Wednesday, 25 July 2012

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

Post-Launch Review
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
Developer: GSC Game World
Released: March 2007


STALKER is an open-world FPS game set in the anomalous wasteland, now known as the Zone, surrounding the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. You are a stalker: a treasure hunter seeking to earn some money by finding and selling the almost supernatural artifacts generated by the disaster, and seeking the rumours of a mysterious "Wish Granter" in the centre of the Zone. You have woken up with parts of your memory missing, and the only hint to your purpose is a note on your PDA: kill the man named Strelok.

At Launch

STALKER received positive reviews, scoring an average of just over 80%. Critics loved the wasteland of the Zone, stating that it did a great job of capturing the feel of a post-apocalyptic wasteland or ghost town. Reviewers also enjoyed the high level of realism. However, many were disappointed by a long list of bugs and technical problems, citing frequent stuttering and other issues. Some reviewers were disappointed by the game's story.

Post Launch

Several patches were released to address technical issues and bugs.

The Good

There are a ton of realistic touches that encourage caution and tactics without making the game boring or frustrating.
Different armours protect differently from different hazards - armour plating is better against bullets and impacts than an environment suit, but the suit provides better protection against environmental hazards like fire and radiation.
Most weapons are fairly inaccurate, and get less accurate and jam over time.
Everything has weight - you can't carry enough ammo to last for weeks, unless you're willing to sacrifice your ability to carry the treasure you find.
You need to eat every so often - not frequently enough to be irritating, but just enough to make it feel like you have real biological needs. You don't need to use the washroom or sleep, which may be less realistic, but it means they don't get in the way of playing the game.
Even the almost-supernatural artifacts come with reasonably plausible scientific explanations as to how they provide you with crazy abilities and resistances.
Stamina & Carrying Capacity
STALKER handles stamina and weight limits better than just about any game I've ever seen. Not only is it less annoying, it's more realistic at the same time.
As you'd expect, you deplete stamina by sprinting. However, you don't regain it by walking, only by standing still - resting.
In Fallout 3 and New Vegas, for example, when you're over capacity you can't sprint or even run (default movement speed), you're slowed to a walk. You also can't fast travel.
In STALKER, you can still sprint, but it depletes your stamina very quickly. Furthermore, you also slowly lose stamina while walking. So you're not reduced to a crawl like in Fallout, and you can still sprint, but it takes way more energy. And you can regain stamina simply by standing still and catching your breath. If you're too overloaded - 10kg above the limit - you can't move. This is simultaneously more realistic and more fun - in real life you can easily move more than you can comfortably carry as long as you take frequent breaks. Incorporating these elements into the game is great design.
Huge Active World
Stuff happens in STALKER's world whether or not you're there to see it. Bandits attack friendly camps, the military conducts raids and sweeps, mutant animals hunt for food, and anomalies move over time. If you're hanging out in one area for a game week, and then go back to another, the population of the area could be very different.
It's also huge. Early on in the game, I was told to hike a couple of kilometres up the road to find my objective. Those were literal kilometres, scaled properly in the game world.
The Underground
Certain segments of the game take place underground. These segments manage to be extraordinarily creepy with very little work. The world can feel barren and quiet, or populated and violent, depending on the paths you take - but underground tends to feel claustrophobic and spooky. Many of the lighting systems that were put up in the tunnels are damaged and inoperable, so you'll encounter a lot of darkness in the tunnels. There's little movement but a lot of heavy machinery, so underground is mostly silent but with a constant bass undertone. Finally, the best part: you know when other humans are around because of the signals given off by their PDAs - even if you can't see them, you know how many are near you. Underground, though, in close quarters, it can still be a shock to turn the corner and see an armoured Spetsnaz trooper with a shotgun pointed at your chest. Mutants, however, don't carry PDAs, so they can sneak up and surprise you to terrifying effect.
STALKER has 7 endings (!) and they're handled quite well. There are 5 false endings and 2 true ones. Normally I'd say "false" and "true" (not the parentheses) but in this case those terms really do apply. If you get one of the five false endings, the one you get is determined by the values of your karma and wealth. These endings are short and some are cryptic, but all are ironic for reasons I won't explain.
The two proper endings can only be found if you follow a certain quest path and find the truth about the Zone.  You also have an active choice to make, unlike the five false endings. Regardless of your choice, you'll learn about all the plot threads and unknown facts that were seemingly left dangling.
It's a rather clever system - you have to be thorough and paying attention to discover the proper endings.

The Neutral

For the most part, plot takes a back seat to worldbuilding and exploration. Some key facts and plot points aren't explained until the very end of the game, and then only if you manage to discover the true endings. There's a plot twist that could be surprising, but that many people will see coming a mile away.
On the other hand, that's probably OK with most people. The worldbuilding is excellent and adds a lot of intrigue. It's great that no one really knows what's going on or what the real goals of the various factions are. And if you're looking for an open world, you often don't want the plot to get in your way.
For the most part, STALKER's AI is quite impressive. All of the Zone's denizens have their own behaviour and schedules and go about their business in entirely unscripted sequences. The game constantly tracks something like 1,000 individuals, who will all eat, search for treasure, engage in combat, explore, defend areas, and sleep organically according to certain rules.
On the other hand, there's one aspect that's laughably bad.
In one mission I was asked to kill a group of 8 soldiers who were occupying a farmstead. They wouldn't be hostile to me until I attacked, but I decided to play it safe anyway. Hiding a good distance away behind a car, I sniped one of the two guards with a headshot - and his buddy didn't react at all. That's weird, I thought, so I shot the buddy too. Shifting to a new position, I could see the other six guys all sitting around a campfire talking. I dropped them one at a time with single headshots, and none of them noticed that their friends were dropping dead three feet away from them. They never even turned hostile, so I didn't lose any standing with their faction. This reproducible with any neutral group that doesn't notice you, as long as you kill each guy with one shot.

The Bad

STALKER includes a durability system: the performance of weapons and armour degrade over time. That makes sense. However, you can't repair your items at all (short of a very specific method that only works for armour and is totally inaccessible until late-game anyway).
On the one hand, I suppose it makes sense that some random guy wouldn't have the know-how to repair any and all types of gear he comes across. Plus, weapons are fairly common. Not necessarily high-quality ones, which are a little harder to come across, but it's just about impossible to be completely weaponless.
On the other hand, you'd think that SOMEONE in the wasteland would have some knowledge of weapon maintenance and repair. It can't be that hard to swap out parts on some of the more advanced highly modular weapons. I'd even be willing to pay for repairs, if it allowed me to keep my rare weapon without suffering jams.
This is a bit of an odd one. As in many of the original reviews, I experienced stutter while playing STALKER. The game would hang for a second or less and then I'd continue on my way. The weird part is that I only noticed it in the middle of the game - I had no problems at the beginning or end. I'm not sure if it's an issue with certain areas or my computer getting too hot or what. Just be aware that it can happen and I'm not sure what causes it.

The Verdict

Recommendation: play it.
STALKER is a little slow-paced for an FPS, but it does a great job of conveying the bleak and dangerous nature of the Zone. It raises some interesting questions and points about how people perceive a catastrophic event - to most it's a tragedy, but to some it's an opportunity. One thing I would have liked to be explored is how the player character reacts to waking up with no memories and with his only direction being to kill a man. Would he do so unquestioningly, or would he resist? But that's a question for another time. Overall, STALKER is an excellently atmospheric open-world game where the realism augments the feel instead of getting in the way.

1 comment:

  1. I bought the game days ago on the steam summer sale (I got the bundle), I´m now playing it and I got to say its realism or feel of it is excellent, The Complete 2009 Mod for Shadow of Chernobyl is great and gives more life to the game! I can´t wait to finish the trilogy, although I thought the multiplayer would be good well at least in ShoC it isn´t in the technical aspects (no local servers, usually high ping wich leads to be unplayable online) Good Review I´ll be checking the games you review and maybe play something new :)