S.T.A.L.K.E.R... You can't even start to comprehend how difficult it is to review a game with such a hard-to-type title
Many people were surprised when our long-suffering S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was released on the same day with The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion. You cannot understand the logic of THQ and its intuition did not pay off. A large-scale picturesque and unusual project fell into oblivion. Users have missed this truly masculine project, blinded by bright colors of Oblivion and its large-scale advertisement campaign. It's not clear why. Or perhaps because its title can only provoke laughter, after having been delayed so many times. Or because many users have taken printed boxes in stores for another PR taunt.
Indeed, it's hard to imagine a rougher and more irritating PR campaign
(oops, sorry, dear developers of Lada
Racing Club, we've forgotten about you). Indistinct, bursting
like soap bubbles promises, constantly postponed, deliberate demonstrations
of the scariest and dullest screenshots. It's a pity that good PR
specialists are too rare in Russia. Reading interviews about S.T.A.L.K.E.R.,
I often had a feeling that the GSC representative was either sleepy
or a tad drunk. Specific questions were answered by "don't remember",
"don't know", "will clear up with programmers", or even by missive
"good idea" and "we'll think about it".
Water does not look as neat and natural as in Half-Life 2, but it still looks great
Nevertheless, the game has been released. Western publisher THQ decided to put a stop to killing the clock and forced GSC to release a raw but playable project. Let's hope that the Russian version will be 100% ready. After all, this topic is sort of dear to us, who read Strugatskys in the original and who saw the terror of catastrophe in Chernobyl at close quarters. We'd like a proper attitude.
The first shock is certainly graphics. No other game has ever demonstrated such brilliantly detailed and realistic scenes. No wonder, developers didn't risk publishing DirectX 9 screenshots - no one would believe them. People would accuse them of publishing photos. Marvelous HDR effects, metallic surfaces, water reflections and waves. Moreover, the waves are real. If you walk on a puddle or fall into a river, you will see waves in accord with all physics laws. Grass is crushed, there appear footsteps on snow (yep, we have changing day and night as well as seasons of the year!). Puffs of smoke are implemented on the level of Call of Duty 2. Nature looks even more striking than in TES4: Oblivion. Industrial landscapes are much better than in "photorealistic" Half-Life 2 . Programmers and designers from id, Valve, and Bethesda should learn from these people. Vaunted Unreal 3 Engine from Epic looks like an ugly duckling versus the creation of humble people from GSC.
No wonder that few lucky guys, who have recently visited the GSC
office, left it goggle-eyed. Their reports in forums were incomprehensive
and sounded more like fevered delirium
of fanatics rather than an opinion of a reasonable man: "the world
around you lives its own life", "superb graphics", "deeply impressive
AI", "played with physics disabled, but rag-doll was present in all
its glory", "say hello to the yellow press", "S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has come
up to all our expectations. GSC implemented all the features it promised".
I am ashamed to confess that our readers laughed such people to scorn
in our forum,
covering with unhealthy skepticism, clumsy early screenshots, and
fantastic promises made by developers. Of course, it's way too easy
to ridicule than to believe that the dream has come true.
HDR effects are only slightly worse than in TES4: Oblivion
By the way, physics has been enabled in the final release. Cans roll, cases can be moved, bodies fall down and freeze on the ground without theatrics. If you want adrenaline, try to get into a barrel and roll down a hill. You will learn what a true giddiness and breakfast loss are in a computer game.
In one of the latest announcements, a PR manager from GSC noted that the graphics was ready by 95%. Damn, he was right! Because of the impatient publisher, we have to roam a strikingly realistic world and "admire" old armament, monsters, stalkers, and soldiers. It looks wild, to tell the truth. You can see everything on the screenshots. Fortunately, it's a PC project, so we can expect a mod soon, which will fix this disgrace. What concerns technical drawbacks, we can mention buggy shadows. We'll see whether the NVIDIA driver (which is currently in the development stage) will fix it.
This beauty comes at a cost, of course. My old computer hardly squeezed 8 fps at medium settings, so I dumped it. My new testbed allowed me to enjoy the excellent graphics to the full extent. But only at 800õ600. In return, I enabled AFx16, ÀÀõ4 (with HDR enabled!) and all other settings set to maximum. There is an option for weak systems to enable DirectX 8 and reduce graphics quality to minimum. But in this case your graphics quality will come down to the early screenshots.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. does not reveal its worth at once. At first you are knocked
down by the graphics quality. You just roam the location, admiring
all this excellence and trying not to gape too much. Designers did
a stunning job here. Despite a huge territory of the Zone around the
Chernobyl nuclear power station, you will not find a single careless
nook. That's the true reason to implant better componentry into your
Meet the grass anomaly. If you stay here just a couple seconds longer, you may turn into firewood.
The knock-down effect gradually abates and you start to see the game itself. If you have seen the marvelous project "Pathologic", you can just start to imagine the general style of the game. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is not a FPS or RPG. That's a pure survival. You have to fight for your life, struggle forward despite your fears, weaknesses, and despair. When you crawl in the Zone on your chinstrap, when your health inevitably goes down and there is nothing to bandage your wounds with, when you periodically faint from hunger and not getting enough sleep, you can only pray to God not to fall into a meat-chopper or run across a bloodsucker. You want to cuddle on the ground and have some rest to restore your powers. But fear and hunger push your forward. You know for sure that if you fall asleep now, you will never wake up.
Gameplay is ideally simple and resembles other elite-like games like Ex Machina. Our hero is deserted in a phantasmagoric location and left to his own devices. We have the Zone and soldiers that guard it, lethal anomalies, and unfriendly beasts, who seem to come right from the books of Lovecraft (bloodsucker is just a wingless Cthulhu). Your main task is to earn money for living by getting outlandish artifacts. In the process, you buy/find/pillage better outfits, armament, and equipment for detecting anomalies. Besides, there are dozens of various missions, which relieve the monotony of gameplay. The problem is that each trip into the Zone is a hardcore adrenaline adventure. The first short incursions grow into truly nightmarish raids.
Your rucksack is limited. You have to plan ahead on how many canned food,
ammo, weapons, special devices (binoculars, infravisor, gravidetector,
etc) to take. If you are going to find a car in the Zone and drive
it to a dealer, you should take a gas canister. It gurgles loudly
and decreases your going significantly, but the fee for Niva is noticeably
higher than for a pocket artifact. The very pink of fashion is to
drive back a rumbling and smoking tractor "Belarus". Not for a fee
(you won't get much for the debris), but for satisfaction - "I'm
such an elusive smuggler!".
Faded image is a sign of coming fatigue. You can find refuge in a forsaken kindergarten... Unless, it's occupied by a gang of dwarves-flushers
The Zone itself is disgustingly crowded for having good time. The main part of aboriginal population are strange-looking beasts. Chernobyl mutants? Aliens from space? Laboratory animals who broke loose? These questions will haunt you for the first 40-50 hours in the game. Where did these anomalies come from? Why are there mysterious extraterrestrial artifacts scattered all over the place? When you get dizzy with assumptions (stalker folklore only adds fuel to them), the plot makes a swing-round and everything falls into its place. It turns out that the explosion on the Chernobyl nuclear power station was so powerful that it made a hole in… Hey, stop. Not a word, we don't want to spoil your impression of the first gaming session.
Along with terminating beasties, you have to solve focus puzzles.
That is you have to seek and avoid anomalies. As soon as you heard
humstrum of Greg the balalaika-player, plug your ears, lest you should
lose control of your own body. When you notice strange rhythmical
stirs in the bush, accompanied by incomprehensible oohs and ahs, skirt
this place, or the sweet couple will smash you. Driving a car, don't
trust hitch-hiking ghosts, who look like traffic police. Have you
heard clinking glasses round the corner, run away, you will become
one of the bleating freaks inhabiting the Zone. This is nothing compared
with what is to come. Before going on a mission, you should visit
the bar, talk with experienced stalkers, and learn as many anomaly
signs as possible.
This freak is asking to be killed, not to plague you with his presence
We should mention the adequate controls and interface. As you may have already noticed on the screenshots, there are no dashboards on the screen. The brilliant approach from The Chronicles of Riddick proves its worth. There are no indicators for health, armour, hunger, fatigue, aim, and ammo. Everything is like in real life. If your stomach rumbles (in the literal sense of the word) and you see double, it's time to settle down in a secluded corner and have a snack. If your screen gets red and covered with blood smears - it's high time to have a stimpack and bandage your wounds. If the image gets faded and slow as well as your movements, get ready to fall asleep. Other games may only envy such a simple and efficient implementation of dreams: our hero plunges into the brightest moments of his adventures through a stylish colour-filter.
Peculiarities of national treasure hunting
The Zone is indeed living its own life. That's probably the best implementation of life in games. A gamer feels like a grain of sand in an intricate working mechanism. Choppers fly hither and thither. That's an armoured troop-carrier with a research group of eggheads. You may hear skirmishes between stalkers and wild life in the distance. Greedy artifact raiders may bite each other's heads off. Once I saw through my binoculars one stalker killing the other without a reason. He sneaked after its prey, hid in the grass, and then stabbed his prey, ransacked his pockets, kicked him (!), took a rifle, and scuttled out into bushes.
Stalkers have a sympathy index. You must watch it not to make a mortal enemy. Or you may end like this poor guy. Their intelligence is truly revolutional. Did you like clones from F.E.A.R.? Come on. Those dummies are nothing compared to cunning stalkers, who hide in the grass, take in the rear, jump over obstacles, react to strange noises, and can work in groups. Sometimes you feel like a helpless Jerry from Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood, they are too smart. A couple of them shoot at your cover, preventing you from sticking out, while the others are quietly going round you to your back. If you make some friends, knock together a clan, and go for another mission, you will be able to watch these smart swearing warriors fight each other. Unfortunately, it's impossible to send these bots to World Cyber Games 2007 as a Counter-Strike team. They would get gold.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is too much of a simulator to please everybody. Realism goes off-scale. You cannot brake a car running into a tree - you will fly out of the windshield. You will not have a chance to take advantage of dim-witted bots - they are clever, their arsenal includes lots of counter techniques, starting from ambushes to putting soldiers on your track. You should eat, you should sleep, you should take care of your weapons, clean and oil them. A world in itself. Picturesque, stylish, atmospheric, unusual. A cherished dream of an adventurer.
Vitaly Kazunov aka Lockust (email@example.com)
April 1, 2006
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