- Platform- Microsoft Windows
- Developer- GSC Game World
- Publisher- THQ
- Release date- 2007
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is a game of hideous beauty, an exploration that while difficult to take at times, is well worth the time and, more importantly, the effort. I’ve been meaning to play S:SoC for a long time now. I’m quite lazy when it comes to playing games, unless that game really grabs me within the first hour or so. S:SoC didn’t grab me at first. My experience with it is like working through a bad relationship; you stick it out, work with it, hold on and hope for the best. Sometimes it works out, other times it doesn’t. This time my perseverance worked out for the best.
Developed by GSC Game World and published by THQ in 2007, S:SoC promises a lot and solidly delivers on many counts. The game is set amid the backdrop of “The Zone”, the location of a second, fictitious Chernobyl Power Plant meltdown. Due to the high levels of radiation, locations, plants, and even animals seemingly disobey the laws of conventional psychics, and generally exhibit abnormalities. You play as a Stalker, an explorer of the Zone, known as “The Marked One”. The game begins with your character being found unconscious after an accident. Subsequently, you wake up with a severe case of amnesia. The only clue to your past is on the PDA that was found with you. A message on the PDA it reads “Kill Strelok”. Who is Strelok? Why must you kill him? In a bid to reclaim your identity, you must search for this mysterious, elusive individual known as Strelok.
From there the game literally drops you into the world. While the basics are described to you, you’re pretty much on your own to work out what to do, where to go, and how to find Strelok. Missions can be received by a few different ways. While missions can be accessed during your travels by interacting with NPCs, the easiest way to find them is through various black market traders and bartenders. They vary in objectives from stealing information, taking out a target, finding an artifact, or even defending an encampment against bandits. However, while doing missions is an excellent source of money, weapons and items, it isn’t the heart of S:SoC. The game is a FPS and while the world is indeed quite open and explorable, it’s cut into sections and cordoned off at certain points. There’s also a heavy RPG element to the game. There’s literally hundreds, if not thousands, of NPCs to interact with. While these interactions aren’t in depth conversations, they do help build up an excellent feeling of atmosphere within the world. In fact, the inclusion of other Stalkers in the Zone is another excellent addition to the game. These other Stalkers, much like you, explore the Zone, find artifacts, and get into fights with other NPCs.
The most important aspect of S:SoC is survival. I’ve played plenty of games that hinge on the idea of survival, but few ever deliver on that premise. In S:SoC, items, weapons, and, most importantly, ammunition is scare, very scare. Unless you work at bringing in a steady money flow you’re only source of ammunition will be from killing other Stalkers, bandits, or military personal. Even then you’re wasting ammo to get more ammo. In that position the game forces you to be economic with your ammo, literally save on every last bullet, and to take out enemies as efficiently as possible. Of course, taking out those enemies isn’t as easy as it is in other FPSs. In S:SoC gun-play is very much realistic in many ways. Taking on foes head on will often spell instant death, while not tending to a bleeding wound can slowly evaporate your health bar. In fact, S:SoC is one of the very few games where I found the ability to peek around corners absolutely imperative. Additionally, the player must also been aware of areas that have excessive radiation. These too can drop your life bar within a matter of minutes. The same goes for consuming food. Over time your character will grow hungry in which case you need to scavenge for food in the shape of tinned goods, meat, and bread. All of these elements to add to a wonderfully layered sense of survival in a landscape that is fighting tooth and nail against you.
Did you know?- After the release of two sequels, Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat, GSC Game World are still working on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, despite previous rumours of it being cancelled.
The best element of S:SoC is its atmosphere. The radiation battered ecosystem constantly changes and shifts, clear blue skies can evolve to pitch black over the course of an hour, torrents of rain beat down upon the land, thick fog layers itself across eerie locations, while the sound of gunfire, deep Earth rumblings, and howls of wind are ever present. There’s nothing quite like being chased by multiple foes during a heavy thunderstorm only to take shelter in a large, abandoned building. You run upstairs, find a safe area to patch yourself up, as the sound of rain and thunder drown out their unrelenting taunts and screams. The soundtract too, composed by Frey Vladimir, is an incredible exercise in ambient music. Needless to say, the sound design in S:SoC is absolutely impeccable. As mentioned before, the large number of NPCs also helps build an incredible sense of a living, breathing world. For instance, NPCs go about their own lives. They explore, defend themselves, eat, and even sleep.
Visually, S:SoC is really quite impressive too. The art design of the Zone is incredibly beautiful despite being dark, grim, and having an overall heavy, sombre tone. Scattered throughout the land you’ll find numerous settlements, building, houses, and structures. Many of these locations are perfect for scavenging for ammunition and food, and the ongoing bleak visuals further hit this point home. It’s a harsh world in S:SoC, yet thanks to the excellent weather system it manages to deliver both a dark and gritty world, as well as a colourful and bright one.
Despite all of this, S:SoC isn’t perfect. It does have problems that will no doubt scare off potential players. The PDA, which keeps track off all your missions, NPC interactions, map of the Zone, an encyclopedia, and Stalker rankings, is incredibly confusing. Missions can overlay each other to the point of frustration, the map of the Zone is a chore to navigate, and overall it feels cumbersome, lazy, and sluggish. The game is heavily layered with excellent lore, but due to how clunky the PDA is, the vast majority of it is drowned under the problematic design of the PDA itself. For a game that hinges of survival and making split second decisions, the PDA slows down game play incredibly, especially since game play continues when the PDA is activated. Furthermore, while a true open world isn’t promised, the inclusion of waist high fences that block most areas off is a stark reminder that S:SoC isn’t as explorable as initially expected. Due to most areas being blocked off, there are times when you’re bottlenecked into advancing through an enemy encampment, rather than around it. This leads to the player getting into far more battles than they actually seek out.
This isn’t Modern Warfare 3. This isn’t some pick up and play experience. S:SoC is tough, very tough. If you can get through the terribly cumbersome PDA, the rough dialogue that sometimes doesn’t match the subtitles, and the painfully difficult gun-play, you’ll find one of the best, most atmospheric FPS’s you’ve ever experienced. Compared to other post apocalyptic themed games, in S:SoC you truly need to scavenge, survive, and fight for your life. That will put off some players. However, if you’re willing to work at it, S:SoC can be incredible, absolutely incredible.