Tuesday, April 10, 2007

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl Review

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, developed by GSC Game World and published by THQ.
The Good: Relatively open mission design with plenty of side quests, “living” world, better than average multiplayer
The Not So Good: Can be very difficult, doesn’t auto-save often enough, quests are one dimensional, online lag
What say you? A first person shooter with RPG-like design that isn’t quite polished enough: 6/8

Role-playing games have been giving the user progressively more freedom in their gaming experience. Oblivion is arguably the gold standard of RPG games, with an open architecture featuring a vibrant world to explore, not tying the player to the main storyline. There is a large number of things to keep the player busy: side quests, treasure hunts, and more. Recently, PC games have started to meld two or more genres into a single experience, and with S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the freeform world of RPG games comes into contact with a first person shooter. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. takes place in Russia after several nuclear accidents at Chernobyl. The player takes the role of “the Marked One,” engaging in a civil war that has erupted between several factions in the radioactive land. Will S.T.A.L.K.E.R. successfully combine open-ended gameplay with a first person shooter mentality?

The graphics of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. are in the upper echelon of PC games. While not at the same level as Oblivion, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fits nicely right below it in the pecking order. The outdoor environments have a nice run-down feel to them, and the gritty nature of a land at war is conveyed effectively. The character models look good, although the basic nature of the clothes lack to level of detail found in other games. The weather and time-of-day effects are nice, although they seem to be pretty standard now. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. could have been considered cutting-edge if it were released a couple of years ago (which was originally planned), but the game still gets high marks for graphics. The audio is good as well. Most of the main campaign dialoged is voiced, but you'll still have to do a fair amount of reading. The characters carry on conversations as you pass (in Russian), so that adds to the plausible setting of the game. The weapons are convincing enough, and the background music is appropriate for the genre. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. doesn't have the best graphics and sound of any PC game, but it still ranks pretty high on the list.

As I stated in the introduction (you were paying attention, weren't you?), S.T.A.L.K.E.R. takes place in a world torn apart by meltdowns, mutations, and skirmishes between warring factions. Using the soap opera amnesia mechanic, the “Marked One” vows revenge against those who have wronged him, and gets himself involved in the main conflict along the way. The single player campaign borrows a lot of conventions from role-playing games, and it works well for the most part. Although the game strongly emphasizes the main storyline, there are side quests available by talking to various people in the game. Most of the side quests are pretty linear (kill a guy, get an object, kill another guy), but they break up the main campaign and can earn you some extra cash in the game. Unlike a lot of role-playing games, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is not chock full of goodies to collect: almost all of the items you'll get are on people instead of really good guns just lying around. This is realistic and it makes sense, but it also means that you'll have to kill someone with a good gun to get that good gun, which can prove to be difficult. The realistic tone of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is rare among role-playing games that usually feature magic, elves, and arrows. I like the change of pace from the typical fantasy environment, and the overall theme of the game is consistent and well-done. The controls are typical for a first person shooter, so anyone with experience in these games will feel right at home. Accuracy is very low in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.; this may be realistic but it can result in unloading an entire clip at an enemy and hitting nothing but air. Having your targeting reticule directly on the enemy and pressing fire and hitting nothing is frustrating. You’ll need to use cover in order to stand a chance against the AI.

The inventory is where you store all of your guns, medical kits, armor, and other trinkets you collect along the way; switching items is a drag-and-drop affair. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. eschews the RPG convention of experience points, instead opting for magical objects (artifacts) that grant large bonuses along with small penalties (improved armor in exchange for a little radiation poisoning). Objective locations are clearly indicated on your mini-map, and detailed information about your missions and any characters you encounter along the way is recorded in your PDA. You’ll be doing a lot of conversing in the game, although the NPCs won’t talk to you unless you put your gun away. It borders on tedious, but at least the game is devoid of annoying cut scenes. The game’s world is divided up into several levels separated by load-times; there isn’t much reason to go back to a previously visited area, especially if you’re strictly following the main storyline. The game isn’t quite as open-ended as you would like (meaning like Oblivion); S.T.A.L.K.E.R. tries to nudge you along the main path, but you aren’t totally restricted like in most first person shooters.

While the structure of the single player game is solid, there are a couple of problems with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. First, the game is really hard. I played on the second easiest difficulty level, and I had to reload the game at least ten times in the first half-hour of gameplay. This mainly resulted from superior enemy forces. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a tactical game, which means it only takes a couple of shots to kill you. Sometimes you'll have backup, but a lot of the missions are lone-wolf affairs where it's you against twenty bad guys. This is insane in a supposedly “realistic” game, and the result is that you’ll die. A lot. This is surprising because the enemy AI is no slouch: they will use cover and swarm you in numbers. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. doesn’t need to stack the odds against you to be a challenging game, but it does anyway. There are also areas of radiation scattered around the map; this fits the setting and the game gives a Geiger counter warning before you get near one of these areas, but this is yet another thing in the game out there that can kill you. And forget about finding health packs scattered around the maps: they are rare and usually found on enemy units after you’ve killed them. It’s a treasure hunt to find them without going through a trader (and traders never seem to get resupplied), and a lot of the missions require giving them to injured allies before they talk to you. The other issue has to do with saving your progress. The game only auto-saves at the end of each map area instead of at the end of each mission like it should. There is no quick-save feature, so you’ll be exiting out and entering back into the action far too often. This really fragments the flow of the game and it becomes annoying very quickly. But, you need to save just in case another pack of five dogs attack you and you die. It’s too bad that there are these fundamental problems with the game that make it frustrating to play, because the setting of the game and the gameplay make S.T.A.L.K.E.R. quite enjoyable.

After you’re done with the single player game (or once you’re fed up with dying so much), you can check out the multiplayer offerings of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. The multiplayer of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is reminiscent of F.E.A.R. Combat (another abbreviated game), and plays like a combination of Counter-Strike and Firearms. Joining a match is very simple using the in-game browser, and there are three game modes to choose from: deathmatch, team deathmatch, and artifact hunt (capture the flag). This selection is typical enough, but S.T.A.L.K.E.R. adds some wrinkles to the gameplay borrowed from other games. First, you buy your weapons from cash earned by killing people (borrowed from Counter-Strike). The weapon selection is pretty good: pistols, shotguns, rifles, armor, and grenades. You will also earn ranks by getting kills, which unlocks new, more powerful weapons (borrowed from Firearms). This is a neat addition to the game that makes you feel like your accomplishing something rather than just racking up kills. The ranks reset after each round as well, eliminating the advantages enjoyed by veteran players of other first person shooters. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. also has dynamic time-of-day and weather effects during the game that actually affect the gameplay, at least in terms of spotting enemy units. Like the single player campaign, multiplayer in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. doesn’t feature any vehicles, which is just fine with me. There are some serious issues with online lag: even on servers where everyone has a sub-100 ping, players can stutter around the map, making it exceedingly difficult to hit some people. I've experienced this on several different servers, so I don't think it's an isolated problem. Still, I enjoy the multiplayer portion of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: it isn’t the whole reason to pick up the game, but it effectively combines parts of other games into a coherent package.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a refreshing change of pace from the fantasy-based role-playing games and linear first person shooters on the market. It’s different, which is what you need in order to differentiate itself from the rest of the pack in today’s competitive PC gaming market. The story is plausible, the game’s environment is compelling and convincing, and the action blends the action from first person shooters with the open-ended nature of role-playing games. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a coat of polish and a few fixable bugs away from being a great game: ease up on the difficulty and make more frequent auto-saves and I’d be happy. The problems I have with the game are minor, but they are annoying enough to make me want to quit playing for periods of time. The multiplayer is not original, but a combination of existing game formats into a fine presentation. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has over five years of work behind it, and while it’s a couple of issues short of perfection, gamers looking for a change of pace to either typical role-playing games or first person shooters will fine a mostly successful game here.