2007 Reviews

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

  • Review Date: 2011-09
  • Release Date: 2007-03
  • Developer: GSC Game World
  • Rating: 7.0

This review is of Stalker with the game completely patched up and using Stalker Complete 2009. This is my first play-through, so I can't compare it to what was originally released by GSC, but going by the feedback from critics it was apparently horrendously buggy in it's unpatched state. And even patched but without Stalker Complete 2009, I can't imagine how frustrating this game must have been having enemies all re-spawn constantly. Stalker Complete 2009 is a huge 700mb mod released to fix the games various issues and heavily update the graphics.

But I'm not reviewing the mod, I'm reviewing the game. Stalker was a love/hate game for players, but most loved it. It was a big hit from a fairly new developer, at least in the first person shooter market. Everyone loves an underdog, although it was quite an anticipated title, so it got rave reviews on release. Mostly rave reviews, excusing the bugs that were mostly fixed with patches.

Still, I can't help feeling I was expecting better than this. It's a big game, with a massive world and tonnes of unique ideas to the shooting scene, with only a few games like Deus Ex, Oblivion and Bioshock tackling similar ideas. Stalker merges the typical action-shooter with RPG elements. But let's assume we all know what kind of game Stalker is, otherwise I'll spend an eternity explaining it. Instead I'll tackle what I disliked about the game and what it gets right or wrong.

This is the first game I've played (yes I skipped Oblivion) which had a true sandbox world where you could go anywhere you want. Unfortunately there are slow levels loads, even on a super fast PC, they take time. Quickloads also take a good ten seconds, and you'll be doing it often! But excusing the levels loads it's quite fantastic that you can go wherever the hell you want in the game. The downside is the large amount of walking around in repetitive scenery, which takes time even when you sprint. The game is also still fairly linear in progression, with tasks done in a set order and new levels opening up as you go. So you can't just skip right to the end. In some ways that's a good thing; I like to know exactly what I'm supposed to do next. Frankly, I like linear games. But I'll ignore that bias here because Stalker is not supposed to be linear at all.

The missions themselves feel completely random and plotless. I'm spending my time collecting documents from labs, turning off machines. Things that don't really move the plot along much, of what plot there is. There's a single cutscene at the start which seems intriguing, but Stalker went nowhere with the story after that, and no more cutscenes. There's various factions, but I know very little about them. In fact I know very little about anything in the game; there's just not much of a story being told beyond the random shopkeeper harping on your radio sometimes, and usually you don't even have time to read it.

Stalker also has plenty of side missions, keeping the game very replayable. And I applaude this aspect, even though some of the side missions are a bit pointless. I skipped most of them, and then some that I did complete I had no idea where I was supposed to collect my so-called reward so there it sat clogging up my PDA tasklist all game long. But at least they're there and give the game some different activities and longevity.

Segue to one major flaw in the game; the PDA/inventory, whatever it's supposed to be called. Basically one of the big RPG elements of the game. These RPG elements needed major tweaking. Your carry capacity is an infinite source of fucking around trying to manage your items as not to overload. Overloading means you're stuck and can't move. But your capacity really isn't that big once you progress through the game and I got sick and tired of having to manage it. Supposedly a lot of players ditch items in areas then return later on to pick them up once they've made the room. That would require patience, which, unfortunately, is something I do not have when playing games. So, a really easy three line modification to the settings had my capacity nearly doubled; and I still had that filled up by the end of the game! By increasing my load, it gave me the options to have several different weapons, but even then I felt like I just had a great collection of crappy ammo-less weapons.

By the time I sprinted through the frustrating Red Forest with it's radiation crap annoying the hell out of me, and get to the underground to turn off some random machine, every single weapon i've got has no ammo. Apart from the shotgun, which is the most frustrating, slow and innaccurate shotgun in any game i've ever played. It's completely useless at a distance and takes an eternity to reload it's two shells. You've really got to make sure you pick up ammo from dead bodies as you go. And the amount of times I quickly tried to pick up ammo in the cumbersome inventory while an enemy suddenly appears and kills me within a blink... well, it was a lot.

On top of this, the enemy combat can be frustrating sometimes. Many times it's fine, but then you'll get to a firefight where you've got little ammo and have to put tonnes into an enemy to drop them, yet they'll kill you in a single shot as soon as you come into sight. The sad thing is that there were times where it was far easier just to sprint past enemies than bother killing them. It's basically pressing a 'skip' button on a battle, meaning I'm not really enjoying myself.

I believe my experience may have come down to my individual playthrough while other gamers will find it different if they used different weapons. Perhaps I just happened to have the incorrect guns all the time. Watching walkthrough's on youtube, players seem to drop the tougher enemies at the end of the game with just a few bullets if they make headshots. None of my weapon were that good at all, and I certainly didn't have any with a scope! As such, I guess I just went through the game and got to the end with completely the wrong weapons, but it's really the developers job to make it clear which weapon I SHOULD have in my limited inventory.

Then matters aren't helped when, in the Red Forest and final level you're constantly running out of radiation treatment and using up healthpack after healthpack. Am I alone in thinking that the radiation feature in the game, while it makes sense in a game based in Chernobyl, was ultimately one of the most annoying features in any game, ever. And all the barely visible instant deathtrap radiation anomolies were a further kick in the nuts.

Back to the combat, there were some highlights to the enemies you face, in particular the underground levels where you go up against mutants. They're tough, take a lot of ammo, and can be frustrating, but they really are quite scary! And this is what survival-horror is all about, another genre that Stalker claimed. So in that respect, they did succeed.

Another feature of the game was it's day/night cycle, where it'll slowly turn to night and back. I haven't experienced this feature in a game before, so it was refreshingly brilliant. I really loved all the different weather effects. Sadly, night time was nearly pitch black apart from the tiny flashlight in front of you, yet enemies seemed to have normal daylight-level vision. Stealthily sneaking in the shadows doesn't work as you'll be getting shot and you can't even see where it's coming from. It took me a good couple levels, over an hour of playtime, before I figured out that you can sleep in the game and wake up in daylight (if you sleep for long enough). Fantastic! Except if you haven't eaten and the game doesn't make it clear at all that you'll die if you sleep without eating. That was another 15 minutes of "throw the goddamn CD at a wall because I keep dying whenever I sleep for no reason" until I read on a forum that you have to eat. Yes, there's shit-all in the way of a tutorial in Stalker, so it'll be a slight learning experience if you're new to RPG's like me. Eating and sleeping is probably regular RPG-fare for more experienced gamers.

I haven't even covered the design yet, but it's actually all very good. Some players said it's outdated and compared it to 2004/2005 games, but at least with Stalker Complete 2009 the game provides good competition against other 2007 titles. Especially at dusk or dawn or some of the extreme weather conditions. Detail isn't at a Crysis level, but still all looks impressive and has the feeling of a nuclear ravaged land. There's plenty of details everywhere and things to explore. My only complaint is the wilderness and paths between towns can start to look a little bland and repetitive, but that's only minor.

I wrote this review just after the frustrating Red Forest, and told myself I'll return to it and tweak it once i'm finished the game because I shouldn't write a review when a particular level has put me in such a bad mood. Everything up till then wasn't too bad. I did fight through it and built my ammo level back up, enjoyed Pripyat. But then Chenobyl ruined my enjoyment completely. More radiation crap with nothing to counter it, weapons clearly not suitable for the final level and the final nail in coffin... I find the secret room in Pripyat but search everywhere and don't see any secret stash. So I continue, with no room for whatever is contained in this stash anyway. Little did I know that an hour down the track I need the decoder in this room, and without it I can't finish the game. Nor can I run back through Chernobyl to get it because the game won't let me. I'm completely fucked and can't finish the game. Are you fucking kidding me, GSC?!

Stalker is a game with a lot of depth, and a lot to do. With such a big scope it's bound to get some things wrong. It might sound like a negative review, but it does suceed in creating a great non-linear post apocalypic world. There's tonnes of replay value here. But even with Stalker Complete 2009, the carry capacity and speed of the PDA/inventory needed work, combat needed further tweaking and a storyline at least to the level of Half-Life would have been welcome, especially for an RPG-shooter.

It's a game that I'm not really surprised a lot of people love, but for me, personally, my patience wore thin and I found it a little tedious, if not boring, after a while. I'd probably enjoy it much more on a second playthrough as I'd know what to expect and what to focus on, and to get better weapons! But it's been 15 years since a game was released that I played more than once all the way through (yes, it was Quake). There's too many great games out there to bother playing a barely average game through again hoping to enjoy it more.