Scavenger, Trespasser, Adventurer, Loner, Killer, Explorer, Robber
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. takes place in “The Zone,” the area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant where a second nuclear disaster lead to the appearance of physics-defying anomalies and the artifacts they produce. You play as an amnesic Stalker plying your trade (artifact retrieval) while trying to piece together your past. Along the way you’ll have to contend with anomalies, radiation, hunger, military forces trying to lock down the Zone, bandits, and mutated… things.
I’d characterize S.T.A.L.K.E.R. primarily as an FPS but there are aspects of other genres thrown in. Depending on your play style stealth can be extremely important. There’s also an inventory system that demands you manage your weapons, armor, and equipment closely. You want the best that you can find but you also want to be able to carry your loot out of the ruins. There are artifacts you collect which can grant different bonuses to you, most of which also have penalties if you equip them, making them a mixed blessing. However with the variety of artifacts you come across and the limited “slots” to equip them (only five) you can mix and match to gain net positives in most areas with little difficulty.
Weapon acquisition, selection, and customization can be a large part of the game since ammo calibers can vary wildly between weapon models. If you can’t find any rounds for the new assault rifle you picked up then it’s just going to be dead weight. And even if you have ammo, if it can’t accept the scope and grenade launcher attachment that you have on your current rifle, is it worth the upgrade? On more than one occasion I’ve chosen a slightly weaker gun just because I could max out its attachments and I knew enemies in the area carried compatible ammo I could use.
One of the reasons that weapon choice plays a large part in your game experience is that you’re not always guaranteed to hit what’s under your cross hairs in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. The accuracy of your firearm plays a large role in determining how precise your shot is, as well as your physical state – walking provides a significant penalty while crouching provides a bonus. Your right mouse button also ‘aims’ with whatever hardware the gun has, increasing accuracy but lowering your movement speed. On the defensive side of things your armor will mitigate a percentage of incoming damage, but all damage you take degrades the armor’s condition (thus degrading its protection).
You can try sprinting in and gunning everyone down, but unless you have armor far superior to your opponents’ weapons there’s a fair chance they’ll take you out before you can get them all. Likewise running from cover to cover constantly spraying lead doesn’t result in many hits. Most fights you actually have to strategize your approach. My tactic of choice is to sneak as close to the targets as I can get, crouch behind cover, aim, and use the lean keys to peak out for quick bursts before ducking back out of sight before you get gunned down. Because the landscape isn’t open the targets may find some cover of their own, requiring you to sprint to a new location with a better view and repeating the process.
Although nothing on the scale of Oblivion, the game world of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is relatively open to exploration. There are a few areas that are mission-gated but otherwise you’re free to wander the Zone completing optional side missions and accumulating equipment to use or sell. Occasionally you’ll receive a message on your PDA of a friendly camp under attack that you can help defend, and if you do you can return to a nearby NPC for a reward.
I’ve seen complaints leveled against S.T.A.L.K.E.R. that the story is weak but personally I enjoyed it. I will say that the story is not spoon fed to you, and in that regards it reminds me of Half-Life 2, where much of the back story was conveyed through context. While many of the main story missions do provide plot information, the game doesn’t assemble everything into a neat package and provide you with a summation of what’s going on. But if you just click through the missions you can still follow Strelok into the heart of the zone for the endgame.
There are no “Oh no! Plot twist!” alarms throughout the game but if you pursue all of the leads you have, then you are rewarded with the ability to put together the last few pieces of the puzzle to find out what really is going on with the Zone. I appreciate the questions that are finally answered and feel that the search is worth it but I can understand how some gamers prefer a more straightforward story.
From a gameplay standpoint S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was in enjoyable experience but the game’s subtle strength is its atmosphere. You start in a relatively urban area with only a few scattered buildings but their various states of disrepair foreshadow the deeper areas of the Zone. As you procede, you find former industrial areas that has been long abandoned and are now crumbling apart. Ruined vehicles and other machinery are scattered about and everything feels old, dirty, and broken. The sky overhead is almost always ominously overcast but occasionally the sun peeks through directly. When it does it almost feels alien, washing out the landscape. You really get the impression that bright cheerful sunlight just doesn’t belong in the Zone.
You don’t just take in the environment visually – the music and ambient effects help immerse you into your surroundings. On more than one occasion I dismissed sound effects as being looped for mood until their source suddenly leaped out and catch me off guard. The tension created by knowing if the source is nearby and preparing to jump you or distant and interacting with other AI can lead for some enjoyably creepy experiences.
On the enemy side of things S.T.A.L.K.E.R. keeps the supernatural and mutated threats rare and usually springs them on you when the human threats lull you into a false sense of security. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. quickly trains you to deal with human enemies, and that only highlights the appearance of these “monsters.”
I can remember in vivid detail the first time I encountered a bloodsucker and a poltergeist – the former due to the way it watched me deal with some mercs before springing out of the darkness where it had hid and the latter due to the great environment in which they’re first met. And that’s not even considering the first controller you come across.
Considering S.T.A.L.K.E.R. can be found in bargain bins at this point, it’s definitely worth picking up if you can find it.