In the Zone
Throughout the game, you'll meet other characters, and your interaction with them will be one of the foundations of your experience in the game world. Characters can give you quests, for one, sending you off across the map to do something for them - either as part of the 'main' quest or as a side quest.
Characters will also give you information - in many cases, tracking down a rogue Stalker will require tracing his steps through the world, finding out where he's been and talking to his associates. Sometimes, they'll want help or something in return, sometimes they'll offer up information freely.
The way you react to characters will also define your progress through the world. The military will always be hostile to you, and the rebels generally friendly. However, Stalkers often associate into factions, and acting hostile towards one member will see you being chased out of town by the others. Others are 'loners', and taking them out and salvaging their kit will cause no problems for you, aside from the blot on your conscience.
You can also barter and trade with NPCs, exchanging money and goods with them. This ties into the RPG-esque inventory system. You have a set 'size' of inventory, and the space that each item consumes is represented, graphically, in a grid system.
And you'll need to keep a decent amount of room free in your inventory, since you need a wide variety of items to continue through the game. As you walk, run and gun through the world, you'll get tired and, at times, too tired to walk. First, your ability to run will be impaired and you'll be reduced to a walk. Eventually, you'll get too tired to really do anything. Getting yourself going requires something to eat or drink - from bread, cake and sausage to vodka, which appears to be a staple. Vodka will impair your vision a little, and make your aim a little more woozy - but it will get you out of a hole, in a pinch.
It also has the handy side effect of slowing down radiation poisoning, and there are a few other items in the game that will do the same thing to a lesser or greater extent. Various rare items, stones and collectibles with negate or reverse radiation poisoning and keep you safe from the massive potential for trouble.
The radiation itself plays a pretty big part in the game. The world's lore has it that the 2006 explosion sent pieces of the nuclear reactor flying for miles, and as you travel through the world you will see areas of radioactivity pretty frequently - bizarre shimmering bits of ground that start to affect your vision as you get close. Getting too close to one of these highly radioactive areas will poison you and cause you to start losing health steadily, until you can administer something to stop the poison - or until you die. As you make your way, negotiating between the path most trodden - and most guarded - and the radioactive world best left alone will become second nature.
This also adds to what the developer calls the 'fight or flight' aspect of the game. As a lone Stalker, you will often come across teams of enemies, be they Stalker bandits or the military, who will have you totally out-gunned. Using the territory to your advantage will be crucial. For example, one mission has you travelling along a heavily guarded road to meet up with another Stalker contact. As you emerge from one building, a sniper will spot you and pin you down, whilst his team mates flank you and kick your butt. If you're a little more cunning, you can sneak out the side of the building, around the back of the squad - avoiding the sniper entirely - and then sprint off across the hills, dodging radiation as you go, firing blindly behind you as you sprint down the road away from the guards, who are too heavily laden to follow you at pace.
There are also larger areas of radiation which are impassable to those without biohazard suits. Since you can pick one of these up later in the game, it means that you can go back through the world, revisiting areas that you couldn't get into the first time around. This adds to the exploratory / side quest aspect of the game, but can make the game feel a little 'on rails' the first time you progress through it.
You will also pick up a variety of weapons as you go, some more powerful than others, obviously. You can keep almost any number in your backpack - as long as you don't 'overload' yourself - but you can only have one main weapon and one pistol equipped at a time, meaning lots of backpack ferreting should your main weapon run out of ammo during a fight - which happens quite a lot, given the scarcity of ammo in the post-nuclear world. Headshots are king in The Zone, since most factions have a variety of body armour. Whilst it may take up to ten bullets to the chest to down a guy, a single headshot will do the trick. This means that sharp shooting and sneaking will often serve you better than a full-on approach to combat.
So having played for a good few hours now, we're eagerly awaiting the final code to see how it plays for real. Our current build requires a pretty monster PC to run smoothly, and we're hoping that this will not be the case in the final version, as tweaks and polish make the game more efficient. We do expect, however, that on a decent set-up the game will look spectacular - GSC has integrated a bespoke physics engine, HDR lighting and widescreen support to make the game look pretty awesome.
In its current state, the game is also pretty buggy, and dies rapidly on Vista, which we're also hoping will be fixed in the weeks up until the end of March. If GSC can use these final weeks to pull everything together, the game will almost certainly be a corker, and the first contender for Game of the Year 2007. Stay tuned for our full review in just a few weeks.