Intel Pentium 4 2 GHz or AMD Athlon XP 2000+
1 GB RAM
DirectX-compatible video card with 256 MB and PS 1.1 support
500 MB HD space
Windows 2000 and XP SP1/SP2; DirectX 9 and higher
Intel Pentium 4 3.2 GHz or AMD Athlon XP 3200+
2 GB RAM
DirectX-compatible video card with 512 MB
16x CD/ 16x DVD-ROM
5 GB HD space
The idea of fusing first-person shooter mechanics with an open world is a tantalizing one. In GSC Game World's long awaited S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, such an experiment in genre cooking has produced some great results. The game offers significantly more content than any other FPS out there, but struggles a little when it comes to the open world. What remains consistent throughout the experience is the compelling atmosphere. The gnarled trees, bleak skies, and rumbling thunderstorms of The Zone grab you firmly by the ears and yank you across irradiated wastelands. In your first hours expect to be filled with an intrepid glee as you acclimate to the game world. A little while later, you'll likely realize the environment's limitations and yearn for more.
Events kick off with your character, known only as the Marked One, tumbling off a death truck on the outskirts of The Zone. You soon meet up with a man named Sidorovich, who hands out your first tasks and introduces the fiction of the environment. As the journey progresses, you'll move through the game's various self-contained zones that together make up The Zone, from the relatively placid Cordon to the war-wracked Army Warehouses, Pripyat, and finally the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant itself, from which all things sinister seem to emanate.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s main story missions provide the most engaging experience, as completing the challenges sometimes bestows useful rewards, opens up new territory to explore, and advances the mysterious plot. It turns out the Zone's NPCs aren't the best storytellers, so to more accurately understand what's happening you'll need to regularly check your PDA; the Marked One turns out to be quite the diligent note taker. Though some of the story's twists and turns are interesting, the pacing and storytelling methods could have used some refinement. Be sure to get one of the two true endings to fill in all the plot holes. The five false ones explain very little.
In a strange twist, several of the main story missions take place underground or indoors, shifting the aspects of gameplay toward that of a traditional corridor shooter. If you really want to test out how S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s open world elements work, you'll need to embark on the many side quests The Zone's NPCs offer. Sadly only a handful of them are truly interesting. They mostly offer simple tasks such as kill a single target, wipe out a camp, or retrieve an object. The more involving ones toss you into battle with A.I. companions, though there are too few.
The game's zones, which take a minute or two to sprint across, are separated by load times, meaning you can't pass from one end of The Zone to the other uninterrupted. Upon your first footsteps in the early areas, it's an undeniably compelling prospect to trek across the dreary fields pocked with anomaly clusters to question the inhabitants and root out secrets. Though a few side quests offer valuable rewards (one particular quest in Yantar nets you an excellent armor piece), the majority give you money and bullets, both of which can be easily obtained through other means. Large quantities of ammunition for each of the game's rifles, shotguns, and pistols are available at any major vendor. Money is never really an issue in the game, since the artifacts you find lying around The Zone's fields sell for substantial sums. Aside from satisfying an explorer's curiosity and snatching the occasional artifact or suit of armor, the prizes for peeking around every corner in the Zone turn out to be somewhat lacking.
In a full-fledged RPG, you'd be rewarded with experience for beating up random baddies, or given skill points, or granted some other way of augmenting your abilities and furthering character development. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. starts out this way, as you rapidly discover more and more powerful weapons, some of which are even "+1" variations of base weapon models, but flatlines far too early. Engaging in non-essential combat is handy for picking up bandages and first aid kits, maintaining ammunition levels, and accumulating random items like bottles of precious vodka. Occasionally you'll come upon a useful artifact, and that's when exploring is most worthwhile. If you follow the storyline for about ten hours or so, you'll find you already have some of the best weapons and armor in the game, significantly diminishing the allure of perusing the open terrain. While some may think it's unfair to criticize the game for trimming features of a genre in which it only dabbles, we couldn't ignore the persistent desire for more character customization and a stronger incentive to explore.
A few other features, a fighting arena in a zone called The Bar and the ability to join up with either Duty or Freedom factions, have been implemented to divert your attention from the main quest, but there isn't a particularly forceful reason to involve yourself since the rewards aren't all that interesting. By the time you reach the Army Warehouses zone, where you'll get the opportunity to start questing with either faction to build reputation, the rewards will likely be dwarfed by the power of the arsenal and protection you already have. If you'd prefer to join up with the Freedom faction, a group whose outlook embraces hippie ideals as much as The Zone permits, you must not complete any Duty quests in the Army Warehouses zone. We mention this because the game doesn't.
What does remain interesting is the A-Life environmental A.I. system, triggered after you exit one zone for the next. Many of the side quests require you to walk back through to previous areas, ensuring you'll encounter the packs of roaming pseudodogs, bloodsuckers, and fleshes running amok across the countryside. If you take a minute to sit back and observe, you'll see the monsters attack bandits and drag around, even chew on downed bodies. You'll hear gunfire in the distance and know somewhere close by, enemy factions got too close to each other. You might even chuckle maniacally as you fire into an advancing pack of dogs, kill a few, then reload in peace as the survivors whimper, wheel, and flee in fear. Combined with the game's haunting atmosphere, these kinds of events do a great service to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s immersion factor and believability.
Another big plus for this game are the shooting mechanics, which have a touch of authenticity rarely felt in a video game. Early weapons are wildly inaccurate, for instance. Don't expect to hit enemies with the starting pistol from anywhere outside a few feet. As a contrast, the game's more sophisticated firearms feel and sound remarkably different, which works to generate genuine excitement upon discovering a new weapon. Even the strongest scoped rifles, outside of the sniper variety, are somewhat inaccurate at longer ranges, making the gameplay more engaging since it forces you to close range on the enemy. It was a worry of ours that because of the many wide open battlefields you'd be able to take down most foes before they even see you. As a result of each weapon's more spastic accuracy, this isn't the case at all.
It also helps that enemies are really weak in only one spot: their heads. Unload a full clip from a few feet away at the torso and legs of the game's heavily armored foes and they'll likely be returning fire as you attempt to reload. Take the time to line up a shot and pop one or two into an enemy's face, however, and he'll slam to the ground in seconds. The game also delivers a distinct sense of increasing personal power as you accumulate better armor, weapons, and artifacts. When revisiting some of the early zones, you'll be able to utterly shred the opposition that was earlier such a chore to dispatch, like in many RPGs.
Enemy A.I. furthers the entertainment derived from firefights, when it's working properly. Foes stay on the move once alerted to your presence, often switching between cover spots and sometimes flanking your position. For the most part, you'll find The Zone's humanoid inhabitants aren't the type to blindly charge, and generally resist the all-too-common A.I. urge to pursue through doorways and find certain death at the mouth of your waiting gun barrel.
As our adventures progressed, we unfortunately ran into many instances where the A.I. clearly screwed up. In sprawling games like this, A.I. bugs are to be expected, but it happened with a heightened regularity in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. For instance, you'll witness enemies perform the classic endless-charge-into-a-corner routine, attempt to shoot through walls, or become entirely confused and stand still during battle. When these quirks occur, in addition to a few quest-breaking bugs and other inconsistencies, it detracts from the otherwise powerful sense of immersion S.T.A.L.K.E.R. conjures.
These technical flaws are largely compensated for with persuasive intangibles, specifically mood. The graphics, though dated in places, coalesce into a stunning amalgam of unfamiliarity. Very rarely do we see games exude such a repulsive yet enchanting mystique as with GSC's title. Eerily realistic sunrises, rainstorms, and NPC battles occurring outside the sphere of player involvement produce a disarming atmospheric cohesiveness. Attention to detail in all the game's cityscapes and fields triggers a subtle sense of familiarity, even while assaulting you with the wholly alien. The game deftly slides from post-apocalyptic science fiction sensibilities to nerve-singing survival horror, keeping you constantly in a state of hesitant wonder. With such strong environmental character, it's too bad S.T.A.L.K.E.R. lacks any persuasive NPC characters. Even Sidorovich, one of the game's strongest personalities, fits snugly into a stereotypical mold.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s sounds are quite good, particularly the piercing ambient howls the float across The Zone and the startling cries of the various mutants. Weapon sounds do a great job of immersing you in the environment, effectively conveying a sense of the firearms' power. You'll find unexpected extras packed in as well, most notably a surprising amount of guitar riffs triggered when NPCs decide to park themselves in front of a flaming barrel and start to strum. There seems to be a sizable amount of voice acting in the game, but we unfortunately couldn't understand a majority of it since most ambient NPCs comments aren't spoken in English.
If you decide to head online, multiplayer deathmatch, team deathmatch, and a capture the flag-type mode called Artifact Hunt are available. Before heading out to each match, which take place on maps based on areas of the single player game, you're given a wide selection of weaponry, armor, and items to bring with you. Like in Counter-Strike, getting kills nets you cash which you can then use to buy more powerful weapons the next time around. In deathmatch and team deathmatch, you'll rank up as you wipe out more opponents, unlocking deadlier weaponry and protective armor. Though you're not going to spend a majority of your time here, it's still an entertaining diversion from the single player, and certainly adds to this game's appeal.
So what kind of hardware power are you going to need to run this thing? It may not show off all the latest graphical effects, but this game is rather demanding. While it's by no means a top of the line rig, our Pentium 4 3.4 GHz, 2 GB RAM, and 512 MB Radeon X1900 system had problems at maximum settings. The game also tended to stutter quite often, sometimes pausing for three or four seconds at regular intervals, which occurred on two different Windows XP rigs at maximum visual quality. Though that isn't the best of news, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. does support widescreen resolutions, which should please many.
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