I feel like I should warn people off Stalker. It's a grim beast, with rough animation and that laggy, about-to-explode feeling you get from some less polished PC games. It's really hard in places, and half the text is gibberish. Worse still, it's going to run like a tired old alcoholic on lower-spec PCs... and yet in spite of all this I simply cannot stop talking about it. All day long I've been opening MSN windows to annoyed friends and trying to explain the really awesome thing that just happened in Stalker. More importantly, perhaps, I've been trying to explain to them just what Stalker is. It's like X meets Y meets Z meets oh I wish you were playing it too.
It's an open-ended first-person shooter. Initially this appears to be something like 'Half-Life with added wideness' - a series of objectives, linear enough, lots of violence, some nice physics, and with plenty of retracing your steps. But the further you play, the more the game opens up. Instead of being an on-rails FPS where everything takes place in one carefully scripted corridor, Stalker allows plenty of scope for exploration. Occasional scripted events are dropped into your path, keeping the tension high and the narrative blooming. The wide levels soon expand into huge interconnected spaces, each one randomly populated by interacting and competing factions. Could this, you wonder, be some kind of Oblivion With Kalashnikovs? Or are we just talking Boiling Point with no vehicles? All the baggage that games like Oblivion bring with them simply doesn't appear here, and it's far leaner, and more Spartan than Boiling Point. The Stalker lives a simpler existence: you fight the locals, and the local fauna, completing missions given to you by the various characters you encounter along the journey. Occasionally you'll hallucinate. You gain the trust of some folks, and the ire of others. It's all very shooty: killing comes first, other stuff second. It's not a bad FPS, despite the wobbly Counter-Strike-variant feel to the combat. And it's not really an RPG, despite the amount of time spent poking about on your inventory screen, map, and mission log, and the amount of time dealing with different factions. There's something different about Stalker. It's almost as if the most important aspect of it is not combat, or interaction, or story-telling, but survival.
But perhaps the precise position of this oddity on the proverbial Venn diagram of overlapping genre conventions isn't really important. What is important is the atmosphere.