Shadow of Chernobyl
Review by Steerpike
Magical Mystery Tour
Imagine a place that has been ... fundamentally changed. Changed
so much that it has the power to change you. Something horrible
happened here long ago, and it altered the site's relationship with
reality. There are things of value here, but soldiers patrol the
borders and will shoot you on sight. In the center of this territory,
past miles of contaminated landscape, looms a concrete structure
no one can approach. Inside is a room, but to enter it, even for
a moment, means death. Lying in the room is a sphere made of gold.
And if you could enter this place, if you could avoid the sharpshooters
and the unnatural radiations and all of the dangers of the land,
if you could locate the structure and get inside, if you could find
a way to reach the room and penetrate the golden sphere ... all
of your wishes will come true.
That's a paraphrasing of the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady
and Boris Strugatsky. Filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky made it into a
movie called Stalker in 1979. Tarkovsky (Solaris, Nostalgia,
Ivan's Childhood) is best described as the Russian Terrence
Malick, which is a film grad's way of saying that his movies are
beautiful but really hard to stay awake during, and the 163-minute
Stalker is no exception. Ironically, the film ends with a
shot of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, humming away, its doomed
Reactor Four not yet constructed.
It's a circuitous and highly literary route of inspiration for
a revolutionary Ukrainian shooter, but S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow
of Chernobyl is indeed loosely based on book and movie. Developer
GSC Game World simply substituted Chernobyl's forbidden Zone of
Exclusion for the alien-altered Zone from Roadside Picnic, and
the rest just sort of fell into place.
Nothing else about STALKER's development "fell into
place," though; this game has been a laughingstock for years,
the victim of so many delays, publisher changes, and embarrassing
vaporware accusations that few industry professionals believed it
would ship at all. And if it did, it wouldn't bear much similarity
to the grandiose promises made back in 2001. No, we thought, STALKER
will be a big disappointment.
But guess what! It isn't. STALKER is a daring, worthwhile
game that reeks of innovation, delivering on a good portion of its
potential. There are many problems and disappointments, as
there always are in the first of a new generation, but it is able
to stand above them, to outshine the dark spots, and that's really
I'm Not Dead Yet
In the game's fiction, a second explosion at Chernobyl (more likely
than you might realize, actually) has spritzed the region with bizarre
anomalies that alter gravity, thermodynamics, radiation levels ...
whimsically named deviations so dangerous that even going near them
is risky. But their strange energies have a side effect: anomalies
"throw" artifacts with fabulous physical properties, objects
of great value to scientists and collectors. But with the military
guarding the borders of the Zone, and the dangers inside, only a
few heavily armed treasure hunters dare risk the hazards to collect
them. These men (no women are stupid enough) are called Stalkers.
Stalkers are as dangerous as the terrain they stalk. Armed to the
teeth, with little to lose, they maintain a very wild-west environment
in their ramshackle encampments and faction strongholds. They're
here for money and adventure, and the persistent rumor of the Wish
Granter. Most would kill you as soon as look at you.
"You" enter the game roughly, thrown from a truck hauling
the day's corpses out of the Zone. A Stalker finds your unconscious
carcass and drags you back to an artifact dealer named Sidorovich,
and together they rifle through your stuff in search of answers.
You're obviously a Stalker; "S.T.A.L.K.E.R." is actually
tattooed on your forearm, though the word isn't usually an acronym
so they have no idea what it might mean. When Sidorovich flicks
on your PDA, its eerie blue phosphorescence glows out a one-item
to-do list, a chilling note-to-self that drops the temperature a
few degrees: KILL THE STRELOK.
There is, it transpires, a Stalker by this name, up north near
the crumbling concrete Sarcophagus that entombs the ruins of Reactor
Four. Whether or not he's your target is anyone's guess, but it
seems a good place to start. The car accident has left you with
amnesia, so Sidorovich christens you "Marked One" on account
of the tattoo and offers his aid. It's a loaded proposal, but you're
really left with no choice. And so begins the Marked One's quest
for identity in the Zone of Exclusion, and an open-world shooter
quite unlike anything we've ever seen before.
The developers at GSC exhaustively mapped the Chernobyl Exclusion
Zone (there's a tour you can take, it's reasonably safe if you stay
on the pavement), only to strip a good portion of it out in the
rush to finally finish the game. Some liberties are taken, but the
vast majority of what you see in STALKER is actually there
in the real world, and it's a tribute to GSC's art direction that
they capture the bleak, lonely feel of the place so effectively.
There is a ... forlorn-ness about the Zone, an eerie, almost haunted
quality that is perfectly realized in this game. The Zone evokes
a strange sensation, a feeling that you're an unwelcome visitor
in an obscene and unreal place. It is the Zone of Exclusion,
after all. It's not part of this world any more.
Nor should it be. Even without the fictional anomalies and mutated
creatures that populate the game, the Zone of Exclusion is the most
toxic place on earth. To enter it, even briefly, is to risk experiencing
one of the most exquisitely hideous deaths a human can endure. You'll
soon get used to the soft clicking of your Geiger counter, but ignore
it at your peril. Anomalies, too, bring speedy demise to those who
aren't careful where they step. Many are nigh invisible, and none
are there for your health. The air itself hums with radioactivity
in some places; a few minutes in this game world and you'll understand
how crazy Stalkers must be to brave this bleak landscape.
Since there are no stats in STALKERyou get "stronger"
based on equipment and weaponrythe environment is always threatening.
Atmospheric dangers aside, even a well-equipped Stalker can be killed
by a pack of wild dogs or razorback boars, and other Stalkers will
happily take potshots at you if they want something you've got.
The game world is a very real-seeming, very creepy, very dangerous
place, and it feels that way from beginning to end.
STALKER walks the line between super-tactical shooters like
Six, where one bullet ends the game, and lead-spitting
ones like Prey, where a thousand don't. It works, because
it forces you to outwit the monumentally outstanding, seriously,
I'm not even kidding enemy combat AI, without being overly frustrating.
For the first time in a shooter, you'll find yourself darting from
cover to cover, seeking elevated assault points, employing grenades
to flush and disorient foes, and coordinating your attacks with
the occasional AI-controlled allies, along with more pedestrian
tactics like sniping and headshots.
Like other RPG-element shooters such as Deus Ex and System
Shock 2, this is a good choice for players who prefer adventures
but are willing to dip their toes into something different. It will
be very hard for you at firstdeath comes on swift wings
in STALKER, and even pros will be challenged early on. The
lack of a quicksave and the paucity of autosaves are irritants you
must overcome by training yourself to save often, unless you enjoy
retracing your steps. But you never feel that STALKER is
cheating. If you die, it's because you screwed up or got careless,
and in time the game trains you to be a better player.
The biggest and wonderfulest difference of STALKER is the
concept of a linear storyline tacked onto a living world. While
STALKER doesn't use the "open world" concept nearly
as well as it could, it does create a freeform setting where you're
pretty much at liberty to perform tasks in whatever order you choose
and explore in a thoroughly nonlinear fashion. This is disorienting
at firstthere are many where-the-heck-do-I-go moments. However,
once you get used to the world of STALKER (about three hours
in), it becomes much more comfortable. You always have an overarching
goal, and tasks pertinent to that goal, but you can also get as
sidetracked as you want with other stuff.
There are parts of STALKER so primordially frightening that
fragile gamers may fear to press on. Elsewhere there's white-knuckled
action, and in still other places you're as lonely as lonely can
be, going hours without pulling the trigger. STALKER does
a great job of managing many moods and genres, taking advantage
of the Zone's size and inherent explorability. Exploration is one
of the major facets of STALKER, as there's always something
new and cool to check out over every hill. Unfortunately, this is
also kind of a problem.
STALKER's "open world" is open in the sense that
you're not on a rail and that a lot happens around you to make you
feel like you're part of, rather than the center of, the action.
And there's plenty to explore. But exploration for its own sake
quickly becomes dull. Money is never a problem, and the best equipment
is found in the Zone anyway, not at the handful of ill-placed shops.
Side quests are humdrum, one-stop excursions that generally devolve
into finding, delivering, or killing something. The artifacts thrown
by anomalies can be equipped on your own person to augment your
capabilities in various ways, but as trade goods they're essentially
worthless; money is weightless, artifacts are not. You're limited
to no more than 57 kilograms of inventory, and that's quickly taken
up by necessary equipment. So there's no reason to explore the Zone
Partly because the real treasure of STALKER is ammunition
and medical supplies. So when you crest that hill and see a derelict
factory or a labyrinth of abandoned cleanup equipment, you're faced
with a pretty basic choice:
(A) Check it out even though there won't be anything of value
and the visit will almost certainly require that you expend precious
ammunition and meds;
GSC built a wide-open world that you're essentially discouraged
from exploring. They made matters worse by falling into the same
gamers-are-idiots trap that Oblivion
did: click a task on your PDA and a marker appears on your Zone
map telling you precisely where to go, even if you've never been
there, even if finding it is part of the objective. In a game where
exploration is part of the fun, this is a near-unforgivable mistake.
Let's hope developers don't make a habit of believing we're all
so slack-jawed that we need to be led by the hand to every objective.
So what it boils down to is that you follow STALKER's linear
storyline, which is okay since the story is told compellingly enoughand
meted out in sufficiently tantalizing bitsto keep you guessing
and driven to learn more. The game's fantastic, Gore Verbinski-esque
cinematics are stunning and artistic, and frankly I could have done
with more of them and fewer of the lengthy and often poorly translated
chunks of text narrative stored in the Marked One's PDA. The game
is occasionally incoherent, especially at the beginning when it
seems to assume that you know a whole lot of stuff you don't. It's
like starting a really complex TV show in the middle of the third
season. Eventually you'll pick it up, but it's confusing for a while.
That lack of coherence manifests elsewhere in the game as well.
The instructions are so useless that they might as well not have
been included; documentation leaves out elephantine chunks of information
and explains the rest so poorly that the game comes off as baffling.
The interface, though simple enough once you get used to it, is
clunky and obtuse at first. And NPCs, supposedly AI-controlled and
often integral to the story, are never developed and rarely have
direct impact on the storyline. This is exacerbated by annoying
Stalker factions that bring whole new meanings to cliché.
These problems are real, and they'll probably really annoy some
people. But they didn't annoy me that much. Every game has troubles,
and STALKER's are much more rooted in what could have been
rather than what was done wrong. Most things about this game were
done right but could have been better. While occasionally disappointing,
I don't really consider that a hang-worthy offense.
GSC foolishly chose to develop a proprietary engine for STALKER,
despite the fact that there's nothing about it that Source or
Gamebryo couldn't handle. The X-Ray Engine delivers graphics on
par with Half
Life 2 and pleasantly large zones separated by reasonable
loading times. But like all proprietary engines, it also delivers
a badly optimized and unstable renderer, dubious support for major
graphics cards, strange visual bugs, and serious performance issues
on midrange machines. Had they chosen to license a third-party engine
and focus on game development, STALKER would have shipped
two years ago and been game of the year for sure. As it is, it's
got pretty significant tech problems, not to mention a legion of
broken side quests and other minor glitches.
The A-Life artificial intelligence system so trumpeted prior to
release is, like Oblivion's Radiant AI, underwhelming in
actual practice. While the combat AI in this game is second to nonedon't
even get me startedthe actual "living world" stuff
doesn't deliver. Despite the fact that each Stalker (about a thousand)
is controlled by this super-advanced AI, very few of them move around
or behave that intelligently outside of combat. The wildlife is
very realistic, but how hard is it to code an AI that tells wild
dogs to eat you if they're in a pack and run away if they're alone?
No, A-Life is impressive in some ways but doesn't deliver in many
others, though at least GSC produced a demonstrably superior AI
to that in most games.
Physics, especially gun physics, are superbtake cover behind
an empty oil drum, then squeal in terror and bolt for better cover
when it flips headlong from a bullet impact and rolls away. Guns
themselves fire and sound very realistic, even delivering parabolic
trajectories over long distances. In some cases, the accuracy of
"inaccurate" guns is almost ridiculously bad, but I'm
sure future patches will refine what is essentially a well-implemented
gun system. Firearms could really only be improved if there were
more of them, and if there weren't so obvious a linear progression
from good to better to best. I'd rather it were a matter of taste
which guns you use.
Game audio, from the melancholic violins of the title theme to
the distant snatches of Russian pop songs to the bark of wild dogs
and coo of the wind, is similarly outstanding. STALKER is
all about atmosphere, and audio has a lot to do with that. Positional
sound implementation is shaky, though; it's often hard to determine
where a shout or gunshot came from, and considering the celerity
with which you'll die early in the game, that can be a bit of a
To those buying STALKER, my advice is simple: make sure
you have a strong machine that at least matches the recommended
specs of 2.8 GHz, 1 GB RAM, and 256 MB video, and patch
the damn game. The earliest patch breaks saves, and my own experience
with STALKER was pretty stable, so I chose to forgo it, but
if you're getting started, you absolutely should run the update
routine from the main menu. A lot of people, particularly Radeon
owners, are having serious technical difficulties with this game.
In the Room
The title of the Strugatsky brothers' book refers to the leftovers
from a roadside picnic. While people are there eating, the lower
creatures cower in fear. But when the humans leave, all of the ants
and mice and other scavengers come out to pick at the remains. Such
is the way of STALKER, a game set in a poisoned world worth
risking only because of these delicious leftovers, crumbs left behind
by an awful violation. What's in the room with the golden sphere?
Some say God; some say it's just a myth; some say it's the "ultimate
artifact," a device that can make your dreams come true. But
the price you pay for those dreams is shockingly high and ruthlessly
collected. What you choose to do at the end of STALKER, along
with decisions you make throughout, will lead you to one of the
game's seven endings.
I was not expecting much from this game. I wanted to expect a lot,
but the delays and feature subtractions made it difficult to hold
out hope for anything other than an eviscerated shadow of its former
promised glory. Indeed, after the most recent spate of delays that
saw its release move from 2006 to 2007, I began to doubt that it
would ever arrive at retail.
Sometimes it's nice to be wrong. STALKER has its share of
problems, but anything this innovative, this unique, is likely to.
It is, I hope, the spearhead of a bold new direction in shootersin
gaming entirely, actually. The living, open world controlled by
an AI of staggering breadth and power: this is the future of video
games. The days of scripted sequences and preplanned decision trees
and heavy-handed progression are coming to an end. And STALKER
is one of the firstand as such one of the most flawed
and primitive but nonetheless worthwhilerepresentatives of
that new movement.
A game that shows us where games are going. That's exciting.
Release Date: March 2007
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