Combat, too, is very good - whether you’re deep in corridors or out on the wider vistas of the surface. We’re not saying individual grunt AI is spectacular, but they certainly don’t disappoint either. During earlier parts of the game it’s sometimes difficult to perceive whether or not your bullets are connecting, but the satisfaction grows alongside your firepower. As such, the introduction of bullet-absorbing Stalker zombies may be a bum note, but the monster menagerie is otherwise on key, dripfeeding glowing nasties into the game at a measured rate rather than going for outright overkill.
Overall, there’s no doubt that the combat (and the whole game) gets more and more satisfying the longer you play. The guns just keep getting better throughout, and the higher-powered weapons of STALKER are special. We struggle to think of the last time we played a game with a meatier arsenal than this - it might even be as far back as Far Cry. The necessity of ammo-juggling makes every bullet count, and when that bullet strikes cranial matter, both you and the ragdoll system know it straight away. Extremely satisfying stuff. The health system is also a welcome relief from the surge in magically regenerating war heroes we’ve seen of late. If you get shot even once you bleed, and if you carry on bleeding you die, meaning bandages are essential. If you’re particularly close to death, meanwhile, an entire med-pack can be used to regenerate - though if you’re just feeling a bit off-color you can usually find a Ukrainian sausage to munch.
Cleverly, this health system is shared by your human enemies, so the more swiftly you dispatch enemies, the more likely you are to find health items in their backpacks. By the same token, wounded enemies will often lope off, leaking from multiple bullet holes, only to be found lying near-dead on the floor. It’s at this point that we usually bend down and issue a merciful stab of the knife, but friendly AI, quite brilliantly, will sometimes wander over to their helpless foe and calmly shoot them in the head.
Life’s tough in the wasteland, you see. And on top of all this there’s radiation to consider, the effects of which can be faced down with the use of vodka and injections.
The most troubling of all STALKER ’s hurdles though, is the fact that it’s bereft of characters and, indeed, character. What voice-acting exists is OK, except some repeated AI barks, but most of the NPCs simply speak in text form, text that’s so devoid of life or sense that it’s very hard to care about anything but the rudiments of what’s going on. The storyline, whether told in endless reams of humorless dialogue or revealed in bemusing flashbacks at key moments, is borderline unapproachable.