S.T.A.L.K.E.R. : Shadow of Chernobyl

Wasteland for early PCs would replace torch-lit dungeons with the burned out husks of civilization, where the degenerate remnants of humanity and the mutated offspring of the nuclear nightmare stood in for greasy orcs and effete elves, and where the player could lead a band of Desert Rangers across what was left of the American Southwest armed with M16s and the ability to fix toasters. It would leave its mark on gaming as whole by taking the player into a devastated, yet familiar, world leaving them to their own devices as to what they would do next, an act that would see itself revisited through its spiritual successors in the Fallout series from Interplay and Black Isle. While those were strictly RPG experiences with indelible dialog and a detailed world, GSC would attempt to create their own take with Oblivion Lost years later, by taking fans of this narrow genre to the abandoned wilds surrounding Chernobyl.

Over the years, the game had gone through a turbulent development process that had left many wondering whether it would ever see the light of day. Oblivion Lost was renamed S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and it would became gold amidst the controversy of having cut several of the features that had been promised, such as vehicles, leaving several to wonder whether the game had been rushed out. What has survived invites players into a desperate world filled with more than a few deadly surprises and forgotten horrors of a man made hell, but you may need more than a lead lined suit to keep you sane through several of its shortcomings.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is an atomic nightmare slowly mutating on the PC.

Chernobyl, 2012

Appearing to be inspired partly by the Strugatsky Brothers’ short story, Roadside Picnic, and its film adaptation, Stalker, GSC has put together a unique sci-fi twist for their modern take on Chernobyl’s stark legacy.

Chernobyl has experienced another accident, a massive explosion of light that flooded the area surrounding the facility in the year 2006. The incident not only spread radiation, but it had also warped the very space in the area creating strange anomalies that defied the laws of physics. The military quickly moved in to secure the area and those that were still alive fled for their lives away from what would become the Zone. In 2008, the Zone suddenly exploded, expanding to thirty kilometers with radioactive clouds killing anything that couldn’t move away fast enough. By the year 2010, scientists and the first explorers began to move into the Zone and discover strange artifacts formed by the anomalies there. Adventurers, thieves, killers, and others would eventually brave the borders of the Zone in the hopes of finding their fortunes there, braving the military blockade and the environmental hell that lay just beyond their protective lines. They would be called S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s.

You play as one of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s, transported on a mysterious ‘death truck’ filled with corpses heading out from the Zone before a bolt from the sky blows it off of the road. With no memory of who you are supposed to be and having barely survived the crash thanks to another S.T.A.L.K.E.R. that had come down to rob the dead, you now find yourself helping a merchant who had set up shop in a bunker within the Zone. Apparently, you are the first ‘death truck’ passenger to be found alive creating an air of mystery around you as well as some interest from the merchant that will initially help out. The first job he gives you will be the starting point from where you will have to find your own way in the world of Chernobyl, the only lead that you have in discovering what happened to you and what might lie at the heart of the Zone itself.

There’s a lot of background provided with the manual and online, but its presentation in the game can easily feel fragmented and scattered with only small text notes leading you to the next clue without much exposition. It’s obvious that you’ll need to find out where your marbles went since everyone simply calls you ‘the Marked One’ and that Chernobyl has something to do with it, but not much else is explained other than what you will be doing for everyone else. The cinematics help relay many of the mysteries surrounding who you are in the game, but much of it will be left to you to figure out what is going on from your character’s PDA notes.

Stalking the Light Fantastic

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is more along the lines of an FPS with some RPG-like elements such as an inventory, equipment to find, quests to follow, and wide open places to explore filled with Soviet-era ruins. There are no personal statistics such as strength or agility to keep track of, skills to improve, or guilds to join and rise through much like what is found in Oblivion and what some players may expect given what GSC had promised from years of interviews and previews, but there’s still plenty of action and a unique world filled with subtle horror. GSC’s take on the world of Chernobyl following a second incident is filled with the thick, post-apocalyptic atmosphere of something that has gone terribly wrong and whenever you find yourself deep within a concrete bunker buried underground or wander through the abandoned buildings of what is left of civilization, it drives that point home with a hollow tipped response. Cracked concrete along the walls betray the fact that they have been abandoned and left to rot. Fallen, rust covered piping fills hallway after hallway like steel twigs blown in by the decay around them, and a forlorn wind whispers across dried grass amidst the twisted trees that had died years ago. And as a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. in the zone, the environment can be just as lethal as an enemy on two legs.

But while it is an FPS at its core, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s partial emphasis on survival horror may catch you off guard with its weapons. Until you manage to pick up better ones, you might find yourself struggling to plug foes with fatal headshots using the starting pistol in order to try and conserve valuable ammunition against enemies that tend to be better armored. Weapons will even wear down over time with use, reducing their accuracy and jamming themselves at awkward moments, and not every weapon will always hit its target to reflect the title’s sense of realism which can be frustrating. It’s still manageable, although expect to spend some time getting used to the feel for each one. You will literally be learning as you go as there’s no real tutorial to ease you into Chernobyl’s horrors.

Although the difficulty can be adjusted to give you a chance to soak more damage, dying from an unexpected burst of gunfire when all you have between flying lead and your skin are the clothes on your back will happen often. The pitiful pistol you begin with is just enough to take down bandits, wild dogs, and the occasional mutant boar. Scavenging from the dead to collect ammunition and supplies, healing from wounds by taking bandages from the dead, and lucking out on finding first aid kits or even scrounging together enough cash to purchase your own will be at the top of your list of priorities for awhile. You’ll heal slowly from your wounds, but not fast enough to survive an ambush that might be waiting somewhere over the next hill.

Survival in the Zone on Ten Rubles a Day

It can be awhile before you even get anything more decent than a leather jacket stitched with armored plates, or even a better weapon than what you start out with, but that’s where the jobs and the search for artifacts come in. The merchant that aids you in the beginning will give you an opportunity or two to earn some dough as well as set up the next mission in the main story while offering a few things for sale to spend your newly acquired cash. But you will also have missions that take place outside of the story as you explore the areas of the Zone, some of which have a variety of rewards ranging from rubles to beneficial artifacts.

Artifacts are what drive many of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s into the Zone as finding a particularly rare piece near any of the anomalous distortions that dot the landscape can be the key to untold riches. They are also what substitute for statistics in the game as you can attach them to the slots on your belt for a variety of benefits, whether it is to improve your stamina so that you can run longer distances, protect you against radiation, or harden your skin against bullets. Most of these also come with tradeoffs that can make you think twice about using an artifact that boosts your health while turning your skin to putty creating a nice, soft target for bullets to tear through. The Zone is littered with many common artifacts and they can all be sold at one of the merchants for cash to help purchase a new weapon, more ammunition, food, or first aid packs.

To help keep track of your quests and your jobs, a PDA tracks everything that you have learned. There’s even a ranking system that shows how you stack up against other virtual S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s in the Zone as you earn points with every successful job and kill. An online encyclopedia helps to spell out many of the locations, monsters you may have encountered, and other pieces of information that you might have discovered. A map system helps to display your objectives and how to get to them by pointing the way including any stashes that you may have found out about. Although there’s isn’t a quick travel feature to immediately beam you over to any one of the camps as with Oblivion, the game works well enough without it.

An inventory system also keeps track of your spoils and a sidearm and a ‘main’ weapon can be equipped at the same time, although you can carry a few more weapons in tow. Even so, you will have to also decide whether or not you want to carry that sniper rifle with you or drop it for the rocket launcher you just found. There’s a weight limit in place and while you can go over it a bit before being unable to move, your stamina will slowly suffer. Running will drain it even faster, especially if your character is loaded up. Fortunately, much of what you leave behind, if it isn’t on a corpse, tends to stay where you left it…for the most part until someone or something else takes it. But there are also stash chests located everywhere into which you can keep your hard earned spoils in order to free up enough weight to go back for more.

An Irradiated Wonderland

The countryside and abandoned corners of the Zone have been filled with quite a bit of detail by GSC’s artists which help to make up for the somewhat dated look of its graphics. The world is separated into different loading areas which don’t cover the entire map, but still provide quite a bit of ground to cover and explore. Many of the underground areas are particularly creepy, especially the abandoned laboratories, the eerie emptiness of Pripyat, and the radioactive passages within Chernobyl itself. Many of the best moments in the game are found in moving through these debris filled halls and passages long abandoned by the Cold War scientists and soldiers.

Outside, the Zone is filled with a variety of creatures and other S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s, merchants, and even a few renegades hoping to carve their own niche there. Although they look alright, they’re not as detailed as the environments which can tend to make them appear a little bland in comparison. But thanks to the animation work that has gone into them, they move and react as much as you would expect whether it is to shoot at you from a distance or in crouching around a corner to take potshots at you. The physics in the game will also send guns falling from their hands, bodies collapsing down stairs or atop each other in a gruesome pile, or flying back from a shot with your SVD sniper rifle as you defend yourself. If you want to try some stealth, a rudimentary stealth system is even in place to allow particularly sneaky players avoid patrols and get into places that they shouldn’t be in. It’s nothing like Splinter Cell or even Metal Gear Solid and it’s pretty rough around the edges, but the option is available for you if you want to try it.

Much of the world’s visual detail comes with a high price, however, as setting everything to its highest level of detail looks good but can easily bring less powerful machines to their knees with its dynamic lighting. The minimum requirements will allow you to run the game, but don’t expect much in the way of dramatic eye candy. But even with the details pulled back, the photorealistic textures and level design can still provide moments of apocalyptic tension. Makeshift bars, abandoned vehicles left to rust, boarded up windows, and deep passages filled with lethal anomalies succeed in helping to create many eerily atmospheric settings where the shadows hide unexpected surprises. In many cases, simply getting back to a familiar camp with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s sitting around a fire listening to one of them playing a guitar can be a welcome sign that you’ve made it out alive.

Life in the Zone

Everyone for the most part speaks in Russian, aside from several of the main characters that are a part of the story. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles provided for the casual talk that you will encounter from everyone else, but it definitely feels as if it adds to the overall flavor of the game. After all, the player is in a foreign land suffering from amnesia and might have come from somewhere else to make their fortune. They might understand only English. Still, it’s not much of a comforting reason when a lot of the in-jokes and conversations are simply left without any means for non-Russian players to understand what is being said even if their character might not.

But the excellent sound design in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will play with your perceptions, especially deep within the bowels of a secret laboratory filled with strange things and deadly surprises. Twisted notes of the ambient music filter through your speakers while special effects will make you look around to see what exactly fell behind you or to make you wonder just what is around the corner as growling Russian is heard behind the next wall. Much of this is used effectively in many of these closed spaces so as to make you pause for a moment and wonder what is doing the heavy breathing as a geiger counter warns you of unseen danger somewhere nearby.

Wired in to the NPCs and monsters of the Zone is the touted “A-Life” AI system. Boasting that each NPC has an agenda of their own whether it is to eat, defend themselves, or simply wander around and explore, the A-Life system is meant to make it feel as if the other inhabitants of the Zone are alive. The AI isn’t bad and in a fight, it will try different tactics and use cover when it can to make things difficult for the player. But it’s not brilliant, either, and can tend to walk into your line of fire even when a pile of its comrades lie stacked at the doorway next to their feet. The AI also tends to know when you are aiming at a corner, waiting for it to come out, which can feel somewhat cheap amidst everything else that it does well. But it can also show off some impressive behavior driving a pack of dogs to hunt their prey which might be a bandit fighting for their life.

Many of the encampments out in the wilderness populated by S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s sitting around a fire or playing a guitar as they tell jokes are also affected by A-Life, ensuring that there are occasionally surprises there for the player. Approaching them with your weapon drawn will immediately cause a few to stand up and draw their own as a precaution. In one instance, I returned to an encampment only to see that two of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s that had been there when I had visited before had died. I wasn’t sure what they might have died from whether it was from starvation or an attack, but it is surprises like these that you will occasionally see. Another camp was filled with friendly S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s who had suddenly gone into alert mode and started fighting two bandits that attempted to get by them. The bandits didn’t live long and one of them had fallen to the ground, wounded. I walked over to see an NPC standing over the moaning bandit with their gun drawn, mutter something in Russian, and then finish the poor bastard off with a single, chilling, shot…a decision that you will also be asked to make as you fight to survive in the Zone. In another area where I had seen several bodies lying around from a previous fight, a mutant dog was trying to drag one of them away for food, stopping only when the corpse had gotten stuck beneath a truck so it began chewing on what it could.

Mutant Cockroaches

My experience was relatively bug free, but many of the discussion boards dedicated to the game are alive with posts from players that report otherwise, especially on PCs running Windows Vista. A patch was released that reportedly helped with performance (although it invalidated save games) while I was finishing up this review and tweaks are being shared between fellow S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s to help improve performance. There’s no avoiding the fact that many other players experienced a game that was far less stable than mine on more powerful hardware, but there would be other issues within the gameplay itself.

GSC had promised quite a few things and not all of them made it to the final product to the disappointment of fans that had been following this since it was announced several years ago. Although I found that the game had quite a bit to offer over your typical FPS, it isn’t Oblivion. Many of the things that I had hoped for were there: the atmosphere, the wide open spaces to explore, and jobs to do. Unfortunately, even these tended to be a bit unpolished.

Side jobs can spawn in your PDA at will, occasionally foisting a task on you when you enter an area even if you haven’t spoken to anyone about it. When this happens, you simply won’t have a choice as to whether to accept it or decline the offer when the game announces that you must help defend a camp from attack. You can tend to ignore these quests as they’re not part of the main quest, but these are usually tagged with a time limit that automatically fails you when you don’t do it or complete it. For example, one mission that continues to crop up is to destroy a bandit base in the Garbage area. If you wipe out the base and go do something else without returning for the reward, it’s a failure on your S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s record when the time runs out. There’s not a lot of variety to the jobs, either, to really leave the ones that have to do with the main story. Most of these side jobs simply require the player to either kill everything at a location or to retrieve an item. After doing so many of these, it can get pretty boring until you find yourself back on the main road trying to find out who you are.

Getting back for your reward to beat the clock wouldn’t be too much of a problem if vehicles were still included with the game. According to an interview, GSC had actually tested them before deciding that they weren’t right for what they wanted the player to feel from the environment, namely the tension of whether they will run into something nasty with a taste for human flesh. Because there are no wheels, this means that you will be doing a lot of running around so if you want that reward for the job that was just given to you out of the blue, you’ll probably need to hoof it through a few areas just to talk to the right person for your reward which some players might find to be extremely tedious.

Money, as odd as it can sound, is also another problem. Although you don’t start out with much in the beginning, you can quickly amass a small fortune midway through the game by selling most everything that you don’t need including artifacts that occasionally pop up. The merchants, unfortunately, don’t sell a whole lot that you might need other than the usual healing items, ammunition, or food. Given that many of the enemies that you will be fighting will help keep you stocked up, that makes merchants seem even less useful than they already are. Better suits that you can protect yourself with are usually the reward from doing jobs or in finding a special stash and aren’t sold until much later. But why you can’t take a suit off of a dead S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a mystery, unless they are all custom fitted by a Zone tailor. Given that a headshot can take even the most armored S.T.A.L.K.E.R. down, though, it still seems like a cheap solution to keep you from becoming too powerful too early. As for weapons, merchants tend not to sell many of these at all and by the time their inventory improves, you will probably have something better. There’s also no way to repair broken weapons in the game, or even to customize them to any great degree. There is someone in the game that apparently fixes guns, but the option to actually use their skill is not available leaving you with even more money burning a hole in your pocket.

Factions are also a big deal in the Zone, but players hoping to rise through their ranks may be disappointed when they discover that they really can’t. They can be ‘friends’ with the faction, but that is as far as the relationship goes. Forget about dueling the local leader for the right to lead, acquiring allies to accompany you into the Zone like what you might see other A-Life driven S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s wander around with, or achieving any sense of accomplishment other than in watching the neutral dots representing that faction turn green on your minimap. Like what much of the game will probably leave you with, there’s a sense that there could have been a lot more than some interesting fiction to accompany the factions that you will see in the Zone.

As mentioned before, the areas in the game are separated from each other with loading zones. Unfortunately, a handful of spawns are located right at the spot where the player enters an area after the load. What makes it worse is that it often doesn’t matter if you had cleared out that spot several gametime hours earlier, leaving you with a deadly surprise right as you arrive on the scene after the load is finished.

At one point, I had crawled up and out from underground only to find myself in the middle of a bandit party that had respawned around the entry with the corpses of their comrades at their feet from when I had first arrived on the scene to head down. I died in seconds before I realized what happened. Some will say that they were probably their buddies that had arrived when I was down tooling around the underground. That would be fine, if I could poke my head out from the manhole to look around or hear them talk about who might have laid waste to their friends, but you can’t when it’s the point of entry to the next area.

Multiplayer

When fighting mutants and zombified S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s has gotten to be too much, the game offers multiplayer to help soothe your nerves. Unfortunately, there’s no co-op and multiplayer basically offers a disappointingly small number of gametypes that have been seen everywhere else such as deathmatching and a capture-the-flag type experience, only the last is based on recovering artifacts. The player can also earn ranks based on their score in the game, gaining enough cash to buy supplies from the spawn menu to improve their odds with a new rifle or medpack. What is nice about the deathmatching is that the maps are as detailed as they are in the single player providing plenty of places to surprise and ambush others.

However, at the time of this review, I could hardly play it thanks to the horrid lag that has also been reported by other players, causing many opponents to appear as if they are teleporting or sliding across ice. Firing lag forced my shots to fire a few seconds after I pushed the mouse button, and occasionally I’d simply die because someone had appeared to teleport right in front of me and shoot me dead. As it is, multiplayer should have simply been left out. A patch might help its performance, but its weak offering of gametypes along with other issues make it pale against its single player offering.

Irradiated Paradise

Although not perfect, what it has done right is to provide a glimpse of what could follow with an irradiated, virtual paradise riddled with the mutated horrors of life gone wrong alongside humanity’s worst waiting for you from within the claustrophobic horror trapped within abandoned halls of Cold War concrete. There is no avoiding the fact that there are quite a few unfulfilled promises here, but if you can manage to put up with its unpolished state, what is left slowly reveals itself from within many of action filled moments of survival and through the carefully orchestrated tension lying in wait within the ruins of the Zone. It’s definitely a game that players will either love or hate for its mix of survival realism and atmosphere. For those that manage to survive the Zone, the most disappointing thing about the game may be that it may leave you hoping that there was more.

- World 1-1

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