Review by metroid13

"Mountains of Untapped Potential"

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, is a fine game in its current form. But you know what's better than a fine game? A freaking great game. The development team could have done so, so much more for this. It's a goddamn shame, really, when the game itself is not that bad to begin with. So much potential, all squandered needlessly for time and release-dates.

Story
The first of many tragedies in this game. The story is actually not that bad, despite it being fairly unoriginal and more than a bit inspired by "A Roadside Picnic" and the movie "Stalker", both of which form around the same exact premise. Now, as most of you (or most of you don't, perhaps) know, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine suffered a significant nuclear meltdown in 1986. Dozens were killed either immediately or not too long after the event, and the Soviet Union soon declared a "Zone of Alienation" be set up around the disaster site, which relocated thousands of individuals from industrial centers and cities that had been set up to support the plant. Radiation quickly littered the country-side with all of its nice pleasantness. The Russians covered Reactor Four, the melted-down nexus of the disaster, with a large steel coffin, known affectionately as the "Sarcophagus."

Now if you've been keeping up with the news, you'd perhaps know that currently Putin's government is planning to build a nice, big dome over the entire plant to contain the already crumbling sarcophagus. A nice idea. Unfortunately, in STALKER, that idea never comes to fruitation and another explosion occurs, which spews more radiation out into the country-side. The Ukraine goes on disaster control and establishes a huge army-run cordon around the Zone, which is slowly, but surely, becoming "world" of its own. The laws of physics are ignored in the Zone, and certain places are covered with lethal "anomalies" that can rip people to shreds in under a second. Ravenous mutants, twisted and transformed by radiation, roam the country-side much as their non-irradiated cousins do. The only difference is that they like to kill whatever comes too near to them, and some of these mutants, especially the former humans, are particularly nasty.

To be sure, the Zone is an extremely dangerous place. Surely no one would want to go there. Ahh...but there's one catch. Those anomolies I talked about? Turns out they create highly prized and valuable objects known as "artifacts." The artifacts are able to either endow the user with amazing abilities, or curse them with dangerous ailments. Lured by promises of fame and fortune, thousands of people from across the globe flock to the Zone in order to illegally cross the military cordon and make off with a kings ransom in artifacts.

You, the player, are one of those "Stalkers." But there's a big problem: You've lost your memory, and you have no idea how you came to be in the Zone. Your personal data assistant, or PDA, (a tool used for note-keeping and task-managing) carries one mysterious message on it's screen; "Kill Strelok."

---

So, with a background and enigmatic story like that, how can you go wrong? Turns out you can in some rather depressing ways. As the game progresses, you get to follow a set of story-missions that eventually bring you to the climax of the game. However, these missions are liberally interspersed with various side-jobs, and eventually you lose your way and virtually forget whatever the hell you were doing before.

Even if you remain on-track, the story itself is extremely vague and disjointed, and you have very little idea of what's going on. This is more of a game flaw than a story-telling flaw, actually. The diary your character keeps is quite vague and sometimes contains information that is utterly irrelevant to the story-line. The game's big twist comes with a very weak bang, if you can call it that. The ending (there are seven cineamatic endings, all based on how you act during the game) is virtually on top of you before you know it.

Overall, the story is pretty good, but the best parts are only in the beginning. Sad, really. The rest of it is kept down by logical failings and gameplay flaws. As I said, plenty of potential, squandered. Story: 6/10

Gameplay
Let me say it now: This game can be very fun sometimes. It utilizes a (relative) free-exploration theme that allows you to travel to most places whenever you want to and play however you choose, which, I suppose, throws in a roleplaying element.

...That was my first impression, anyway. The game actually uses this as a cover for a rather linear experience that progresses up until the end. For example, you never get access to any of the best weapons until near the end of the game. The same goes for armor and artifacts. You can also visit a very limited amount of places during the early parts, too. There is no Morrowind-esque sense of wonder and awe as you absently try to figure out what you're gonna do first. STALKER pretty much lays it all out for you from beginning to end.

The game is what they call "a realistic first person shooter." No Master Chief-esque antics for you, no, sir. In a way, this helps to make the game very challenging and enjoyable. I never complain when I'm about to face seemingly insurmountable odds with a mere pistol and a slab of cardboard around my torso; there's usually a way. Anyway, you cannot run indefinitely, you cannot hope to hit anything if you shoot while running, and you'll be alarmed at how little damage your poor guy takes before saying "uncle." As I said, none of this concerns me, and I actually like it. You'll often find yourself dodging and weaving around cover, your adrenaline pumping as you fire at your foes, be them human or mutant. Chose your targets wisely, because that guy you probably thought insignifigant a few seconds ago is probably on his way to flanking you.

Since it's an FPS, STALKER contains a happy plethora of guns for you to go through and shoot up enemies with. These mostly range from weapons used by the Warsaw Pact (including the iconic Kalashnikov), to firearms used by NATO. Alot of weapons run of seperate ammunition types, but I'll get to that later.

The enemy AI is a blast to go against, especially if you're playing on even ground and a fairly large field of combat (typically outside). Add to that tons of cover (in various forms such as old car wrecks and steel pipes) and you've got some nice memories ahead of you. You'll often go against enemy STALKER's who'll use shrewd tactics to try and out-manuever you. This takes the form of covering fire, flanking, running around and trying to be confusing, etc. Mutants also have very advanced AI that gauges their chances in any situation, which either compells them to press the attack or flee in terror. Mutants are VERY fond of getting around to your sides.

However, take that monster inside, and he'll get dumb in a hurry. Human enemies rarely move when indoors, and you have virtually no trouble picking them off this way. Mutants at least run around and try to be annoying, but they, too, are much easier to deal with when they don't have the space needed to run around in.

A big portion of the game comes in small side-jobs that often reward you with artifacts, money (which is hilariously useless in most circumstances), and equipment. The side-jobs, while novel and enjoyable the first two times you do them, quickly become tiresome after that. If I had a nickel for everytime the trader wanted me to "Take out 'Sales-representative'", I'd be damned rich.

Moving on, we come to the survival aspect of STALKER, which is one of the games main selling points. In STALKER, you often travel long distances away from safe havens in search of booty and supplies. In order to survive these trips, you must pack sufficient amounts of ammunition and medical supplies, as well as food. Food and medicine is fairly easy to come by and is never a problem, but ammo can quickly become a concern, as most guns carry different ammunition types. You can take your devastating assault rifle along with you on a raid, guaranteed to wreak havoc, but what good will it do without ammo? Exactly. Also, you're not the Incrediable Hulk; you can only carry a limited supply of stuff with you, which includes armor, guns, and supplies.

FINALLY, the armor you wear and the guns you tote often degrade as you use them (IE: shoot and get shot at). This can become very frusterating, as eventually they'll be unusable and that nice piece of armor you found will never be available to you again.

At any rate, a lot of this becomes irrelevant later on as more powerful guns are in easily reachable supply, and the planning aspects that are so prevelant in the early sections soon become meaningless.

Oh, and radiation and anomalies can usually kill you in seconds if you don't watch your step. Just thought I'd throw that in there.

Overall, the gameplay, while a blast during your initial playthrough, perhaps, soon becomes tiresome, especially with the fairly linear progression. The gunfights are still fun, though. Gameplay: 7/10

Atmosphere
Normally this would be labeled "sound", but sound is PART of atmosphere. Anyway, the atmosphere in this game is nothing short of amazing, from graphics, to sound, to the themes STALKER brings out. Throughout the game, you have the distinct feeling that you truely are in a barely hospitable wasteland where death is common place. You'll hear spasms of gunfire in the distance, muffled screams. Your rifle, quiet for so long as you explore, seems to blow up in your face as you quickly turn to gun down a sudden mutant or bandit.

It often rains at night, and the trees sway in the wind while you struggle to find a safe haven to trade and rest. The Zone, often predictable enough at day, becomes a horror at night. You'll often be completely unaware of a mutants presence until you see its bright white eyes ahead of you. Sometimes you'll be called upon to explore underground ruins of secret laboratories; dark, unforgiving places, with creaking floors, gaping holes, and terrible secrets that are often lethal.

This game is very well-accomplished when it comes to the horror element. The bleak, radiation filled landscape filled with greed-driven cutthroats is also very well done.

However, I must temper my enthusiasm with this with some regret in the way you approach and deal with characters. GHC, while creating some remarkably likable characters (who, coincidentally, are often unkillable), saturated the game with faceless Stalkers and bandits who have very little in the way of objectives and purpose other than to add ambiance or challenge. Some of the best characters, like one you meet in Garbage, are killed ten minutes after you meet them for the first time, mostly due to quirky game mechanics. NPC's also often die in hilariously unlikely ways, such as starving to death in the midst of easily reachable food, stepping into an open flame(or easily avoidable anomalies) and burning to death, and loitering near bandit spawn-points. Atmosphere: 9/10

Replay Value
The game is not very much worth playing after the second-time around...that is, if you keep the game unmodified. For example, a LOT of the problems I listed in this review are fixed or improved upon in mods, which enhance realism, sound, graphics, etc. The story is largely untouched, though, which is a damned shame.

Unfortunately, I'm reviewing this game based on how it was when it came out, not by what the modding community did to revive it. Replay: 5/10

Pro's
-A fairly well-done background.
-Gunbattles you're surely not gonna forget.
-Simply excellent atmosphere that often draws you in.
-Some very fun survival and scavenging elements in the beginning.

Con's
-Story is quirky and often garbled.
-AI can be a let-down when faced indoors, and your allies are very dumb.
-Not being able to repair equipment in the vanilla game.
-Amazingly repetitive side-missions.
-SQUANDERED POTENTIAL.

Conclusion

Of itself, STALKER can be a very fun game if played once or twice. With mods, the replay value is extended greatly. I cannot stress this enough, however: This game has plenty of untapped potential, and that's a damned shame. It could have been a great game, but it's not. Instead, it's merely "good."

Buy it for the great first time-around, and stay for the mods.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 08/07/07


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