RPS Advent Game-o-Calendar: December 17th

Hmm. It’s an apocalyptic Monday here in Bath, Engerland and we’re forced to scavenge among the littered wreckage of the weekend for sustenance. What’s this? A discarded 17th of December RPS-approved Fairtrade advent calendar window? Perhaps some small fragment of food can be found within…

Ah, that's better

Alleluia, it’s heavenly chocolate! Ah… Our starving mouths are too weak for even an om nom nom. Just one desperate gulp and it’s gone. But for you? Something a little more serious. Something with a bitter taste and a whiff of alcohol…

It’s: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow Of Chernobyl! (And that’s the last time we’re typing it with all the dots.)

Jim says:

Stalker was rather close to being exactly the game I’ve been wanting to play for the past half dozen years. It wasn’t perfect, but so close to that hoped-for experience that it makes me a little more optimistic for the future of PC gaming. What I’ve been longing for, you see, is a game of exploration, action, and atmosphere. I want something that combines all the visual splendour and firework action of modern gaming with something open and free. Something that isn’t a certain city-based car-stealing game. A moody GTA-meets-FPS, perhaps with a sprinkling of RPG elements? That would seem pretty much what I’ve been lusting after. Stalker drops a little short of the mark, but this vaguest of disappointments has been completely erased by a game that I really wasn’t expecting to take up more time than any other in 2007.

On my first encounter with Stalker I was, initially, thrilled: the fight at the farm was nerve-wracking and horrifying. Entering the farm to kill the bandits you feel ludicrously vulnerable, even with a bunch of allied stalkers. Your sawn-off shotgun is brutally powerful, but only at point-blank range. When all the bandits had been killed there were two voices remaining: one from each side, both stricken but alive. I patched up the first with a medkit, and he then proceeded to walk over to the wounded bandit and kill him with a merciless body-shot. The bandit cried out with his last breath: “Mama!” This was a game that was, literally, taking no prisoners.

Then I began to stumble into overly hard enemies, a truly awful interface, terrible mission delivery and some other minor bugs. Although I savoured much of its atmosphere and it’s fraught gun battles, I bombed through single player game, just trying to get the end. Force of habit, I suppose. Linear shooters have become one of my review staples, and in most cases simply getting to the end means you’ve seen 99% of what the game has to offer. I knew I’d have to replay Stalker, though. It was too wide and too variable to be satisfactorily finished in a single pass. It was the second trip through that I really began to see how much GSC had put into this game. Sure, there’s not really much behaviour beyond fighting, but seeing events in the zone play out differently really does confirm that Ai-led systems can create exciting gaming moments.

My second run through the game featured numerous wilderness that couldn’t have been more different to how I experienced them the first time – having a bunch of friendly stalkers wander into the junkyard during the bandit attack and massacre my foe, or the scripted ambush sequence going haywire because of a random enemy attack. Stalker really did come to life when you explored it. I took the last week to play through a little more of the faction stuff. I completed a number of missions for the Freedom faction and found myself fighting my way back to the bar, having made firm enemies of the entrenched Duty faction. If I hadn’t been buffed up to the gills with artefacts and a modified rifle, things might have been a little tricky. Not only had I had a different experience because of randomised interactions, I had also had a different experience because I had set out to do things different. I wasn’t heading for the reactor, and instead I stuck around and explored all those side missions. It was remarkably satisfying. All of which leaves me rather keen to see what Clear Sky will come up with – since it’s focusing on these kinds of factional happenings, with missions to be run for half a dozen different groups throughout the expanded zone.

Perhaps what I expected least from Stalker was to be terrified. Whether it was being out in the open and fearing to move in the dark because of giant /things/ being in the way, or being stuck in the claustrophobic underground sequences, Stalker was frightening. What I want to see how is more developers trying to match up to what Stalker has done: making shooters a little wider, and a little more alive.

Although it’s not the joint RPS game of the year, Stalker is my personal favourite.

Alec adds:

It’s been a really, really good year for FPSes. And yet Stalker’s the only one I’ve played through more than once. That’s because it’s the only one where I get a genuine sense of roleplaying. Bioshock, Half-Life 2, Crysis, Call of Duty 4 – stronger tales (Crysis aside), more polish, higher production values, the lot of them. In each case though, I’m having a tale told to me – I don’t get to see and understand the game world outside of the breadcrumb trail of forward narrative, and so I don’t feel compelled to ride on the same rollercoaster for a second time. I don’t, specifically, ever feel like I’m me in them.

Stalker’s the only one where I felt that I’m really inhabiting the character, really in a world and not just a collection of rooms and corridors. I’m a stern, lonely man struggling for survival in world full of stern, lonely men. The Zone, Stalker’s nuclear-ravaged, oddly beautiful setting, makes sense on all the levels it needs to. It’s purgatory for men who can’t cope with the pressures of the real world, and so have fled to to this one. It’s struggle, it’s horror, it’s poverty, it’s violence. My purpose is survival. That is all.

Sure, destiny and mythology come into play late in Stalker’s wobbly core narrative, but that’s not where this grim diamond shines. Once you’re out of the first area, eschew the main quest for a while, and spend time wandering the lonely earth, scavenging for money and weapons, trusting no-one, avoiding shimmers of unearthly light, shuddering at monstrous noises in the distance. The Zone’s a place. A place of death and terror, but there’s something oddly comforting about it once you understand its rules.

Even its brokenness works for it, fits the theme and the atmosphere. In my first playthrough, a bug early in the game had caused the entirety of the Duty faction (the Zone’s self-appointed police force) to attack me on sight. Wherever I went, once-friendly NPCs would open fire. I had no choice, you understand. I had to kill them. All of them. The quiet meandering peppered with flashes of violence the game was supposed to be at this point became a sustained, vicious fight for survival.

Of the 50 or so Stalkers in the bar area, the game’s major quest hub, only a handful of Loners remained once I’d fought my way into it. And there was me, amidst a mountain of corpses, triumphant. I looted the lot, became richer than vagrant Croesus, and with an obscene collection of amazingly powerful custom weaponry at my disposal. I was the number one ranked Stalker in the Zone, and by only five or so hours into the game. It was completely, ridiculous broken, but it worked. I may not have chosen to be, but I became a psychopath, determined to conquer the Zone by any means necessary. That was how I lived, and I felt reward in surviving such adversity.

Second time around, I couldn’t quite shake the paranoia caused by the first play. I still flinch when a member of Duty appears, and I’ll drop to the ground or even take the long way around if my GPS beeps, signalling another human nearby. But I’m having a completely different experience, learning this time to trust other Stalkers. Still though, there’s that incredible atmosphere of misery and menace, broken only by the occasional strain of folk guitar. The Zone’s a more complete and believable place than Rapture or the White Forest ever managed, and I miss it oddly whenever I’m not there.


  1. Nallen says:

    My brother said this game scared the sh!t out of him.

    In other news, I think this answers the question I just asked over on the HL2:EP2 page, and I feel somewhat embarrassed having not played it all the way through. (I started but frankly I was utterly baffled. I seem to remember spending a very long time trying figure out which button throws bolts or something equally stupid).

  2. Niall Sheffield says:

    That is exactly the reason why I loved this game.
    I waited for it for a long, long time, from the very first PCG preview in fact, and I felt vindicated when it came up with a game where I genuinely felt like the world didn’t like me.
    It is perhaps the only game where in completing the tutorial you can wander outside and be dismembered by a patch of air. Within ten seconds in fact.
    The bugs really annoyed me at some points, I broke the two factions (Freedom, Duty) when during the ambush sequence the two quest leaders fought each other and died, and so couldn’t complete the quests. I loved the guns they left behind though, truly monsters. The weight limit annoyed me as well, because once you got a decent weapon, it took up most of it, and I didn’t want to mod it to make it better, since it would kill the games reality.
    I did have to put up with a lot of stick because of my love for this game, all of my mates could not get past the unfun shooting and the way the game positively tried to kill you, but the joke is on them now, because they’re all playing it and loving it.

    Oh and who can forget the first laboratory you go into, with the flame babies :)

  3. Phil says:

    Sophisticated, striking and unique it might be, I was still disappointed by (predictably) the short, ambiguous endings but also the lack of truly terrifying mutant abominations – Resident Evil, Fallout and the Thing have ruined downbeat mutants for me.

  4. terry says:

    I think I am in complete agreement. I loved the vision behind STALKER and look forward to the expansion making it into the game the concept deserves.

    Also, I feel shortchanged of a nom nom or five.

  5. SwiftRanger says:

    First time I encountered those snorks (in one of those “empty” underground labs) rapidly crawling around the corner is pure gold. This game breathes despair.

    Can’t find anything else to add to what you lads experienced, you pretty much nailed it what makes this game so great. Maybe one thing though, despite the fact that there are so many rifles in this game, they all felt right. The weaponfeel and the weapon sounds were really tight, something you can’t say about every high profile FPS nowadays.

  6. John P (Katsumoto) says:

    Phil – the short endings aren’t the end of it – there is a way to unlock an extra 45 minutes playtime or so once you are *SPOILERLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL*at the reactor and the shiny thing*SPOILERLOLOLOLOLOLOL*. Keep exploring!

  7. David says:

    Complete agreement here; it wasn’t what I was expecting, but I haven’t had so much fun with a shooter as I did with STALKER. It was good enough that I bought a copy, good enough that I replayed it, and good enough that when I have some free time after the GalCiv2 expansion, I may just play it again.

  8. Theory says:

    There’s one mission in the game that requires you to trek miles backwards to near the starting point. This put me off so much that I ended up forgetting it, but the game continued to offer me missions as I progressed.

    It turns out these were dummy missions meant for people who can’t be bothered with the story. Everything after the red forest turned into a boring twitchfest that made little to no sense, when it should have been the highlight, and I got an equally crappy ending.

    I’ve never bothered going back to the damn thing since. :(

  9. John P (Katsumoto) says:

    You should give it another go, really – if you go back to the beginning, and notably to that Apogrom Military Base – to find *Something* you unlock a chain that leads to a) amazing armour and b) the best ending, and one of the best sequences ever.

    Btw – this goes to ALL of you – if you ever plan on replaying this I really, really recommend this Mod:

    link to stalker.filefront.com

    PCG first highlighted it a while back – it takes the already staggering post-apocalyptic atmosphere of Stalker and dials it up to 11. Absolutely incredible stuff.

  10. Pidesco says:

    Best FPS of the year for me. And this year that is quite an achievement.

    Also, the game ran beautifully on my midrange rig, which, given all the horror stories about bad performance I read around the net, just filled me with glee.

  11. John P (Katsumoto) says:

    My game of the year too – which is a notable achievement in one of the best years for games in memory – Bioshock, Crysis, Orange Box, UT3, Gears of War. Yum.

  12. Ben Hazell says:

    I heart Stalker.
    Possibly because I never hit a bug. It just produced so many anecdotes, so many new experiences.
    Half the joy of the game was living in the zone, between the fights, just surviving in hostile territory, never safe, stalking your prey.
    Even when I became overpowered it still worked. After busting into the Freedom armory I amassed a grenade launcher & 36 grenades. To heavy to take along with me later, but I took a terrible revenge on the Army base.

  13. The_B says:

    I’m still yet to play this. But luckily I’ve got it waiting back at home as a late Christmas present so I have something to play for the first week of 08.

    And if anyone missed it before, I’ll do the public service thing and link to where you can get it for less than the retail price of a popular PC gaming magazine.

  14. Matt says:

    I agree that it’s terrifying. I was left emotionally scarred when I went down the first underground area (the one with the poltergeist) though not entirely because of the poltergeist itself. When I got to the bottom of the stairwell I kept hearing an odd noise but couldn’t figure out what it was, I entered the first room and was greeted with a floating pelvis from the skeleton lying in the corner. Slightly disturbed I turned around and left the room, it followed me out into the corridor and then proceeded to hit me on the head a fair few times before I figured I should shoot it. I took a picture of said skeleton. Though obviously without said pelvis.

    I played through a bit further, went and had a chat to the scientist fellow in his cosy little lab, but was truly alarmed at what lay waiting outside. I mean, zombies… with guns, isn’t that just the most terrifying combination ever?

    I managed to somehow fight my way through the hordes, though my comrade wasn’t so fortunate, he died in seconds. Nevermind though, it meant I could have his bright yellow fallout suit. The last I played of the game was when I entered the underground area in Yantar, by then I was too terrified to continue. The poltergeist, flying pelvis and zombies with guns had drained me, and I’ve yet to go back.

  15. MrMelons says:

    S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is the promise of cake at the end of the next experiment.

    Personally I will never forget the moment after I trekked out of the starting Stalker camp to find that it was raining. The cold chill of the night mixed with the icy splash of raindrops led my attention to a lit area under a bridge nearby. As I closed in on the promise of warmth a comforting yet…sad? song found me, by what must have been the magic of a siren. Enthralled I sprinted for the cover to find fellow Stalkers sitting around a burning barrel, the minstrel, guitar in hand, echoing a cry of a world that remembered what it once was.

    Game play aside, Stalker has an undeniable mood that I couldn’t help but slip into. When it would rain, or the sun would set, I would often sit in a shelter with my fellow scavengers and just enjoy the glow of the firelight listening to my brothers talk of past explorations while one would play away our worries on his guitar. It was to say the least, refreshing.

    As far as game play goes though the aiming sucked, side quests were often repetitive and rarely led to anything worth while. There was really no use for money, considering that the stores never upgraded their stock to match what i needed as i advanced through the game. This could i have been me but i really didn’t feel like my actions effected the world around me which I found to be frustrating. In the junkyard alone I killed bandits till the land ran red with blood and to no avail. Sure a few stalkers moved in but not the sanctifying force needed sustain the level of peace that my carnage had brought. I loved the freedom of movement that I had through the beautiful environment, it spoke of Oblivion and Morrowind type of exploration which I was thrilled with.

    Overall it is the unpolished version of a game that i have been waiting my whole life to play, mixing in elements from an Elderscrolls game mixed with FPS action elements. I cannot begin to describe my anticipation for the Prequal.

  16. Lou says:

    It wasn’t exactly what was expected, but (I am repeating myself) it was my personal game of the year, by some distance. Some rough spots, but they really didn’t bother me – clearly European in its serious, sinister style, with the most perfect lighting I’ve seen to date (it manages to make even the lighting on a cloudy day look terrific), and brilliantly mixing RPG-like freedom with more linear sequences. It was also a lot scarier than Bioshock (something I really missed in that game).

    I “lived” in the zone like I haven’t lived in a gameworld in ages. And I hope other developers shamelessly copy the game’s structure – it was such a breath of freah air in the whole FPS genre.

  17. Alexander says:

    Since it hasn’t been mentioned; and I think the man deserves the credit, too bad post-mortem. The whole Stalker game elaborates on the world of Andrei Tarkovsky, a genius russian director who made the movie Stalker.

    Go see the movie and determine what you like better ha.

  18. akbar says:

    And don’t forget Roadside Picnic. I got this after playing Stalker and it’s fantastic: amazingly realized science fiction, but totally relevant and robust beyond the genre as well.

    Awesome game: while others (esp Bioshock) are successful at creating a sense of place, only Stalker gives you the freedom to explore that place as you see fit. However, as mentioned by others, it’s the atmosphere, especially the sense of terror, that stand out most.

  19. Garth says:

    I think Stalker (fuck the acronym) was the best environment I’ve ever played in. I felt totally free to do whatever the fuck I wanted; which I did with psychotic abandon.

    I’ve heard some people say they got bugs where the Duty guys turned on them. The first time I exited the Duty base I saw a guy with a unique gun… so I followed him away from the base and execution-style killed him.

    Then, I suddenly hear sirens. And shouts – a lot of shouts. I crest a ridge and see at least a dozen guys waiting for me at the entrance to the Duty base. So, “fuck it!” I say, with my usual freedom-loving abandon.

    If a game let’s me do something, I will – in this case, it was to systematically slaughter every person in the Duty base, except someone I could sell gear to. Double-taps to the eyeballs, grenades around corners, throwing things to distract people (it works well, try it), even several brutal melee-attacks to the back of a fleeing injured foe. It took hours (over two-three days) but I eventually had got amazingly good armour, fantastic weapons… and a taste for blood. My next stop?

    Why, hello Freedom base!

    ()To be continued.

  20. Solario says:

    I really liked Stalker, despite its bugs, but: SO MUCH RUNNING. SO. MUCH. RUNNING.

    so much running

  21. Solrax says:

    I must also praise STALKER, my favorite game of the year, and one of the best games I’ve ever played. Yes it is flawed but it reached so much further than most other games, and achieved so much.

    When I describe it to people I always end up repeating “atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere”. And it isn’t shoved down your throat, it is just there, surrounding you, starting with that haunting song playing on the radio in the first traders office, to all the sad STALKERS sitting around their camps to the unease of approaching an abandoned factory…

  22. Frag.Stag says:

    I was insulated from the press about Stalker when I played it. What a pleasant surprise that I’m not the only one who thought it was great despite the brokenness.

    Standout moment: my first encounter with a poltergeist. I came to the bottom of the stairs and saw a crate float up to the ceiling. It wasn’t scary “BOO!” so much as instilling complete dread. I was already on edge from the ambient noise, and that just showed me that there was no limit to the mind-games I was in for.

    Oh, and doing raids on Freedom Base. Still need to do one on Duty, though…

  23. Piratepete says:

    Well I bought this game on release and two iterations of PC later it still runs like a shoddy dog. I have trawled the internets for patches fixes, mods, anything so I could actually turn around without glitching horribly. When I got my new PC a month or so ago I gave it another go and for one brief shining evening I fixed it, it ran beautifully. However I had spent so long faffing about with it that I did my usual go to the first firefight, saved it and went to bed. Next evening I excitedly booted it up to find……………yes a powerpoint slideshow where Stalker used to be.

    To be honest I care so little about this game now its resigned to the cupboard of dead games.

  24. Spenceroo says:

    Hi Pete,

    don’t give up. Have you tried this: link to tweakguides.com
    Ghazi is a godsend for everyone having performance issues with games. There is also a very thourough 180+ pages guide on tweaking your XP settings free for download.
    Furthermore afaik Stalker has a nasty habit of changing your settings after a patch was applied and a restart. That might be the problem in your case.

    Generally I just arrived at the Duty base and did some sidequests and it really is a very unique expereince. The atmosphere is the most depressing i ever encounteredin a game. The whole bleakness really pulls me down time and again.

    Definitly very memorable and along with the Witcher a much needed change in tone for PC games. I hope we see a ot more titles based on such unique settings. Influenced heavily by a narrative tradition in their country of origin.

  25. Nallen says:

    Installed this again last night and played it for a couple of hours. Fully patched of course.

    It’s the buggiest, least polished game I’ve played in a long time. It has the least intuitive UI and some of the suckiest AI I’ve come across. It blue screened my PC, something I haven’t seen in months (since I replaced a dodgy PSU). It was a very frustrating experience, even without the performance issues common to many.

    I’ll persist though, for a while. Perhaps I’ll become blind to the bugs and used to the UI to the point where I’ll be able to actually think about game play and atmosphere (which seem pretty tasty so far).

  26. Scott says:

    I just got this last night and played for a few hours. Really loving the environments and the tone of the whole thing. But what’s really bothering me is the constant swaying as you walk around, even before lofting back gallons of precious life-saving vodka. It makes me seasick and sort of takes the gleam off exploring. Is there a mod that reduces or eliminates the swaying? That would be rad.

  27. Hobo says:

    Just chiming in to say that I’m loving the advent calendar series. Also, didn’t know you were in Bath, greetings from another Bath(ite? ian? er?)

  28. Rock, Paper, Shotgun: Celebrating The Birth Of Father Christmas » Blog Archive » The Complete RPS Advent 2007 says:

    […] Tabula Rasa 15th December: Knytt Stories 16th December: Half-life 2: Episode 2 17th December: STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl 18th December: World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade 19th December: Armageddon Empires 20th […]

  29. espy says:

    Thanks for this wonderful recap of an amazing game. All the other brilliant games of 2007 aside, this one will actually last, both in my mind and on my pc. I will surely be replaying it about once a year for quite a while, just as I have done with Fallout 2 for almost a decade. It really is that good.

    This sounds silly, but just standing around in the rain in STALKER is somehow moving and special. The wind, the rain, the way the light slowly changes, the noises. Oh, the noises. Never has the sound of breathing scared me more than in this game.

    I love its stubbornness, its unwillingness to make compromises that would dilute it in any way. I mean, this game has invisible patches of air that will kill you without warning, but that’s ok, they belong there. It wouldn’t be the same without them. You can’t understand half the people because they speak in Russian, and that’s exactly the way it should be. It’s like an eastern european arthouse film that has somehow become an FPS without turning into a hideous parody of either. An enormous accomplishment in my opinion. Oh, and it’s a terribly good horror flick at the same time. I mean, really. This could have gone wrong so many ways, especially after all the delays in development, but it turned out beautifully, an instant classic.

    I can’t wait for Clear Skies :D

  30. espy says:

    Oh, and massive spoiler (only read if you completely finished the game):


    How can you not love a game where, after days and weeks of dread, death, rain, suffering, anxiety and general bleakness, the protagonist finishes his quest and just lies down in a sunny meadow and falls asleep? An absolutely beautiful ending full of gladness and honest exhaustion that actually made me feel all nice and warm inside. I wished it was summer so I could go lie down in the grass somewhere and sleep it all off. Screw fireworks and victory parades, this was a thousand times more rewarding.