STALKER is different in style and execution from pretty much any shooter you’ve played. From one angle it’s defiantly (and brilliantly) different, and from another it’s willfully obtuse. We’ve been exploring the exclusion zone for several days now and have thoroughly enjoyed ourselves - more so than we have done in quite a while, in fact.
If you choose to buy STALKER, you need to be aware that this is not a super-silky Hollywood production - there are rough edges and it’s not tied up with a pink frilly bow. Despite this, despite the epic wait and despite the amount of scissoring that’s obviously gone on, we’ve still ended up with an excellent shooter. With that in mind, let’s delve deeper.
It begins with you, a token FPS amnesiac, waking up knowing only that you want a guy called Strelok dead. You’re not just anywhere either - you’re in a living, breathing representation of the forbidden zone that lies around the more infamous reactor at Chernobyl. A trader who lives in a hole asks you to do some odd jobs for him, including tracking down a few people, and everything progresses from there. First stop is a village full of guttural men, and then you’re out into the wastes.
The game isn’t endlessly free-roaming à la Oblivion, but instead is divided into ten or so separate levels with loading zones in between. The general direction of travel is north, as the storyline urges you farther and farther towards the Chernobyl reactor, and leads you on a merry dance through underground laboratories, undead Stalker-infested swamps and many and varied army bunkers. As you move from map to map there’ll normally be things kicking off that you can help out with too - defending a barricade from a rival faction’s onslaught perhaps, or protecting a warehouse full of friendly Stalkers from the military.
Finally, if you can’t be bothered with the scripted stuff, certain missions ask you to do semi-random stuff like clearing out warehouses and mutant nests or seeking out rare radioactive artifacts that, rather than rendering you sterile and making your hair fall out, offer a variety of RPG-ish upgrades. All around you, meanwhile, is what developer GSC Game World call “A-Life” - a landscape teeming with packs of creatures and humans who roam and behave according to their own whims (whims that generally involve killing each other or maybe running away).
Low-powered weapons and general insecurity about exactly what you’re supposed to be doing plague your opening hours, but after a little while you realize that the action is very much a blend of Far Cry and Deus Ex. The inventory system and “any which way you can” mentality of JC Denton merges with the unpredictable, sniper-centric and really freaking difficult stylings of Jack Carver, making for some excellent action that gives you moments of extreme self-congratulation as you pull off swift headshots here and there. The need to salvage bullets and med-packs from your deceased foes’ backpacks, meanwhile, adds a subdued survival element that’s completely lacking in most modern-day mainstream shooters.
The setting, too, is brilliantly weird and stunning in its design. From the ominous click of your Geiger counter, to absurdly stunted and warped trees with radioactive fuzz hanging from their branches, to an otherworldly yellow bleaching effect that consumes your screen in heavily radiated areas - you’ve honestly never seen anything quite like it. The game world is without a doubt the best thing about the game, and is hands-down our favorite shooter environment since the original Half-Life. Just make sure you’re packing a fair amount of RAM - we’d say more than the recommended 1GB ourselves, since load times are awful.
OK, so, ten hours into the game, we’re creeping towards a downed helicopter in a sickly forest - not because the story wants us to, but because we know there’ll be goodies there. We’re surrounded by a fine radioactive mist, and as we rummage around in our inventory for an anti-radiation injection, we see a blur of movement on the periphery of my monitor - something running between the trees, apparently circling us. Alerted, we worriedly look around and see another skinless dog dashing through the trees parallel to our path. We run to a nearby rock, hoping to escape to higher ground, but get savaged from behind before we get halfway there - and killed. As the “Game Over” motif swims into view we notice one of the dogs dragging our corpse further into the woodland. Now that, my friends, is extremely cool.
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.
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.
Even details on the game’s setting and history are hazy unless you flick through text that sits somewhere between Proust and a DVD player manual in terms of readability. You can’t help but wonder how fraught the game’s translation processes were, because from this it’s hard to understand exactly why each faction is so murderously angry with each other, or what the hell is going on in the various gloomy facilities you find yourself poking around in. Thankfully, the brute force and exciting design of the story arc makes up for this to some extent - but you can’t help but wish it was helped rather than hindered by the sullen, unlovable game characters.
This lack of clarity and personality extends even into the game’s many sub-quests - whether randomly created or not. They’re all simply “kill him,” “fetch this,” “kill these” or “find that.” They’re essentially World of Warcraft quests, but whereas Blizzard gives you nothing but flowery text, grind and eventual character benefits, there seems little point in completing them here since the main story arc is so much more fun and the progress so much more tangible.
As for earning cash, well, you rarely have too many money problems during your time in Chernobyl anyway. The meat of STALKER is in killing and collecting and, without the RPG dynamics of Fallout or the undisputed writing talents of a WoW quest writer, there’s just no impetus to carry out such tasks.
If you doubt us, just wait till you see the haphazard way these tasks are given and completed. Sure, you can wander everywhere, nosing around in every nook and cranny, and complete various missions that randomly crop up. But when the thinking behind their design is so resolutely linear, any benefit gained from their zany A-Life representation is quickly drowned. We’re sad to say it, but the way you’ll find yourself playing STALKER is nowhere near the open-ended paradise first touted all those years ago.
Here’s the big question though - after so many years (six by our count) and so much strife, is the game finished? Well yes, in as much as it’s a full game without too many glitches (you can expect a patch). On top of that, it’s an entirely enjoyable experience, so in that sense, yes, it’s finished.
This isn’t to say, however, that you can’t see the loose threads. On the map screen for example, there are various areas that were clearly once in contention for inclusion but met the vicious scissors of fate: you’ll find yourself leaving one area through a creaky gate and magically entering the next zone through a road tunnel.
The interactions with other Stalkers also seem empty compared with what the interface seems prepped for - witness the (now irrelevant) ladder system showing your rank in the world of Stalkers, and the sudden appearance of your rival’s stashes on your PDA once you’ve offed them.
Finally, as we’ve already indicated, the game’s dialogue and storytelling techniques are cumbersome in the extreme. The game is superb at conjuring up visual treats - the shadows of zombies projected onto a wall by bright orange firelight for example - but the smooth gaming putty needed to fill in the gaps between these wonders is striking in its absence.
But despite all this, has it been worth the wait? Yes. Should you, as a connoisseur and veteran of FPS games, buy it? Again, yes. STALKER, like Far Cry and Deus Ex before it, feels like a defiantly hardcore outing in PC gaming.
We won’t lie to you, it’s not what we were promised all those years ago; but that’s no reason to be ungrateful either. As a brave experiment in all-action shootery STALKER has certainly succeeded, though with its dearth of personality and many peculiar foibles, you can’t help but wish that the publishers had granted GSC some extra time to polish their creation. Oh, hang on a minute…