Developer: GSC Game World
Release Date: March 6, 2007
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is one of those games we've been hearing about for the past several years, and it has created buzz aplenty. Many shooter fans are surely anticipating this title more feverishly than any other 2007 release short of Crysis. Having recently played through the early levels of a preview build, we are pleased to report that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. appears very close to completion.
The game is set in a fictionalized version of Chernobyl, site of the worst nuclear reactor disaster in history. In 1986, a chain reaction in the reactor's core released eight tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere, contributing to genetic mutations and the deaths of several thousand Ukrainians. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R., you assume the role of "The Marked One," a scavenger and bounty hunter (i.e., stalker) with amnesia. All you can remember is that you're on some kind of mission to eliminate another stalker.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is, first and foremost, a shooter, but on the other hand, there are lots of role-playing elements thrown into the mix. I would classify it with the likes of Oblivion and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, in that all three games infuse a general RPG framework and storyline with a good dose of shoot-'em-up (or slash-'em-up) first-person action.
The opening cinematic sequence sports excellent graphics and sound and grabs the player's attention effectively. A "death truck" filled with corpses gets struck by lighting and careens off the road, littering the landscape with bodies. One of those bodies — not quite dead — belongs to you. You are rescued by a scout and taken to a rusty underground bunker, where a Russian trader explains that you have amnesia and will have to carry out some missions for him to pay him back for saving your life.
Having amnesia creates the perfect excuse for the tutorial on using your PDA and general gameplay mechanics. Telling the trader that you don't remember anything (which is optional) will cause him to explain how the game is played. He quickly gives you your first mission: find a stalker named Nimble and retrieve a flash drive he is carrying.
So begins your quest as a stalker, a soldier of sorts who roams the radioactive Chernobyl "zone" completing various tasks, like collecting and trading radioactive artifacts and killing bandits along the way.
Navigating around the maps is more reminiscent of Oblivion than any shooter in recent memory. The terrain is wide open and vast, and you have the freedom to set off in any direction you choose, though a helpful arrow on the mini-map points you in the direction of your next mission objective. You cannot jump around discovered points of interest as you can in Oblivion, but the PDA includes a useful feature that will mark your map with the coordinates of your objectives, making it easy to find your way around.
Your PDA also alerts you to the number of mutated beasts, fellow stalkers, and likely hostiles in your immediate area, usually in time for you to prepare appropriately for the encounter. Other features include a mission list, cast of characters you've encountered, and game statistics.
A benefit of the wide-open, non-linear level design is that you can approach an area and plan your attack from any direction you wish. On your quest to hunt down Nimble, for example, you have the opportunity to attack a group of bandits with the assistance of a small squad. While the player cannot direct the actions of the squad as in some tactical shooters, it is still possible to play the level multiple different ways; you could choose to stay with the pack or attempt to flank the enemy while the squad distracts them.
Radioactive hazards are scattered about the maps and are visible in the form of blurry, slightly distorted pockets of air. In case you overlook one, your equipment will sound an alarm as you approach these dangerous areas. Getting too close to the radiation will cause bleeding, which can lead to death if left untreated.
Often you will find an assortment of mutated creatures in the same general area as the radioactive clusters. It's fun to see what radiation will do to a three-legged pig-cow (or whatever that was). The scenery is appropriately drab, and the weather effects are very nice. Expect a lot of gray skies, muted colors, and hollowed-out warehouses. Howling winds blow dust and leaves across the terrain, and rain showers are frequent.
I was very pleased to see another title supporting native widescreen! (Developers: this should really be a must these days). S.T.A.L.K.E.R. lets you play in a number of widescreen resolutions, which is helpful as you try to figure out how to get the most detail without sacrificing too many frames per second. Most of you will be faced with this dilemma, too, because running the game at maximum settings and at 1920x1200 is probably going to be too much for your video card. For me, it was nice to be able to dial down to 1440x900 to assist with smooth framerates without sacrificing too much resolution.
The lead characters in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. speak audibly, and the voice-acting is engaging and genuine. Unfortunately, not all of the NPCs you encounter are capable of verbalizing their communications, and oftentimes, you must communicate by exchanging written messages.
The A.I. is of the esteemed Oblivion variety, seemingly going about their daily lives and chatting with each other rather than just standing in place waiting for you to approach them. However, there may still be a few kinks to work out in terms of their intelligence. This may be addressed and fixed in the final retail version, but throughout the preview build, I did not witness much use of cover by the enemy bandits. At one point, I jumped into the back of a military truck and camped under the canopy, partially concealed. As bandits walked into view, I picked them off, one by one. Not one bandit was discouraged by the sound of my shotgun or the pile of dead bodies behind the truck.
Depending on your skill level and personal preference, you may be excited or disappointed to hear that the title is hard. Even on the "novice" difficulty setting, do not expect a cakewalk. At least in the early levels, you will spent a lot of time with a flimsy pistol, even while your enemies are packing shotguns and submachine guns. Of course, you will steal the gun of the first bad guy you take down, but then ammo becomes a problem. It's not nearly as plentiful as in other shooters, so you will be forced to revert to your pistol (or switch to a knife) if you don't choose your shots carefully.
Fallen enemies can be looted for upgraded weapons, ammo, food, and an assortment of other items. The clever inventory system takes both the size of the object and its weight into consideration and presents the information in an easy-to-understand interface.
In another nod to RPG-style realism, guns wear out over time. An icon on the lower right of your screen will alert you to a deteriorating weapon, and if you don't replace it shortly thereafter, the gun will jam frequently and eventually stop working altogether.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is shaping up to be a title best suited for those who prefer their gun-slinging tempered with story-driven character encounters, RPG-style inventory management, and a sense of purpose. Look for it to ship early next month.
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