Posted by: Ben | October 21, 2008

Silver Age: S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow Of Chernobyl

(videogame. GSC Game World / THQ. 2007.)

My second attempt at reviewing this one, which is still quite obviously nothing to do with the IF comp. That would break at least three of the rules, for a start. Spoilers now milder.

Ten weeks I spent in that Zone, living off Peperami and energy drinks, soaking up the radiation (luckily it was the Star Trek type of radiation, which either kills you or is eliminated from your body when you drink vodka, leaving you without so much as a malfunctioning salivary gland). There were no women, even the zombies carried guns, and decent living quarters were so desirable that dozens of bandits would lose their lives daily in doomed assaults on one derelict railway station.

As is traditional with such zones, there was a monolith at the centre (or rather, the top), which was rumoured to grant the wishes of anyone who touched it. Those trying to approach it had to make their way past an army of angry religious fanatics, and through the disappointingly small town of Pripayat.

I’d spent five years waiting to play S.T.A.L.K.E.R., having first heard of it before they decided to trim the “open world” aspects down. Perhaps if I hadn’t been looking forward to it quite so much, I wouldn’t have bothered, since the opening sections are fiendishly difficult and mostly involve dying repeatedly. It’s in those opening sections that the role-playing elements come to the fore. In your first mission, you’re sent to take on the bandits with only the leather jacket you stand up in. Soon you realise that if you don’t steal their peperami, you won’t be eating tonight. Then you start earning money by taking on jobs for the local gangsters and finding and selling bits of monsters and the game’s mysterious “artefacts”, working up to being able to afford a decent suit so you’re slightly less vulnerable to being shot.

After a while, you start to realise that the suits you need are lying around to be had for free if you know where to look (at least on Normal difficulty), and you concentrate on the shooting. And there’s certainly a lot of shooting to be had in the Zone. Despite the lack of women, the place is pretty busy most of the time. Every few yards, there’s a campfire, with people sitting around chatting and playing the guitar. Sadly there isn’t a “sit down” button, and although prior to release we were promised the opportunity to sleep out in the wild, your character is doomed to live without the need for sleep. Still, if a massively multiplayer version of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. doesn’t trickle out a few years down the line, I’ll eat my hat.

Role-playing makes a comeback in the middle game, where you get the chance to side with one the competing factions of Duty and Freedom or play them off against each other, but this is entirely optional and, hungry to find the game’s secrets, I happily ignored it completely.

Most of the game consists of shooting the bad guys (identified as such by the fact that they shot at you first), in overground and underground settings. One of the earlier underground levels in particular is an exercise in claustrophobic horror reminiscent of the Cradle from Thief: Deadly Shadows (from which it borrows a few tricks and adds a couple of impressive ones of its own.) Other shocks are less effective – when a game features both creatures that can turn invisible and illusory monsters that appear to emerge from the ground in front of the player, it’s bad form for the same effects to appear as bugs, like when squads of heavily armed soldiers appear out of nowhere in full view and challenge you about what you’re doing there. There was one exchange with an NPC who vanished into thin air in mid sentence. I replayed the section and he still vanished in mid-sentence. I don’t know to this day whether the developers meant him to do that.

I’m not really qualified to comment on the quality of the graphics, except to say that if someone really did set my head on fire, that’s pretty much what I’d expect it to look like, so great job.

I am less sure that if there really were valuable objects and immense dangers to be had in the radioactive zone around Chernobyl, that it would be exactly like this. Only the area immediately south of the power plant is modelled – it would be nice if it was a circle (and – yes – if the playing area was around pi r-squared bigger, where r is the entire north-south distance of the whole game). At least it would seem like the warring factions were fighting over more than a farmhouse with half an acre of grassland. Getting saleable body parts off dead mutants is also a problem. It’s only the occasional Bloodsucker that has tentacles, the odd Snork that has a foot. The severe weight limit, which stops you from carrying more than a couple of guns at any time is more realistic, but it’s a source of frustration, especially when your weight limit and thus choice of available weapons is substantially increased in the late game by a military exoskeleton. Despite the Deus Ex approach of giving the player a say in how the story turns out, there’s no option to embrace non-violence.

Providing a change of tone, the optional final section, running and teleporting across a network of walkways out the back of the power plant, does a good impression of Half-Life 2. The shooting definitely gets better as the game progresses, as quite apart from the weight limit and the player’s determined vulnerability to bullets, the environments simply become more conducive to proper shoot-em-uppery.

Eight years after Deus Ex, it seems that developers are finally taking on board some of the possibilities that that game suggested. They’re not there yet, and that game remains unsurpassed. But they’re getting there.

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