STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl
Excellent vodka isn’t the only thing comming out of Ukraine. As with many games that try to do a bunch of stuff all at once, STALKER is difficult to categorize. It’s sort of an RPG with its inventory and quest structure, and a shooter with it’s intense gun battles, and a horror game with its creepy abandoned underground lab raids. It’s also flawed as all hell, but if you want a genuine feel of a post-apocalyptic Soviet-bloc wasteland, you can’t do any better.
Set in the near future, STALKER places you at the site of one of world’s worst nuclear power plant accidents: Chernobyl. An entire nearby town and several villages had to be evacuated as a result of that disaster, forever capturing Pripyat in a freakish 1980s Soviet town capsule. The apocalyptic vibe of this decaying town and its surroundings make for a great setting in a computer game, as STALKER lets you gradually explore the periphery of the restricted area (simply called “The Zone”), as well as more interesting urban areas or the innards of the doomed nuclear reactor itself. According to the story, a second explosion led to a black market for pieces of radioactive artifacts springing up everywhere. In STALKER, you play a freelance mercenary competing with a host of other lone scavengers and also para-military organizations.
Humans with guns aren’t the only hazard. The local fauna also seemed to be negatively affected by the sudden input of radiation, since the landscape is now scattered with all sorts of nasty, monstrous mutants. Both wildlife and zombified locals will get in your way. There’s a story tucked away behind all of this chaos, but it’s not nearly as interesting as it should be. Part of it might have to do with the game being a foreign import. Only a fraction of the dialogue is spoken English (the rest is in text form), leaving your interactions with the myriad of characters feel rather dry.
Despite it’s rather confusing narrative, STALKER still outperforms itself thanks to its excellent atmosphere. You have to visit the decaying Soviet-era buildings to really appreciate them. From the industrial centers to abandoned apartments and rickety villages, everything in STALKER looks exceptionally authentic. The levels are impressively large, requiring a lot of traversing before you encounter the unavoidable loading screen leading you to the next area.
The game world is unlocked gradually as you perform story quests – you start off in an abandoned village on the edge of the Zone, but will eventually progress through a landfill, several research labs, a railway station, and eventually the town of Pripyat and then the Chernobyl plant. Authentic weather patterns and a day-night cycle help lend further realism to gameplay.
Inventory management (including the overall weight of your gear) is a central gameplay facet. You have to decide which weapon to keep and which to either drop or sell. Carry too much gear and your stamina is heavily handicapped. New and better guns are eventually discovered, ranging from your standard Soviet-era Kalashnikovs and double-barreled TOZ-66 shotguns to more advanced LR300 automatics, OTs-14 GROZA bullpups or the old but dependable SVD sniper.
None of the weapons have authentic names, unfortunately, but it doesn’t take an gunsmith to realize which firearms they’re based upon. Other RPG-ish elements include hunger (you have to gobble various food items to survive) and item durability (banged up weapons are more prone to breakage during combat).
The gunfights are of particular interest in STALKER, since you’ll often be forced to battle your way through hordes of enemies in order to reach your objectives, whether human, mutated or supernatural. The human enemies make up the most formidable foes, retaining the quality AI we have come to expect from high quality shooters. They’ll jump for cover and try to flank you constantly, making gunplay a cutthroat business even on the lower difficulty setting – just one extra reason to use the best weapons the game can offer.
STALKER was a very ambitious game. It was in the programming cooker since 2004, it was promised multiplayer and vehicles – none of which were offered in the final product. The game is also flawed as far as quests (they’re extremely predictable), but the game more than makes up by offering such a wonderfully detailed world to explore, replete with scares and gunplay to boot.
System Requirements: Pentium 75 MHz, 8 MB RAM, Win95