S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl

Review by Steerpike
April 2007

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 great.

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.

Gloomtown

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 STALKER—you get "stronger" based on equipment and weaponry—the 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.

Severe Days

STALKER walks the line between super-tactical shooters like Rainbow 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 first—death 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 first—there 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 for treasure.

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;

(B) Don't.

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 enough—and meted out in sufficiently tantalizing bits—to 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.

X-Ray Hindsight

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 none—don't even get me started—the 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 superb—take 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 problem.

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 shooters—in 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 first—and as such one of the most flawed and primitive but nonetheless worthwhile—representatives of that new movement.

A game that shows us where games are going. That's exciting. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: GSC Game World
Publisher: THQ
Release Date: March 2007

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

AMD Athlon 64x2 4800+ or Intel Core 2 Duo
1 GB RAM
100% DirectXR 9.0c compatible 256 MB 3D hardware accelerator card

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