S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
Doom 3. Half-Life 2. F.E.A.R. All cream of the shooter crop (we hope, at least), but all with the same template of running, gunning, sneaking and shooting. Welcome back then, to the Chernobyl forbidden zone - the place where the accustomed FPS routines have been dissected, placed in petri-dishes and exposed to doses of radiation. A place where the FPS has mutated into a vast free-roaming adventure of unscripted events and Al-imposed action - should developer GSC Gameworld fulfil its lofty ambition.
With a release date promised for September, it's slightly worrying that these screens show little that wasn't in the code that ZONE played back in February. However, what they do show is all manner of DX9 effects (impressive shadows, muzzle-flashes and the like) that've been jammed into the forbidden zone's already impressive engine. We might be womed about a slip, but if Stalker turns into the blueprint that GSC Gameworld has proposed, you could well be looking at stills of a game that's due to become an emblem of the exact reasons why you became a PC gamer. That's a big if and it might take a while to get here, but here's hoping...
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I'm Low On health, I'm bleeding, I'm extraordinarily low on ammo and I've got a pack of mutant dogs hot on my heels. The only bright side to my situation is that I'm not far from a large Stalker camp. Turning a corner in much the same fashion as a radioactive Frank Spencer, it's only with a fair degree of self-restraint that I'm not panting, "Dogs! Being chased by dogs! at my monitor, as the assembled gruff men at the checkpoint ready their, weapons, cry havoc and let rip at the dogs of war.
Ten minutes later and I've given a barman some military plans I'd stolen, agreed to find a man's lost sniper rifle (which I'm going to keep myself), munched on some salami and had a poke around an arena that, if I was so inclined, I could fight in for cash. Feeling a little cheeky though, I toss a grenade at the feet of a nearby guard - soon klaxons are blaring and the tannoy is full of alerts to a murderous intruder's presence. I die a horrible death.
Defying the weight of worldwide expectation, STALKER is not only coming out soon ("March. By hell or high water," says camp THQ), but in its current form, its gameplay really feels quite solid - another Boiling Point this is not Kill someone and the game changes around them; complete a scripted mission, then watch the Al take over. It's a hugely interesting game to play.
Later on, I walk over the crest of a hill and come across the corpses of ten dead dogs piled in a heap. After a moment of "WTF?, I turn around to see a mutant warthog dragging another hunt trophy to his stash - the corpse of a rival Stalker -and several other sets of piggy eyes staring at me. When was the last time that happened in Generic Corridor Shooter X? Never, I tell ye. Never! The message is: it's OK to get excited about STALKER again.
French journalists puking in the aisle of the coach, unidentified meat substances, hookers and dancing girls: when you're invited on a trip to the Ukraine to see the latest build of STALKER, it's not just radiation that you have to worry about. And so, after a day wandering around the run-down buildings of eerie Pripyat (the now-deserted town that housed most of Chernobyl's workers) while trying not to disturb the patina of radioactive dust that coats everything, we were at last treated to some hands-on play, back in GSC's less-contaminated offices.
Visually, STALKER is still a looker, and although it's not the jaw-dropper that it was two years ago, the blasted landscape littered with decrepit husks of buildings and deserted vehicles still provides a spookily atmospheric setting.
To start, we investigated a mini-town set in the middle of the zone where stalkers congregate to seek lodging, find work, trade and bet on the arena. Dead animals littered the entrance way, shot by a bunch of stalkers guarding the entrance. A stroll around town revealed other groups of stalkers, each wearing their own distinctive outfits, converged around fires in ramshackle buildings, patrolling the complex and frequenting the bar, while an elite group hung out in their own private camp within the grounds.
Another level saw us infiltrating the streets of Pripyat along with an allied group of stalkers. As the team advanced down the deserted streets, enemy soldiers opened fire from windows, rooftops and sidestreets. The few ground troops used cover to their advantage, hiding behind vehicles only to pop out and take shots at anyone venturing into the open. A few anomalous areas were visible, sending up strange sparks as a visual warning, while the fully-modelled buildings enabled a spot of stealthy sneaking through the ruined interiors to get closer to my destination.
The last scene saw a settlement of allied stalkers calling for help after being attacked by the military. Arriving on the scene and taking out any soldiers via heavy use of any cover, I came across one guy cowering in a stairwell, who led me to an underground entrance. After descending into the darkness, I was confronted with tense close-quarters combat, some green-glowing anomalous zones and after a bit of exploring, one of the now famous, and also pretty tough, tentacle-mouthed mutants.
When STALKER was first announced, the things that really piqued our interest were its ambitious aims, the freeform gameplay and realistic Al. But over the years, many features have been dropped, the Al's been scaled back and the levels that we played through appeared to be disappointingly scripted, although how much this applies to the whole game is still unclear. The massive selection of weaponry was also fiddly, and trying to sort out the correct ammo often proved my downfall in the midst of a firefight.
While STALKER may yet prove itself to be a unique and impressive addition to the FPS genre, the fact we still haven't got to play through any freeform content (one of the game's most touted features) is a bit worrying. Will STALKER'S unique gameplay remain intact or has it now mutated beyond all recognition?
Here's A Good analogy. At first, playing STALKER feels like driving someone else's car. It may look much like the one you're used to, but that won't stop you turning off a roundabout every now and then with your windscreen wipers going and your boot swinging open in your desperate attempts to find the indicators. STALKER is different in style and execution from pretty much any shooter you've played. From one angle it's defiantly (and brilliantly) different, and from another it's wilfully obtuse and reluctant to inform you exactly how to dip the headlights.
I've been exploring the exclusion zone for several days now and have thoroughly enjoyed myself - more so than I have done in quite a while in fact - but before we enter the main body of the review, I need you to be aware of one vital piece of information. Sitting comfortably? Right.
If you choose to buy STALKER, you need to be aware that this is not a supersilky Hollywood production - there are rough edges and it's not tied up with a pink frilly bow. However... Despite this, despite the epic wait and despite the amount of scissoring that's obviously gone on, we've still ended up with an excellent shooter. With that in mind, let's delve deeper.
It begins with you, a token FPS amnesiac, waking up knowing only that you want a chap called Strelok dead. You're not just anywhere either - you're in a living, breathing representation of the forbidden zone that lies around the more infamous reactor at Chernobyl. A trader who lives in a hole asks you to do some odd jobs for him, including tracking down a few people, and everything progresses from there. First stop is a village full of guttural men, and then you're out into the wastes.
The game isn't endlessly free-roaming a la Oblivion, but instead is divided into ten or so separate levels with loading zones in between. The general direction of travel is north, as the storyline urges you further and further towards the Chernobyl reactor, and leads you on a merry dance through underground laboratories, undead Stalker-infested swamps and many and varied army bunkers. As you move from map to map there'll normally be things kicking off that you can help out with too - defending a barricade from a rival faction's onslaught perhaps, or protecting a warehouse full of friendly Stalkers from the military.
Finally, if you can't be arsed with the scripted stuff, certain missions ask you to do semi-random stuff like clearing out warehouses and mutant nests or seeking out rare radioactive artefacts that, rather than rendering you sterile and making your hair fall out, offer a variety of RPG-lite upgrades. All around you, meanwhile, is what developers GSC Game World call A-Life' - a landscape teeming with packs of creatures and humans who roam and behave according to their own whims (whims that generally involve killing each other or maybe running away).
Low-powered weapons and general insecurity about exactly what you're supposed to be doing plague your opening hours, but after a little while you realise that the action is very much a blend of Far Cry and Deus Ex. The inventory system and 'any which way you can' mentality of JC Denton merges with the unpredictable, sniper-centric and really bloody difficult stylings of Jack Carver, making for sonic excellent action that gives yon moments of extreme self-congratulation as you pull off swift headshots hither and thither. The need to salvage bullets and med-packs from your deceased foes' backpacks, meanwhile, adds a subdued survival element that's completely lacking in most modern-day mainstream shooters.
The setting too, is brilliantly weird and stunning in its design. From the ominous click of your Geiger counter, to absurdly stunted and warped trees with radioactive fuzz hanging from their branches, to an otherworldly yellow bleaching effect that consumes your screen in heavily radiated areas - you've honestly never seen anything quite like it. The game world is without a doubt the best thing about the game, and is hands-down my favourite shooter environment since the original Half-Life. Just make sure you're packing a fair amount of RAM - I'd say more than the recommended 1GB myself, since load times are a bugbear.
A Dog S Tale
OK, so, ten hours into the game, I'm creeping towards a downed helicopter in a sickly forest - not because the story wants me to. but because I know there'll be goodies there. I'm surrounded by a fine radioactive mist, and as I rummage around in my inventory for an anti-radiation injection, I see a blur of movement on the periphery of my monitor - something running between the trees, apparently circling me. Alerted, I worriedly look around and see another skinless dog dashing through the trees parallel to my path. I leg it to a nearby rock, hoping to escape to higher ground, but get savaged from behind before I get halfway there -and killed. As the Game Over' motif swims into view I notice one of the dogs dragging my corpse further into the woodland. Now that, my friend, is extremely cool.
Such moments of brilliance, however, come with a price. For one, parts of the interface are brutally unwieldy - the map/mission screen being a particular nightmare to navigate. Learning the way the world works, meanwhile, is largely a matter of trial and error, since beyond basic textual introductions to jumping, touching and avoiding anomalies, you're pretty much left to your own devices from square one. Indeed, I only realised had alternate firing modes about a day or two into reviewing the game.
But as you sit there smouldering, with no idea what to do, you can't help but think it's the game's obtuse structure that's left you in such a confusing situation. Especially considering that no-one has actually explained what a fire anomaly is or indeed that invisible flying fire-mutants exist.
What this does provide in spades, however, is a supreme element of surprise. You never know quite what's going to ' happen - you may return to a border crossing and find a rival Stalker faction fending off a pack of dogs, you may find it vacant, you may find it occupied by your friends. Better still, if you're tasked with defending an NPC and they die, the game simply rolls on without them - the lack of a Game Over screen being nothing but a good thing (even if this docs result in stick-thin characterisation, more on which later).
What's more, this feeling of unpredictability extends to the scripted moments too - there's always a sense of anticipation as you discover a fresh mutant, bear witness to another bold move of artistic direction or have the tables turned on you in the pit of an underground reactor.
Combat too is very good - whether you're deep in corridor-iana or out on the wider vistas of the surface. I'm not saying individual grunt Al is spectacular, but they certainly don't disappoint either. During earlier parts of the game it's sometimes difficult to perceive whether or not your bullets are connecting, but the satisfaction grows alongside your firepower. As such, the introduction of bullet-absorbing Stalker zombies may be a bum note, but the monster menagerie is otherwise on key, dripfeeding glowing nasties into the game at a measured rate rather than going for outright overkill.
Overall, there's no doubt that the combat (and the whole game) gets more and more satisfying the longer yon play. The guns just keep getting better throughout, and my oh my, the higher-powered weapons of STALKER are special. I struggle to think of the last time I played a game with a meatier arsenal than this -it might even be as far back as Far Cry. The necessity of ammo-juggling makes every bullet count, and when that bullet strikes cranial matter, both yon and the ragdoll system know it straight away. Extremely satisfying stuff.
The health system is also a welcome relief from the surge in magically regenerating war heroes we've seen of late. If yon get shot even once yon bleed, and if yon carry on bleeding yon die, meaning bandages are essential. If you're particularly close to death, meanwhile, an entire med-pack can be used to regenerate - though if you're just feeling a bit off-colonr yon can usually find a Ukrainian sansage to munch.
Cleverly, this health system is shared by yonr human enemies, so the more swiftly you dispatch enemies, the more likely you are to find health items in their backpacks. By the same token, wounded enemies will often lope off, leaking from multiple bullet holes, only to be found lying near-dead on the floor. It's at this point that I usually bend down and issue a merciful stab of the knife, but friendly Al, quite brilliantly, will sometimes wander over to their helpless foe and calmly shoot them in the head. Life's tough in the wasteland you see. And on top of all this there's radiation to consider, the effects of which can be faced down with the use of vodka and injections.
The most troubling of all STALKER'S hurdles though, is the fact that it's bet eft of characters and, indeed, character. What voice-acting exists is OK, bar some repeated Al barks, but most of the NPCs simply wibble on in text form, text that's so devoid of life or sense that it's very hard to care about anything but the rudiments of what's going on. The storyline, whether told in endless reams of humourless dialogue or revealed in bemusing flashbacks at key moments, is borderline unapproachable.
Even details on the game's setting and history are hazy unless you flick through text that sits somewhere between Proust and a DVD player manual in terms of readability. You can't help but wonder how fraught the game's translation processes were, because from this it's hard to understand exactly why each faction is so murderously angry with each other, or what the hell is going on in the various gloomy facilities you find youi self poking around in.
Thankfully, the brute force and exciting design of the story arc makes up for this tc some extent - but you can't help but wish it was helped rather than hindered by the sullen, unlovable game characters.
This lack of clarity and personality extends even into the game's many subquests - whether randomly created or not. They're all simply kill him', 'fetch this', 'kill these' or 'find that'. They're essentially World Of Warcraft quests, but whereas Blizzard gives you nothing but flowery text grind and eventual character benefits, there seems little point in completing them here since the main story arc is so much more fnn and the progress so much more tangible.
As for earning cash, well you rarely have too many money problems during your time in Chernobyl anyway. The meat of STALKER is in killing and collecting and, without the RPG dynamics of a Fallout or the undisputed writing talents of a WOW quest writer, there's just no impetus to carry out such tasks.
Walking The Line
If you doubt me, just wait till you see the higgledy-piggledy way these tasks are given and completed. Sure, you can wander everywhere, nosing around in every nook and cranny, and complete various missions that randomly crop up. But when the thinking behind their design is so resolutely linear, any benefit gained from their zany A-Life representation is quickly drowned. I'm sad to say it, but the way you'll find yourself playing STALKER is nowhere near the open-ended paradise first touted all those years ago.
Here's the big question though - after so many years (six by our count) and so much strife, is the game finished? Well yes, in as much as it's a full game without too many glitches (you can expect a patch, but not a giant Boiling Point-style one). On top of that, it's an entirely enjoyable experience, so in that sense, yes, it's finished.
This isn't to say, however, that you can't see the joins. On the map screen for example, there are various areas that were clearly once in contention for inclusion but met the vicious gnashings of the scissors of fate: you'll find yourself leaving one area through a creaky gate and magically entering the next zone through a road tunnel.
The interactions with other Stalkers also seem empty compared with what the interface seems prepped for - witness the (now irrelevant) ladder system showing your rank in the world of Stalkers, and the sudden appearance of your rival's stashes on your PDA once you've offed them.
Finally, as I've already indicated, the game's dialogue and storytelling techniques are cumbersome in the extreme. The game is superb at conjuring up visual treats - the shadows of zombies projected onto a wall by bright orange firelight for example - but the smooth gaming putty needed to fill in the gaps between these wonders is striking in its absence.
Too Little, Too Late?
But despite all this, has it been worth the wait? In 25 words or less... Yes. Should you, as a connoisseur and veteran of FPS games, buy it? Again, yes. STALKER, like Far Cry and Deus Ex before it, feels like a defiantly hardcore outing in PC gaming. I won't lie to you, it's not what we were promised all those years ago: but that's no reason to be ungrateful either. As a brave experiment in all-action shootery STALKER has certainly succeeded, though with its dearth of personality and wish that the publishers had granted GSC some extra time to polish their creation. Oh, hang on a minute..
My REACTION WAS blunt: "Why the fuck would I want to do that? My bloody arse is getting the shite kicked out of it fucking enough as it is!" The cause of that outburst was David: "There are some mods that make STALKER'S combat more realistic. Try them."
For me, the only way STALKER'S combat could be more realistic is if armed Russians burst into my flat while I was playing, intent on ensuring I'd need a closed-casket funeral.
For instance, at one point I had to cross a room holding three pistol-armed bandits. An hour later I eventually managed to kill the trio and get to the door, without dying. When I did some bastard jumped out and blasted me, point-blank, with a shotgun.
Now I've been outflanked, assassinated, sniped and blown up countless times by countless bandits, militia, cultists, soldiers, and mercenaries in countless assaults, ambushes, sieges and skirmishes. And I've been eaten by mutated dogs, kicked to death by packs of... somethings, been clawed to death by packs of somethings with tentacles, and been killed... somehow by... well... crap I have no idea what they were, but they kept killing me.
I don't need more realistic combat in STALKER. I'm blissfully happy being murdered every, few minutes as it is.