Blurring the Line: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl

If all we could discuss in a review are the facts, the nuts and bolts of a game, then S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl would have been dead on arrival.  The long-delayed shooter from THQ and GSC Game World falters on too many technical points for one to fairly recommend it without a whole heap of warnings.  However, when the topic changes to the ephemeral, to things like atmosphere, artistry, a sense of adventure, then any attempt to score it suddenly becomes far more complicated.  Know at least this: for all its faults, you’ve never played anything quite like it, and may not for a very long time.

Set in the very real exclusion zone around the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. injects a healthy dose of science fiction into a land already blighted.  Drawing its inspiration from the Andrei Tarkovski movie of the same name, as well as the book “Roadside Picnic,” S.T.A.L.K.E.R. speaks of a second explosion following the 1986 meltdown.  This second explosion triggered an outbreak of strange spatial anomalies, small vortexes, gravity wells and electrical discharges that dot the landscape and seem to defy Newtonian physics.  Appearing alongside the anomalies are strange stone artifacts which, when held or worn, bestow changes on the bearer: protection from harm, regeneration, improved stamina, diffusion of radiation, and so on.

The appearance of artifacts attracts the attention of stalkers, a sort of blanket term for the scavengers, thieves and explorers who have bypassed the feeble army cordon and smuggle artifacts out of the Zone.  Enter one stalker in particular, dubbed the Marked One due to the ‘S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’ tattoo on his arm.  The sole survivor of a truck crash inside the Zone, he remembers nothing about himself; where he was headed, where the truck had come from, his name or his past.  The only clue is a PDA found on him with a single ominous instruction: “Kill the Strelok.”  Indebted to a local trader who claims to have saved his life, the Marked One has little choice but to brave the Zone and its inhabitants, following the slim hope of discovering what happened to him.

For a radioactive hellhole, the Zone is home to quite a few guitar players.The basic structure of the game is not unlike Oblivion with guns, even though it’s not really big or open enough to fit that claim.  Your PDA tracks your current quests, marks your destinations and points of interest on a detailed map of the Zone, identifies stalkers in your area and gives you background information on the Zone.  Typical shooter controls apply, with WASD and mouselook handling movement and the mouse buttons for firing and precision aiming.  The Zone itself is broken up into roughly a dozen separate areas, individually large but connected by single checkpoints.  You can follow the main plotline rigidly if you prefer, rushing straight to the end, but a wealth of side quests and secrets await discovery, containing unique weapons, powerful artifacts and all-important food and medical supplies.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.‘s problems are largely evident in the first hour or so of the game, starting with the most obvious.  Its vaunted A-Life AI system creates human NPCs that are convincing in and out of combat, but have trouble transitioning between the two.  Hostile stalkers, soldiers and mercenaries can convincingly flank and cover each other, and generally prove capable and dangerous opponents.  When not fighting, stalkers will stop and shoot the breeze with their companions, have meals by the nearest fire, patrol friendly territory and sleep.  However, due to awkward detection mechanics, stalkers will sometimes latch onto a distant target and not stand down until the target is dead or has moved to another map.  Enemies are often too quick to pinpoint your location even through multiple walls, and they tend to respawn too quickly in certain areas.

Equally troublesome is quest scripting, which has problems both in how quests are issued and in the behavior of its important characters.  Quests involving specific events – rescuing a prisoner who’s being brought to a bandit base, for instance – are easy to break, and since NPCs often wander between areas it can be difficult to find a particular person or item.  Some repeatable quests trigger when you enter a particular zone, and it’s not always obvious which stalker camp you’re supposed to defend or how many wild dogs or mutants you have to kill.  Furthermore, due to the overly-sensitive targeting of NPCs, a quest giver in an unsafe zone can inadvertently latch onto an enemy halfway across the map, and you can’t talk to them until they stand down.  Quicksaving and quickloading often unjams their scripting and forces them to break off, but this happens far too often for a game five years in the making.The military tries to squash a particularly stubborn stalker camp.

Lesser problems abound.  The engine is dated, unwieldy and requires a fairly high-end machine to run with dynamic lighting; to its credit, with static lights it scales fairly well to midrange PCs.  However, it’s no match visually for its contemporaries, with modest visuals, mediocre animation and noticeable clipping issues.  There are sound glitches which cause NPCs to repeat their dialog over and over (“Get out of here, Stalker!”, “Come in!  Don’t stand there!” and so on).  Equipment degrades with use and weapons eventually break, and there’s no means to repair them, forcing you to search for replacements.  The story is hampered by a dearth of interesting characters and fairly spartan dialogue, and you have to connect several dots yourself as regards the mystery of the Zone.  Multiplayer feels largely like an afterthought, paling in the shadow of more dedicated online games.  Patches, predictably, are essential to a relatively smooth experience, and in yet another Oblivion comparison it benefits greatly from the mod community; this is the polite way of saying you’ll probably have to tweak it to milk some fun out of the game.

However, as I said at the start, the strengths of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. lie in its less definite qualities: its attention to atmosphere, its quieter moments of genius, and its overall sense of pure, unfettered adventure.  The atmosphere alone redeems the game, as the aged graphics and distant storyline both aid and are aided by fantastic, singularly bleak and even sad design.  All around you are the decaying remnants of Soviet infrastructure, collapsed bridges and empty train stations, broken helicopters and rusting cargo containers, with the occasional hammer and sickle or bust of Lenin to put a timestamp on things.  Anomalies crackle and distort the air around them, spinning into action when a poor stalker or animal wanders too close.  Gunfire in the distance isn’t always a canned sound effect, as rival factions of stalkers frequently cross paths.  Opponents trade insults in Russian and Ukranian, and will casually walk up to a dying opponent, spit out a final curse, and put a bullet in their head.

In camps and safe zones, a talented stalker may pass the time plucking away at an acoustic guitar.  Loners huddle in crumbling shanty towns and derelict factory ruins, sharing news, telling jokes and lamenting their lives in their native, untranslated tongues.  Packs of wild dogs drag fallen prey off the road to feed in peace and scatter when fired at.  To the north, past junkyards and radioactive forests, the Duty faction has set up shop; a well-guarded oasis where men can make meager bargains for unspoiled food, medical supplies and rare artifacts.  A haunting, melancholy tune drifts in over the radio and seems to follow you wherever you go, singing of a dying world.  As you proceed, you begin to hear rumors of bandit groups driven mad, of infested tunnels and haunted labs, of a cult that worships something called the Monolith, of a machine in the sarcophagus of Chernobyl that grants wishes, and even of Strelok himself – one of the few stalkers to reach the center of the zone.  The list goes on.While this old boy's not too scary in stills, bear in mind he wasn't visible a second ago.

Despite its faults in scripting, the game creates amazing setpieces and transitions almost seamlessly from open-ended exploration to major gunfights and tense dungeon crawling.  Near a forgotten research institute, you’re called upon to help a group of loners repel a military incursion, with the lead stalker pleading desperately over the radio as the battle rages.  You’re soon led underground, where supposedly Strelok has hidden a stash of items and information, and suddenly you’re confronted with shadows and tight corridors, bubbling pools of acid and radioactive waste.  Your Geiger counter starts ticking as you near invisible hot spots, and inhuman monstrosities lurk in the shadows, though they may be more interested in the soldiers patrolling the tunnels than you if you’re careful.

The challenge of the game can be both praised and criticized.  Its learning curve is punishingly steep, as your first quest tasks you to kill eight mooks with a pea shooter, with scant help from equally armed stalkers.  And yet, if you’re patient and careful, you may yet appreciate the challenge.  It behooves you to take care with your shots, as an armored target may take a full clip from a sub-machine gun to bring down, or a single shot to the head.  A well-timed shotgun blast to the head of a charging boar will drop it in its tracks, while peppering the body with both barrels at range won’t even scare it off.  At night, you’ll need to rely on your headlamp and night vision (the latter of which you won’t immediately have), but the light can just as easily give away your position.  Similarly, an enemy’s light can make him an easy target in the darkness.  Even after you’ve scavenged or bought good weapons and armor, you’re far from invincible, and effective cover and tactics are often what determines who gets to loot who after the fight.

Not everyone will be able to forgive S.T.A.L.K.E.R.‘s numerous shortcomings, and that’s fine.  THQ and GSC had over five years to get it right, and it feels like they could’ve used still more time.  But for the would-be adventurer who’s willing to overlook technical issues, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. boasts unparalleled atmosphere and some of the most satisfying gunplay in a shooter to date.  Its multiple endings, and the fact that it can end more conclusively than the vast majority of shooters out there, are merely icing on the cake.  If you can let the atmosphere pull you along and can handle the sudden hurdles the game throws at you, then you’re bound to find what you’re looking for in the Zone and might be ready for seconds before the last shot is fired.

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