I’m burdened with loot and equipment that I’ve salvaged and unlucky enough to run afoul of a bandit road ambush. I’m out-numbered and out-gunned by a dozen men. Do I fight? I have precious little ammunition, but the bandits might be carrying valuables or much-needed supplies. At the very least their guns and ammunition will come in handy. Do I make a desperate attempt to flee? With my loot weighing me down I won’t make it far before I fatigue, lose my stride and, consequently, my life.
I’m pinned down behind a broken-down van for a good 5-10 minutes until I decide to make a run for it, skirting the perimeter of a radioactive hot-spot. I take cover behind a large rock and am lucky enough to get some help from a nearby Stalker base. I helped defend them against a bandit invasion the previous night, and a couple of them come to my aid when they heard the gunfire, returning the favor.
Together, we take out the bandits, but my trek back “home” is only just beginning. On the way back I almost die from radiation poisoning while attempting to retrieve some salvage from a wrecked van. I take a short-cut through the woods and, wouldn’t you know, run right into another gang of bandits. There are only three this time, but that’s still 3-1 odds against me. I take cover behind a tree and compose myself. Unable to come up with any good route of escape, I decide my only option is to make a break for it and take my chances. Just as I prepare to run, I’m saved by a pack of mutant dogs. They set themselves on the bandits with rabid ferocity; I’m only lucky they didn’t see me first. Taking advantage of the chaos, I sprint to a nearby farm house.
Yesterday I met a Stalker here who shared some valuable information with me. I enter the ruined house only to find my new friend lying dead next to the fire we had so recently shared. It could have been the dogs, it could have been the bandits. They’re still fighting in the woods (the dogs are winning). A man emerges from the nearby barn — maybe it was him. I could avenge my friend now, but this newcomer is out of my league, and intimidates me into retreat. There’s no need to throw my life away now for a man I barely knew.
Up ahead are the train tracks. There’s potential treasure in those wrecked train cars. I should know better. I’m already heavily weighed down by loot and supplies; greed would only tempt fate more. I choose greed. I follow the tracks for a while, occasionally firing my shotgun at the ground to scare off any mutant dogs that come my way. When alone, they’re easily frightened. There’s nothing in the cars — karma’s a bitch — but I finally make it to the bridge only to find that it’s out of commission, and clearly has been for a long while. On the road below the military has set up a roadblock. The military doesn’t like people like me.
They see me.
They run up the hill to attack me. I charge one in a banzai attack and empty both barrels of my shotgun into his chest. I take cover behind a train car and prepare to take the other, but there’s no time. Three more soldiers are coming up the hill behind me and more are coming to join the one on the other side. I charge the one in front of me and, mostly due to luck, manage to land a shot from medium range. The well-armored fascist lives, but it’s enough to stun him and allow me to escape into the woods, where they eventually give up the chase.
Exhausted, I limp my way back to the farm to catch my breath and tend to my scrapes. I take bandages and rations from the body of my new friend — he won’t be needing them anymore, anyway. I regroup and head back across the road to another farm where I helped some Stalkers a while back. I head up the tracks again, making sure I’m far from the roadblock this time. Wild boars are through galloping the bushes, but I keep my distance and they leave me alone. It isn’t much farther now, so I make my way back to the village, but not before taking another ill-advised detour for some possible treasure.
I soon find myself surrounded by an enormous pack of wild mutant dogs. They aren’t so easily frightened in numbers.
Again, I’m exhausted by the heavy load I’m carrying on my back. I stop to let myself rest a bit and fire a few scattered shots towards the pack. My shotgun is about as deadly as a paper airplane at this range, but it’s enough to buy some time. The dogs are more cautious now, but are still coming. Having regained some strength, I continue my run back to the village.
The dogs won’t chase me here; it’s too populated. I return to the Trader and get paid for my missions. I’m able to make a pretty penny off of my recovered loot. I buy a shiny new pistol, a silencer, and some med kits, bandages, and canned food. My greed paid off, after all.
This little journey represents approximately two hours of my time spent with first-person shooter RPG, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl (released Marched 2007). After a second nuclear disaster occurs at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, the surrounding Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is transformed into a radioactive ruin populated by mutants and host to reality-bending anomalies that produce valuable “artifacts” — crystallized, radioactive objects that alter the space around them or even the biology of the person carrying one, to often advantageous results.
Seeking these treasures are Stalkers — explorers and treasure-hunters — as well as bandits, scientists, and the military, all of whom are competing for the next big score. The player assumes the role of an amnesiac Stalker, rescued from a crashed truck by a fellow Stalker and brought to a nearby black-market trader, who promptly sets you to work for him. The only hint to your identity is a vague mission listed on your PDA: Find and assassinate the famous and enigmatic Stalker known simply as ‘Strelok.’ As you work your way through numerous traders, informants, and organizations in your quest to find this mystery man who may hold the key to your past, you will unravel the mysteries of The Zone and your purpose within it.
It might sound a bit odd, but this nuclear wasteland was my favorite virtual space of 2007, even more so than much-acclaimed (and deservedly so) underwater dystopia. Even with the mediocre graphics and limited spaces that make up The Zone, GSC Game World managed to create a sense of atmosphere that is rarely seen in games today. Part of what makes it work so well is exactly the sense that I had while playing through the experience I described at the beginning of this review. The name of the game in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is survival. The Zone has mostly been picked clean of treasure; it’s dominated by mutants and perilous anomalies, and your enemies greatly outnumber your allies. You need food, medical supplies, and ammunition to survive and all are fairly rare. Fight or flight is a question you’ll be asking yourself often, and just as often the latter is the smarter choice. At the end of the day, The Zone is just a place you don’t see often in games — one where you’re dis-empowered.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s development has been a long and troubled road. Consequently, it may not be all it was originally meant to be, but GSC Game World still managed to deliver one of the most entertaining and unique shooters in a time when the genre has become anything but. To see a developer continue the design philosophies pioneered by games like System Shock 2 and Deus Ex, regardless of mainstream trends, is refreshing, welcome, and, most importantly, needed. A more than simply solid first step, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. may be flawed with occasional technological problems and sometimes irritating design (vague mission objectives, slightly uneven progression and nagging balance issues), but its potential is vast and the example that it sets is one that I wish more developers followed.