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...
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.)
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.
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.