awakened by a local merchant, with the only clue to your past being a PDA that reads "Kill Strelok". Figuring you don't have anything better to do, the merchant sends you on a couple boring fetch quests while you try to gather information about your past and this mysterious guy you're supposed to eighty-six.

Stalker 1
Gas-masked hopping zombie monkeymen. No caption required.

The game really does play like an Elder Scrolls adventure in a lot of ways. It's certainly a far cry from your standard FPS, or even more RPG-based games like Deus Ex and System Shock. You are dropped into a very open world with fields and grass and a startling lack of non-descript laboratory corridors (at least in the beginning) and not really given much purpose on what to do beyond a marker on your minimap. You're sent with a group of other Stalkers to raid a bandit camp and rescue a prisoner, and from there the game is basically yours to do with as you will. You can wander the countryside in search of feral dogs to slaughter, or recover mysterious artifacts from the bellies of anomalies, dangerous, invisible entities that defy the laws of physics and can hurl you into the air or incinerate you in an instant. Stalker truly is a huge game, divided into a half-dozen or so large maps that will take you long stretches of time to cross even if you run directly from one side to the other. Along the way the roads are peppered with empty farmhouses and factories, makeshift camps and irradiated vehicles. If you looked at pictures of the area surrounding Chernobyl you'd be convinced you were in the same place. The closer you get to the center of the zone, where NPCs are convinced there's a fantastic being able to grant any wish, the more desolate and chaotic the environment seems to become. The ghost city of Priyapt, the second-to-last level in the game, is especially stunning in its detail. The streets are empty, flanked by tall buildings with chipped paint and rotted-out cars. It's the kind of place one wishes weren't populated by enemy snipers. I would've liked to roam around a bit and take it all in.

Stalker's problem is that it's TOO desolate. Too many farmhouses have nothing in them, too many factories can have every nook and cranny explored only to leave the player with no feeling of accomplishment. There just simply isn't much off the beaten path of Stalker, no matter how much uncharted wilderness is out there to explore. By the end of the game the player is likely to be pretty disillusioned with the world and its (lack of) inhabitants. The house with the hidden cellar and secret grenade launcher is the exception, not the rule. You'll only find something as exciting in one out of the ten places you root through, whereas the rest are as devoid of FPS fun as you'd expect any abandoned house to be in real life. Though the atmosphere is spot-on and definitely unnerving, it doesn't make for a very fun game experience.

So eventually you'll just want to continue on with the actual game. And that's good too! The story missions are much more rewarding than the side-quests, all of which involve momentary rewards in a game where, maybe for the first time in a game ever, money is entirely useless. Compared to bringing in your 30th dog tail for another thousand bucks you'll never spend, story missions often have you raiding military complexes, or exploring scary underground sewer systems filled with tentacled mutants.

Stalker 3
Recipe to make zombies more scary: take thirst for human brains, add guns.

Almost all the story missions take place in environments you'd never find out in the open, and most take place in the seedy underbelly of the Chernobyl zone. The time you spend away from your main quest might be desolate and boring, but there are moments where the sheer tension in the underground lairs you're forced to explore while pursuing Strelok will make you long for the days of exploring building after building in an empty shanty town. Underground, where you're going to be the majority of the time on a mission, is about as far flung from the outdoor environments as you could get. Stalker does its indoors with just as much dedication, and where outside is lonely, inside is foreboding. You will not want to go into Lab X18, you will not want to crawl through a sewer pipe to fend off zombies while your scientist partner takes radiation readings, and you definitely will not want to go down that hallway after a mutant takes control of your mind and shoots a laser of psychic energy at you.

When you're on a storyline mission in Stalker everything feels like it has a sense of purpose. The 300 meter distance marker on your PDA might as well be a challenge, daring you to cross that scary distance, full of insane cultists with sniper rifles and rocket launchers. It's a pretty startling difference from the "Oblivion with guns" vibe the rest of the game gives off. You really feel like you've got a reason for doing the things you do in Stalker. Whether you've unearthed Strelok's hidden stash , or found another of his dead companions, you always feel like you've just missed your fateful encounter, but you barely have time to dwell on it because there are always mercenary goons waiting outside to blow you up. You press on because with every area cleared just a little more of the mystery is made clear. The story won't win any awards, but it's a decent enough reason to hurry from set piece to set piece to get to where the real money is: the fantastic places that Stalker lays out for you to experience. Cutting through abandoned buildings while taking fire from all sides in the ghost town outside the Chernobyl reactor is as intense as it sounds, as is watching a helicopter explode into a shower of sparks when it flies too close to a gravitational anomaly, and the reward of getting into the power plant itself almost makes up for time wasted wandering the countryside in the hopes of finding something fantastic. To its credit the game features a pretty robust waypoint system, and you never have to go off the mark if you don't want to. And you probably shouldn't, the difference between the linear game and the exploratory segments is pretty startling, and once you get a good chunk of the way into the story you'll wonder why you wasted time with sidequests in the first place.

Stalker 2
Foreboding enough by itself, made worse by fanatical snipers on the rooftops.

The AI suffers from similar schizophrenia. One moment it can be brilliant, like when you're so focused on shooting a bandit you don't notice his partner flanking you. Other times it's so mind-numbingly stupid that you'll have a pile of soldier corpses stacked neatly inside the doorway you're crouched behind. Inexplicably, your enemies will perform spectacularly in open space, but the second they're stuck in a tight corridor they lose all their bearings and practically walk into your bullets. You never can get a bead on whether the next group of bad guys will headshot you from a quarter mile or ignore your flashlight beam bouncing down the wall in favor of keeping their crosshairs pointed at the explosive barrel two feet in front of them. Were this the extent of Stalker's gameplay foibles it'd still make a pretty decent experience. The artificial intelligence in Half-Life 2 wasn't exactly A+ material, but it was still a pretty fun game. Sadly, Stalker takes AI as a branching point and goes from there to ruin everything good it's managed to create.

For every great moment Stalker sees fit to balance it out with something downright irritating, compacting it with unfair game mechanics and long load times. The irritatingly inaccurate guns wouldn't seem so brutal if the average grunt wasn't able to take your head off with a pistol at fifty meters, at night, in the rain. The first time you run into an invisible monster is exhilarating, but after five or six 30+ second load times, you're not interested in futilely emptying your sawed off shotgun into him anymore. Unique weapons and armor often have to be left on the wayside because the equipment degradation can be so harsh that it's almost pointless to use any weapon your current enemies aren't carrying. You'll see your scoped rifle with the under-slung grenade launcher wither to a useless, jammed hunk of metal in what seems like no time and then it's back to the annoyingly plentiful AK-47s that you can scavenge off of any dog or rodent that litters the countryside.

There are a dozen reasons you could truthfully use to call Stalker a bad game, but there are likewise a dozen reasons why it's the best game you'll play this year. Stalker is a wonderfully beefy skeleton of a game that never got the fleshing out it needed. It's ridiculous to say it, but Stalker's a game that could have probably stood to spend some more time in development.

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5 comments for ‘S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (PC)’

#1 Anonymous Sep 2, 2007 05:22pm

Something's got to change about reviewing games. Because more and more PC games get mods and change the game. So now with mods you can get lot more spawns of monsters all over the place so the world is not so desolate. But in any event, the world IS desolate for goodness sake and that lonely feeling is what makes the monster jumping out on you all the more scary! And it's survival - so all that 9 out of 10 empty buildings meant the reviewer wasn't worried about food which is needed in the game!

This is just another great game along the lines of Morrowind (not Oblivion!) and Deus Ex and System Shock - a classic! And by reading the reviews of STALKER on many sites, I see how reviewers are not gamers any more. Because it is just technical reviews now, not emotional ones. And this world of STALKER is an emotional one - not a technical one, and that's why it is one of the best games in 5 plus years!

#2 Anonymous Dec 10, 2007 11:04am

i Think that stalker is a great game. Because it combines Fps with RPG (FARPG).
i especially like the pistol that shoots rifle bullets=).

#3 SJ Mar 14, 2008 03:46pm

the emotional impact was great... you feel lonely all the time.
I think this reviewer is not the patient type of gamer, so what if 9 out of 10 places is empty? I mean, in reality it's pretty much the same.

#4 STALKER FAN Apr 8, 2008 06:37pm

I too liked the desolation and the loneliness of STALKER. I get fatigued by having too much activity. Hitchcock knew that it was the long moments of tense peace that made the outbursts of violence more dramatic.

But there are failures. Snorky shouldn't have been in there. The realism of the surroundings was all too often ruined by the dorkiness of the ill concieved monsters.

But Pripyat was tremendous. The landscapes are great. The Powerplant of Chernobyl is spectacular.

#5 Hawkwind Oct 3, 2008 12:36am

1.) If you're trying to use a sawed-off shotgun on a bloodsucker, you really need to re-evaluate your stalker experience.

2.) The lonely/desolate feeling is essential for the game. The reason the action in Pripyat and the scariness in the X-labs is so potent is because of it's contrast to the emptiness above. Also, if you've ever visited the REAL Chernobyl zone, you'd recognize the same unsettling emptiness.

3.) Snorks are AWESOME!!! I mean, the zombie-stalkers just seem to be outrageously annoying, while the Snorks (who are obviously also zombified) are probably the best depiction of humans reduced to instinct and hunger I have ever seen. I agree, they could definitely use some variety on the skinning, but overall, they're probably the best mutant in the game.

I think the reviewer excluded the underlying feel of Stalker and really short-changed the game. My advice to anyone trying to review this masterpiece: Rather than pick apart the game with a set of tweezers and a screen-capture key, leave the 'reviewer' at the door and let the 'gamer' play the game!