S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl Review
There are a few games that have approached the pinnacle of vapor-ware, the thone of which is occupied by Duke Nukem Forever. In recent years the oft-announced delays and changes in scope to the highly anticipated S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl have caused the game to end up on many industry lists of products never expected to be seen - including one just three months before its' release! This is a moody and immersive game that ... oh, rather than droning on about tech specs and frame rates, lets get a report from another S.T.A.L.K.E.R. inside the Zone ...
I dragged myself through the stupid old Soviet era door that only opens half-way and up the stairs to my apartment. Somewhere, a child is crying - not the sad tears of a spoiled child not getting their way but the plaintive wail of fear, terror and hunger that has come to rule over all of our lives. I don't know if I can make it up the stairs, but I'm not stupid enough to think that the elevator is working - or that the superintendent would have powered it on even if it was fixed. I open my door and shuffle my way into the kitchen and reach immediately for the vodka. My wife looks at me for a long while and finally says "rough one, eh"? "You don't know the half of it", I reply. "Well, then sit down here and tell me about it", she says.
What's my story?
Let me take you back to the beginning before I tell you what has just happened. Of course everyone knows about the first nuclear accident in Chernobyl - that has been the subject of countless documentaries and other films and studies and who knows what else. For years it has been a wasteland - and that was even before the second accident. Nobody likes to talk about that one; they just sealed up the area and tossed away the key. That works great; well, it works great if you are not one of the thousands stuck here in the place we have come to know as 'the Zone'. Crazy stuff happens here all the time - not crazy like someone stealing your red stapler or having an affair with your wife. I'm talking crazy like anomalies opening up in the middle of the road, disabling your car and sucking the life out of you. Like some of the animals that you see roaming the side of the road - things that used to be dogs, but now look like they would eat you right through the car given the chance. That is where I live and work and try to lead a life with the woman I once saw as my soul mate, the one I would have children with and grow old together and retire somewhere on the Crimea. Now we are just happy to wake up in the morning, and some mornings we're not even sure that we're happy about that.
There is something about getting started on a workweek - you feel like you have just come out of some alternate reality coma and can't recall anything. Fortunately I carry a PDA that allows me to remember at least critical tasks from day to day - otherwise I'd be completely lost. But sometimes the info I carry in that thing isn't enough to go on ... I'm glad I added that map with GPS to ease my way through the Zone. I used to have a nice office job - member of the party, respected scientist, all of that crap.
Before the accidents. Now I'm a STALKER. I roam the zone during the day, picking up little tasks for anyone with a bit of influence or something worth having. There are always other STALKERs around - some are mercenaries with a lot of skills, others are weekend warriors thinking that they'll find some great prize. You can guess which ones are always looking to team up with someone - those are the ones that quickly end up dead.
The week started off with a bang ... heh, I couldn't help saying that. There was a huge explosion as a truck was ambushed and the idiots doing the hit shot up the gas tank. Typical rookies. But we all respond to these things, we all know there might be something of value. What I didn't expect was to find someone alive - especially another STALKER. There was something about this one, aside from being very unexpectedly alive after that huge crash. Something about him. I took him to the trader at Cordon - the cheap one with awful supplies with even worse jobs. But he was close, and he was a doctor once and has a thing for special cases like this. I thought I could score something extra for this and brother was I right. More than I could get in a month of my usual work and some special items as well. But there was something else - something about this guy; something that would haunt me all week long, and likely for the rest of my life.
Looks can be deceiving!
If you have ever been to Chernobyl then you are either dead or I know you. Let's face it - nobody comes here now. They will let you in, but they sometimes fail to mention that you aren't allowed to leave. There is no more place for cameras and microphones and special interest groups looking to trumpet their latest political cause on the backs of our dead; now this is a place for the dead and the nearly dead and some other unspeakable things. When you look into the eyes of the people you can see their desperation and mistrust. You cannot walk anywhere without feeling their eyes on your back. Everyone is armed pretty heavily, but there are still rules. You don't walk around villages with your weapon out unless you are a perimeter guard or want to end up dead - we've all seen too many go crazy from the stress, depression and radiation poisoning.
Look - I'll be honest with you, Chernobyl is a bleak place. Looking over the rolling hills, you will see plenty of trees and grassy areas that might have been perfect for a family picnic years ago, but now they are infested with mutant creatures and dead vehicles and are subject to anomalies that pop up all over the place without warning. Any signs that people might have actually lived here are all but gone - there are some small shells of houses left for use as basic shelter, but anything that would pass for communities or neighborhoods are just the things of dreams. The few groups of houses you do come across are a sad reminder of our plight - there are few doors remaining and even fewer windows. As you approach them you can see everything - the broken floor boards, scattered trash, even the bullet holes from the various bandit raids. Heck, those might be the bullets that killed the original owners for all I know. There are signs of people everywhere, but few people to be found. Most spread out during the day and cluster together at night. If you see a fire, approach carefully - there is likely a gun trained on your head and a trigger-finger ready to squeeze given half a reason.
It's just a job, not a quest!
When a new or aspiring STALKER enters the zone, they look like some bumpkin in one of those old computer role playing games we used to amuse ourselves with back when we could count on more than an hour of electricity a month. They think that they will feed off the radiation and become super-powerful like Spiderman, but they will only end up mutated, sick or dead. They think that by working for the traders and mercenary groups and factions, by doing crappy little jobs that they are somehow like their little heroes clearing out rats from the old lady's cellar. They think that is a path to greater and greater power and that they will be able to change the world and lead some great force of righteousness and cleanse the Zone of iniquity and strife and turn it into some great paradise. It is understandable - we all want to do something. We all want to believe that we can be more than just armed scavengers scraping by on the waste and refuse of others, living on the bare minimum that could be imagined.
I have been here forever, yet it is easy to fall into that trap. It is easy to think that clearing an area of mutants will make you more powerful, that finding a family heirloom lost in a radiation heavy area for some poor sap stuck in the research center will make you a better person and will translate to having the ability to do more good. None of it matters - all you get for your troubles is damaged armor, some cuts and bruises, depleted reserves of healing supplies, perhaps some replacement weapons for the ones that jammed or fell apart on the mission, perhaps a couple of trinkets to help handle the damage better, and a few rubles. Rubles?!?! Like those matter in the Zone! Enough of those missions and you 'll end up as another STALKER dead in a pile of money that you could never spend!
Yet this week I thought it might be different. I saw that stranger after he emerged from the trader, and there was something different about him. For a while I thought that he would do things differently than the rest of us - that he really could build himself into something physically and mentally more powerful based on growth from experiences here. But as I saw him around during the week something became clear - while there is clearly some destiny ahead of him, he is just another STALKER like the rest of us - all too often I saw him healing up after battling some mutant dogs, running from radioactive areas looking like he ate bad sushi, and I'll never forget what he looked like scrambling out of a bunker after meeting up with a bloodsucker. Yep, he's one of us - a poor sap with an automatic weapon who just happens to have an aura of swirling destiny around him.
So why bother with doing all of these missions anyway? I wondered that while watching him trek back and forth with artifacts and old rifles and mutant body parts and more. Did he really think that he was going to become some uber-human by doing that stuff? Or was he just hoping to gather up enough stuff to survive his eventual trip to the the reactor at Chernobyl. Yes - I spoke to him and that is where he told me he was headed. Up past the lousy rows of apartment buildings where I live and through the city itself and on to the hulking mass of destruction at the center of all of this insanity. Good luck to him, I said. It was hard enough from me to get home, and I've spent years doing odd jobs and greasing palms and building a network of contacts to endure that I could pass through any section - Duty, Freedom or mercenary. He'll either have to choose sides or take his chances - and those chances aren't too promising. Like I said, this isn't some role-playing game where you do some quests for a faction and then gain their favor and everything is great. Sure, you can become part of a faction - but then you are a sworn enemy of everyone else. The problem is that you can never really tell what it is that will set one faction against you. I had a friend a while back who was trying to get in with Duty - figured that it could make his life easier. He was doing pretty well, but heading into Freedom territory one time he helped a couple of guys beset by a bloodsucker and the next thing you know everyone associated with Duty is gunning for him and he takes a bullet to the face.
So it is like I told that guy - take some missions and earn some cash and get plenty of items to protect you from the radiation, but then move along. It isn't like taking missions will make you more powerful or get you some +4 pea shooter of non-jamming (I have to give credit to my wife - she does custom weapon mods and when people come in with ridiculous requests she tells them they'd be better off with a +4 pea shooter of non-jamming than the modified AK with armor piercing and higher fire rate). In fact, the only thing taking on too many missions will do is get you more crappy weapons and a better chance of getting dead faster.
Getting there is half the fun!
I have wondered a lot how things will end for this stranger - I last saw him entering the city, and it seems that for every friend he had picked up there were a dozen enemies. The fact that he had lived that long reaffirmed my thoughts that he was destined for something more than dying in a pool of his own filth as so many seem to do out here. Nobody knows what is happening inside of the old reactor, but many speculate that it is something bigger than all of us. Some think they are crazy - there are certainly enough crazy talkers around here who will fill your heads with stories of slimy gray creatures that live well below the surface and come from alien worlds. But when the stranger talked about greater forces of power inside of Chernobyl that were effecting all of us I couldn't help but believe him. I don't know if that means I'm going soft or something, but I believed him. I don't know what the future holds for him - or for any of us - and I don't really know what he will find in there. But something tells me that what he finds and how he handles it will depend on what he has learned and done out here in the zone. For all I know he could end up like one of those greedy fools dead in a pile of money. Or maybe he really did manage to change the world somehow. Perhaps someday I'll know.
Back to reality
When I stopped talking, my wife simply walked over and stroked my cheek and kissed my forehead. There wasn't much she could say, not much I wanted her to say. We were exhausted, and napped in the afternoon - something that almost never happened. That evening we ate some decent canned meat with bread - the best meal in months thanks to bringing in that stranger. The we just sat in silence for a while.
"Something big happened today, I can feel it", I said.
She replied "I know, I feel it too - it almost feels like hope, only not for us."
"Hope ... I thought that had died long ago", I said.
Summary and Conclusions (REALLY back to Reality!)
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is a very well done shooter with a very open-ended structure that allows you to roam around openly through a very immersive and atmospheric world, completing missions as you choose, joining in fights all over the place, finding hidden items and locations, watching other STALKERS roam the territory doing some of the same missions as you, and more. Just don't mistake it for a RPG - because once you start doing that you will become a slave to the traders, to the fetch-and-return missions that serve little purpose in terms of improving your character other than giving you money and ammo you don't need and forcing you to trek long distances in both directions. The missions are numerous and varied enough that you can take a few and ignore the rest, get plenty of extra items and gameplay and still not miss anything. The shooter elements and open world are where the game come together - you can run-and-gun to a certain extent or focus on tactics and stealth or even try to avoid combat entirely. The compelling gameplay and central story might not make up for the bugs and removed features and delays, and it doesn't live up to the hype, but on its own it is a wonderful shooter that fans of the genre really owe it to themselves to experience.
- Excellent atmosphere and tremendous sense of immersion.
- Solid combat system with great range of stealth and shooter
- Very good sound & graphics.
- Fantastic AI including other STALKERS doing the same mission
- There are times when you forget it isn't a first-person RPG
- Thinking it is an RPG will disappoint you.
- Unrewarding mission structure.
- Plenty of minor bugs including broken missions and clunky in
- Multiplayer modes not nearly on par with single player game.