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Gaming Evolution
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Gaming Evolution
Gaming Evolution

Published by: THQ
Developed by: GSC Game World
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Players: 1-32
Rated: M (Mature)
Release Date: March 20, 2007
Screenshots: Link!
Amazon: Buy Now!
Written By: Christian H.

Originally announced in 2001, some feared that the once much-hyped S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - Shadow of Chernobyl was doomed to become the next big vaporware title--the next Duke Nukem Forever. Over the course of seven years, Ukrainian developer GSC Game World faced numerous delays, technical obstacles, and cuts. Now that it’s finally here; was it worth the wait? Well, that depends on what you’re looking for from modern-day shooters. Halo or Half-Life this is not.

After a second explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, the surrounding wilderness is transformed into a ruin, plagued by high levels of radiation, mutants, and reality-defying anomalies that spawn artifacts: valuable objects containing special biological and radioactive properties. Stalkers (criminals, mercenaries, scientists, and lone adventurers) explore the zone, seeking these rare and valuable artifacts for profit, all the while at odds with the Russian military, the hostile Zone wildlife, and, because it wouldn’t be much of a shooter otherwise, each other. The player takes on the role of an amnesiac Stalker, rescued from a wrecked vehicle and brought to the doorstep of a black market trader, who promptly puts you to work. Meanwhile, a mysterious objective on your PDA to kill a famous and enigmatic Stalker sets you on your path to discover who you are, where you have been, and where you will go in your quest to uncover the mysteries of the Zone.

It would be easy to describe S.T.A.L.K.E.R. as a cross between your typical FPS, Fallout, and Oblivion, but that wouldn’t make for much of a review. Actually, it would be more than a bit misleading, not to mention; just plain unfair.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is more of an FPS than an RPG; you rely on guns instead of stats, and unlike Oblivion, you can not simply face one direction and walk into the hori-zon until you discover a cave, ruin, portal, or any other kind of dungeon rich with trea-sure. Unlike Cyrodiil or Morrowind, the Zone is surrounded by an invisible wall of in-tense radiation and is divided into inter-connected, but independent, areas (or game “levels,” if you prefer). Each area, however, is quite large and very open, providing many paths and options on the way to achieving your goal(s).

Sneaking into a military building, for example, is no straight run-n’-gun FPS faire. Sure, you could charge in like a one-man army and you might even live if you have the artillery, but the game does not set you on that path. More often than not, you would be better off to sneak around the perimeter and find a breach in a wall, a hole in a fence, or an open sewer pipe. You could just as readily take your chances with the mutants and head through the underground tunnels--it’s entirely up to you. That’s the true appeal of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.; very few shooters provide the player with this kind of freedom and decision-making scenarios outside of who (or what) to shoot first. Throughout the game you’re forced to make these kinds of choices and evaluate the variable outcomes of every single one. You have to consider how burdened you are with equipment and loot, the condition of your weapons and armor, your supply of first aid equipment and food, and it all comes down to the consequences of every decision you make, in a game that is really about surviving in this unforgiving environment. This design makes the game entertaining from an intellectual level, instead of a merely visceral level as with a typical shooter.

While the graphics of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. may have wowed everyone back in 2001, its long and troubled development shows 6 years later. That’s not to say that it looks bad--the graphics are decent, but they represent great graphics of 5 or 6 years ago, not of today. Nevertheless, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is one of the most atmospheric games in recent memory. Ruined farmland villages and abandoned factories dot the landscape and just about all of them can be fully explored. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should expect to find much in them. It sounds like a misgiving about the game and it would be easy to write them off as simply being empty--which they are--but it is the emptiness that makes S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s world so compelling and real. Whereas in most games of the genre you might expect these intricate set-pieces to be the stage for a wild fire-fight, “boss” encounter, or what-have-you, in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. you’re far more likely to just find a group of weary Stalkers settled around a campfire, chatting away while one strums on an old guitar. Of course, you’re equally likely to find nothing at all: just an empty building that was long ago stripped and looted clean of anything valuable. Although, if you’re really unfortunate, you might find a pack of territorial mutants. They could be a pack of ragged dogs, easily frightened by a few shotgun blasts in their general direction, or they might be a pack of ravenous bloodsuckers--far more aggressive and likely more than you’ll be able to handle in large numbers. Whatever the case, all scenarios reinforce the mise-en-scene of the zone as a harsh environment in which you are on your own and late to the party (so to speak). At it’s core, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is as much a game about survival as it is about narrative, loot, or simply shooting things.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s development has been a long and troubled road. Consequently, it may not be all it was originally meant to be, but GSC Game World still managed to deliver one of the most entertaining and unique shooters in a time when the genre has become anything but. To see a developer continue the trend pioneered by games like System Shock 2 and Deus Ex, regardless of mainstream trends, is refreshing, welcome, and, most importantly, needed. A more than simply solid first step, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. may be flawed with occasional technological problems and sometimes irritating design (vague mission objectives, slightly uneven progression and nagging balance issues), but its potential is vast and the example that it sets is necessary.


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