Postcards From Chernobyl! STALKER Rocks My World
Posted by Diggler - 1/4/2007 22:20
Kill Strelok. That's all I have. I can't remember who I am, where I am, nor how I got here. The only clue I have to go on right now, is a PDA found on my person. "Kill Strelok" it says, with an accompanied picture. For now, this is my sole purpose in life. Find this guy. Get some answers. Wipe him out. Seems as good an excuse as any.
|In your face, Duke Nukem Forever! STALKER's actually out. At last|
Some scavengers calling themselves "stalkers" apparently found my lifeless body in the wreckage of a car crash nearby, and have brought me back to their camp in an act of "charity". They're offering me work in exchange for money and leads on the whereabouts of this "Strelok". My first assignment is to rescue one such injured stalker from a camp close-by, where he's supposedly being held hostage by mischievous bandits. I'm given a pistol, five clips, and not much else, then patted on the bum and sent on my way. Them's the punches, I guess.
As I emerge from the stalker's underground outpost into the daunting, wide open vistas of Chernobyl, vulture-like birds hover above in the ominous, imposing sky. What are they waiting for? I ain't dead yet. Distorted cat wailings meanwhile reverb throughout the hills in the distance...but I hate to think what kinda mutated kitties make such shrill sounds as these.
I see the camp up ahead in the distance, cock my gun, and press on with a death wish.
It's fucking on.
Six years after its initial 2001 announcement, STALKER is finally here. Let's put that into perspective shall we? The bleedin' Gameboy Advance
came out that year. Hell, even the Playstation 2 was released barely a month or two earlier. That's right, the most popular games console in history enjoyed its entire lifespan
over the course of this game's development.
|And so it begins. Your pal here sets you off on your path, while doubling up as a fence|
Over on the PC side of things, Operation Flashpoint was meanwhile released around that time, as was Dig's fave game ever...Deus Ex. A year or so prior, System Shock 2 also entered our collective hearts as well. Yikes. T'was a life-time ago, no?
STALKER's stream of delays sum it up pleasingly well, as here in 2007 it somewhat appropriately hovers between beautifully cutting edge and innovative...and about as dated as a relic from a bygone era could be. I mention the above PC titles though, as STALKER slots right in among 'em as if time stood still. Many'll compare it to Oblivion
("with guns"), but it actually has far more in common with the aforementioned, than Bethesda's more recent medieval classic.
That was an era of gaming when PC ruled supreme, and original, genre busting titles seemed to be dragging first person shooters into a whole new direction. It's sad that Vampire: Bloodlines
- and the much maligned Deus Ex sequel
aside - this first person, free-roaming FPS genre all but died out instead then, particularly with all that potential seemingly never truly realised.
Until now, that is.
For the nillies not in the know, STALKER's a PC exclusive, free-roaming FPS adventure set in the nuclear wastelands of Chernobyl (or "The Zone"). With said amnesia driving forward a central plot-line for you to follow, the game also chucks in an abundance of side missions, optional objectives, and a wealth of RPG fodder, such as looting, inventories and earning phat cash.
|While STALKER features a stunning open-ended world at its core, it's never quite as freeing as Oblivion's, with a ton of fenced-in zones, and regular radiation barriers|
It's also my fave game so far this year by quite the hefty margin, and one I feel my duty to spray warm goo all over.
As a Ukraine developed title seemingly older than my mum though, it's a very un-American beast that's kinda hard to describe. STALKER boasts such a unique and captivating style you see, you just seldom find anything vaguely like it in the average US, or even Japanese produced title. The game boasts a grit and a roughness oddly refreshing next to the typically glossy and overly-polished EA or Ubi-soft cash-in shooter.
It also showcases one of the most atmospheric and enthralling game worlds yet seen, coming across like a twisted blend of the Yorkshire Moors, crossed with the most dreary of London crack-den council estates. Coupled with a post-apocalyptic twist of course. You feel dirty just playing it...yet totally sucked in at the same time.
Admittedly, this universe isn't quite as humongous nor as epic as it appears on first glance, but if nothing else, STALKER can boast one of the more memorable gaming worlds seen in quite the long while, even before we get onto the more important stuff like, well, how it plays.
While it's an exceptional game however, and I could prattle on about stunning views and twisted art style for hours, the barrier for entry is quite high, and I mean that both mentally and monetary. The game's graphics scale accordingly for example - and will run on pretty much any average rig - but a top of the range bastard death bringer of a machine is almost required
to really see the sucker in its true form. I'd almost say it's a deal breaker to be honest, as without settings ramped up, and full dynamic lighting in effect, it looks about as old as the year it was announced. I shit yee not, we're talking a good five year leap in graphical quality, based solely on the specs of your PC.
|It sure looks fab on a top PC, but older rigs will feel the pain. It's just a shame there's such a gorge between STALKER's high and medium settings, as few will ever get to enjoy it at its best|
If yours drifts more towards the lower end of the spectrum then, it honestly feels like a poor man's budget-ware take on its true self, and I have a much harder time recommending it. Ramped up to full however, STALKER looks and plays about as up to date and glorious as anything Valve have knocked out in recent years, with stunning shadow effects, gloriously huge views, and pleasing physics aplenty. So much so, that your jaw will drop.
The aforementioned mental barrier is what many will have an even harder time with however. STALKER is tough, you must understand. Real
tough. Its already-released patch takes some of the sting out - with some minor balance tweaks here and there along with a general extra layer of polish - but by no means expect a walk in the park with this game regardless. As well as being an FPS and a quasi-RPG, STALKER is a survival horror game more than anything...yet one unlike anything you've ever experienced before.
Forget your Resident Evils and your Eternal Darkness's, STALKER is survival in its most purest form. Thrown into the big bad world with little to nothing to defend yourself with - other than the previously touched upon pea-shooter of a pistol - you're destined for death almost immediately. While contending with the harsh conditions of the Chernobyl wastelands, you'll be subject to radiation, vicious wild-life, a rumbling stomach, bleeding wounds, and a worrying lack of ammo at each and every turn. Scavenging becomes your most valuable skill then, as without it, you're essentially fucked.
The game is incredibly hardcore in that regard, as it barely explains any of this to you either, totally and utterly refusing to lead you by the hand in any small way whatsoever. It almost mocks you at times. Digging through dead bodies in desperate search for a bandage while you slowly bleed to death, or mercilessly stuffing a tin of Spam down your throat to quench painful hunger like a dirty homeless, become pivotal and regular parts of the STALKER experience. It all reinforces that underlying emphasis on sheer survival, and while I love it, it sure ain't for everyone. I guess the game takes a while to really get
in that regard.
|Combat ain't so easy at first. Shots regularly miss, you'll die constantly, and enemies take a ton of damage. It improves though|
This extends to the gun-play. On first booting up the game, guns are scarce, aim is off, and you find yourself missing dudes further than a mere 10 meters away. It's all a little annoying, truth be told. I think those infuriated by this apparent "whack combat" somewhat miss the point however, as while STALKER isn't a full-on RPG in the traditional sense (you don't level up skills nor earn XP points of any kind), it does follow the RPG staples of slowly improving a character as you progress.
So while combat starts off a little fiddly, with guns hard to wield and long range firefights a bitch, once you explore a little, make some cash, track down some artifacts, and snag some modified guns, your combat skills improve dramatically...based solely on your findings. With sniper rifles, rare pistols and the end-game machine guns in your hands, range increases, damage shoots through the roof, and you'll be head-shotting distant silhouettes without a second thought. This is STALKER's equivalent of "leveling up" you could say, and it's all very RPG inspired, but in a brand new way. It'll take some patience though.
Working through those initial hardships reaps wondrous rewards all in all then. Frustration slowly subsides as you discover and adapt to the game's brutal conditioning, and the combat is far from as broken you may initially fear too.
And it's from this point on...that STALKER has you.
Another very RPG-inspired trait of the game is the trading system. All this daunting exploration, painful combat, and oh-so-rewarding looting is worthwhile you see, as littering the landscape are the previously mentioned (and somewhat rare) "artifacts"; small objects of immense power that work somewhat like perma-buffs.
Selling such rarities - along with looted weapons and other pieces o' kit you come across - becomes one of the more fleshed-out parts of the game. Your backpack can't hold a lot, so deciding what to take, what to drop and what to sell becomes a puzzle in and of itself - as does tracking down friendlies out in the wild to offload said warez to. It's all very meticulous and enjoyable, and one aspect I dug the hell out of.
Unfortunately, not all fellow tradesmen prove quite so welcoming...
I've been in Chernobyl for three days now, working my way from outpost to outpost, earning cash along the way, while uncovering more and more on this enigmatic Strelok in the process. Mostly whispers here, rumors there, but I sense I'm on the right track.
I've been given a contact over in a bar a good long trek across the other side of The Zone, but on my way over, found myself accosted by wild animals. Angry, razor-toothed dogs and bloated monstrosities of nature I'd rather not think about for a moment longer, they didn't go down without a fight. Although I escaped unscathed, I'm a little worse for wear on the ammo front, and in desperate need of some R&R.
Heading down the long, winding countryside path to my objective - one that'd be picturesquely beautiful had the radiation not scorched it into a barren picture of death and darkness - I spot an old farmhouse off to my right. Perhaps a good place to put my feet up for a few hours.
As I approach the farmhouse, my radar emits a series of bleeps. Life-forms in the vicinity. Before I have a chance to survey the surroundings, I hear a voice yell out to me up ahead. "Over here, stalker! Let's talk". I lower my permanently-raised gun and approach slowly.
Turns out it's a fellow scavenger, and he's making me an offer. He's somehow got his hands on an oh-so-rare Gauss gun from god knows where, and is willing to offload it to me for the all-too-reasonable sum of 800 rubles. That's hard earned money I was saving to buy information from the occupants of that bar up ahead, but then again...with only half a clip left in my rifle, chances are I won't even make it there alive. I tell my new friend he has himself a deal then, at which point he takes my cash and heads into the farmhouse with his chums to fetch my new toy.
Moments later, I receive a transmission on my earpiece. It's the same guy. "Turn around and get the fuck outta here stalker. If we ever see you again, you're dead."
|Stealth proves unreliable, thanks to mostly fab, but sadly uneven AI|
Son of a...!
Feeling mildly raped, I slowly turn and head back to the main road, blood boiling within me like a Jack Bauer with a pint spilled on him, when I stop dead in my tracks. Wait. These fucker's ain't gettin' away with that.
I set-up behind a nearby tree, whip out my binoculars and take a ganders back towards the farmhouse. I spot 10 blips on my radar...some guards patrolling the grounds of the farmhouse, others sitting around inside, enjoying a quiet song on their guitar. With my money in their pockets. Mother fuckers. I decide to wait for sunset...then I'll make my move.
It's pitch black now, and rain has set in. Good, the extra noise'll ease my infiltration. Sticking to the shadows of surrounding trees and old abandoned farm equipment, I sneak towards the farmhouse without being seen. The main entrance is heavily guarded, but a side entrance remains barely protected by a single solitary guard wondering to and fro with boredom. I crouch, sneak up behind, and draw my knife. Open wide! Blade ploughed into his spine, he drops dead instantly.
I whip out my pistol and tip-toe into the darkened farmhouse. The thieving bastards sit around a camp-fire in the center, bathed in the light of glowing orange embers that, unfortunately for them, don't extend beyond a few meters. I flick on my night-vision goggles and edge a little closer. Payback's a bitch.
|That's what you get.|
I let off a barrage of headshots and the scumbags drop like a line of dominoes, dead before they even realise what him 'em. I've already taken out half the clan before the guards out front realise what's going on, then all hell breaks loose. It appears stealth has gone out the window, as bullets blaze past my head, so I whip out my assault rifle and get to work.
Some spraying and preying later, the farmhouse lies in ruins. Twitching corpses languish on top of one another, while smoke and debris litter the battleground with an eerie calmness. I walk over to the prick who stole my cash. He's still alive...spluttering up blood and crying in pain. So I casually blow his fucking head off. Retribution, dick-face.
No doubt the Gauss gun was a figment of the poor sap's imagination, but he does seem to be sporting a heavily modified submachine gun in his lifeless hands, one boasting a gorgeously sleek and oh so rare silencer that more than makes up for it. This'll do.
All in all then, a fine night's Stalking.