It's been six years in the making, has seen the development scissors leave parts of the original plan on the cutting room floor, but has it been worth the wait? Or does S.T.A.L.K.E.R. suck? Well, the answer to the latter question is 'no', however there are chinks in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. armour...
In case you're new to the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. party, the game begins in a hole underground where, referred to as the 'Marked One', the amnesia-suffering lead character - i.e. you - wakes up knowing only one thing - for reasons yet to be revealed, you want a guy named Strelok dead. Initially, you're given main-mission stuff and side missions (which are generally a bit rubbish) by a trader, who works from the hole.
What then follows is a plot that takes you, scavenger of the irradiated wasteland surrounding Chernobyl after the meltdown of the nuclear power station, into horror, action and exploration and ultimately to the mystery that lies at the heart of the Zone.
Anyone who's tracked S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will know it's been billed as a survival-horror-FPS-RPG. It's primarily a first-person shooter although one that more rewards careful exploration, patience and a cautious approach. But that isn't to say combat isn't gratifying. Oh no.
Not only has GSC provided a solid array of firepower that should be enough to keep gun fetishists happy, but human enemy AI - at its best - can create intense firefights as it ducks behind cover and attempts to outflank your position. At its worst, well, it's bad. Interestingly, other humans make up the majority of the opposition but when the game does decide to chuck a really nasty monster your way or other terror, it's a memorable moment (our first such genuinely made us jump out our seat).
And with its inventory system and RPG elements that include employing Zone artefacts to alter stats, it continues to remind us of Deus Ex. But with more shooting. Plus the need to scrounge weapons, ammo, food, anti-radiation drugs and such from the environment for survival's sake, natch. The majority of the survival element slots in well, but the need to eat feels a little superfluous.
Sadly, one of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s key stumbles is where the main storyline struggles to assert itself, and characterisation leaves a lot to be desired - and if you're attention strays it's not impossible to lose track of your position in the main-mission chain. It doesn't help either that you're not provided full, detailed information about your PDA - features of which include a Zone map and a mission log - and on-screen 'radar'. Too much you're left to your own devices to try and determine what means what regards the interface.
As criminally negligent and annoying as that is, though, it simply can't detract from the game's setting. It is, in a word, fantastic, even if the world isn't completely free-roaming (a la Oblivion) but instead is broken down into chunks - which are sizeable - with loading zones in between.
In fact, it could be argued that the Zone is the real star of the piece, GSC creating a brilliant environment to which our hats are doffed. Littered with a variety of anomalies which can cause the unwary to explode and other delightful stuff, mutant doggies, deserted buildings, weather effects, real-time day/night cycles etc. etc. - it creates a deliciously unique atmosphere.
Plus, the much-discussed A-Life which turns the game world into a life simulation works too. Spend time in the Zone, and the more it gives the impression of life, coming to life around you. A-Life also happens to throw up plenty of surprises - which, generally speaking, aren't of the welcome variety. But then it wouldn't be fun if they were, would it.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a game that gets better and better the further you get into it. Sure, it was always an ambitious game and it was really inevitable that what we've ended up with isn't the one originally planned, but thankfully, what we have ended up with is no way near as bad as we feared. It's rough around the edges and ironically would have benefited from more polishing time, but the balance tips in favour of the good and in spite of its shortcomings it still manages to impress.
It may not be all that was originally promised and it has its faults, but S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has still turned out to be a good game.
- Brilliant and unique game world
- Very satisfying combat with equally satisfying weapons
- A-Life more than just a gimmick
- Cool and sometimes weird horror moments
- Story struggles to make itself heard, poor characterisation
- Interface issues