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S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl Review
developer: GSC Game World
PIV 2000, 512MB RAM, 10GB HDD, 128MB video card
|ESRB rating: M
release date: Mar 23, 07 (released)
|» All About S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl on ActionTrip|
For days now I've been hearing voices... no, not the voices inside my head (they are more like agonizing screams) - wait, back to the topic - voices on the site asking for a STALKER review. Never mind the fact that many of you already played the game and are just looking for some sort of reaffirmation of your own thoughts on it. To those of you who haven't played it, however, I took my time with this review because, frankly, I didn't know what to make of STALKER at first.
STALKER, the brainchild of Ukraine-based GSC Gameworld, has had a rough ride as a project to say the least. With many accolades garnered at E3s that happened many moons ago, STALKER always had the potential for greatness, but this was somewhat hindered by the obvious drawbacks of any ambitious project with a budget that can barely match its ambition. It took years of development and many delays, but with the help of THQ, the oft-mistakenly labeled Russian team managed to get the game done and ready for duplication.
In STALKER, players take on the role of... a Stalker oddly enough. The game's plot is tied to the horrible events that happened in Chernobyl back in 1986. The catastrophe at the nuclear plant turned an entire chunk of land into a barren radiation-infested wasteland. This served as a premise for a good novel, and of course, the video game, loosely based on that novel.
Gameplay-wise, STALKER is a first-person shooter with emphasis on RPG-like character development and the same free-roaming type of gameplay that can be found in the Elder Scrolls series. You start your adventure with no knowledge of your identity and a desire to track down those responsible for the fact you were found barely clinging to life at some gruesome site in Chernobyl.
The game then allows you to follow the 'main quest,' so to speak, or to engage in many side missions throughout the different game zones. As you progress through the single player campaign, you will climb up the Stalker ranking ladder, while receiving various weapon and armor upgrades, in addition to 'Artifacts' - sort of like gems that you socket into your belt to make yourself more resistant to small arms fire, monster swipes, etc.
In your main quest, you will venture into decrepit and spooky research stations while making your way across scorched fields littered with carcasses and hairless stray dogs with blistered radiation-mangled skin. In my humble opinion, the level design is extremely intelligent, never letting you feel like you are part of a claustrophobic and invisible wall-bound game world. This fact alone adds immensely to the exploration factor. To top that off, interiors in some of the key mission in the game are very atmospheric, and with some distinct horror elements. Needless to say, visiting some of these ghostly places while gaming in a dark room and with headphones on will make you twitch instinctively in fear many times.
But unlike a game like, say, FEAR, STALKER gives you the same sense of exploration and the type of freedom that was the hallmark of the Thief series. In that sense, this is very much an old-school game (and in a good way too). This is a game with an old-school approach that at the same time, utilizes some of the great advances in technology that gaming has seen over the years. And as such, it becomes very evident why this project took so long to develop. You can also clearly see that the development team is very knowledgeable and with a lucid vision of what they wanted to achieve design-wise.
Let me boil it down for you in reader-friendly terms - STALKER may rely on the same gameplay principles as Elder Scrolls IV, but unlike Oblivion, this one is actually INTERESTING to play; it offers the type of world that you don't mind exploring, while the combat itself (the FPS portion) is in many ways top-notch. I say this because the enemy AI in this game is probably the best I've seen in a long time. The baddies will be amazingly efficient at navigating the terrain and flanking your position. They will react realistically to your maneuvers and it's just a superb job that GSC has done in this regard. They will employ team strategies, they will back off and look for cover when showered with a hail of bullets; hell, I may be going a bit over the top here, but I don't recall ever seeing NPCs act more realistically than this.
The same could be added about weapon properties and balancing. If you panic at close range, you will miss all over the place with an AK-74 (remember that thing called recoil?). Hitting different body parts plays a huge role in your combat efficiency as well. Very nice use of physics in that sense, and not just cosmetic either.
Some great design solutions with emphasis on player freedom and exploration; at the same time, players stay focused enough on the main story and quests; amazing AI, RPG elements do make a difference;
Lacks better monster design and a bit more artistic panache, dialogue, a few dodgy voiceovers.