Review: From Russia with mutated love.
Play enough first person shooters, and you get a pretty good sense of what to expect from the genre. Walk, run, crouch, lean, shoot?not only do most of them have the same features, they often feel the same in the way those features are implemented from game to game. Even some of the best FPSs, like Half-Life 2 or Call of Duty, don't bring much innovation to the basic game mechanic. Walking often feels more like gliding over the terrain and even the best-designed levels often feel more like dungeons or arenas than real spaces that might have a life outside of the game. But S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, the latest release from GSC Game World and THQ, works hard to separate itself from the pack. It's an FPS with RPG elements, but reducing the game to those terms ignores the fact that this is a game that really strives to do a lot of things differently. It tries to modify the first-person shooter by giving more depth to the character and the story. It wants to modify the way the player character exists in the game by creating a living, breathing world with a dynamic life of its own. And it even tries to refine the player's interaction with his or her own character by introducing a sense of physicality to the character's movement and actions.
While S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is based on a 1979 movie directed by acclaimed Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (which was, in turn, based on a 1971 short novel called Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky), the game builds on the original material so much that comparisons don't necessarily do either of them any justice. Sure, they all involve exclusionary zones home to strange events, outcast stalker types compelled to enter the Zone when the rest of the population has the good sense to stay at home, and bolts, plenty of bolts. But the book and movie are highly cerebral experiences in which not much of anything actually happens?not exactly the ideal situation for a computer game. So the good folks at GSC Game World have jazzed things up a bit for us.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is set in the near future in the real-life environment surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the city of Prypiat, Ukraine. The 1986 Chernobyl accident, the worst nuclear meltdown in history, serves as a backdrop for the game. The accident released massive doses of radiation into the atmosphere, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes at a moment's notice and creating a huge exclusionary zone still charged with dangerous radiation to this day. As if this weren't bad enough, the game lore tells the story of a second, mysterious catastrophe, one brought on by botched experiments in super secret laboratories near the exclusionary zone. The second incident expanded the Zone and brought about a variety of mutations to the creatures in the area. It also created the dangerous anomalies that can be witnessed around the zone. The game picks up a few years after this second incident, when several groups vie for the Zone in order to control it, destroy it or exploit it for personal profit.
That's where the player comes in. In a riveting opening cinematic with top-notch visuals, a truck speeds down a dirt road in the middle of a stormy night. It's a ?death truck? carrying a shipment of corpses, but when it crashes and the bodies are strewn across the roadway, one of them turns out to still be alive. He has no identification and no memory?the only clues to his former existence is the word S.T.A.L.K.E.R. tattooed on his forearm and a PDA containing only three words: ?Kill the Strelok.? This is the identity the player inhabits and the mystery he inherits, and all of the missions the player undertakes stem from these two premises.
On the one hand are the storyline missions, the ones that help unravel the mystery plot and move the player inexorably closer to the heart of the Zone, the Chernobyl plant itself. These missions are generally well handled?the mysteries create a compelling reason to head out into the Zone while helping to create a character for the player. These missions often require the player to go out and talk with various NPCs in order to collect the information and clues that lead to more information and clues that . . . you get the picture. This can sometimes lead to the ?talking head? effect where NPCs drone on without much input from the player, but overall they're pretty interesting. The conversations can sometimes be a bit glitchy when characters are cut off mid-sentence or when they say things that are complete non sequiturs. For instance, one of the first people you'll meet in the game will say ?Pipe down!? before you've had the chance to speak. Another annoying little thing about the NPCs is the character models. The individual models don't look bad, though their animations are sometimes a bit stiff. The worst thing about them is that there really isn't much variety?just a few models of each type are repeated throughout the game, so that you end up feeling like you're walking through a city of clones. Meanwhile, the voice acting is good, although strangely enough the spoken dialog diverges from the written texts. The gist of what they say is always the same, but the wording is usually very different. And the written texts do often include the odd translation. Nothing on the scale of ?all your base are belong to us,? but some interesting lines nonetheless. One bold choice the designers made was to leave all of the secondary dialog in Russian. All quest-related conversations are translated into English, but any conversation that you overhear around a campfire or every time you talk to a random NPC, they'll be talking in Russian, with subtitles when necessary. It doesn't take anything away from the story, but it really adds to the atmosphere.
There are plenty of those side quests and missions, and they serve to teach the player what the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s do, who they are, and how they live. It's implemented really well, and you'll find yourself knowing a lot about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. life without ever being told. While these tasks are entertaining at first, many of them fit the cookie-cutter mold of the side quests from any mission-based RPG game. There are plenty of fetch-the-item missions that have the Marked One, as the player character is called, out looking for artifacts, weapons, or even body parts of the various animals that inhabit the Zone. There are also plenty of assassination type missions that have the player targeting individuals or groups of humans, or sometimes whole dens of mutant animals that inhabit the territory of the Zone. Although they aren't terribly imaginative, the nature of the Zone keeps them interesting. They're also the primary way the game trains the player about the Zone and its peculiarities.
Most, if not all of these missions are optional, but there is so much extra content here that a curious player could work at these side quests for weeks without advancing the main storyline too much. The game is also full of secret stashes and Easter eggs for the player to discover. Every little dark corner might conceal a cache of weapons or medkits or the like. The game also includes some true Easter eggs out there for the finding, things like photos of the developers and references to other games. The Zone is huge, though, made up of at least a dozen different levels, each of those also huge, so exploring all of the Zone would be an enormous task, daunting even for the most dedicated player. Luckily, clues to the location of these stashes can often be found on the bodies of defeated bandits and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s to help make it more manageable. The size of the zone can make the side quests a bit cumbersome occasionally, since they may require you moving across familiar areas a lot as you run through the ?complete quest, go back for reward, repeat? grind a few times. But since these quests are optional, this won't be a problem for anyone who doesn't enjoy it. Also, since the Zone allows for multiple paths to get you from A-B, you can keep things interesting by simply taking a different route. The primary quests have the player moving generally forward and exploring new sections of the Zone.
The Zone, kilometer after kilometer of Zone, is the heart of the game. After the earlier catastrophes, it was abandoned by all ?normal? inhabitants, and empty buildings, disused roads and railways, and even whole ghost towns dot its landscape. Exploring these areas is one of the great pleasures of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. Some of the best looking graphics in this game are in the landscape. The hillsides are covered with grass and small bushes that stands up and waves in the breeze. The abandoned buildings and vehicles have a great tumbledown feel, like they've been ignored and left in the weather for years. They're rusted and pitted, cracked and broken. The couple of urban areas really look distinctively Eastern European, since the designers modeled in real details from real places and landmarks. And the dynamic day/night and weather cycles not only look good, but also add to the gameplay since some mutants tend to have more active hunting behaviors at night. All this graphical goodness comes at a price, however. Many players complain of frequent framrate drops and lag as the game loads on the fly the information needed to keep the world looking its best. Unless you've got a top-of-the line PC, you're going to have to tweak the graphics settings to find your ideal balance between looks and performance. Luckily tweakguides.com has a detailed guide to help you do just that.
For an abandoned area, the Zone is far from lifeless. Packs of mutated beasts roam its rolling hills, and several human factions have set up encampments around the Zone. The movement of these creatures, human and otherwise, is controlled behind the scenes by a system that GSC calls A-Life. The idea is that all the NPCs have their needs?food, rest, self-defense, etc?and all of them are out to fulfill these needs as best they can. Although these claims sound grand, it seems like most of the animals are based around a general area, and even if the Marked One kills off all the pseudodogs in a particular valley, for instance, there will most likely be more the next time he passes through the area. Faction wars do occur, however, and it's even possible for one group to kill off another and take over their area. Moving through an area and witnessing a fight between a few bandits and some mutated boars gives a real sense of life to the Zone. There are plenty of these mobile characters in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., but unfortunately it also includes plenty examples of that traditional RPG element, the character rooted to a particular location, waiting for the player to favor him with a visit. It's a necessary convention, since just a few traders, bosses and a barkeep hand out the majority of the missions.
Besides the mutants and humans, the landscape of the Zone itself can be said to have a life of its own, and much of the excitement early in the game comes from the need to learn the ins and outs of the Zone's personality. For one thing, much of its landscape is dangerously radioactive, so it's necessary to either learn to avoid the most dangerous radiation or to find ways to lessen its effect. The Zone is also home to a series of anomalies almost like traps that litter the landscape, each with its own character and potential for damage. For instance, the Electro anomaly is common early in the game and, as its name suggests, is capable of delivering a lethal dose of electricity to careless S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s. Other anomalies manipulate gravity to hurl unwary passers-by into the air, create vortexes of dangerous winds and other generally nasty effects. Fortunately, all S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s carry a device to help them plot the boundaries of any anomaly: bolts. Tossing common bolts into an anomaly triggers it, not only showing its size, but sometimes allowing the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. to sprint through as it resets. Some of the anomalies are static, while others seem to move around like storm fronts gliding slowly across the terrain.
Anomalies are integral to the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. experience since they give birth to artifacts that the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s can not only use to get important stat bonuses, but they also serve as a source of income for S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s who bring the coveted items back to traders around the Zone. Each anomaly is associated with different artifacts and each artifact has different properties and sale values. The damage system in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is very RPG-like in that damage is inflicted in different ways by different attack types, and characters can have resistances to damage in different categories like electric shock, chemical burn, impact, and so on. Each artifact affects one or more of these categories, for better or worse. The Sparkler artifact, formed in the Electro anomaly, increases endurance when equipped, but actually lowers resistance to electrical damage. Up to five artifacts can be equipped at one time to balance out deficiencies and prepare for a given encounter. A few very rare artifacts offer bonuses without penalties, but only the most persistent or lucky S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will find them, since they spawn rarely and randomly in the game world.
The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. combat system uses these different damage types and is also very much RPG combat. Each weapon type has several stats associated with it, including damage, accuracy and rate of fire, so some weapons will be more useful in some situations than others. These stats can make for some frustrating combat moments, especially at the beginning of the game when the Marked One is armed with weak, inaccurate weapons. It's very possible to fire 3-4 9mm pistol rounds at an enemy at a relatively close range to little or no effect, and it seems like the enemies don't suffer from these same problems. It can be frustrating, but the situation gets better later in the game when better weapons become available to the player. Of course the game keeps things challenging by outfitting enemies with some pretty powerful body armor to match those improved weapons.
Even though S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has plenty of shootouts and all sorts of action, it rarely feels ?shootery.? The pacing is very different from most shooters at the beginning, since it doesn't immediately drop you into the middle of a massive shootout to get your adrenaline pumping from the get go. There's a lot to do and experience at the beginning, but it starts the player off with more questions than bullets. The pacing is more like a movie where things start slow and build to a massive ending. And since there's almost always more than one path through an area, and the enemies rarely behave in the same way twice, it avoids a scripted feel in most of its shootouts. The variety of weapons and tactics available to the player also helps things. The game generally gives the player multiple options, and a determined player could often sneak or run past many of the enemies, avoiding much of the combat altogether. There are only a few areas that have the player moving through a series of hallways populated by bad guys waiting to be knocked down like bowling pins. Like in other games that allow players free reign to develop their characters, these areas of forced shooterdom can be particularly difficult for the player who hasn't developed that kind of character through the rest of the game.
The most exciting element of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will strike the player from the first moments she takes the Marked One out for a stroll in the Zone. Movement is done through the standard WASD/mouse setup used by every other shooter, but the designers of this game have focused on making movement and most player actions feel more physical than most. For instance, weapon swapping isn't instant: to switch between two different rifles, the player has to actually get into her inventory and swap weapons, making weapons decisions important. Even more interesting is the subtle camera shake used whenever the player moves. The shake is more pronounced the quicker the movement and it makes shooting on the move that much tougher. Coupled with a movement speed linked to the weight of the player's inventory and breathing sounds when fatigue sets in, the movement in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. feels much more like really moving and walking and running. Unfortunately this sort of realism isn't carried through all the player's actions. Searching an enemy corpse involves a jump to an inventory HUD and the game includes keys to instantly use medkits and bandages to instantly restore health. It's debatable whether making these elements more realistic would have made for a better game, but it certainly would have been an interesting experiment.
Finally, there's the multiplayer game, which also wants to be something unusual in the world of first-person-shooters, but it's less successful on that front than the single-player campaign. It's gameplay modes are familiar: there are the usual deathmatch and team deathmatch modes, and there's also an Artifact Hunt mode, which plays out a lot like a capture the flag game. Two teams vie for the same artifacts and win points for bringing them back to their base. The difference lies in the nature of the artifact itself, since players can activate them and turn them into dangerous anomalies instead of bringing them to the base for points. The multiplayer features a rank system and a money system that can be used to buy weapons and equipment upgrades. When a player first joins a match, he or she spawns armed only with a pistol, so finding a better weapon is a first priority. The maps are generally really nice looking and very large, with a variety of terrain and obstacles that help keep them from feeling too arena-like. Aside from these interesting elements, though, the multiplayer is largely just a frag-fest that rewards the player with the best twitch skills. The team deathmatch keeps score at the top of the screen in bright neon numbers and an Unreal Tournament-like voice frequently announces who's winning and so on. It's a fun and really polished experience with plenty of interesting ideas, but it's also very different from the thoughtfulness that makes the single-player campaign so interesting.