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Posted by Brother None

NMA S.T.A.L.K.E.R. review
by DirtyDreamDesigner

Well, STALKER is finally here, after years in vaporware limbo; finally we get the chance to see if there really are three boobed women in Chernobyl. But how has it aged, how much is left of the RPG in it, and most importantly, is it good enough?

When GSC Game World, a Ukrainian developer, started making S.T.A.L.K.E.R. they pretty much intended the game to incorporate everything from Pac-man to GTA with a little Half-Life in the mix. All of this proved too much for them so the publisher, THQ, stepped in and the victims of the proverbial axe were the overly ambitious elements such as drivable vehicles, huge game world, survivalism elements like sleeping, eating (which is still there but is very basic), and seeking shelter. Some of these I could do without but on a few occasions I found myself wishing that the vehicles remained, since youíll probably find yourself trekking across the maps a lot.

Use the shotgun to deal with menacing trees.Commie pinko mutants!There's never enough green paint for an entire room.Why are those crows always following me?

Also missing, and hereís what youíre all waiting for, are the hardcore RPG elements. Thatís right, folks, this game is definitely not an RPG. But, itís more of an RPG than some games that claim to be could ever hope to be. It does not pretend to be an RPG, it just uses elements of it in a really clever way. Namely, even though the classical RPG stats are gone, some other elements which create an RPG atmosphere are still there and they work to the gamesí advantage; the player can talk and even barter with everybody who isnít shooting or clawing at him (granted, there isnít much to barter for), there are multiple endings, thereís a rich and interesting story (Iíll get to that in a moment), a still pretty big game world, and the player can actually feel that his character is progressing in that world. Unfortunately, after playing for some time the player character might become overpowered, but then again, there are still enemies that will rip him to shreds in a second if the player isnít careful. Also helping the RPG feel are the artifacts that the player can use to buff himself up. But most of them are a caveat deal, meaning that for every positive thing they give, they take something away, radiation resistance most prominently. The artifacts are usually found near anomalies caused by the events in the game, and these, aside from looking great, are also another reason to be careful in the wilderness as they will hurt distracted Stalkers, some with spectacular effect.

But what this game does really well is atmosphere. It practically oozes from your screen and into your lap and leaves you scared and paranoid. From the decrepit Soviet architecture, the warped and cancerous nature, to the creepy underground vaults full of nameless horrors, this game will make you feel like youíre actually there. Using the Chernobyl as the setting was a brilliant developer choice, one that allowed them to combine the crumbled Soviet ideology with a dying nature warped by alien influences, best exemplified by a broken and rusted hammer and sickle in front of a mutant infested building. Small things like curing radiation with vodka, NPCs playing guitars by the fire and irradiated piles of garbage including ancient Soviet tractors add to the atmosphere immensely. Also of note is the fact that almost all NPCs chat with each other only in Russian. Whether this is due to budget constraints or on purpose is irrelevant, all that matters is that it makes it feel like you are really in Ukraine and not in some sound booth.

You can interrogate prisoners in 43 different ways.That's a big pile of... irradiated garbage...Whip out your PIPBoy 2000. It's actually just a lot of cardboard.

Also great is the gameplay itself. Everything previously mentioned only sets the stage for a game that is, at its heart, a great shooter. The weapons (although the first few pea shooters are horribly inaccurate) all feel, look, and for the most part, sound real. They also have realistic ballistics so you can actually see how a subsonic bullet arcs and the powerful 12.7 sniper round destroys everything in its path. The enemies are a hit-and-miss, sometimes they are brilliant; flanking and ambushing, and sometimes they just sit there waiting or try to shoot you through the wall. The main story has been a source of debate here and elsewhere, but I find it to be simple but still brilliant, especially compared to convoluted and unintelligent dreck that passes off for a story in games these days. The side quest, unfortunately, are all the same, following a few basic clichťs (go to X, kill Y, bring back Z, and variations thereof), but they are also a great excuse to go exploring the world of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Also unfortunately, there is only one way to finish any of them. That's right; kill or be killed, but than again, this is a shooter.

The game is not without other shortcomings as well. Even though it started development in antediluvian times, it still feels somewhat unpolished. Small bugs are a problem too, sometimes they make the quests impossible to finish or activate the same one all the time, or make the map on the PDA useless. Money is also a problem, or rather the fact that there is so much of it after a while and nothing to buy with it. Also, I would have liked to see a bigger inventory, but thatís just me. The juryís still out on the fact that the nights seem too bright; it never gets really dark outside. But maybe for some thatís a good thing since it would truly be terrifying to have to trek through one of the gamesí forests during a starless night.

So that's where I left the chopper...It burns when I pee, and sometimes there's a... discharge...Who says there's no vehicles in the game?

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. runs great even on my PC (which can be considered low-end, special thanks to starwars for posting a great tweak) and looks pretty good, mostly due to the great level design and the long draw distances showing off the game world as well as the great weather effects. But the game really shines indoors and underground where the shadows and anomalies play tricks with the playersí eyes, which can be very scary. On more than one occasion I found myself twitching when something jumped out of the darkness at me and proceeded to tear my face off.

In closing, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a great game, maybe even a legend. What it lacks in polish and cut features it more than makes up for in atmosphere and gameplay. Hopefully patches will fix some of the problems and eventually an even better and bigger sequel will come out.

Computer specs:
AMD Athlon64 2800+
GeForce 6600