If nothing else, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is proof positive that one way around the mire of craptastic voice acting in games is to present an experience in a language that's foreign to a large swath of your target audience. Much of the game's remarkable ambience is groups of stalkers arguing, laughing, singing and telling jokes in Russian, while key cutscenes and characters are flecked with an accented English. The meaning of NPC utterances comes through regardless of the immense barriers of language, and one soon learns that a phrase that sounds something like “sonya voosk” means “if you don’t put your gun down I’m going to shoot you repeatedly at point-blank range.”
In the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. universe, there was a second accident in the Chernobyl area of the Ukraine, and this created “the zone.” Said zone is filled with radiation, blind dogs, mutants, bandits, mercenaries, the army and hotspots called “anomalies,” little areas that litter the landscape. These traps are often hard to see in dark conditions and will zap animals, explode or even throw a wandering stalker up into the air.
However, the anomalies also create artifacts. As far as the player is concerned, artifacts are useful for boosting one’s endurance and speed or reducing radiation loads, generally at a cost to another statistic. They are also a major source of cash, beyond what you’re paid for taking on various missions, though the price remains static and unaffected by supply. With enough artifacts, the player can exponentially increase his health, slow his bleeding and suffer higher levels of radiation. Most useful is the ability to increase endurance so that the player never tires of running, which in one sense breaks the game by allowing you to run away from any threat. In another sense, it is just another choice to make, with its own tradeoffs and weaknesses.
So a stalker is a freelancer or faction member who wanders into the zone to grab saleable items and artifacts, worth money from other stalkers or for tourists from outside the zone. The NPCs in the game will fight rival factions or wild animals, and to some degree their loyalties shift depending on your actions. In a tragically unsubtle turn, the two joinable factions are called Duty and Freedom. As anyone can guess, Freedom is a group of heavily armed hippy anarchists who just think, like, the zone is just the zone being what it is, man; Duty is a collection of tightasses on a mission to save the planet from this great and terrible evil. Playing off of each other like an Ukranian version of Animal House, Freedom and Duty are armed with an absurd amount of guns and dressed like a group of kids who were press-ganged into the middle of hell while on their way to a goth-industrial fetish night.
In a refreshing turn, the player doesn’t actually have to join either group. One can make friends with both, and avoid getting mixed up in any inter-factional warfare. Or declare war on both, and spend the rest of the game running from bullets. It’s not the most comfortable choice to make, but it’s still an option. One can come across a battle between any two different factions and each play through will have a different outcome, depending on the choices made by the participants. These events are also often independent of the player’s actions.
To some degree, this freedom also applies to the “main quest” – one can run about the zone doing odd jobs for friendly and neutral factions for what seems to be an unlimited amount of time. Sure, the jobs run into each other after a while, and it seems almost insulting to pour PC gamers into yet another “amnesiac hero kicks ass and discovers truth,” but the combination of bad weather, sneaky AI and the occasional mutant make the repetitive framework bearable.
Once into the main plot, the amount of scripting involved in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. starts to take over from the freeform bits, though you can choose how you tackle each section to some degree. But the final sequences of the game, which vary in length depending on how closely you followed the plot and how much badassery you displayed en route, are some of the most well-designed, compelling and engaging moments in any PC FPS title. Nor is the end a cakewalk, even with great weapons, artifacts and juiced-up armor. For all of its faults - and for some PC builds there will be dozens - S.T.A.L.K.E.R. succeeds at creating an experience that doesn't have any easy answers at its core.
This lack of preaching and handholding (outside of quest markers) is yet another reason to consider S.T.A.L.K.E.R. There's also something to be said for the developers not taking the easy path that a North American or Japanese firm probably would have travelled. It's easy enough to imagine this setting becoming a blunt platform for a "message" that boils down to "nuclear disasters are bad" - one could almost see the producers of Crash signing Don Cheadle and renaming the project "Hotel Priyapat" - but the game presumes the player will look around at the ruined landscape and make up their own minds. In a field where nuance is more rare and dangerous than plutonium, that stance is to be congratulated.
Despite being geographically close to the site of the 1986 disaster, the developers never lower themselves to pandering or exploitation, but instead build a fictional web upon it and take it in another direction. Many of the game's landmarks are constructed directly from the surviving buildings and features, as can be seen from the eerie side-by-side comparisons floating around the web. But there's never any grand speech about the wrongs of the past or the frailty, just layers of mystery (and lies) from beginning to end.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is also open to modification, and several major overhauls have changed everything from the names and models of the weapons (to their real-life counterparts) to retooling shaders or just making nights darker. If your computer can handle dynamic lighting models, consider installing the latest patch from thefloatingpoint.org. The shader upgrade is nice, performance is generally increased and it seems to have fixed the weird block shadow error that has plagued many people since the latest official 1.0003 patch.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a glimpse at the future of the FPS genre, though it is littered with potholes. It is not the perfectly alive, “realistic” and open-ended playground promised seven years ago, and technical faults make it very difficult for some folk to just start playing. ATI owners once again seem to have a large share of technical issues, but there are plenty of complaints from Nvidia users whose S.T.A.L.K.E.R. experience is one of constant crashes and broken quests.
But on the other hand, there is no game in recent memory whose presentation and design lead to an atmosphere so coherent. Quest marker handholding aside, there's plenty to be discovered and absorbed by running off the rails, and despite some issues with corridors, the NPC AI is almost absurdly beautiful. Though developers once promised that the game’s NPCs could finish the game before the player, there is a vast web of interactions to stumble upon while playing with various strategies. This sets it aside from any FPS game in recent memory, and goes a long way to erasing the stain of so many technical faults and gameplay limitations.