Late to the Party: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl

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Note: I played this game completely vanilla save for the Zone Reclamation Project fan-patch.

In a lot of ways, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is the tactical first person shooter I’ve wanted for a while. It has almost the exact mix of mechanics from different kinds of games I’ve wanted to see thrown together. I’d heard of how sad fans were to see developer GSC GameWorld close its doors, see no shooters follow in this game’s footsteps, and see various attempts at a sequel end in cancellation. Now I know why.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a tough game to describe succinctly. People have failed to explain it to me in the past. That odd concoction of FPS elements I’ve wanted to see is similarly hard to describe. Now that I’ve played S.T.A.L.K.E.R. I can pretty much just say “like that game.”

I went in sort of expecting a Slavic take on Fallout 3 or something, and that’s not really what S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is at all. People told me it’s close to System Shock and that might be a great comparison. If you haven’t played System ShockDead Space also has a lot of similarities, particularly the third one but S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a better-execution of the same mix of gameplay.

Without measuring it in scales of other games, there are two general things I like about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. One is its application of role-playing game structure to a straight-up FPS. The game is basically an RPG with the character stat building ripped out. You take on quests, manage an inventory, advance the story through a dialogue tree, explore an open world (less Skyrim, more PS2-era JRPG actually), and collect progressively better gear. Combat just isn’t based on dice rolls.

I’ve always wondered why straight-up action games never tried to take on the storytelling and world-building mechanics of RPGs — particularly western RPG mechanics, while keeping their action core. Tried-and-true RPG conventions like interactive dialogue, inventory management, and wide worlds to explore have done a very good job of making players feel involved in storylines without trying to follow the narrative conventions of movies. RPGs usually don’t need scripted events, quick-time-events, and often not even cut scenes. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. from a mechanics standpoint is sort of the game I wanted Bioshock Infinite to be. Far Cry 3 as well, but for different reasons.

Games like these are trying to follow Call of Duty 4’s and Uncharted’s example, and now are trying to find out how to make meaningful stories fit within that rollercoaster framework. The Last of Us is hailed as a step forward in the pursuit because it tells a decent story (a lot of it through well-done cut scenes) without the action gameplay seeming completely contrary in tone, while having memorable moments that happen outside cut scenes. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. represents the other possible path I wanted to see shooters and other action games attempt.

At one point when a new area opens up, you have the choice to do a job for one of the game’s factions. You can try to find an item by just looking for it, or infiltrating an opposing faction which itself opens up multiple options. Once you get in, the opposing faction’s base is basically set up like a town where you can buy, sell, trade, and converse. You can tell them about an impending attack by the first faction to gain favor, get a guy drunk with some vodka from your inventory, or otherwise skillfully navigate conversations. It’s exactly the kind of interactive intrigue I’ve wanted to see applied to an action game storyline. Mass Effect might be the closest well-known example even if its sequels still pretend to be RPGs (I said I wouldn’t use anymore games as yardsticks).

Imagine if you could have navigated Bioshock Infinite’s Columbia like this, instead of the walkthrough gallery of talking heads we got. Well then the game would feel closer to its original ancestor — Ultima Underworld, which is also an influence on S.T.A.L.K.E.R., but the point is Columbia would feel more like a real interactive place. It could also totally still have its fast-paced action gameplay.

The other kind of shooter I’ve wanted to see for a while is the game that focuses on strategy and tactics through high lethality, but isn’t as brutal or punishing as the original Rainbow SixS.T.A.L.K.E.R. is also that game. Bullets really hurt in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. so you really try to avoid getting shot, but you don’t get instant death for making a single mistake. There are times you die a lot, but for the most part I actually found S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s difficulty pretty fair. The game wants you to check corners, stack at doors, and determine when it’s best to move quickly or best to camp at a strategic position.

The enemy AI really nails this in. Basically, enemies in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. use real defensive tactics. They don’t just stand around or randomly pop out of cover for you to shoot them. They will generally stay in cover until they think it’s safe to advance or you flank them. They can and will circle around entire areas to flank you. A great example of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s combat is in one if its final areas where you need to go through a doorway and enemies are stacked up on both sides. For a while I did the normal shooter video game thing and tried to pop in and out of the doorwway until I eventually whittled them all down, and I kept getting surrounded. What you’re supposed to do when the enemy is dug into a good position is retreat a bit so they start coming out to advance and try to find you.

What tells me this is real and not just clever scripting is how the AI actually behaves differently every time I reload a save file. I can’t just reload a quicksave expecting an enemy to come through a door the same way he did last time, because he’ll likely make a different decision now even if I do the exact same thing as before. Gunfights never happen the same way twice. Even S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s wildlife behaves in unpredictable and somewhat complex ways — definitely more complex than in Far Cry. Once in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. I tried to fire at a couple guys in the distance but couldn’t hit them. When I reloaded, my second attack drew their attention to me while a pack of mutant dogs came up from behind and tore them apart. The dogs were busy with them long enough for me to sneak by.

The game really does want you to pay attention to and utilize your environment — an environment that’s designed like a place and not like a video game obstacle course. I guess that’s what mainly separates S.T.A.L.K.E.R. from other modern shooters. It features real environments and truly wants you to interact with them.

What finally shocked me about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is how well-designed its linear story missions are. I made the Far Cry 3 comparison because like FC3, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is an open world with dangerous wildlife and a linear story. However, the wildlife in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has more dynamic AI and its main story missions are less linear but still tightly-designed. You go down paths where GSC has engineered gunfights that honestly approach Resident Evil 4 in terms of intensity. And then there are the labs that basically turn S.T.A.L.K.E.R. into a horror game for a minute.

And after all this, of course S.T.A.L.K.E.R. generally get’s ignored in the continuing geneology of video games for probably two reasons: 1) it’s a Slavic jank game that’s buggy and doesn’t have Call of Duty’s visual polish, and 2) it was only released on PC.

BULLETS:

  • So what’s up with Double Dragon Trilogy on Steam? Is it a straight arcade emulation?
  • If you’re in the middle of anything from BBC on Netflix you better finish it up before the end of the month. http://t.co/OKjskC4gGg
  • Starshock might not be dead yet. http://t.co/Wed8bS6Uu5
  • If by chance a Ukranian reader comes by this and notices the horribly mangled text on top of the System Shock 2 art in the top image, that’s the best I could put together to make the joke work since everybody officially just writes the title of the game in English (I checked).
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