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STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl is an action-RPG by GSC Software, and published by THQ. It is rated 16+.
STALKER is set in the year 2012, the radioactive zone around the destroyed Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant has exploded, increasing the range of radiation dramatically.
This high level of radiation has caused many occurrences inside the now extended zone. These occurrences include radioactive artefacts, so valuable and with such powers that many crave them - however, the zone has more deadly effects - many animals and humans in the area were horribly mutated, animals grew extra legs and became aggressive, humans attempting to prevent any further radioactive damage crawl around on all fours, gasmasks welded to faces by the sheer heat of the blast.
However, the benefits of the zone - the radioactive artefacts attract many, who hunt for them in search of riches. These men who come to the zones call themselves Stalkers. However, also in the zone are some militaristic rules, accompanied by patrols and tight regulation - these patrols generally attack Stalkers, and they just don't get along. Some men don't even want to be involved, and just want a place to live, instead of remaining homeless.
Your character, who remains unnamed, has amnesia (I love clichés). He doesn't remember a thing about who he is, what he used to do - or what he enjoys. He knows only one thing, desperate and unable to remember anything, he knows he must find a Stalker that goes by the name of Strelok, and kill him.
STALKER is played as a first person shooter with rather heavy RPG elements. You follow many major quest-lines, as well as a variety of side-quests in order to convince the people of the zone to tell you where to find Strelok. These questing situations range from anything from intensely easy to excruciatingly hard.
The shooting, which does make up a large portion of the game, despite not being the main focus, is actually pretty good. Guns feel weighty, and they feel precious, especially with the severe lack of ammo that plagues the zone. The only issue that I had with the shooting is that the guns feel like they should do fairly substantial damage, although in practise, especially earlier in the game, many of them do not - with beefy shotguns taking three to four shots to down a man on occasion. It's not a fault of the game, but a mere inaccuracy - it's obvious the developers did this with the intent of challenging the player and giving a sense of progression as they go through the game.
As for the RPG-ing part, it's good - it's not infuriating as many RPG games are, heck, it's even enjoyable and intriguing at times. The world of STALKER is genuinely interesting, and it (at least for me) makes you ask questions about how everything came to be. How did that person get killed? Should I be worried? Am I somewhere I shouldn't be?
Also, the level of detail built into the game world is phenomenol - it makes sure to make the game as believable as it possibly can be - it even has a PDA-like device (basically a wrist-held smartphone) that gives you a map of the area, as well as definitions and descriptions of the many anomalies, creatures and factions that you will meet throughout the game. It does a really, really good job of explaining everything to you, in a friendly, but not overprotective manner.
The main gameplay focus of STALKER is realism and survival - there are several features in STALKER that you probably won't see in any other game. These include a system where you can bleed to death if you're not careful - a hunger system and a system that determines the possibility of getting radiation sickness - however, this is not an issue because the game is very good at explaining this to you, and makes it difficult, without being incredibly daunting.
STALKER is a game released in 2007 and the graphics have aged a bit since then, sadly. There are still many features that weren't commonplace in games on release, but compared to many of the graphical features that we can achieve today, particularly on the PC, which remains the only platform you can buy STALKER for - it looks pretty dismal.
The graphics engine does, however, support multiple dynamic lights, allowing for dynamic shadows to be created from gunfire, which adds another layer of atmosphere to the game - in calmer moments as well as gunfights, such as when the Stalkers are around a fire, strumming their guitars and singing in Russian, their shadows are presented in a stretched, long glow behind them.
There are also several mods that actually improve the graphics for the Stalker games, and they do make it look particularly beautiful, or so I've heard - I haven't tried using mods with Stalker because I am very happy with the way it is at the moment, but many people will enjoy using mods like Oblivion Lost to make their graphical experience more enjoyable.
I have already mentioned about the games gun sounds sounding very triumphant and rough, and that's a good thing, even if the ingame effect doesn't really correspond very well to the sound. However, a lot of the voice acting in STALKER is a fair bit dodgy. What you've got to remember is that the studio that makes STALKER is actually a Russian studio - they may not actually have native English speakers on hand, and may have to translate their own writing, meaning that a lot of the writing and speech isn't perfect. You can, however, download a much better Russian sound pack, which, while retaining the English subtitles, changes the characters voices to the much better sounding Russian version.
I'm not critiscing their voice acting for what it is - I'm critising it in comparison to what many gamers have come to expect from the voice acting in games - especially in very story driven games and genres like this one and the role playing game genre as a whole - especially since poor voice acting can easily break immersion.
However, the music in the game is fantastically subtle, and you only hear it on occasion, with the strum of a fellow Stalkers guitar echoing through the wasteland. It can be surprisingly sombre and atmospheric.
Value for Money / Longevity
STALKER is especially cheap now, so cheap that you shouldn't even be questioning if it's worth your money - it is worth your money, go and buy it right now if you're an RPG fan - if you're not, definitely consider it. Many people say that the game is terrifying, which may put you off if you're not the greatest fan of horror, but it's not all frightening, it's just pockets of tension in an almightily beautiful experience.
Try STALKER at least, especially as the £5 that you can get it for. It should last you over fifty hours at the very least.
STALKER isn't suitable for children, so here's a rundown of the content so that you can make an informed decision on if your child should be playing
First and foremost violence - it's the biggest issue in STALKER by far, there are a fair few gunfights, but these aren't too bad, and they show minimal blood and injury at best. There are occasions when small splashes of blood remain on the walls and floors, and the bodies ragdoll, allowing you to loot them for their possessions after their death. You cannot mutilate people, alive or dead.
There are also some sequences where you are required to kill some animals, people who find this to be against their ideas may find these scenes disturbing and disrespectful, especially since they're compulsory to continue with the game. There is no emphasis on the pain of the animal, and the animals are fictional, but they closely resemble dogs and boars. There are minimal blood effects.
There are also some stronger sequences, such as when the game is showcasing what the anomalies can do to you if you get too near them - a boar like creature flies into the air in front of you, begins to suck itself into its core, rotates at an alarming pace and explodes. This sequence is very brief and is only played out once in the entire game.
Some mild to strong language is used throughout the game, although it is not especially frequent. There are some uses of "f**k" in the Russian version of the audio (in Russian, of course), but I haven't seen any translated profanities in the English version, at least not surpassing the mild ones like "damn" and "hell".
There are some frightening scenes in STALKER. Particularly in the Chernobyl power plant itself, where the actual environment is very claustrophobic and frightening to be in, especially with the ambient noises of creatures lurking in the dark. For the most part, it's because you're so immersed in your character, and because you realise that your character is dead if anything jumps out because you have low health and two remaining bullets.
Most of the horror scenes are limited to jump scenes, claustrophobic environments and scary noises, although for the most part, these scenes are not particularly prolonged. They are necessary to carry on with the game though. The game never uses 'shock' horror, such as gory images to scare the player - at least not in my experience.
The level of horror in STALKER doesn't really surpass the level of a '15' or 'PG-13' rated horror movie, as a point of reference.
STALKER is a brilliant game, and if you can play it but choose not to - you are missing out. Understandably, a lot of these elements are things that not all users want to experience, but I reckon that a child aged 13 should really be able to play this - 15 at the latest.
The graphics may be wearying and showing their age, but that doesn't affect the core gameplay experience, STALKER is still a brilliant game, and it should be treated as such. A must have for all RPG fans. I give STALKER a 5/5.
Windows 2000 SP4 or above
Intel Pentium 4 2 GHz or AMD Athlon XP 2200+
Geforce FX 5700 or ATi Radeon 9600
10GB Hard Disk Space
Copied from my Ciao account of the same name.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a game that had been in gestation so long before it came out. It was very, very hyped, and for the most part managed to deliver as a fun, visceral game, even if it is flawed and doesn't make as good use of its sprawling nature as it could have. It is, however, VERY challenging, and a nice reaction for the tendency for modern games to be getting easier.
There isn't much to the plot, but some might see it as distasteful; you're a mercenary who lives near Chernobyl, and the people who lived there during the Chernobyl incident have been turned unto ravenous mutants. You will have to take them and some of the other crazy locals down with a variety of weapons, and there's not much else to it really.
What I like about the game is how much freedom there is: you simply receive missions and can get to them any way you like. It has a huge free-roaming environment, that has a fair level of detail and has an impressive draw distance. Also, the enemy AI is surprisingly intelligent, and they won't let you get them without a considerable fight. It also manages a considerable sense of dread and hopelessness as a result which no doubt reflects what living near Chernobyl must feel like.
However, it isn't without some pronounced performance issues, and more casual players might not like how realistic the weapons are; they aren't as over the top as you'd expect from the genre. Also, I hoped there would be a more RPG-esque element to the exploration aspect, but instead there isn't really that much to do but wander around.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a notoriously demanding game that doesn't really justify it with its visuals, but now that a few years have passed, most new rigs can probably play it, and although it is at times frustrating, it is quite fun too.
This is probably the best game i've ever played, with the exception of the new one. The premise of the game is pretty simple, and pretty much what you'd expect, a loss of memory, so out you set on a voyage of discovery.
The graphics on stalker are simply stunning, nighttime looks like nighttime, although perhaps it is a little too 'moonlit' on occasions, but watching silhouettes flicker in muzzle flash is beautiful.
Gameplay for me has actually been pretty bug-free, i did get stuck in a door once but only the once, and there've not really been any major issues with ai that i've experienced. I've seen them do some pretty dumb things, but certainly alot less stupidity than, for example, half life. What you have to remember is the ai on stalker fights for the most part, dynamically, half life sets up battles with ai being told where to fight and who to fight, but stalker works dynamically. Enemy ai upon seeing you, the enemy, will run for cover, and work together to get you, one fires as another reloads for example. The facility to wound someone then wait for someone behind cover to go to their aid (but they won't always) is another example of the wonderful ai.
The story line, i find at least is gripping, and anyone who says the ending is rubbish obviously hasn't had the proper one. (there are 7!)
The weapons all have a very real feel, very few are accurate, so there's none of the sniper pistol bullshirt you get with half life, pistols for example are totally pointless at anything over about 20 meters, and i really appreciate ideas such as different ammunition - 3 different types in some cases (sniper, armour pearcing and standard for some rifles, and then shot, slug and dart types for shotguns).
All in all this game is truely brilliant, and it still has me going back for more.
The highly anticipated shooter S.T.A.L.K.E.R opens with a highly atmospheric cut scene featuring an army truck rattling across the desolate landscape of Chernobyl. As the camera cuts to the inside of the truck, a soldier is seen leaning casually against the door. One swing of the camera later, you realise the soldier is dead, the truck is filled with bodies. A dramatic opening indeed.
You play as a survivor of one such death truck, with no memory of your past save a PDA type device and the word STALKER tattooed across your arm. How you will survive in the desolate landscape? What strange creatures share the environments with you? the ultimate goal is to discover your past on a journey which will take you deep into the heart of chernobyl itself.
Plot: Much of the STALKER pre-release hype hinged on a free-roaming environment in which you are supposedly able to make any decision you like and see it affect the outcome of the game. This is of course not entirely true. Nevertheless, STALKER does a good job of giving you plenty of options-however you are ultimately guided towards the predestined outcome. For example in the last part of the game you must do things in a certain order to achieve an outcome-otherwise in addition to the real and false endings there is a third option, which is the game ends in a bug. A rather damp squib for an otherwise excellent game.
Gameplay: A free-roaming FPS, with a good assortment of creepy enemies and plenty of inventive weapons as you tackle increasingly bizarre mutant enemies. A minor complaint is you do tend to spend a lot of time running across a rather monotonous landscape.
Graphics: Very atmospheric, although despite the sprawling landscape there are few big outdoor setpieces, and the yellow and greys really do get to you after a while.
Summary: An interesting idea, well executed, convoluted plot well worth playing out to the end. Does not live up to all the pre-release hype however.
A lone man dashes through the slanting rain, clutching his AK47, hood thrown back, respirator bouncing up and down around his neck. He yells something in Russian, and suddenly there is the barking of a pack of dogs, hot on his heels. He turns, loosing off a half-aimed volley that brings down the front animal. Luckily, help is at hand, and a storm of fire cuts down the rest of the beasts before they reach him.
"Thanks," he says (or rather, the Russian equivalent), sitting down by the fire of a roving band of Stalkers.
And so ends another typical five minutes in The Zone. Someone pulls out a battered guitar, plays a tune. Vodka flows. Men talk about their latest exploits, compare artefacts and the wounds they have received from the varied and violent flora and fauna of The Zone.
As you can hopefully tell, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (still not sure what that stands for) is a deep and atmospheric FPS-cum-RPG, brought to us lucky people by GSC Game World and THQ. In order to understand what I'm on about though, allow me to set the scene:
The game is set in 2012 after a second explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in 2006, which has created "The Zone" - an area that is fenced off by the military because of the dangers that it poses, but still a large number of "stalkers" - illegal artefact hunters - have been drawn to The Zone by the not slightly eerie tales of riches to be had. You awake from unconsciousness in unfamiliar surrounding with a single message on your PDF: "KILL THE STRELOK."
Unsurprisingly, both you and your character (who is simply known as "Marked One") are both pretty confused about what is going on. You are given a quick bit of background about The Zone if you want it, then given your first mission and kicked blinking into the sunlight.
Very quickly you are handed a pistol and sent into the fray. If ever an FPS gave the feeling of a cold, lethal, piece of metal in your hand, it was Stalker. Fire your weapon and it actually seems very dangerous. Perhaps it's just me, but this was a new experience.
In the beginning events seem simple enough - danger coming from bandits, radiation and the occasional dog. But it is not long before a spreading sense of unease sets in. And the rest you will have to learn yourself!
Can't wait? See the opening video here - you won't be disappointed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbG90UIiLmU
Stalker is, first and foremost, an FPS. Normally I categorically refuse to play these games as they involve wandering around, massacring unlimited hundreds of enemies and dying on implausibly rare occasions, with little realism and not much more interest than if you just had to click on dots that appeared on the screen.
But Stalker is different. Perhaps its best feature is its freeform, semi-RPG nature (want to go mutant pig hunting? Bandit baiting? Sure, whatever floats your boat) but I think really the story is the best part. It sort of skulks around the background while you explore, but it is always there, dark, mysterious but not in the way. You won't get lost in its labyrinthine depths, but you will almost certainly be hooked and terrified in equal measures.
Another point of brilliance is the environment. There is a realistic day/night cycle, with more beasties coming out at night, but more guards going to sleep, and you can plan (to a certain extent) accordingly. There is also weather (rain mostly, it is the Russian - or maybe Ukrainian - autumn after all). The place is gritty and realistic - even without its many dangers it exudes danger. Lots of concrete and destroyed buildings and ill-looking grass - very Soviet-era. The city of Pripyat is a masterpiece in itself.
It is a place that demands that you learn and explore and train yourself. The makers have succeeded brilliantly in this - rather than an RPG where you grind your way up levels as you face ever more challenging enemies, in Stalker you only have your wits to keep you safe. As you progress you will gain access to a wider (and better) variety of weapons and armour, each with various positive and negative points. The weapons can be customised with grenade launchers, scopes and silencers so they look super-mean, but really your only safety is your experience. Various enemies require different levels of skill (and bravery!) to take down, but as you progress and learn, the game becomes rapidly harder. From the very first mission you are thrown in at the deep end - evolve or die. It is not a case of point and click; it is a case of using your environment and skill to your advantage. And it's not just living things that will kill you either.
Finally, there is the AI, powered by the "ALife engine". This was restricted at first, but patches since have unleashed its full force. The NPCs all have their own agendas - they will hunt for artefacts, roam around, catch, kill and eat things. They will hide from the weather, sleep at night unless they are on a mission (or nocturnal). Different stalkers have different agendas - Duty faction fanatically hunts mutants and members of Freedom faction, trying to shut off The Zone from the outside world to protect people. Freedom faction fights to open The Zone and its secrets to the world and understand what went wrong. Monolith faction hangs around the centre of The Zone, efficiently killing anyone who messes with them. Mercenaries and bandits cause everyone (including each other) trouble, and the military tries to kill everyone as basically anyone who isn't one of them is illegally in The Zone.
In fact, the agendas are so freeform that you will find that missions will be completed for you when your target is eaten by a stray pack of dogs, or that a squad of heavily armed soldiers will storm into the camp of inexperienced stalkers and start butchering people, forcing you to grab the weapon of a fallen comrade and fight for your life. The latest patches have turned The Zone from dangerous into lethal - with degrading armour, more expensive ammunition, more enemies and more movement of animals. If you are new to the game, you will have to really have your wits about you to survive.
And that's why it is so brilliant.
Well, there is one grumble, but it is not a major one. Originally, the 30ish square km that comprised The Zone was one big expanse of free roaming danger. Now, it has been split up into lots of small(er) bits, with loading areas in between. This means also that you don't get to drive any cranky Russian hatchbacks around, and that a little bit of realism is lost. On my middle of the road PC load times were fairly hefty which detracted a bit from the action, but I was concentrating more on not dying and charging around shooting stuff to notice most of the time.
STORY (no spoilers)
Well, I've covered pretty much everything already, but the story missions (if you choose to accept them) slowly reveal the mystery of your arrival in The Zone. There are various other collect this, kill that sort of missions which help give you a reason to explore and allow you to scrape some cash together, but ultimately are not of much interest compared with the main flow. They do add to the realism however, and some moments (scripted or otherwise) are truly brilliant.
GRAPHICS AND PHYSICS
(a.k.a. technical stuff I don't really understand but will try to explain anyway)
Stalker runs using the "X-ray" engine, allowing a million polygons on screen at one time (presumably a good thing), and numerous other benefits (normal mapping, HDR rendering, soft shadows and so on). This basically translates as: the game looks really good, especially if you have an ultra-fast shiny PC with a million gigabytes of brain power. Shadows look shadowy, night looks dark and creepy, rain is depressing, and switching on your torch in the dark means that you get a little ring of brightness while the rest falls into pitch black. Anomalies shimmer convincingly - but not enough to make them easy to spot. Watch out for flurries of leaves, broken roofs, crackling sounds, or just strange ripples...
Another important feature are the bullet physics. Bullets have been designed to be affected by gravity, also not shooting exactly the same way each time unless you are using the most accurate of sniper rifles. Hide behind a wooden wall and high-powered rounds will blast straight through, stand next to a solid surface and a ricocheting round could hit you. Fire without aiming and your chance of hitting will be severely impaired. A major wound will bleed for a while or until you bandage it.
The physics (including those of bullets) are governed by the ODE physics engine, allowing for ragdoll physics, bullets following realistic trajectories as described above, and the ability to throw/push/destroy objects to a certain extent.
THE ONLINE GAME
Online, the game is still fun, but fairly limited in its scope. Three game modes: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Artefact Hunt, allow for lots of violence, but the lack of an overall ranking system means there is little incentive to become highly skilled. This has the bonus that you don't get slaughtered much more than anyone else as a noobie, but also reduces the replayability somewhat.
An interesting twist however comes from the ability to buy equipment with money that you are given for each kill, so effective killers become even more effective, but you are given the chance to specialise and try out different tactics.
And as with the settings on the main game, the multiplayer maps are dark and realistic. Strangely, weather is chosen by voting.
Well, if that hasn't convinced you, nothing will! This is a masterpiece of a game, detracted from slightly by the compromises on maps made at the end of development (which is also a negative point - I held my breath for YEARS in anticipation!) but one that will be unlikely to disappoint fans of FPS and RPG alike. Freeform, realistic and beautiful it is truly a remarkable achievement.
The AI is the icing on the cake - I once fought alongside a stalker to drive off a bandit attack. Later I was leaving the "Wild Territory" (it's as dangerous as it sounds) and I saw him wandering the other way. I attempted to dissuade him from his path with a little light conversation, but he was having none of it.
"He's a goner," I thought, shaking my head and moving on to the safety of Rostock.
Later I fought my way through the Wild Territory again on a new mission. Reaching the other side, who did I see sat playing the guitar next to a newly lit stalker-fire? Yep, my moustachioed friend. I would've high-fived him if I could.
As listed on the Stalker website:
"AMD Athlon 64x2 4800+ or Intel Core 2 Duo, 1Gb RAM, 3D Hardware Accelerator Card Required - 100% DirectXR 9.0c compatible 256MB (Geforce 7800, for example).
It should be noted that at the start of the game development our initially targeted system requirements were much lower. As a result (and due to the lengthy game development) the game can be played well on lower-end systems (the game ships with two renders - DirectX 8 and DirectX 9 one).
Additionally, the game allows to scale various options for optimal performance. For the maximum quality and performance, the more powerful system you have, the better."
S.T.A.L.K.E.R is set, quite controversially, in the ruins of Chernobyl, a town in Russia near a nuclear reactor that underwent a melt down. Ignoring the moral squeamishness that surrounded this decision, this is a really good setting for a game, as it adds scope for a whole host of game play ideas.
When you first start playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R, it seems to be a simple first person shooter (fps). The controls are the now standard WASD keys for movement and the mouse for looking, so anyone who has played a PC fps in the last couple of years should be right at home.
The game starts with a monologue from one of the non player characters (NPCs), who lets you know hoe you got to where you are. What it boils down to is that you were found, half dead, and have no idea who or what you are. This seems a little bit hackneyed, and the NPC monologue is not the best plot device ever, but I think we can forgive them for that.
The NPC gives you your first mission, and you can come back to him later for more. So off you go, trying to find the next person to talk to. Most of the missions follow this vein, with you having to speak to a few people before retrieving an object or some information, which is almost always heavily guarded.
Once you get out into the open, you notice how good the graphics are. Grass and trees move in the wind, fires flicker within oil drums and abandoned buildings. The only possible criticism of the look of the game is that it is all a bit drab, but it is supposed to be set in a radioactive wasteland, so this is fair enough.
Whilst crossing the countryside, the dosimeter you carry occasionally starts clicking, which means there is danger nearby. This often takes the form of and anomaly, which is some form of radiation induced oddness which is often fatal. These take different forms, and get more extreme the further you head into the game. On a slight aside, it is quite funny watching the mutant animals scattered across the landscape run into them and explode.
However, it often worth getting as close as you can to these anomalies, as they often have artefacts at their centre. These are items that provided different benefits and penalties to your character, including greater resistance to various forms of damage, resistance to or constant exposure to radiation and even a tendency to bleed more when injured. Balancing your equipped artefacts is one of the keys to being really successful in this game.
Anyway, back to the first mission. You eventually find some allies, and start to assault a compound. You sneak up through the trees, matching the pace of your allies. Shots break out - some of you have been spotted. A full gun fight erupts. They see you. Bullets fly past. You return fire, running for cover. Then, you die.
That is the point you realise that this is not a normal FPS, but a strategic game, where the guns work properly and stealth is key. If you approach STALKER like a gung-ho Hollywood movie, you will do nothing but die often. You need to plan your approaches, use cover, and even use guerrilla tactics when out numbered. It really is a case of slow and steady wins the race.
One of the problems I found with the game was the enemy AI. Aside from the mutant animals, almost everyone you come up against is effectively a trained soldier, and will rip through you if you are not careful. They also have the uncanny ability to tell friend from foe at a range when they are nothing but a dot on your screen. If their weapon has a long enough range, you could well die without even seeing them. Very frustrating!!
However, this gripe aside, this is an amazing game. If you like FPS games, but like something with a bit more of a strategic bent than the likes of Quake or Unreal, I can whole heartedly recommend this game. If you want to just shoot and blow thins up, stay away!!