Review: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is one of those special games that punches way above its weight class. It seeks to be an open-world, open-ended FPS/RPG with fluid relations between characters, emergent behavior in the wilds, and a compelling story and setting underpinning the whole thing. Those are lofty goals for any game, much less one from unproven developers back in 2007. What’s shocking, then, is just how much it gets right even by modern standards.
In the world of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the Chernobyl disaster spiraled outward to create the Zone, a harsh land ruled by mutated creatures, spatial anomalies, and mercenaries seeking to capitalize on the chaos. You play one such S.T.A.L.K.E.R. sans memories, sent back into the Zone to kill a mysterious figure close to the epicenter of it all. Along the way you’ll forge alliances with other wanderers, discover threats far worse than mutated wildlife, and maybe come face to face with the source of the disaster itself. I wouldn’t bank on that last one without some serious effort, though.
Instead of discreet levels, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is made up of maps that connect to form one contiguous world. Starting near the border of the Zone, you’ll journey through radioactive swamps, underground bunkers, ghost towns, and more as you complete jobs for the other inhabitants. Sometimes that’ll mean finding a stash of bizarre artifacts, and other times it’ll mean gunning down a band of killers in their hideout. There’s plenty to do in the Zone even without a specific mission, as you can loot corpses, hunt hidden stashes, and locate artifacts by navigating the treacherous anomalies that can crush, shock, or maim you with little warning.
All of this is accomplished from a first-person perspective, but don’t expect the run-and-gun action of… anything, really. The combat in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is very much its own thing, a perpetually harrowing affair of dancing around cover, emptying magazines to only land one shot, and pumping dozens of bullets into charging beasts. Weapons in the Zone are inaccurate, difficult to use, and seemingly do no damage until you land a headshot that kills in an instant. I imagine it’s more like real-world firefights than anyone would admit, but that doesn’t necessarily make it fun to be eaten alive by wild dogs who dodged or shrugged off a dozen rounds.
You’ll want to avoid combat as much as possible, at least at first, and luckily there’s a robust and effective stealth system to make use of. This system tracks your light level, posture, noises made, and even gives you bolts you can toss to cause distractions (or trigger anomalies). There’s a pretty big emphasis on stats across the board, really. Your character has resistances to all kinds of injury as well as a radiation level to monitor, your inventory has weight and conditions to consider, and every single NPC in the game has a reputation rating with you. There aren’t always systems that address these stats directly, but they do represent significant depth to the simulation.
Attention to detail extends to the environments, and it is here that you’ll find S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s greatest strength. For a nearly ten-year-old game, the Zone looks amazing, with crumbling buildings and thick underbrush and rolling clouds blotting out the sun. There’s a palpable sense of decay and instability wherever you go, and it only grows more intense as you approach the heart of the Zone. Every dark corner can hide a creature that wants your blood or an anomaly that can rend you in an instant, demanding caution and tense attention even in the daylight hours. And don’t get me started on the underground bunkers… some of the most effective horror encounters I’ve experienced in gaming have come in the subterranean halls of the Zone.
I’ve spent a lot of time extolling the virtues of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. because they are many, but not without a price. It is an ambitious indie game after all, and that means all sorts of potential glitches and instability whenever you load in. Sometimes the AI breaks down, sometimes items vanish from the ground, and sometimes the thing will just crash when you least expect it. Beyond that there are definitely balance issues with the weapons and combat, exacerbated by missions with no real difficulty curve to them that might send you into a hostile mercenary camp before you find anything more formidable than a sawed-off. The rough translated text might actually be the worst offender, hiding key information and names behind English one step above Google Translate in some cases.
The Zone is a harsh and unforgiving place, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. exemplifies it right down to the code. It’s going to take you a long time and multiple tries to acclimate to its unique style, and turning to modding isn’t a bad idea if the base game is just too daunting or janky. But once you come to grips with the combat and start learning the many ways to die in the Zone, you’re in for one hell of a ride. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. does immersion and atmosphere better than almost any FPS, presenting you with a rich, frightening, living world that will fight you every step of the way.