I always find that I approach delayed games with a certain level of caution. History is littered with a collection of hotly anticipated flops that slipped from one delay to another to another, with final products that mirrored the anarchy in which they created.
But that doesn't mean I don't look forward to games that I've almost grown up through the development of. Consequently, there was no lack of interest when S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (referred to, through the rest of this review, as Stalker, for the sake of our sanity) arrived in the post. Since I first saw the game three years ago, it's clear that what began as an insanely ambitious open-ended FPS has morphed into an FPS-come-RPG which, although not quite as ambitious as before, is no less impressive in scale or lacking in open-ended endeavour.
In the Zone
Set in an alternate future, Stalker puts the player into The Zone – a 30 square kilometre area surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant that tragically went into meltdown in 1986. Developed by Ukrainian studio GSC Game World, the game presents a future where additional events in 2006 and 2008 led to the development of various anomalies and mutated wildlife. Now 2012, curiosity and greed has led humankind to once again populate the area with divergent groups putting forth their own agendas to control The Zone.
You play the role The Marked One, who after an attack is left with no memory of his former life and knows nothing but of his desire to find and kill a man named Strelok – a rogue Stalker of unknown origin.
With your life saved you are put to work by a trader who offers you money in return for completing assignments. Although there is a central plot – of sorts – Stalker takes an approach much like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and other RPG titles, in giving the player the choice to pursue different quests as they see fit.
One rather annoying facet of this system is the lack of information on your potential reward before you take on a mission. Though this is hardly unique to Stalker, but it does present a problem because many side-missions do not represent real value for money considering the risks involved and the expenditure on ammunition that must be replaced.
This makes taking on side-missions a hit and miss affair, with selling on artifacts and weapons a far more attractive option. Ultimately, one can make more than enough money by doing this and completing tasks central to driving the plot; thus further reducing the incentive to take on extra tasks.
More than point & shoot
What’s immediately apparent when you first start playing Stalker is how different the combat is when compared to other shooter titles. For starters there’s an Oblivion-like energy bar, and this has a significant effect on both general travel and combat. During prolonged combat there’s a good chance your energy may become depleted and it’s important to manage your energy levels using energy drinks and ‘artifacts’ – more on which later.
Moreover, when low on health you’ll move slowly – so you can’t run away too easily – while guns will deteriorate over time and jam when used intensively. Another intelligent addition is the inability to sprint and strafe simultaneously, and though this takes some getting used to it’s a logical and realistic approach to movement.
Stalker also takes a slightly different approach to health, with a bleeding system whereby injuries will continue to reduce your health unless bandaged. There are three levels of bleeding, each indicated by a symbol that appears on the right hand of the screen, and failure to act upon these warnings ends in a drawn out demise.
As if that weren’t enough you also have to contend with radiation, and when suffering from radiation poisoning your health will continue to drop until you administer anti-radiation drugs – or drink some Vodka! (Mixed with some of that aforementioned energy drink? - Ed)
All these elements take a little getting used to, and as a result the early stages are characterised by some fairly tough gameplay in which you must choose your battles carefully. This degree of challenge does, however, make Stalker a rewarding experience, and the developers should be congratulated for not dumbing down the gameplay in order to make it easier.