It’s been a long time in production and eagerly anticipated, but now that it’s finally seen the murky light of a radioactive day, how does GSC Game World’s post-apocalyptic baby match up to all the hype?
At its heart this is a first-person shooter with RPG elements that cleverly merges fact and fantasy. Its starting point is the infamous Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986 which was the world’s worst unintended radioactive explosion. The fantasy is that another unexplained detonation took place in 2006 resulting in strange, dangerous and unknown consequences and so The Zone around the area is attracting the interest of undesirables.
These unwelcome guests are known as S.T.A.L.K.E.R.S. (or Scavengers, Trespassers, Adventurers, Loners, Killers, Explorers and Robbers) and you play one of these who at the beginning of the game is suffering from amnesia: all he knows is that he’s tasked to kill a man called Strelok.
Unlike similar futuristic shooters like Half-Life 2, you’re not encouraged along the main linear story but instead left to roam over the vast territory of The Zone where missions can either be acquired by targeting individuals or – almost literally – stumbled upon. As there are several groups intent on grasping some highly prized artefacts that are located in the most hazardous areas of the map, local in-fighting is the norm and you can choose to befriend a faction or skirt stealthily around trouble.
As well as human hostiles you also have to contend with mutant creatures and weird physical anomalies that are allied to the artefacts and have beneficial and harmful associations. Ammunition, weapons and equipment have to be scavenged, robbed from the dead or bought from traders and you have to remember to feed yourself regularly.
The graphics in general and the locations in particular are highly detailed, chillingly realistic and spookily atmospheric. Although recovering your memory and solving the mystery of The Zone is the ultimate aim, you can easily lose hours just exploring the nightmare of this industrial Hell. Your torch is often your best friend at night when lightning storms are crashing and dark, mutilated figures run in packs.
Information and missions are stored on your PDA and your inventory is designed to carry a specific weight limit so decisions have to be made about the mix of weaponry, ammo, clothing, food, etc., at any one time. The AI is pretty smart so conserving ammo by going for head shots is advised. If you find some of the combat too taxing you can always join a multiplayer game and opt for Death Match or Artefact Hunt (i.e. Capture The Flag).
While this is a fascinating and absorbing development of the FPS genre, there are glitches which may yet be patched out (e.g. some missions don’t seem to have been completed and there some issues with Windows Vista) and you’ll need to have a pretty powerful machine to avoid serious lag times, plus 10GB hard drive space and loads of patience for loading times.