S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
Everyone knows about the terrible nuclear disaster that befell the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor in the late 80s but this long awaited game by Ukrainian developers GSC Gameworld adds a sci-fi twist to the whole thing. In their alternate reality a second explosion rocket the area a few years after the fatal meltdown and turned the already radiated landscape into something even spookier. Strange anomalies appeared in the zone around the reactor and with them valuable artifacts that lured in fortune seekers who called themselves “Stalkers.” It’s not an easy life however as the anomalies can kill the careless in a matter of seconds and besides the radiation there’s also hostile mutant life and enemy factions to contend with. You start the game indebted to a trader who (indirectly) rescued you from a “death truck” that was carting bodies out of the zone. With no memories and the only clues a tattoo on your arm and a message on your PDA you set out into the zone to find some answers.
The world of Stalker is a harsh and unforgiving one so players used to hand holding in games are going to be very upset. Set in an open world populated by all kinds of characters and creatures going about their business you are just another face in the crowd and there’s nothing special about. Anomalies will kill you instantly if you’re not careful, enemies will blow you to bits in just a few shots, radiation will get you if you wander into the wrong areas and monsters will tear you to shreds as you struggle to reload your rusty, jammed gun. Don’t take it personally though, that’s just how life in the zone is and you can’t handle it you’re much better off with a more “traditional” first person shooter.
Stalker is an immensely ambitious game but offer nearly a decade in development a lot of originally planned features were scrapped. Running on the “X-Ray” engine which was custom build for it the game still manages to impress with its visuals but it doesn’t exactly blow away the competition.
The 30km² that the game encompasses includes the titular reactor site as well as the town of Pripyat which was slightly shifted from its real-world location and cut down a bit in size for its inclusion in the game. Dotted in between are numerous farms, military installations, Stalker camps and acres of barren, radiated wasteland. The game was made by a Ukrainian company and they really managed to capture the look and feel of the area perfectly while increasing the spookiness dramatically.
I’ve played a lot of scary games in my time but Stalker still managed to effortless make me jump. I might even have cried out in shock as something jumped out at me from the dark. If you want a game that can really suck you in and mess with you then look no further than this one. The developers have spent a lot of time fine tuning the artificial intelligence of the zones inhabitants and have achieved a wonderfully believable gameworld filled with people and creatures that all have their own agendas. Some players might find all this randomness and lack of tightly controlled scripting a bit disconcerting but I for one found it thoroughly enjoyable.
Thrust into a hostile gameworld with only a battered PDA and a puny gun is a daunting experience and I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where I felt so defenseless and vulnerable. Initially it feels like the odds are stacked against you and every excursion deeper into the zone is fraught with peril. A few times I let my guard down after getting overly confident with my equipment and promptly got dispatched by an anomaly or random pack of enemies. This is one game where you will learn to save a lot.
It’s easy to get discouraged by everything that can befall you but I found the game almost impossible to put down. Walking through the desolate landscape while constantly scanning the area for hostiles sets this game apart from the typical run and gun shooters. Here you have to aim carefully and go for headshots as body armor will protect most of your foes and don’t expect them to run at you blindly either. Enemies take cover and flank you making each battle a tense, nail biting experience. Things are even more intense in the dark indoor areas where simply rushing through a doorway can get you killed by an opponent lying in wait.
The game map is huge and split into several sectors which can make for long stretches of just walking. Some of the side missions have time limits which can be annoying and being stuck in the middle of nowhere while bleeding to death or starving isn’t much fun. You have weight limitations so it’s always a trade-off what to carry with you. Mission objectives can be somewhat vague at times and the map isn’t the most user friendly one I’ve ever seen. Battles can also become cumbersome when you run out of bullets and because your character can become fatigued running away doesn’t always help. You might just flee straight into even worse danger. If you are used to the average first person shooter style weapons the inaccurate, clunky guns in Stalker with their tendency to jam and bullets that are affected by gravity will be a rude awakening. The fact that enemies are uncanny shots even on lower difficulty settings also makes for a stiff challenge. The artefacts spawned by anomalies can be attached to your belt for helpful bonuses but some of them can also fetch a nice price when traded with non player characters so be prepared for some tough choices.
The audio is very good with awesome sound effects and loads of creepy ambient noises. The voices are all delivered with think Russian accents which is fitting and you’ll be hearing lots of Russian chatter between non player characters as you pass them by. I noticed a weird bug with certain characters repeating the same phrases over and over which is extremely annoying and very comical at times. The music is good with some nice ambient tracks and even a few songs by Ukrainian band, Firelake, playing on the radios.
The initial release of Stalker was said to be very buggy which turned a lot of people off but in the Steam version I bought I found nothing game breaking. Standing alone in a hostile landscape in the middle of a rainstorm while frantically scanning the horizon for any signs of movement while hearing some disturbing sounds in the distance was a truly memorable experience.
While Stalker might not have delivered on all of its early promises its still a single player experience par excellence and comes highly recommended to anyone that can handle a more cerebral shooter. The multiple endings and tons of side missions will keep you coming back for more and this is one game that will suck you in and spit you out just like the anomalies that dot its landscape.
- Microsoft® Windows® XP (Service Pack 2)/Microsoft® Windows® 2000 SP4
- Intel Pentium 4 2 Ghz/AMD XP 2200+
- 512 MB RAM
- 10 GB available hard drive space
- 128 MB DirectX® 9c compatible card/ nVIDIA® GeForce™ 5700/ATI Radeon® 9600,
- DirectX® 9 compatible sound card
- LAN/ Internet connection with Cable/DSL speeds for multiplayer
- Keyboard, Mouse
- Intel Core 2 Duo E6400/AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+
- 1 GB RAM or better
- 256 MB DirectX® 9c compatible card/ nVIDIA® GeForce™ 7900/ ATI Radeon® X1850