Review by JinnyPants

"Great game world, shame about the bugs!"

After being stuck in developmental heck for the best part of a decade, stalker finally arrived on shelves as something of a mixed bag. Stalker is a first person shooter(FPS) with some sandbox & roleplaying (RPG) elements. All 3 elements are flawed to varying degrees mostly as a result of the games somewhat poor A.I. and bugs.

As a FPS:
Stalker plays well as a shooter. There is a large variety of weapons to choose from (rifles,pistols,shotguns etc.) some of which can be customized with different types of ammunition, scopes and grenade launchers. Other specially modified weapons can be found or earned as well. The ballistic physics of the game are very realistic, trajectories can be affected by distance and weather conditions. The gun models themselves tend to look a little bland.

The FPS experience is flawed by the games all seeing A.I, the huge number of enemies you encounter at one time and the large amount of damage taken by injuries. Your resistance to injury can be improved by armour or special items you can find called artifacts. However as you get additional protection, so too the enemies get more more damaging weapons.

The overall effect in the game is that if you take a close range burst of gunfire at any point you'll probably die. You'll die a lot in the game sometimes every 30 seconds or less. Reloading the game then takes the best part of a minute, so this slows the pace of the action considerably.

The only effective techniques I could find to combat these problems is to grenade spam a room, or run some distance back from enemies, hide behind cover and wait patiently for them to appear and give them a head shot with a scoped weapon. In most cases you cannot hide from foes, so it doesn't take them long to find you.

As an RPG:
Stalker contains some rpg elements though these are limited to inventory management and some basic interaction with non player characters (npcs). You can talk with npcs, trade with them, or in some cases accept side quests from them. Side quests will normally involve walking to some distant point on the map performing a task then returning for a meagre reward before a day passes. Most of theses quests will automatically reset themselves so you can do them over and over again if you so desired but the rewards are small, the distances to travel great and the feeling of pointlessness is also great.

Adding to this feeling is the infinitely respawning enemies. In one side quest I had to help a group of npc's fight off bandits who were attacking their camp. After successfully defeating the bandits I began talking to the npc leader to receive my reward for helping them. Before the conversation was even over I was taking gunfire as a whole new crew of bandits had respawned and were once more attacking.

All the items you'll ever need can be looted from corpses or found in stashes, so trading is largely irrelevant and therefore money is too, unless you like being virtually rich. Dialogue with most npc's is limited to the same default line that every npc will give you "Just trying to make it". You can make friends with npc's by doing quests for them or healing them when they're wounded. If they're members of one of the games 2 joinable factions, the whole faction will be friendly to you thereafter.

There is no way to level your character or improve skills. Access to better armour,weapons and artifacts makes you stronger.

As a sandbox game:
Stalker takes place in "the zone" a fictional Chernobyl radically altered by a second nuclear explosion. This has caused the landscape to become a wasteland full of mutated animals and people as well as spawning dangerous anomalies and artifacts.

The in game world looks wonderfully eerie with deserted farmsteads, ruins, abandoned soviet military and industrial machines. However if you stray from a fairly linear path in the game you will find your passage obstructed by anomalies, radioactivity and scores of mutants and bandits. Normally I enjoy taking my time exploring in sandbox games but these factors coupled with long loading times between maps and deaths put me off this endeavour.

For example you decide "okay I will take a stroll in this arbitrary direction". Soon you'll find yourself in a minefield of anomalies which can easily kill you. After navigating this maze you'll probably be attacked by swarms of mutants. Then you might see a downed helicopter but when you investigate closer you get irradiated and start dying. So then you see a wrecked factory ahead but as you approach it, unseen enemies start shooting you from all angles. Finally you give up and stick to the road or exit to windows.

Although in my review I didn't deduct any points from stalker for it's many bugs I should mention for the benefit of the reader that there are some in-game bugs that cause missions to become impossible to complete or cause graphic errors and game crashes. Some parts of the game can become unplayable, so it is important to patch stalker. Be sure to patch before play as the patch is incompatible with save games.

Graphics (7/10)
The sky and weather effects look very nice but other details look rather plain compared with other games which can run on much lower system requirements. Even on high end systems the game stutters and freezes at times.

Gameplay (6/10)
The gameplay would be much improved by a tweaked A.I and more dialogue options.

Sound (9/10)
Sounds and speech (a lot of which is in Russian) sound great. Ambient sounds and weapon sounds are very authentic. Loses a point for the npc's annoying habit of repeating themselves constantly when you're standing nearby.

Story (9/10)
The storyline itself is rather convoluted but the in-game world is very immersive and bleak and at times terrifying. Not since doom 3 have I found myself so frightened by a game!

Replay (8/10)
There are multiple endings and the game plays slightly differently in parts each time you load. However after getting the best ending on my first try I felt no desire to return for more.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl
Immersive intriguing world. Scary. Somewhat addictive. Reasonable hybrid gaming.
All seeing A.I. Too many enemies. Long load times. Redundant side quests. Bugs!

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 03/19/08

Game Release: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (US, 03/20/07)

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