Stalking Out Danger

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow
of Chernobyl
Gameplay
graphics
audio
value
fun
Genre
Reviewed On
PC
Available For
PC
Difficulty
Intermediate
Publisher(s)
THQ
Developer(s)
ESRB
ESRB

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. which stands for Scavengers, Trespassers, Adventurers, Loners, Killers, Explorers and Robbers is something of a game that breaks the mold. It’s a shooter that offers up a new experience different from the simple trigger happy offerings we have come to expect in this genre.

The plot of the game is that the Chernobyl reactor melted down a second time in the Ukraine and this time the Soviets set aside a 30 kilometer radius around the reactor that nobody could ever enter again. But the year is 2012 and really strange things are starting to happen inside the zone. Creatures like blind dogs with extra senses and mutated pigs are starting to move around inside. And there are rumors of worse things like zombies, blood sucking humans and psi-powered mutants.

It seems like just the place that any sensible person would avoid. However, there are also other things inside the zone: artifacts. These objects are like little glowing rocks. Nobody knows how they were formed, but holding them grants the possessor nearly magical powers like the ability to run and never get tired, to not be affected by radiation poison, to become resistant to bullets and more, depending on which artifacts you possess. You can have up to five of them active at any one time. People on the outside are willing to pay huge sums of cash for the artifacts, enough so that certain people are tempted to brave the zone to retrieve them. This illegal activity is carried out by Stalkers.

You begin the game dead, or so it seems. Thrown into the back of a military death truck (which carried bodies out of the zone) you are just one more corpse. However, there is still a spark of life inside you. When the truck crashes, you are thrown clear and eventually found by a group of Stalkers.

You have an odd tattoo on one arm that says S.T.A.L.K.E.R. so the Stalkers call you Marked One, a name you keep for most of the game. You have however lost your memory. You do carry a PDA with a note saying to kill someone, but you can’t remember them or why you would want to kill them. Faced with no real plan, you decide to become a Stalker yourself so that you can probe the mysteries of the zone as you probe into your own past.

At first the world inside the zone seems like anarchy. But in fact, you will soon learn that there are a lot of different factions of people who have snuck past the barricades and created a society of sorts inside the many abandoned buildings, bunkers and bus depots in the ravaged landscape. Some factions want to protect the world from the horrors of the zone, some want to open the zone up to everyone, some want to study the anomalies found inside to better mankind — and the military just wants to shoot anyone they find inside the quarantined area.

You will start working for the Stalkers, which are kind of independent adventurers, but will have the opportunity to join other factions as you choose, though joining one angers some of the others most of the time. The factions hate one another dearly. After one battle, I watched as the winning faction moved out onto the battlefield to search for enemy wounded. Whenever a wounded man was found, curse words were exchanged in Russian and the wounded person got a neat bullet in the head to finish them off. So don’t expect a lot of mercy inside this harsh landscape.

Speaking of landscape, probably the best feature of Stalker is the landscape. Besides the way it looks – which is very realistic – it is also extremely open. The landscape is comprised of a series of huge zones (you can tell when you enter or exit a zone because of the load times and also because you are asked before you cross into a new one). Each zone has its own eco-system of monsters, people and anomalies and pretty much every nook and cranny can be explored. So if you want, you can delve into dark and abandoned basements, sun-scorched rooftops and everywhere in between. Most of the time you will find a lot of broken junk, but sometimes your efforts at searching are rewarded with guns or other equipment. Things look very real, though it won’t be winning any beauty contests. This is not the pristine shores of Oblivion’s Tamriel. This is a Ukrainian nuclear wasteland that was at one time a series of cities and towns. Pretty much it’s hell on earth, so it looks like you would expect.

Gus in the game are deadly and accurate based on their historical accuracy and also the condition of the weapon you find. You can’t repair your guns, so over time they will degrade and eventually become worthless. This is actually no big deal because everyone you kill, and you will kill a lot of people, has some weapon on them. Simply check to see if their gun is in better shape and discard your old one. You will have to carry a lot of different ammo types however, because you can’t stick a 7.62mm Russian round into a Nato 5.56 caliber weapon. But you won’t ever run out of guns in the zone.

Stalker is also a lot like a role-playing title, with various people you meet giving you quests. Completion of quests earns you some money (unless the quest-giver decides to try and screw you over) but you don’t have to worry about upgrading your character or anything like that.

In terms of difficulty, exploring the zone is extremely hard at first. Your first major firefight (which is more or less scripted if you are following the main plot) will seem impossible. With just a pistol or a shotgun and no armor, you will be taking a lot of hits from bandits standing on rooftops and from hidden positions inside buildings. However, over time you will acquire bigger, more accurate weapons. Some even have integrated scopes or rail mounts where you can mount your own scope. By the second half of the game, you will be picking people off with headshots from 200 yards away and the poor saps won’t even know what hit them.

I normally carried three guns or gun types. First I would carry a real sniper rifle for really long-range shots where you have to take down sentries or other snipers in one shot. Then I would carry an assault rifle with either an integrated scope or would attach one. This I would use most of the time for normal engagements, like when you see a bad guy hopping from broken down car to car trying to get close. Simply zoom in and pepper any part that sticks out, or in a pinch, spray and pray. Finally I would carry "old reliable" which was what I named my pump-action shotgun. This is a perfect gun for when you are stuck in close quarters in a building or bunker and need to deliver powerful kills quickly at very short ranges. It’s also great when hunting (or being hunted) by invisible mutants. You may now know exactly where they are, but putting a swarm of pellets into the air is a great way to find out. As an added advantage, shotgun shells are one of the easiest ammo types to find inside the zone. In short, this game is a gun-lover’s dream come true.

Some might find Stalker a little too slow-paced. This is not Quake or even Half-life with constant swarms of enemies. A lot of times it will just be you walking around in the environment, trying to make your way in the world. I find this to be very realistic, but again, some people might get a little bored at first. Also there are some odd game errors or quirks. You will sometimes be assigned missions without accepting them, like eliminating enemy camps. Then if you fail the mission (because you ignore it and the time expires) a faction might not respect you so much, even if you did not accept the mission in the first place. Also, the spawn rate of some enemies is a little much, especially bandits early in the game before you really get your feet under you. But these are minor points and if you sick with it, Stalker will offer a unique shooter experience that is far from cookie-cutter, and that is something that does not come along every day.

There are eight possible endings depending on your actions in the game and one or two of them might be considered a real victory depending on your goals. However, just surviving another day in there (with real day and night and also weather cycles) should be considered a victory in itself.

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