In a restaurant somewhere in sunny Los Angeles County, 13 years ago, two old friends were having lunch. Wine and conversation were flowing. They remembered how they'd met at LucasArts in the 90s. They weren't there to talk business but they did because video games were their bread and butter. One of the men, Jack Sorensen, was reeling-off job opportunities he knew of - he being executive vice president of worldwide studios at games publisher THQ. "THQ Australia?" he enquired. But the other man, Dean Sharpe, didn't seem interested. He had closed his own studio Big Ape Productions a couple of years earlier, dropped off the radar and taken a break, and now he was ready for something new. But Sharpe wanted a challenge.
Few settings have captured the imaginations of game developers and players like Chernobyl, the site of a reactor explosion in 1986 that created one of the world's few actual nuclear wastelands. The legendary Exclusion Zone - now, would you believe, something of a tourist attraction - has provided the stage for countless virtual conflicts and survival stories. There are the indirect recreations, such as Big Robot's bleached starship graveyard The Signal From Tölva, or the Erangel island map from PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds - an abandoned Soviet testing facilty in which the wanderer is forced towards rather than away from the centre by an ever-encroaching sea of blue energy. And there are truer-to-life portrayals like Call of Duty 4's "All Ghillied Up" mission or GSC World's STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, which gives you the run of an Exclusion Zone in which space-time is starting to fall apart like overcooked pasta.
How many games can claim to still have a dedicated following, 10 years after their release? That still have fans conjuring up new mods to alter and add to the game? S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is pretty much the definition of a video game cult classic. This strange Ukrainian survival shooter is for some the best the genre has ever seen. But its audience wasn't spurred into existence upon the game's release. Fans had followed the development of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. for years before it eventually came out in 2007. In that time they saw various versions of it, each containing numerous areas and mutants that never made it into the final game.
The people behind gritty survival shooter Metro Exodus are designing the game to be the best of the Metro series and the best of the STALKER series - combined.
For an area that's been blasted by radiation for the past twenty years, the sloping hills of the countryside around Chernobyl are impressively virile. The grasses have shifted from soft greens to muted browns, admittedly, but there's still a lot of vegetation, and, more worryingly, a lot of wildlife.
Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl - let's drop all the dots - seemed to divide people. For every person I know who would enthuse and OMG about the atmospheric shooter, there would be another for whom the game had been a horrible mistake. This article, I suspect, isn't going to be for that second group of people. They've tasted this peculiar Ukrainian experience, and they won't be going back. For those who know the game, accept its foibles, and still find something worth spending time with, this will be a story they understand rather well. They'll probably be nodding along at the most salient points. Hopefully, however, we'll also have a third species of reader: the one who has yet to give it a try.
Originally announced in 2001, and having missed its proposed 2003 release date by a considerable margin, you can hardly blame folks for suspecting that this long-awaited Iron Curtain shooter was little more than vapourware.
The roads north of Kiev are relentlessly bleak. A capital's spattering of wealth gives way to a dark, eastern European quaintness as the setting morphs to rural Ukraine outside the city, then to abject poverty. Farming towns turn to villages then to hamlets. Cow herds thin. Geese gaggles vanish. Blue painted roofs become fresh metal, as bright as can be expected under such a ghoulish sky, then holey rust. Broad-faced men with deep-set eyes stare back at us from monolithic concrete bus shelters. Shops sell nothing but dull oranges behind muddy glass. A woman wearing a torn floral headscarf sits in the heaving rain underneath rotting beams next to a milk bottle. She doesn't even look up. The coach thunders on. Humour peters out. There are no modern cars here, just 50s trucks and green ambulances hung-over from the USSR. The driver slows and we pass a road-sign bearing a right arrow. The word "Chernobyl" even looks ominous in Cyrillic.
With S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl edging closer to it's first quarter 2007 release, publisher THQ and developer GSC Game World made a full showing of the near-complete game in Ukrainian capital Kiev late last month. Making its first public appearance with its final structure, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. showed itself to be a feature-heavy FPS which compromises between GSC's original ideal of a totally scriptless, randomised "adventure" through the 30km exclusion zone around Chernobyl's ill-fated Reactor 4, and fully scripted, story-driving levels.
For all the screenshots and video footage, STALKER may still have some convincing to do. After all, we know it's graphically beautiful and wrapped around the premise of a post-disaster Chernobyl, but how does it actually play? We've been all the way to Kiev and back to try and see for ourselves, but we're still waiting for significant gameplay revelations, leaving us to rely on measured optimism. We'd love to get carried away with the stupendous visuals, but we've been burned too many times - the best we can do is hope that it blossoms into a game to match the quality of the environments, and prove GSC Game World's various doubters wrong - in style.