Such moments of brilliance, however, come with a price. For one, parts of the interface are brutally unwieldy - the map/mission screen being a particular nightmare to navigate. Learning the way the world works, meanwhile, is largely a matter of trial and error, since beyond basic textual introductions to jumping, crouching and avoiding anomalies, you’re pretty much left to your own devices from square one. Indeed, we only realized we had alternate firing modes about a day or two into reviewing the game.
This reluctance to divulge crucial information works its way into the gameplay as well. Nuggets of information occasionally appear on your screen and in your PDA, but more often than not it feels as if you’re expected to learn the hard way. The plotline meanwhile will happily shove you into a darkened bunker with a bundle of telekinetically controlled crates and metal implements, mobile fire anomalies (gaseous forms that burst into flames when you cross them) and a previously unseen invisible flying fire mutant, but at no stage will it even hint at what the hell is going on. Now on one level this is brilliant and daring, and initially insanely great. But as you sit there smoldering, with no idea what to do, you can’t help but think it’s the game’s obtuse structure that’s left you in such a confusing situation. Especially considering that no one has actually explained what a fire anomaly is or indeed that invisible flying fire-mutants exist.
What this does provide in spades, however, is a supreme element of surprise. You never know quite what’s going to happen - you may return to a border crossing and find a rival Stalker faction fending off a pack of dogs, you may find it vacant, you may find it occupied by your friends. Better still, if you’re tasked with defending an NPC and they die, the game simply rolls on without them - the lack of a Game Over screen being nothing but a good thing (even if this does result in stick-thin characterization, more on which later).
What’s more, this feeling of unpredictability extends to the scripted moments too - there’s always a sense of anticipation as you discover a fresh mutant, bear witness to another bold move of artistic direction or have the tables turned on you in the pit of an underground reactor.