S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl Reader Review
Like the eponymous nuclear plant, S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl has been subject to intense interest and scrutiny, from both the gaming public and media, during its prolonged gestation. Like the Chernobyl plant the game is a bit broken, but is it as disastrous as the infamous meltdown?
Set during the aftermath of another Chernobyl catastrophe the fabric of reality has been torn, the disaster area subsequently referred to as: 'The Zone'. The player is cast as the amnesiac: 'Marked One' tasked with the assassination of the mysterious �Strelok� (Russian for 'Shooter' in case you were wondering), eventually culminating into a journey to the Chernobyl plant; home to the ethereal Wish Granter.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R could be described as the Eastern European relative of games such as: System Shock 2 and Deus Ex. Unlike its cousins S.T.A.L.K.E.R eschews RPG 'levelling up' of the protagonist and instead has the player rely on their own innate skills, with regard to combat specifically. Combat is largely workmanlike, with the initial weapons proving horrendously inaccurate and underpowered; however this notably improves during the latter sections of the game when meatier ordnance is acquired.
As far as simulating an aura of post-disaster melancholy, S.T.A.L.K.E.R is fantastic. The day-night cycle is an asset, with a personally memorable midnight battle lasting till the break of dawn. The graphics engine is never overly glamorous, instead highlighting the ugliness of the Ukrainian wasteland. Concrete Brutalist buildings, rusting vehicles and machinery, toppled Soviet statues; S.T.A.L.K.E.R could never be described as pretty but it is always aesthetically appropriate and impressive. Other Stalkers; comprising of mercenaries, state forces, idealists and loners; also frequent 'The Zone'. Allied Stalkers sit together around campfires and chat with one another, laughing and eating; even playing memorable tunes on acoustic guitars. Non- important dialogue is spoken in Russian, which serves to enhance the player�s sense of alienation in this strange and warped remnant of the USSR. The environment itself proves to be the most impressive aspect of the game. It is also at times incredibly frightening, particularly during the indoor sections of the game. Ambient sounds are expertly utilised and the lighting system proves key in generating a convincing aura of fear, providing you use the torch rather than the atmosphere sapping night vision goggles.
An abundance of atmosphere proves to be a saving grace when one considers the narrative of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. What should have ended up being a superb narrative experience is stunted by numerous flaws, which prove collectively detrimental. The inter-faction tensions; between those who wish to exploit 'The Zone' for its scientific and economic worth, those who wish to open it to international scrutiny and those who wish to close it off altogether; is only more interestingly explored in the latter stages of the game, with the player able to side with a specific faction should they wish to do so. These problems are galling as the foundation for an excellent narrative exists, with the premise of the game proving watertight. However you will find that the execution will fall short of the pre-release hype.
The much vaunted 'A-Life' artificial intelligence ecology is, as is symptomatic of the game as a whole, schizophrenic. Occasionally the AI is impressive: human enemies fight convincingly, retreating when seriously wounded; wild dogs are often placid on their own, but prove belligerent in large numbers. In addition to the temporal anomalies of 'The Zone' there are the AI anomalies: NPCs will stupidly attempt to fire through walls, comically blunder into lethal anomalies and sit and play the guitar whilst their comrades are chewed alive by rabid wildlife. NPCs will often act like parrots on amphetamines: continually repeating the same line of dialogue. Soon you will want to retort to that scientist's continual greeting of: 'Hello, hello?' with a bullet to the nether region. The dialogue itself seems to have been written by a drunken foreign exchange student. Awkward phrases are common, a personal favourite being: 'narrow-minded like your tank'.
Despite these shortcomings and bugs the game possesses a magnetic charm that will keep you coming back, like the Stalkers drawn to the gifts of 'The Zone'. Allowances will be made for its clumsiness, S.T.A.L.K.E.R being akin to that great toy car you owned as a child, which would have been your favourite had the wheels not kept falling off. Perseverance brings rewards and on the whole the experience is a fascinating and enthralling one.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R displays the characteristics of many games born in the former USSR. Like Mafia, Operation Flashpoint and more recently Armed Assault; S.T.A.L.K.E.R harbours great ambition and embraces ideas that many western contemporaries would have shied away from. S.T.A.L.K.E.R should be commended for taking risks and trying something new, even if it isn't always successful. It is certainly worthy of a serious gamer's attention.
7 / 10