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Thursday, May 13, 2010

I've Got A Stalker: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl, that is.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Scavenger, Trespasser, Adventurer, Loner, Killer, Explorer, Robber.

Sounds like my neighbor. I remember sometime in 2004, after an all night gaming session on the classic Far Cry in my LAN room, one of my gaming buddies turned to me and asked if I'd seen the web site for an upcoming game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. I hadn't, so we took a look.

I was blown away by the description and the screen shots shown, the graphics looked amazing compared to any shooter we'd played up to that time. The rumored release of the game was soon, so the juices started flowing for what looked to be a most excellent addition to the game collection.

Unfortunately, the game faced delay after delay, eventually resulting in a ninth place finish in Wired's Vaporware '06 contest. In January 2007, a contest for players to experience the game beta in a marathon session collapsed when the THQ staff (publishers of the game) that had organized the event were themselves unable to obtain copies of the game.

The game finally made its public debut at the end of March, 2007.

The game is played in an area known as the Zone, based on the Exclusion Zone around the area of the Chernobyl Disaster, with story components borrowed from the novel Roadside Picnic. In the game, a second disaster occurs twenty years later, leading to mutations, anomalies, and the associated valuable artifacts, prime scavenging material for the game characters.

This was the first game I'd ever played that had any kind of real "scavenger" aspect, that is, the "gatherer" part of "hunter-gatherer". This aspect of the game is in fact central to game play. The character you play (I'll not reveal details, as that would be a plot spoiler) starts the game basically buck naked as far as weaponry and protective clothing.

By fulfilling mission requests provided by all sorts of NPC in the game and by obtaining or otherwise finding valuables in the game, the player builds a stock of goods that can be sold or traded for items such as food, weaponry, clothing, ammunition, artifacts, etc.

The artifacts in the game play a key role in trading and player protection:

"As a result of the second Chernobyl disaster, The Zone is littered with small areas of altered physics, known as anomalies. There are several different variations, each one having a unique impact upon those who cross its path. They can be potentially deadly to the player and other NPCs, delivering electric shocks, or pulling them into the air and crushing them.

Most anomalies produce visible air or light distortions and their extent can be determined by throwing bolts (of which the player carries an infinite supply) to trigger them. Some stalkers also possess an anomaly detector, which emits warning beeps of a varying frequency depending on their proximity to an anomaly. The guide in the film Stalker, and his predecessors in the Strugatsky brothers' book Roadside Picnic, test various routes before proceeding. In the film, metal nuts tied with strips of cloth are used.

Anomalies produce Artifacts, the valuable scientific curiosities that make the Zone worth exploring monetarily. As well as being traded for money, a number of Artifacts can be worn so that they provide certain benefits and detriments (for example, increasing a stalker's resistance to gunfire while also contaminating him with small amounts of radiation). Artifacts are found scattered throughout the Zone, often near clusters of anomalies."

At first, I found this aspect of the game boring and time consuming. Little did I know I would soon become addicted to the hunt, particularly for the more rare items. I soon came to appreciate this type of game play, common in the MMORPG games such as World of Warcraft that I'd poked fun at.

Game play covers a huge area of many square miles. Originally, the game was to be completely open, but by release, the map had been subdivided into eighteen areas, each reachable through specific passages. Nonetheless, the game play always feels expansive, with superb draw distances.

The ultimate goal of the player is to reach the Chernobyl reactor itself, to reach the most curious of all of the strange items in the game. The actual end game depends on how the player has progressed through the game.

This, combined with the wide range of choices in interactions and missions (Who do I want to befriend? Who do I decide to trade with? What items do I want for my character?) leads to excellent replay value in the game.

The game is based in the in-house developed X-Ray graphics rendering engine. From the Wikipedia entry:

"The X-ray Engine is a DirectX 8.1/9 Shader Model 3.0 graphics engine. Up to a million polygons can be on-screen at any one time. The engine features HDR rendering, parallax and normal mapping, soft shadows, motion blur, widescreen support, weather effects and day/night cycles. As with other engines that use deferred shading, the X-ray Engine does not support anti-aliasing with dynamic lighting enabled. However, a "fake" form of anti-aliasing can be enabled with the static lighting option; this format utilizes a technique to blur the image to give the false impression of anti-aliasing."

Even in 2010, the graphics hold up well, especially on high-end machines.

The A.I. system was also built in-house. The "ALife" system originally was to have NPC constantly active in the game world, regardless of player interaction. By release, this had been reduced in functionality. Nonetheless, the capabilities are quite robust, as described in the Wikipedia entry:

"GSC Game World's proprietary ALife artificial intelligence engine. ALife supports more than one thousand characters inhabiting the Zone. These characters are non-scripted, meaning that AI life can be developed even when not in contact with the player.

The NPCs have a full life cycle (task accomplishment, combat, rest, feeding and sleep) and the same applies to the many monsters living in the Zone (hunting, attacking stalkers and other monsters, resting, eating, sleeping). These monsters migrate in large groups. The non-scripted nature of the characters means that there are an unlimited number of random quests. For instance, rescuing stalkers from danger, destroying stalker renegades, protecting or attacking stalker camps or searching for treasure. The AI characters travel around the entire zone as they see fit.

Numerous tactics can be employed to complete the game, such as rushing or using stealth and sniping. The NPCs will react in a different way to each of them. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s NPCs plan ahead by "Goal-Oriented Action Planning" to achieve this."
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. uses a modified version of the ODE physics engine to provide rag doll physics and accurate bullet ballistics: Bullets are affected by gravity and ricochet off of surfaces.
Adding to the realism is a completely dynamic day / night progression of time, including weather effects such as rain, lightning, showers and sunlight.
An eerie soundtrack completes the palette of game play. This was the first and only game I've played that had parts that really got the creep-o-meeter rising for me. There were many moments exploring the bowels of some haunted deserted underground laboratory where the anticipation of terror had my pulse rising.
Even at an age nearing four years, still a most worthwhile game, both for FPS fans and RPG players. That it is now available on Valve's excellent Steam system for under $20.00 makes this a no-brainer if you have not already played it. Since the version is the latest patch, most of the niggling bugs that were in the initial release have been remedied.

The follow-up games from the same developer, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky released in September 2008 for North America, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat released in February 2010 fail to capture the magic of the original in my opinion. The former was an unmitigated disaster, bug ridden and having none of the flavor that made the original so engaging. The latter returned to more of the game play mechanics of its progenitor, and is arguably the least bug plagued of the three. Recommended for players that loved the original, but for others only if it can be had at a bargain price.

All three games in the series have an active "modding" community, providing new maps, characters, game and character abilities, and modifications of difficulty levels. This adds considerably to the game play value and longevity of the game.

Like many things in life, this is a case where the original is the best.
Highly recommended, grade A material.


  1. I remember that game "never getting released". It was a joke with my friends and I. I never did play it, but it sounds interesting to hear a detailed review. I might have to try it out one of these days, thanks for the review.

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