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S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl

The prequel Clear Sky was released on September 5th 2008, so there couldn't be a better time to re-discover S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl, a FPS RPG hybrid, which for the purpose of this review I shall refer to as just Stalker. Now that the awkward grammar issue is settled, let me admit to ignoring Stalker when it was first released, despite being a huge fan of the FPS/RPG genre. I feared it would just be another bug riddled half finished disappointment after all the hype. How wrong was I? Read on to find out...

 

18 months after the initial release of Stalker, and having now actually worked in the nuclear industry on a live nuclear plant, I felt primed to explore a game world which unravels a fictional story of when humanities ignorance and ultimate power collide. Looters and hunters, who carry the glorified name of Stalkers, are people illegally exploring the Zone - the military controlled area around the power plant. You play Marked One, such a Stalker who conveniently has no memory, other than a reminder to kill Strelok. The story is actually fairly good, with the usual plot twists and turns that keeps you wanting to return for more. The real selling point however is the freeform world, which incidentally isn't as freeform as some might expect. Think along the lines of 1-2km2 inter connected areas than an entire world like Oblivion.

Having studied the Chernobyl disaster in pretty grim detail in books and documentaries, I was actually quite excited to have the chance to explore the legend in an accurately modelled world. Unfortunately, the initial excitement was soon lost, when it turned out that the place I wanted to explore - the nuclear power plant itself - is actually the very last place you visit. Still, minutes later I was exploring the Ukrainian countryside surrounding the aforementioned power station, or what's left of it anyway, and I was soon pleasantly excited again.

Walking along an extensively worn road, I first naturally noticed Stalker's graphics. Normally it's easy to say if a game looks great or not, but with Stalker it's a mixed bag. It tries to give a gritty look, which it does so, but at the same time it often already looks several years out of date. However the saving grace is the lighting effects. Outside everything casts its own shadow, from crows in the sky, towering trees, ruined buildings and everything in-between. This means that when the sun comes out the beauty all fits together wonderfully, often matching Oblivion for a shear wow factor. Inside everything again casts its own shadow to create a claustrophobic, almost cosy atmosphere, with the handy flashlight providing not only an essential tool, but a pretty one too.

Once I'd finished looking at the cosmic rays I heard some really quite unusual noises in the distance. I instinctively looked around, and there in a valley was a wounded dog being chased by a giant mutated pig, thing, which in turn was being hunted down by a Russian gunship. Sure I knew this opening sequence was scripted, but it looked great, and later on these sorts of events, bar the helicopter, was naturally happening all over the place.

As a personal experience for example, later on in the game I found myself straying off the road and attacked by a trio of these mutilated dogs. My machine gun shots took out one and scared off the other two. About 500 metres down the road I scouted back using my binoculars, and there was one of the other dogs physically pulling the fallen mutant back to the third. The two surviving pups then enjoyed a pleasant meal. This is the much famed living breathing world of Stalker, which despite the fake early scripted sequence, is still quite an achievement. Sure the whole system isn't exactly that real - the dogs seem to magically reappear when you return an hour later - but it still manages to put a smile on my face.

So back to my initial brisk walk, which had now lead me to a military checkpoint below a large cast iron bridge. Doing a stern job the soldiers wouldn't let me pass - without a hefty bribe that is. So I decided to try out some of this RPG malarkey to earn some cash. I started by doing jobs for people, which leads me onto a touchy subject: combat.

I had been kindly asked to help out some fellow Stalkers in clearing out bandits from an allotment of houses. I engaged into an exchanging fight of gunshots, with a potato gun. No wait it's an actual pistol, apparently. I was quite worried by my first combat experience; it seemed weak, with seemingly half a dozen shots to the head required for a take down. Aiming can be done with iron-sights, yet the range and accuracy of the gun made running up to the enemy to eliminate them a more viable option. However my initial fears were soon super seeded by an impressive array of firearms, which provide the basis for proves to be a tactical affair. Cover and a clear head are required to take down a squad of heavily armed mercenaries, and what great fun it is trying.

I, like my protagonist have strayed off the path, so let me hastily reveal the RPG elements to the game. Features like an inventory, fatigue, starvation and bartering are all present, as are picking random jobs. However I soon found myself with so much cash I didn't need to take on such jobs, which is just as well since most of the jobs are essentially identical. Find an item for a customer, eliminate a group of bandits, fun as they are there just isn't enough variation. Apart from this the game does feel balanced, with the option to manually change the difficultly level throughout the game. Also worth a mention are the ‘Artifacts' which litter the game world. These little RPG elements not only fetch a high price, but they provide you with stat changes, usually a compromise of good and bad, though never enough to make you actually care a great deal.

The greatest aspect about Stalker for me was the atmosphere. The type of atmosphere I am talking about here is of chilling effect - one of fear. The ambient sound has been done brilliantly; cries, howls and rumbles all around have never been done so convincingly. One such level in an underground lab makes the legendary Cradle from Thief 3 look like childs play. As with most things, telling you about it would probably spoil the experience, but I want to mention a little part of that engrossing experience. I was almost in tears, literally screaming in terror, hairs on end, shaking as if I had the flu, yet it suddenly ended in such a poor way - with a peculiar puzzle - that it nearly ruined the whole experience.

Other aspects Stalker lacks in polish include the end levels, i.e. the nuclear power plant I was so looking forward to exploring. You are quickly rushed inside for no apparent reason, and you then spend your last moments slowly advancing through incredibly boring grey corridors, fighting through around 40 ultra armed opponents while some chap continually mutters Russian in your ears. There isn't a word to describe the level of disappointment, but there are at least multiple endings, one of which later takes you on an action packed tour around the power plants site, which was a rather pleasant surprise. Triggered sounds are also poor, with the same lines being used over and over to the point where you know exactly what someone is going to say when.

It's also worth having a quick mention of the bugs, and in truth that's all it really needs. Unfortunately the latest patch thought my UK bought version is from the US, meaning I can't actually utilise any further bugs the developer might have since quashed. But the few bugs I did encounter were hardly game breaking. In fact all it manages to do is shatter the well earned atmosphere. Rain with no sound and vice versa is all too common, as is having the binoculars automatically be forced into your hands every time you enter a new area after a long load time. More annoying however was being taken to a cut-scene which should have been triggered in a previous level, while at the same time I got mauled by a mutant who was taking advantage of the fact I was in a inescapable, irrelevant scene.

Coming to a sweeping conclusion, this game is grossly atmospheric at times. While it has clearly stayed away from the touching and heartbreaking aftermath of the actual disaster, it has instead managed to provide a thoroughly enjoyable experience which is well worth its now budget price. I may have indulged too much on my personal experience during this review, but I feel that's the point of the game. It's about creating your own stories while indulging in the elements of the story driven chaos, all via a FPS RPG shell. There are bugs around, and it also manages to shoot itself in the foot just as it grows a new one. But none of that really matters; it has felt like a hugely worthwhile experience. I have been disappointed, but I have also been suitably satisfied, surprised, and perhaps most importantly, scared.

On one final note: if you've already completed the game, I would highly recommend checking out Oblivion Lost - a free overhaul mod which provides a fresh experience.

8.00/10 8

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (Reviewed on Windows)

This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.

On one final note: if you've already completed the game, I would highly recommend checking out Oblivion Lost - a free overhaul mod which provides a fresh experience.

This game was supplied by the publisher or relevant PR company for the purposes of review
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