You know what sets good FPS games apart from drab ones? Immersion. It’s what separates a fully-fleshed world filled with challenges to tackle and tribulations to overcome from the ordinary and uninspired ‘run down this hallway shooting those guys and then go into that room to shoot those other guys.’ S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (which I’m going to call SoC for short) accomplishes a level of immersion that I haven’t really seen since the first Half-Life. From the superbly laid out ruins that dot the destroyed landscape to the roving packs of diseased dogs to the radioactive dust that blows across the barren lands, the world of SoC is a brutal and beautiful one. Just looking at it makes you want to explore, experience the landscape, and see what stories it has to tell.
Oddly, immersion aside, the story of SoC is one of its weakest points. The real meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant back in the 80’s was followed by a fictional second meltdown in the 2000’s, creating a zone of radioactive and somehow spatial instabilities populated by mutants and murderers. You play a voiceless, faceless, and for the most part nameless (most call you The Marked One) Stalker without a past; a mercenary who travels into the zone to retrieve items to sell in the hopes of earning enough money to buy food and radiation treatments to do it all over again, and maybe, just maybe find out something about your own past. Yeah, they’ve leaned on the old, overused amnesia plot element – try not to hold that against them. The majority of this plot is told to you through many paragraphs of stilted dialog read in a Bullwinkle Boris accent, and an occasional movie using the game engine that look pretty good but often tell you nothing coherent. So I’m running around the zone stealing documents, retrieving artifacts, earning cash, trying to kill some guy, fighting solders and mutants and bandits – I have no idea why. Between the bad dialogs I have no patience for and the movies I can’t make heads or tails of, the unrecognizable hash of a plot almost distracts you from the gameplay which it too bad because in SoC the developers have really struck an excellent balance between playability and realism that is mighty addictive.
SoC does not really have levels. In the vein of more involved RPGs like Oblivion, or perhaps a better comparison would be GTA, it has instead different areas, and you can roam around the areas as you wish collecting quests or missions from the NPCs you run across. There is an overall plot train – without even understanding the plotline I can see that – but there are many other things to keep you busy if you don’t want to climb aboard it. At any given time you can have any number of missions assigned to you; a PDA and integral map feature helps you keep it all straight very efficiently. Typical missions are “clean the mutants out of this building” or “go recover this item,” and you can load up on simple missions to learn about the zone and the lay of the land, or you can jump right into the tough stuff and try to survive on your wits and your combat skills. Rewards can be cash or information, or sometimes special items that have been enhanced by their exposure to radiation (though you can find these items by searching around on your own without undertaking quests if you would rather go that way). Stuff you pick up can be converted to cash and exchanged for other items at trading posts around the map. Overall the desire to simply roam the countryside collecting loot to sell is very limited – the stuff you can pick up in the field is far better than the stuff you can get at the trading posts, and as a whole money serves little purpose.
For realism in graphics, SoC is very near the top of the heap. Dust blows, the grass is brown, dogs are slattern and rabid. The entire map feels as though it has been planned and laid out, by which I mean that there is none of the cookie cutter reproductions of the buildings or scenery so common in other games (and I’m thinking here specifically of Oblivion which has a very ‘seen one dungeon, seen them all’ feeling to it). Each ruin is unique, each building a masterpiece of artwork. Weapon effects are well modeled with bullets that kick up dust and strike sparks and cause bodies to dance. During one firefight I was being chased by a group of soldiers at night during a thunderstorm through a junkyard filled with discarded and rusting helicopters and trucks. Flashlights carried by the soldiers cast crazy shadows as they ran about, bullets and tracers flashed around me, all punctuated by strobes of lightening. It was an amazing cinematic experience during which I died at least half a dozen times.
That’s another thing about the world of SoC: it’s beautiful, but it’s also unforgiving. The enemy AI, especially at the higher difficulty levels is crafty. If you can get yourself holed up in a room with only one entrance, eventually enemies will just run in the only available opening to their doom, but in the open of a field (or junk yard), the enemy will approach, shift tactics, find and use cover, provide plenty of covering fire for their comrades, and try and overrun or flank you. You are limited by the total weight you can carry, and the more you carry the quicker you become tired from running, so you can’t carry the entire world worth of weapons and ammunition. You’re for the most part limited to a shotgun and a machinegun of some type, with maybe a handgun and a few grenades thrown in – during firefights running low or out of ammunition was a common and disturbing occurrence. Try for headshots – make them count. Save early, save often. You can at absolutely any time slap on a quick medkit for some healing. That, as always, feels very fake, but SoC is hardly the first game to commit that sin in the name of gameplay.
Sound effects, especially weapon sound effects, are very good. Everyone you meet in face-to-face conversation speaks English (at least for the English install), but all the conversation that is not incidental appears to be in Russian. This means that when soldiers or bandits are running around trying to shoot you, they’re yelling stuff at you (or maybe to each other – it’s not like I speak Russian) in Russian. It could be that they’re simply yelling “You’re dead meat” over and over again, but to me the Russian dialog always sounded non-repetitive and contributed greatly to the immersion factor. I’d be curious if any readers speak Russian if they could give me some idea what they’re yelling about.
Multiplayer is very generic FPS: DM, TDM, and a variant of CTF that involves two teams racing to retrieve artifacts. Action is fast and furious and very bloody. By achieving goals players are rewarded with cash (think Counterstrike) that can then used to buy better equipment, so the game can become very unbalanced with a few well-provisioned stalkers gunning down a field of poorly armed sheep. I think a cooperative mode would have been very appealing from a multiplayer perspective, but alas it is not to be.
Plot aside, and I couldn’t seem to make much sense out of it anyway, this game feels a lot like an FPS version of Fallout, the old post apocalyptic RPG from back in the late 90’s. The combat mechanics – weapon feel, body point damage system, enemy AI, running and sneaking, encumbrance and fatigue – have all been simulated excellently and with real care paid to balance and playability. The end-of-civilization free for all environment is a very exciting and engrossing setting for an FPS.