S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl Reader Review
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
A post-apocalyptic survivalist�s wet-dream come true? Oblivion, remade with guns, irradiated landfills and packs of killer mutated dogs? S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl promises much. The real question is, does it deliver?
And that�s not an easy question to answer. At the moment, I could either write a positive, glowing (possibly due to the radiation) review of an immersive, atmospheric shooter, with well-formed horror intentions, or I could write a review of a warty (again, possibly from the radiation), bugged and downright backward lag-fest. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (henceforth spelt STALKER to save me wearing out my full-stop key) is one of those games that could just go either way.
First announced way back in 2001, with an initial release date of 2003, STALKER has been delayed from the outset. What�s more, it shows. The storyline follows a nameless adventurer (known rather melodramatically as the �Marked One�) trying to make a living and discover the secrets behind the war-torn, radiation blasted Zone around the old Chernobyl nuclear facility, snuggled nicely in the heart of Russia. In real-life, 1986 saw the world�s largest nuclear disaster in the world, as an explosion ripped through the fourth reactor in the nuclear power plant. Radiation was spread across the globe, and the entire area was evacuated and sealed off. The game picks up from there, supposing that instead of mildly irradiating some sheep up in Scotland, the radiation leaking from the plant twisted up the land around the facility, turning animals and humans alike into slavering beasts. Not only that, the entire space-time fabric of the area has started to unravel, leaving dangerous and unpredictable anomalies all over the place. Kind of like Brighton, come to think of it.
Anyway, it�s in this wonderful environment that the game unceremoniously dumps you. Fade in, and you�re standing before a rather ugly trader who promptly hands you a mission � go find a missing messenger, retrieve the information he was carrying and bring it back. Fine. I would have done that, had it not been for the extremely low performance my machine was delivering at this stage. The textures were messed up, the FPS was lounging somewhere around 6 per second, and the audio was stuttering. Not a great start. After a lot of swearing, tweaking and adjusting various settings, both within the game and within my driver options, it was better. Be warned, however � this is not a game that likes Vista. Or modern graphics cards. This is where the prolonged development time shows � the game has not been designed to work on new technology. Duel core machines, Vista, new graphics cards � all these interfere with the running of the game. Whereas other games have beautiful textures, character models that are almost photorealistic, STALKER is ugly and jagged.
Nevertheless, I persevered. I�d spent twenty quid on this, and by the Gods, I was going to play it. And I�m glad I did. While the textures (mostly brown and grey) and the character models (also mostly brown and grey) look sub-standard, they do fit the atmosphere of the game exceptionally well. Chernobyl is not the sort of place where you expect to see colourful, vibrant foliage or townspeople dressed in their finery. It is the sort of place where you expect grey skys, grey earth and brown and grey mutant dogs chewing at your ankles. It might be miserable, but it works.
And indeed, that is one of the saving graces of STALKER. If you can actually get the game running, it draws you in completely. From the tense, violent gun-battles, to the eerie background howling and ominous thunder, to the snap of a rifle round striking the concrete above your head, the game is an exercise in immersive, often terrifying atmosphere. The combat is almost at a realism level, with one shot from a sawn-off shotgun at close range killing most creatures that you encounter initially (as you might expect), while gunshot wounds of less severity will result in bleeding, that can be just as fatal without bandages to stop the flow. Trudging across a radioactive trash pile, searching for artefacts to flog for profit, when suddenly your giger counter picks up, the wind picks up, the rain pours down around you. You hear a howl. More howls, and gunshots. You crest the rise of the hill and on the other side, bandits are fighting off a pack of wild dogs. The injured lie screaming on the ground, while the dogs snarl at the humans still standing. Approaching the battlefield from behind, you wait for the last two bandits to chase off the remaining dogs. Injured, they never suspect a thing�
These sorts of moments are the making of STALKER as a game. Whether you follow the main story, choose to complete the numerous side missions or just strike out into the Zone on your own, the game will provide great entertainment. Slight issues with endlessly respawning bandits in large areas and occasionally buggy NPC�s detract only slightly from the experience.
Atmospheric, buggy, terrifying, ugly. All appropriate, all addinged and detracting in equal measures. STALKER is a complex beast, but worth the effort.
And no, don�t ask me what S.T.A.L.K.E.R. stands for.
8 / 10