Although there is a degree of RPG to Stalker, it’s by no means as prevalent as in games such as Deus Ex. The mission structure and inventory management point toward this influence, but there’s no skill development levelling up to deal with – which is no bad thing in my book.
Inventory management is a key part of the game, and knowing what to keep, what to sell and what to drop is a constant consideration. You can carry up to 50kg of items, and everything you carry has a weight and space requirement.
Another RPG type factor is artifacts; pieces of material created by the unstable environment in The Zone. When worn on your belt artifacts have potentially beneficial effects, while also being an important source of income as you sell on artifacts you don’t need. You can wear up to five artifacts on your belt, and you must choose how to combine the artifacts you find to best suit the style in which you play. For example, some of the most useful artifacts are those that provide protection against radiation; however most artifacts have negative properties as well – such as reducing endurance or resistance to natural hazards.
Although many common artifacts can be found lying around all over The Zone, the most valuable and useful take some discovering; adding an element of exploration to the game. These artifacts are also located in the most inhospitable areas, with dangerous anomalies and mutated creatures to contend with before you can collect your booty.
This brings us nicely onto the The Zone itself, and one can’t help but be impressed by the world created by GSC Game World. It has spent years plotting the area surrounding the crestfallen power plant and by combining this work with a little creative license, the developers have created a convincing environment that oozes tension.
The countryside is littered with anomalies and localised areas of radiation, so you can never wander too aimlessly for fear of stepping into a potentially dangerous area. There are plenty of other dangers too, with mutated animals roaming the area – not to mention the various bandits and other factions vying for your attention.
A key component of this environment is the “A-Life” simulation system, which reputedly tracks the progress of thousands of NPC characters. The game has its own timeline too, with night and day cycles and an impressively realistic weather system adding to the atmosphere.
Thunderstorms are a particular highlight, with lightning in the distance illuminating the surrounding countryside. The time cycle also has a significant effect on gameplay, with night time obviously providing more advantage for sneaking by unnoticed; infiltrating bases and heavily fortified locations.
Throughout the game there’s a definite sense of activity, though it isn’t quite as convincing as the developers might have you believe. Nonetheless there is evidence of this system in action, and if you play particular sequences in completely different ways you will notice the difference.
By way of example I played through one section in the game twice; first playing methodically and then rushing through ignoring enemies and other distractions. As a consequence I reached the same point in the area at a different time, with a noticeable difference in outcome.
On the first run the area was strewn with dead soldiers, with Stalkers patrolling the area. But, on the second run, those soldiers had yet to be defeated and were still alive and ready for a fight. This is just a small example of this system in action, and it’s certainly worth playing the game through again to see whether things do turn out differently.