Preview: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

March 20, 2007

With THQ’s long delayed survival horror FPS hybrid S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl finally shipped to retail, it seemed prudent to offer some impressions on the game given that we’ve been passing the game around Snackbar for the last few weeks. We’ll also have an interview with GSC Game World on the game this week as well, just in case you cannot get enough of radioactivity in your gaming diet.

Truth be told, the good people at THQ had me going for several months with the constant stream of impressive screenshots taken from the game, though some unfortunate setbacks with developer GSC Game World (Cossacks franchise) and a technology leak in 2006 left many wondering if the game would be resigned to linger in ‘development hell’ forever. Thankfully that has proven to not be the case, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl has risen to become on of this year’s most hotly anticipated new releases for the PC.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R’s story revolves around the tragic real life disaster that occurred in 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, during which a massive explosion at the facility led to radioactive fallout and the contamination of the surrounding area. Some years later in 2012, several unexplained explosions have incited the military to setup an exclusion zone is set up preventing access to the area. Following this, stories of huge anomalous energy disturbances and sightings of strange creatures within the zone are widespread, and here players step into the role of a S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a mercenary paid by scientists and other undisclosed groups to extract valued artifacts and find hidden secrets within Chernobyl.

Both GSC and THQ have made it clear from the onset that S.T.A.L.K.E.R’s focus is on the single player experience, and while that seems to certainly be the case, we opted to focus on the game’s latest multiplayer build for this preview, if for no other reason than immerse ourselves in the fun of hunting down friends and family in vast radioactive wastes. Here players choose between playing as a mercenary or a S.T.A.L.K.E.R, with each offering an unique skin and an assortment of armor, weapons, ammo, and supplies.

The build we had on hand afforded us to try out two different types of gameplay, artifact hunt and plain and simple deathmatch. The former of course consisted of finding a special artifact that is placed in random areas on the map as two teams go head to head to capture the most artifacts before the round ends. This particular mode fits well for people who have a preference for teamwork, with an arsenal that is dependent on the amount of money earned throughout each round of play.

Now this is the part where I have most of my beef with the game. Much like, if not exactly like, Counter-Strike, S.T.A.L.K.E.R operates with the purchase system. With each spawn in the purchase area, you assemble your arsenal of equipment by choosing from handguns, automatic weapons, sniper rifles, armor, ammo, and supplies such as medical kits and flashlights. This slows down the game significantly. I give the makers the benefit of the doubt for creating this option in artifact hunt, but it takes more from the experience than it gives back.

Geared towards teamwork, it’s a good option to outfit a section of your team with certain weapons instead of others, and the option definitely encourages you to go out and find the artifact or get some kills in order to earn the necessary money to purchase needed items.

Some other aspects of the purchase system include an emphasis on ranking. Surviving for longer periods of time in the battlefield and amassing greater numbers of kills increases your ranking, which in turn translates into the availability of better weapons, goodies, and upgrades. How you manage your supplies is evocative of a traditional RPG management system. Drag and drop, plain and simple. However this again slows down some of the gameplay, especially if you’re taken out within seconds of your deployment.

Besides this mode, the deathmatch arena is of course your basic all out kill fest. Go out and make the other team pay. Enough said.

Both modes offer maps that are spacious and provide several hidden areas perfect for ambushes and sniping. Within the maps also lie some anomalies that can harm you and cause a bit of a nuance. An impressive feature is the evolving environments within the map from day to night and from showers to partly cloudy. In fact, the whole game features an unique weather system that has been highly touted by the developers and comes across as impressive.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R’s soundscape is equally impressive, with immersive sounds that can be heard as you round each corner, and eerie effects that linger within the anomalies. Unfortunately the environments are not destructive, which really disappoints considering the amount of time spent making the game.

However, it needs to be said that the FPS style game play in S.T.A.L.K.E.R does not lend itself well to the prey and spray method. Take aim and use your iron sights or your scope and take out the enemy. Unloading a round might work at point blank from time to time, but it surely won’t help move you up in rank. In addition, I really enjoyed being able to strafe and aim as well as peek around corners during tense moments.

Overall, the multiplayer aspects of S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl failed to impress me as much as I might have liked. A game like this is made and to live or die by its single player offering. It remains to be seen, however, if there is simply enough here to let this long delayed game stand out on retail shelves from the crowd.