Deciding whether or not to try out STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl was - as I imagine - much like one of the game's eponymous scavengers debating whether or not to travel into the confines of the Zone. I had heard... stories... about that game. Bad things can happen when you play it, but is that enough to deter you? The rewards may be ripe and plentiful. With reports of high rates of crashes, numerous bugs and glitches around every corner, I would have to get quicksave-friendly or pay the price. In the end I took the plunge and entered the Zone...
As you have probably guessed already STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl is set in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in a region of 30km square that has been ravaged by bizarre environmental phenomena. This area (now known as "the Zone") is populated by mutated abominations and groups of stalkers; the men who risk their lives to retrieve priceless artifacts which defy known science. The player begins the game as one of these stalkers who has lost his memory, his only hint at a past life is a PDA message which instructs him to "kill Strelok". It is with this fascinating backdrop in mind that I set out into the Zone to see what it held in store for me. I'm still deciding whether or not I liked what I found.
The game boasts an atmosphere like no other, and this is clearly due to a number of contributing factors. Firstly the game loosely borrows its setting from the movie Stalker (Tarkovsky, 1979) and the novel Roadside Picnic (Strugatsky brothers, 1972) which has a direct impact on the thick, foreboding ambience of the irradiated fields and woods. Secondly, the development team have clearly done a lot of research into the real-life Chernobyl and have brought it to the game very realistically. Certain buildings and vistas are recognisable from famous photos such as the ferris wheel and the nuclear power plant itself. The sounds especially contribute to the mood of STALKER as you hear tides of wind rippling through the trees, dogs barking in the distance and unexplained knocking and banging in the dank corridors of the underground research facilities. It all sent shivers up my spine and left me hungry to explore more of this tragic, beautiful landscape.
Unfortunately for me, I found that STALKER fell at some of the first hurdles as far as gameplay is concerned. A cluttered, awkward interface kept my engagement teetering on the edge of immersion, never quite moving aside so I could concern myself with the actions I was trying to perform rather than what buttons to press. My main gripe is with the inventory menu which requires so many clicks and drags of the mouse that I often died during combat because I was merely trying to pull out a different weapon. I also found that mouse buttons were downright unresponsive at times, forcing me to click them several times before they registered I had done anything at all.
Another problem I found was that, although STALKER has a wonderfully intriguing backstory, it does very little to further that story while you're playing it. I'm actually just about to start the final section of the game and I still feel that I haven't learned much about the Zone and I haven't really had any effect on it either. The characters I meet are very obviously not real, which is exacerbated (yeah, I just said exacerbated) by the fact that they repeat each others' dialogue, all look remarkably similar and do very little to acknowledge the fact that I am a person and that they too are people. As I mentioned dialogue I will elaborate on that too. It is poorly-written at best and did very little to further my interest in the Zone. There was next to no evidence of characterisation with all people speaking in a bland, factual manor. Maybe these people have been changed by the Zone and that's why they're all dullards, but then again maybe the game should have made this fact more obvious.
As I mentioned, I'm really in two minds about STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl. On one hand it draws me in with the feeling of a real environment, something that many games can learn from, but on the other it slaps me back with poor mechanics and frustrating challenges. Well, I have persevered with it so it must have done something right but the whole time I was playing I couldn't help but think that it could have been so much better.