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S.T.A.L.K.E.R. preview

It's been a long, long time since S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was announced. The game has been in development since 2001 and was originally slated for release in 2003. Release dates have come and gone, and many have suspected that the game has long passed into the world of vapourware, occupied in perpetuity by Duke Nukem Whenever.

Indeed, the first time that I played the game was at the GeForce 6 launch, back in the summer of 2005. Spending a few minutes in front of the game, then, it seemed like a very good-looking FPS game, and looked close to being done. Apparently, it was not.

And now it's February in 2007, six years since the game was announced, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is finally here. The game is out at the end of March, and we have been playing a near-final copy for the last week or so, acquainting ourself with the game, its graphics engine and its foibles. How does it play, how does it look, and will it be worth the wait?

We will withhold our final opinion, as is traditional, for our review - look for it towards the end of March. We'll be covering graphics options and hardware requirements, as is traditional for a bit-tech review. But, for now, we'll give you our impressions of the single-player game, as far as we've gotten with it.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. preview Damned dots S.T.A.L.K.E.R. preview Damned dots

Oblivion Lost

The original subtitle of the game was Oblivion Lost, although this is no longer, with the official name now being Shadow of Chernobyl. The storyline is fairly simple. As you will surely know, Chernobyl nuclear power station had a meltdown in 1986, a failure which saw the surrounding region irreparably damaged by radiation. Today, in the real world, Chernobyl has been made (relatively) safe with an awful lot of concrete and a very expensive cleanup operation.

In the world of the game, a second explosion twenty years on, in 2006, sees the radius bathed in a fresh dose of radiation and making the surround area uninhabitable and closed off - an area known only as 'The Zone'. The resultant chaos, combined with the region's political instability, has caused a split amongst people, dividing them into three factions - the Military, the Rebellion, and the out-for-themselves Stalkers.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. preview Damned dots S.T.A.L.K.E.R. preview Damned dots
The Zone is a radioactive nightmare, but there is plenty of wealth contained therein. It's a lawless area, and those that inhabit it do so on their own terms. Things found - goods, weapons - can be traded in the outside world for a decent sum of money, and so the Stalkers make their living.

You are such a Stalker, and at the beginning of the game you wake up - with no memory. You're saved by a fellow Stalker and you wake up with just a single mission in your PDA, which you have no recollection of. The game charts your bid to regain your identity and complete your mission.

The world

The game world is more than 4km x 4km, making for a pretty big playing area. It is persistent - within the world, Stalkers go about their business, radioactively mutated animals hunt, feed and sleep, bandits attack travellers and physics takes its course.

Originally, the game was set to be completely free-form, with the player able to do anything in the world at any time, with his actions resonating throughout the game world through the 'A-life' AI system. In the version you will get to play, the game has been made slightly more linear and narrative driven. Whilst the game is still very open ended and free-form, you will be led through it by the storyline of your identity crisis. This keeps things along a given track, but gives you plenty of opportunity to explore the world and do things your way.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. preview Damned dots S.T.A.L.K.E.R. preview Damned dots
In fact, the game plays quite similar to Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The game is now described as an FPS/RPG by the developers, and the comparison is therefore warranted. Oblivion is a game that has a very open world, and a very open mission structure, but with a linear progression through. It would be lazy, but not wildly off the mark, to describe S.T.A.L.K.E.R. as Oblivion with guns. And radiation.