A fine example of what could easily become a classic!
OK. I’m going to set the record straight here and now, and you’ll soon see why. STALKER (I’m omitting the dots for brevity) is a great game. It’s a game which won’t soon be completed, nor soon forgotten and confined to the depths of your memory in the ?forgettable? bin.
Despite everything STALKER has been through, it has still managed to provide one of the more immersive experiences of recent years
STALKER drops you into the large area around Chernobyl, site of the 1986 nuclear disaster and sets you off on a mission of exploration, execution, riches and revenge. The best part about it is that it’s all your choice. You don’t want to kill Strelok? That’s fine, go on a never ending quest to plunder the depths of the zone, retrieve the most precious artefacts and kill the most bandit swine! Maybe you’d like to become the top Stalker? The richest man in the zone? The biggest weapons collector?
No matter what you choose though, STALKER promises a world of adventure, with that first step outside Trader’s office comparable to nothing but the very moment the sun hits you when leaving the sewers in Oblivion.
The only major difference between these first steps though is that STALKER’s step is significantly dated in comparison (despite Oblivion being a whole year older). Presentation and optimization are sadly two of STALKER’s biggest shortcomings; the graphics are about 2005 level, whilst the rate at which it runs on anything below a super-rig is abysmal. Luckily, there are now around 6 patches out, which help marginally, but your best bet is a handy little mod by the name of Float32. This not only improves the graphics tenfold on any setting, but totally kills the optimization problems.
The gameplay concepts are all of high quality though; for example, some guns can take up to 3 types of ammo, which isn’t an unused feature in shooters by a long shot, just shamefully under-used, but STALKER steps in and fixes this problem with a no holds barred approach ? literally swamping you with ammo and gun choices during the course of the game.
The only issue is that not utilising these various types of ammo won’t exactly be your downfall in STALKER, the inclusion of which could easily have given the game a new tactical edge for those who seek it.
Carrying a lot of ammo also adds up, meaning if you aren’t careful you could find yourself bogged down with 2 or 3 kilograms of ammo at a time. This isn’t a problem at first as ammo can be pretty scarce, but this really shows up as an issue mid-game, where you’re at an advantage by being as versatile as possible.
Another important element of STALKER is that of trading. The trading system would be all well and good, were in not for the fact that most of the people you meet will only trade in money, bandages, artefacts or food. This is despite the fact that everybody in STALKER needs guns and ammo. This leaves three people in the whole game who you can flog pretty much anything to; Trader (who you’ll only use for the first few hours), Barkeep (who you’ll use most of the time) and the scientist at Yantar (whom you’ll probably use for two hours, maximum).
The goods of traders are also randomly generated each time, which is sometimes nice, but annoying if the exoskeleton you’ve been saving up for (hint: don’t waste the cash, you’ll see why) suddenly disappears. All trader areas are no weapon zones as well, meaning you don’t need to pay heed to that twitchy trigger finger you’ve had all day.
Cash is yet another element in STALKER that could have done with a bit more importance.
?What?! Cash?not important?? I hear you say.
Play your cards right in STALKER and you may never have to spend a penny (no toilet gag intended!), that’s because everything you’ll ever need is just?lying around?waiting to be claimed or killed for. I’m not saying by any means this is a bad thing though, in fact, it’s great!
The main issue here though is that often you’ll kill a man, only to loot his body and find no ammo, or to pick up his gun and find it empty. Now, considering I just capped him in the head whilst he was reloading, I find that an unlikely discovery. Don’t you?
So, rewind a little, you’ve loaded a gun, killed a man and probably picked up some radioactive underwear thinking it was an artefact?maybe it’s time to spend some time with your PDA. Get to know it a little.
Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll want to spend as little time as possible with one of the most abysmal menus you may ever come across.
Starting with the ?tasks? bar; these are fairly simple, except for the fact that some of them appear from nowhere, meaning you get tasks ?failed? which you didn’t even know you had because time ran out.
The map isn’t too bad in itself though, I mean come on it’s just a map. Oh, that’s apart from the fact that it doesn’t move around with you, so you have to constantly ?centre on actor?. Centre on what? Yup, actor! This is clearly a product of bad localisation; your character is an ‘actor’ all of a sudden.
The map markers are also beyond bad; some are non-existent, some are wrong, and some are stuck from missions long cleared.
Despite having every bug under the sun in various departments, STALKER beats the hell out of any game released in the last year or so for one thing at least; atmosphere.
Every noise will have you searching around like a paranoiac for whatever made it, but at the same time STALKER is so mysterious and full of new things you’ll want to know what made it. And blow its head into itsy-bitsy smithereens.
Equally, you never know exactly what to expect wherever you go in STALKER; jump scares work because STALKER is anything but repetitive, meaning you can be caught off guard by the same trick each and every time.
STALKER also has some of the best sound of recent years; monster groans and howls are simply terrifying, whilst speech between NPCs is full of character (albeit in Russian) and the earth-shattering sound of an anomaly activating can be heard across fields!
STALKER is also action packed from start to finish, the challenges you take are what you ? and only you ? make them. If you want to raid the military base in the first five minutes then go ahead, it’s not impossible but you’ll die a lot. Alternatively, you could just trudge back end-game and slaughter every living thing in the starting area with ease.
It’s this level of freedom, along with the game’s total unpredictability throughout which go to make this one of the best single player experiences of the last few years.
The freeform nature of STALKER isn’t the be all and end all though; story missions are scripted very well (although still have a high level of unpredictability) and provide for some earth-shatteringly epic missions on occasion, such as military assaults, a massive blow-out and a nuclear emergency (though I’m keeping schtum on that one).
The multiplayer in STALKER is a mixed bag, and your experience depends on how you want to view it.
Mediocre and shallow compared to the likes of Call of Duty 4, it still manages to remain addictive for a little while due to its kills for money system, a la Counterstrike. Other than that, there aren’t a mass of servers on offer either, and most maps are industrial or building based, so don’t expect to be shooting human ass through STALKER’s gorgeous single player environments. Servers also tend to provide a shallow mix of gameplay modes, simply sticking to deathmatch and team deathmatch modes acro
ss the board.
Despite everything STALKER has been through, it has still managed to provide one of the more immersive experiences of recent years, even if this has been at the expense of certain elements of quality and overall polish. And this is the exact reason I had to hammer home that one simple fact at the start of all this; STALKER is a great game. You just have to be a forgiving person to see it, and if you aren’t a forgiving person then it’s very much your own loss, as STALKER has a lot to give, even if, upon launch, it didn’t have a lot to receive.
The Bad: Dated presentation even at release; dialogue and writing often nonsensical; bugs, bugs, damned bugs.
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