Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl

Stalker is now on GoG. If you'd like to see a true FPS version of The Elder Scrolls' mix of freeform and plot-driven gameplay, a darker, more visceral version of Fallout, give it a whirl. For my own part, it's a chance to grab the supposedly better of the two expansions, Call of Pripyat, in the near future and revisit the irradiated wasteland.

Of course, Stalker is not just a stand-alone product. It's a game adaptation of a movie adaptation of a classic science fiction short story and though their subtlety was lost in the shift to a gunslinging interactive adventure, much of the story and movie's stronger undertones, the feel of The Zone itself, remains. But I'll split off the comparison between the three into its own post some other day. For now, I want to focus on the fact that Stalker works as a game. It is not mere facetious license-exploitation meant to dazzle Tarkovsky fans into a thoughtless purchase, but an excellent open-world survival FPS game in its own right. All that's kept it from reaching Half-Life levels of fame was the lack of meaningful multiplayer.

First and most importantly, this is a relatively freeform game. You've got a "main quest" to complete and it's interesting enough as far as it goes but the real bulk of gameplay consists of treasure-hunting your way through overwhelmingly dangerous, complex landscapes. Most tasks are repeatable and give you a macguffin to chase, but no instructions on where or when to chase it. There are objects in places, somethings somewheres. You there, fetch! And as it turns out, being pushed to explore is a wonder in itself. You leave the safety of an underground bunker and head out toward the rough approximation of where there might be something good you can sell. The maps are relatively large and the dangers multifaceted. In addition to a wide variety of enemies, some dumb as bricks, others eerily clever, you will need to keep an eye out for environmental traps of varying lethality.

This would be a good stage to point out that this is not a product for twitch-gamers. You are not a godlike Schwarzenegger-type character trampling entire armies, but a skulking scavenger. There is a bit of character advancement through equipment (better weapons are stronger and steadier, that sort of thing) but no leveling up, thank Devs! You never get so strong that a bullet to the face isn't a problem. Hand-eye coordination matters, but tactical prowess, timing and planning and patience and keeping a cool head are your true virtues. Some of the enemies are smart enough not only to use cover, but to work together to flank you and flush you out of your own cover. Gear decays and your inventory is quite limited. You need to eat to survive, and wounds bleed! Keep an ear on your Geiger-counter and watch your steps if you don't want your shins rubberized by witches' jelly.
You will leave the safety of your trader NPC's bunker over-loaded with health packs, bandages, food, vodka, a spare weapon or two which you'll likely throw away halfway through your trip and all-too-scarce ammunition. You will learn to keep a stash out in the wilderness to resupply during your expeditions. You will return almost defenseless, hungry and irradiated but overloaded with treasure instead. You will learn to pick your fights and sneak and run whenever you can. You will learn to fear the night.

My greatest memories of this game are not some operatic bloodbath against gigantic monsters. One is warily approaching a group of NPCs who may or may not have been enemies, then passing a few minutes with them under an aluminum lean-to watching the sunset, eating a tin of spam around a garbage-can fire while one of them pulled out a guitar and started strumming a tune. The other is returning to town with a backpack full of valuables, sprinting to the gates with a pack of wild dogs nipping at my heels because I was completely out of ammo and had thrown away my empty weapons and even my worn-out armor in my greed to make room for more loot.

It's a beautiful, grim, melancholic mix of weary, desperate souls and broken industrial landscapes overgrown with weeds and mutants.

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