Essential to most FPS games since Doom, it all begins when a science experiment goes dangerously wrong – well, for the second time, that is. Set in 2012 after a second disaster at the Chernobyl power plant, the game takes place in and around an area known as the Zone, where several Soviet government research projects took place before the Soviet Union collapsed, as did most of the projects along with it. The C-Consciousness project survived, however, with an objective that is basically global mind control. The first project test resulted in disaster and an explosion that left the physical area surrounding the labs and the surrounding noosphere (“the collective environment of all thought”) damaged and distorted. These distortions include all sorts of strange anomalies and mutants. Rumors of these anomalies and even abandoned treasures within the heavily guarded Zone prompted individuals to take up arms and fight their way in. People who were able to make it into the Zone and escape returned with irradiated artifacts that would sell for large sums of money on the black market. These individuals became known as the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.S. but would only officially earn that title after making it past the “Brain Scorcher.” Everyone that made it past Brain Scorcher so far has been captured, brainwashed, and sent back into the area outside of The Zone marked with the word “S.T.A.L.K.E.R” tattooed on their arm. After waking up there, your journey as “the Marked One” begins.
The story is loosely based on a book titled Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky and Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which is loosely based on the book. I don’t know about the book, but I’m definitely putting the film on my to-see list. You actually aren’t given much information about the background story when you first wake up and end up finding more about yourself and the situation at hand through character dialog and a few amazing cut scenes. With such a large background story leading up to present time, I think I would have liked it if there had been a better introduction to the game.
Let me give you a fair warning by stating that this game is difficult. I played on the second difficulty setting, and there were many points along the way where I became very frustrated. One of the things that make it so difficult is the extremely hard-to-fool AI. Once they spot you, everyone on the field knows where you are. There also seems to be one big bug with the AI: Let’s say you’ve been stealthy and have been able to sneak around a few soldiers. You quicksave, and then continue towards your next objective but are spotted and quickly killed. Even if the enemies had no clue where you were at that quicksave, when you load it up again, they will. Quickload, and you’re being fired upon – even by enemies that are behind a wall or around a corner! There were a couple of times where I was also hit through the walls in these situations. It really kills the stealth element that could and should be possible. When you manage to stay alive, it’s still just plain hard to hide from them; so much for the silenced pistol and the knife.
Besides the AI, the sheer number of enemies also takes its toll. After defeating or strategically running past a group of enemies, you’re likely to encounter a pack of wild dogs and boars or other mutant-like monsters. Oh, and watch out for those anomalies where random objects levitate and slam into you – that was one thing that really pissed me off. With all the enemies, you’ll most likely find yourself scavenging bodies for ammo at many crucial points in the game.
"Besides the AI, the sheer number of enemies also takes its toll."
Staying on the topic of bugs, let me give you a few more examples of some of the ones I experienced. Before the patch, the game was basically unplayable for me, and it took quite a few days to release the digital distribution patch. After the patch, which will delete your save points (-0.2 points off the score for that), it’s still easy to find bugs. For instance, I was able to walk around on top of a building in X16 where I then proceeded to fall off the map. Of course, the radiation levels were going crazy to deter me from continuing, but it’s just not hard to find bugs. At another point, when I was supposed to lead professor Kruglov under the bridge where fire would randomly shoot out of the ground, I experienced another one. I went under first as he instructed me to do, despite getting a few burns. Then, I watched him come under and he made it fine. Then he just stood there and did nothing. I tried to talk to him, but something was wrong, and I guess he was giving me the silent treatment – being burned is never a fun experience. I thought about shooting him a couple of times, but then I just quickloaded and did it all over again. Luckily it worked the second time. These were just a few examples, but I’m sure there are more I’ve forgotten about by now, and I’m sure other people have found a slew of them, as well.
While the game plays like a standard FPS, there are some role-playing elements as well. You can trade items with others, complete numerous side quests for extra cash; it’s non-linear, includes character development and character interaction, etc. However, you cannot gain attributes. I personally think that decision was a mistake. For example, I would have loved to have been able to increase my strength so that I could carry more items. There are quite a few weapons you come upon or purchase, and I had to make decisions to sell or drop some of them when I would have liked to keep them. It also makes the ammunition situation difficult. If you’re carrying a weight that is close to the max you’ll also grow tired much faster. You also have to carry some food to replenish your hunger, etc. I became “over-encumbered” many times, to put it in Oblivion terms. There is also a large horror element to the game. I definitely jumped a few times in my chair while traveling through the dark basements and tunnels. My best advice to you – never trust a long dark tunnel.
"...never trust a long dark tunnel. "
Even though some of the dialog hints that you should sleep in an abandoned building, that feature was left out of the final release. Another thing that was left out was vehicles. With the enormous amount of walking you have to do, it would have been nice to have a vehicle once in a while, or at least have someone give you a ride (scripted to avoid bugs). As far as physics go, GSC used a heavily modified version of the Open Dynamics physics engine which really wasn’t all that impressive. In fact, I don’t think I even realized there was physics until half way through the single-player campaign.
The game’s multiplayer component allows you to choose between two classes, the mercenaries or the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s, and three modes are available: death match, team death match, and artifact hunt. I didn’t spend a lot of time with the multiplayer side of the game, but what I did experience was basically average at best. There was a lot of lag, and it seemed boring and slow.
The graphics and environments above ground seem somewhat similar to Half-Life 2, and the environment below ground (very dark) seems a lot like Doom 3. However, I must point out the expansive levels, strange anomalies, and the dark, post-apocalyptic setting throughout the game which all make it seem at least a bit more original. As long as you have hardware that is more than capable of running the game, the graphics should be enjoyable. They’re not absolutely fantastic, but they’re good.
There are many environmental sounds throughout the game which help to make it realistic. The voice acting is so-so, but there should have been a lot more of it. Get ready to read, because most of the conversations you’ll have with other characters is text only, and some “speak” many long paragraphs. There were a few times when I was reading where an enemy would approach, and I wouldn’t be able to continue until after they had been defeated. Spoken dialog would have been ideal, instead. The translation to English may be partly to blame.
With all of my complaints and the score below, you may come to the conclusion that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is just an average game or worse, but it isn’t. It’s a good game that has many bugs and doesn’t seem to be appropriately optimized. I would recommend the game to first-person shooter fans, but you may be better off waiting a while so that more patches can be released. It’s really too bad that GSC wasn’t able to work out more of the issues and stick to their original plans, when it comes to things like vehicles and more RPG elements, because it could have been a real blowout title.