Friday, August 5, 2011

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

Breakfastman's Gamegaddon: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl is a semi-free roaming first person shooter/RPG hybrid from Ukrainian developer GSC Gameworld, mostly known for developing PC RTS's like the Cossacks series (which I have never played, but that is neither here nor there). The game's story and world are loosely based after a Russian film (also called Stalker), and on the Russian science fiction novel the film was loosely adapted from, Roadside Picnic.  The game itself was in development hell for over 4 years. It was originally supposed to be released in 2003. It was eventually released in early 2007. Despite that, the game managed to sell over 2 million copies around the world, and has become a cult classic with the PC gaming crowd (thanks in no small part to it's complexity and extreme difficulty). Is the game as good as many will lead you to believe? Is it really one of the best horror games of all time, like many claim? Let us dig in and find out. This is S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl.

 Um... You might want to move away from that burning barrel.... Nothing good every comes from burning barrels in shooters...
The game is your typical shooter affair. You can run, shoot, throw grenades, crouch, jump, lean around corners, the whole nine yards. Since this game is trying to be an open world game, you can approach most objectives however you want to, whether it be running in and shooting everywhere (protip: this is a terrible idea), sniping (and failing to hit much of anything) from a hill, trying to sneak past the enemies, or whatever else you can think of. The game does have some RPG elements to spice everything up though. The game has an inventory grid system sort of like the Diablo games, in addition to a weight limit like the Elder Scrolls or Fallout games (unlike those games, there is really no way to increase how much you can carry, weight wise. Well, I lie. There is one way, but it is only available at the end of the game, so yeah). You can go on side missions, join one of two factions, fight in an arena, buy various items, armor, and weapons from a couple vendors scattered throughout the game, and you can equip "accessories" (called artifacts here) to give yourself various buffs. You can also search the wilderness for "caches" (basically, hidden containers full of loot) that you find out about on dead bodies. All of this adds up to good, solid shooter experience with loads to do and experiment with. All of the weapons are fun, and there is a clear progression and sense of increasing power throughout the game, which I rather like. You start with nothing but a jacket and a 9mm, but by the end of the game, you are a walking tank, fully decked out with rare artifacts, powerful guns, and strong armor. That does make it disappointing that there was no freeplay after the campaign mode available in the retail release, but life is like that sometimes.

       Cool guys don't face the camera. They look behind their backs as a helicopter crashes in the distance.

The game has a large focus on realism in the minute to minute gameplay. Most of your guns are very inaccurate, it only takes a few bullets to kill you or the enemies, your guns and armor degrade with use, you weapons can jam, you have to deal with bleeding and radiation poisoning, you have to eat food every now and again, and you can only run for so long before you get tired and cannot walk anymore. This realism not only applies to what the player can do, but how the NPC's act. Friendly NPC's will insist you put your weapons away when you approach them, they will fight of bandits and monsters, and they will go to sleep at night. Heck, when some NPC's are gathered around a campfire, one of them occasionally whips out a guitar and starts playing some quite good music to pass the time. While some of these little touches adds nothing to the gameplay (like eating food, or the NPC's playing on guitars around the campfire), they really add to the atmosphere of the game.

           What happens when you neglect to take out the trash for weeks on end. Won't make that mistake again....

Speaking of atmosphere (/clever segway into next topic), this game has one of the most unique and immerse I have ever encountered in a game. The dilapidated buildings, horrifying monsters, ghostly visions, constantly overcast skies, gray-green color palette, and strange, mostly invisible traps (called anomalies) that dot the landscape all help to create this oppressive, dangerous atmosphere. You really get the feeling that everything is out to kill you. Most of the other NPC's (including the military), most of the animals, the earth and the air itself... All want to spill your blood. Heck, even the dead want a piece of the action (also: zombies that such guns = much more scary that regular zombies). Very few places are truly safe. I found myself running away from fights just as often as I got into them. It really is an incredible experience, wandering around the gameworld, trying to fend for your life against roaming packs of rabid dogs, while trying to avoid killing yourself in the anomalies.

Protip: Never let Cthulhu kiss you. It never, ever ends well. He tends to get all clingy and possessive after that, then cries when you try to break up with him... Just trust me on this, dating an Elder God never ends well..

I guess I have talked enough about gameplay, so it is time to start talking about the story. The basic premise goes as such: You are the Marked One, a Stalker who has lost his memory after he was left for dead in the center of "The Zone" a strange area surrounding the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, which itself is surrounded by a mysterious energy field that supposedly melts the brains of whoever dares cross it. Your body was put on a "corpse truck", mysterious vehicles that come from the center of the Zone, carrying dead bodies for some unknown reason. Your body fell off the truck and was found by a local trader called Sidorovich. You were nursed back to health by him. The only clues you have to your past are a tattoo on your arm that says "S.T.A.L.K.E.R.", and a PDA which only contains one thing: an entry on a to-do list that says "Kill Strelok". The story follows the Marked One as he attempts to discover his identity and the identity of this "Strelok". You'll do various missions for various factions, enter into mysterious scientific labs, fight of the army, bandits, mercenaries, and other Stalkers. You will also learn of a mysterious object called "The Monolith", or "The Wish Machine" that supposedly resides in the middle of the Zone, behind a locked door in Chernobyl, and grants the wish of whoever can reach it, at the cost of extending the borders of the zone by 5 kilometers. The story itself is fairly good and has a few decent twists throughout. It is enough to keep you interested in what happens next. It is not without it's faults though. It relies on fetch quests far too often for my tastes, the characters don't really have much of a personality and generally all seem the same. Heck, I couldn't even tell you the names of any of the principal players in the game off the top of my head, besides the easy ones like "Strelok" and "Barkeep". Also, the main twist of the story (the truth about your identity) is incredibly obvious, and I had already guessed it correctly halfway through. It isn't all bad, and has some great moments, especially near the end. The game also has multiple endings, which is a nice bonus. All in all, decent enough, but not great. The atmosphere is more likely to bring you back than the story.

                                                       Willard:2099. Crispin Glover wishes he was this badass.

On the technical side of things, the game is pretty dated and glitchy. Weird shadow glitches appear way more often than the should, which is a shame, since the game really does have great lighting and shadow work. The textures of the game and models both look very dated, even by 2007 standards. I experienced one crash, and the game loads times can be rather long at times. The game also hitches up at odd times as well. Just running down a road can cause the occasionally dip in FPS for a second. The game also has a large number of glitches. Disappearing bodies, weapons, quest items, minimaps, player icons, the inability to drop weapons in your inventory if they have no ammo in them, the aforementioned strange shadow glitches, NPC's facing one way while bullets are firing in another... The list just goes on and on. Aesthetically, everything works, but if you are looking for a game that will wow you with it's graphics, look elsewhere. Luckily, there are some great mods out there that solve these problems, but if you plan to play the game vanilla, know that you will encounter many problems. Sound wise, the game is pretty good. The voice acting is fine, the sound effects all sound great and do what they are supposed to do, and the music is haunting and effecting. No problems there.

                                                                 Coolest. Backyard. Ever.

TL;DR: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is probably one of the best shooters in years. While the story is only okay, the graphics are lackluster, and the game is rather glitchy, the game can be incredibly fun and offers a unique atmosphere not really found on anything else on the market. Despite it's faults, it works, and it works very well. If you have a good PC and like shooters or RPGs, I would highly recommend you pick this up. It is a fantastic, unique experience you won't soon forget.

And now, some appropriate music:

-Breakfastman out.

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