Well, I said I was gonna do another review, so here it is! Again, I am typing this in a single-sitting without any actual drafting, so excuse me if it sucks, or seems all ranty, or you find something else distasteful about it (I suppose that's where I come in - Mel). This review will be on the last game I completed, GSC Game World's "STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl". Yes, I know this game has been out since March of 2007, but the prequel is due to come out within the next couple of months, and I just finished it. So if you're the kind of person who will ***** about me reviewing it for that reason, go drool over 3dRealms' table scraps or something instead of pointing it out like it's some kind of damn crime. It's not illegal in my jurisdiction, anyway.
According to the pseudo-intellectual cluster**** known as Wikipedia, GSC Game World is based in Kiev, which, like Chernobyl, is in the Ukraine. I suppose their proximity to the site of Captain Planet's worst nightmare makes them a good choice to make a game set in that location. Again, according to Wikipedia (ally to those too lazy to do their own damn research) they have had most of their success with some sort of strategy series that I don't remember the name of, about people on horses stabbing each other in squabbles about arbitrary boundaries... or... human history, I guess would be an easier way to say it. I think this is their first adventure into the wonderful world of shooting people with Kalashnikovs in a first-person view.
In STALKER, you play an unattractive Slavic dude who is suffering from amnesia; an affliction about as common among action/adventure protagonists as the common cold. Rescued from a pile of dead Slavic dudes who were in the back of a crashed Soviet-era (old Soviet crap is very atmospheric, right?) truck that got hit by lightning or something... who drives a huge, rickety truck in a lightning storm... damn, this is kind of a run-on sentence now and... dammit. Ok, so another, less ugly Slavic dude rescues you and brings you to an even more ugly, fat Slavic dude with atrocious table manners, and you wake up, and your fancy PDA thingy displays a message in English telling you to kill some other Slavic dude.
There are lots of Slavic dudes, actually. Most are probably Ukrainian, but I'm not sure, some might be Russian, or Estonian. Who knows? They're here for a reason. See, the story goes that sometime in... 2008, I think the game said, but my mind is wandering... there was a second explosion at the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear powerplant, and afterwards, weird **** started going down that could not be attributed to this. Some of this weird **** resulted in the formation of bizarre 'artefacts' which have strange and wondrous effects on human life, and mutant critters that biologists think could lead to new discoveries... and new discoveries can mean big bucks... er... roubles.
You wake up in a camp of 'STALKERs', people who have come to brave the dangers of 'The Zone' in hope of finding stuff that they can sell, perhaps allowing them to at least buy toilet-paper and thus improve their standard of living. As payment for saving your irradiated ass, the fat dude asks you to do some jobs for him, which gradually leads into the game's main story, which I will summarize... at some point.
I should probably make note of the fact that in the cutscenes, which are not rendered with the in-game engine but are actual video (haven't seen that in a while), the lip-syncing seemed off, but since there isn't much of it to be off in the first place, and this is a Ukrainian-made game, and I was playing it on my new laptop which I haven't played many games on (and thus may be responsible for the issue itself upon further investigation), I was willing to forgive that little problem. The cutscenes themselves are quite nice, in my opinion, they have a very cinematic feel to them.
Anyway, one of the first things you will notice about this game is that speaking to NPCs brings up a dialogue thingy, which kind of reminds me of Fallout, but doesn't take up the whole screen. Some of them have a lot to say... but very few NPCs actually voice it... if that bothers you, take some more Ritalin so you can enjoy it, for the sake of gaming... uh oh, am I gonna rant again!? No... anyway, the dialogue is fairly simplistic, but this is an FPS, so that's fine... it gets the job done, letting you ask for busy-work, find out more about the setting, hear rumours, and so on.
NPCs are fairly well done. Except for the most important ones, they speak in Russian, which is very atmospheric, and explains why audio dialogue with the player is sparse. They go about their business, usually sticking in the same area, but not like damn statues... they will tell jokes around campfires, some have guitars they'll play little songs on... they all have names, and they do in fact remember your actions towards them. If you shoot some guy in the ass for... I dunno, maybe you have an ass-shooting fetish... he won't like you, and neither will the people he hangs out with. If someone else does it, and you patch him up, he'll like you. The only problem is that some dialogue is repeated over and over in a relatively short span of time, like this butt-buccaneer in the bar who keeps saying "My information may be of use to you, Stalker," every 15 seconds, and he even says it in English, so you can't even at least start to learn a new damn language! Asswipe. I'm not much good for Eastern European etiquette, but I feel fairly confident saying that's really ****ing annoying in any culture.
There are NPC factions; Loners (this is actually the lack of a faction I guess), Duty, Freedom, Monolith, the military, mercs, and bandits. You start out as a loner, and (to my knowledge, though I never tried) can later join Duty or Freedom, but not both, because they don't play nice. Your interactions with various NPCs will change faction opinions of you, so if Duty really likes you, Freedom will hate your guts, and vice versa. If you're a huge arsehole and kill people for fun and profit, the mercs and bandits, I'm told, will not necessarily gun you down on sight, though Monolith and - "MY INFORMATION MAY BE OF USE TO YOU STALKER" - the military will still decide you need some added ventilation. All in all, this is a very cool feature which I feel was under-utilized. Apparently GSC agrees, because they say it will play a major part in the upcoming prequel. Sounds like good times.
I seem to have been interrupted during that paragraph by the most annoying NPC ever. Sorry about that.
Now, it's about time I actually talked about the gameplay, particularly the shooting. This is really a shooter, after all, as much as I want to praise the more RPG-esque parts of it. The combat ranges from "Haha, this is awesome!" to "I think I'd rather get kicked in the shins by midgets". It's interesting to note the fact that although some enemies seem to take bullets to the stomach like they were getting hit with clumps of soggy Wonderbread, a single shot to the head (which can feel like it's the size of a mandarin orange if you take into account the inaccuracy of some weapons) will kill all but the toughest enemies... if it's a sniper round, that will kill anything. Then again, I'm playing through the game a second time and not noticing this on a higher difficulty, so I am now attributing it to a poor choice of weapons and a reluctance to use armour-piercing bullets the first time through. The lesson? Experiment with weapons in this game.
The shooting is nothing special, for the most part, but you do get an impressive array of cool guns, which all have different characteristics which may appeal to different people. The MP5, for example, fires faster than the AKM-74, but - "MY INFORMATION MAY BE OF USE TO YOU STALKER" - is less accurate and does less damage. You can put a silencer on the MP5, but you can't give it a scope and a grenade launcher like the AK. Then again, that scope on the AK may be over-rated, because, as I said, accuracy is an issue; the bullets won't always go exactly where the scope says they will - better switch to semi-auto! Maybe you should hit your 'V' key and use that full-featured grenade launcher? I do like the grenades in this game, something I don't say very often... the launched ones have a small blast radius, but the thrown ones have a realistically large (HUGE compared to the puny grenades in most shooters) range that makes them easy to use unless you decide you want to play catch with flying shrapnel, and neglect to get behind cover. There's a lot of choice in how you kill the bad guys, here, given the setting. No gravity gun or anything, but you'll be surprised how different things will feel going from one assault rifle to another.
You also have a knife, which is VERY powerful if you can get close enough to use it without getting hollow-point brain surgery... much harder than it sounds. For a game called STALKER, it's really hard to sneak in this. Everything you do makes a bit of noise. Draw or reload a gun? Noise. Step through a bush? Noise. The enemies don't see you like some kind of psychic assassins, but with how well they can hear you, I'd expect them to have ears like ****ing Dumbo. Did I mention that when they do hear you, they notify the Borg collective... er... each other... of it through telepathy (well, not really, but it sure FEELS that way) and thus ruin your attempts at stealth? Maybe that's a bit of exaggeration, it's ENTIRELY possible to do stealth kills, but for the effort it takes to do so without at least alerting nearby NPCs that something is up, you could be - "MY INFORMATION MAY BE OF USE TO YOU STALKER".
...Nevermind. I hate that guy.
Anyway, you could spend a ton of time just fooling around with the various killing implements. The only problem is that they start to wear down with use... after a while, they start to jam (which forces you to reload... even in the middle of combat) and - "MY INFORMATION MAY BE OF USE TO YOU STALKER" - eventually stop working altogether. This can be a pain in the arse if you've found a really nice weapon and are attached to it... where is this **** made, Hong Kong? I thought most former Soviet countries had a conscription-based military, do NONE of these people know how to fix a ****ing gun?
My apologies for the - "MY INFORMATION MAY BE OF USE TO YOU STALKER" - dammit he interrupted me again... see, annoying! Rude!
That leads us to... inventory, maps, and menus. Interestingly, using any of them does not pause the game, so you have to be careful where you do it. This can be irritating, like when you're getting your bearings while a pack of a half-dozen mutant dogs that even PETA would advocate euthanasia decide they want your kneecaps for dinner, with a side of inner thigh. It doesn't help that you can only carry 50 kilograms of stuff before your stamina (used for jumping and sprinting, as usual) starts taking a SEVERE hit, and 60 kg (unless you have strength-boosting armour) before you find your top speed suddenly decreased to approximately that of a tree stump. This means that you may be inclined to spend a - "MY INFORMATION MAY BE OF USE TO YOU STALKER".
...I really wish that guy would shut up.
As I was saying, you may spend a lot of time fidgeting with your inventory... you also need to use it if you want to change your pistol or SMG/Rifle... you can only equip one of each, plus... ah, those artefacts I mentioned earlier? They aren't just good for selling; if you choose to equip them (up to 5), they will affect you in various ways, increasing your resistance to bullets, or things that want to chew on your face, or maybe increasing your stamina. They usually have a negative effect too, though. For example, producing radiation, or making you more vulnerable to fire. It's also fun to experiment with these.
You'll also spend a lot of time using your maps (and using that sprint that begs you to keep your carry weight low), because this is a astoundingly large and open game world by shooter standards; perhaps the biggest I have ever seen in a shooter. It's very well done, with burnt-out villages, swamps, laboratories, factories, forests... you gain access to more of it as you play the main story, but you get so much at a time you won't mind. Really, it's astounding they put this much detail into it, and it never really gets old. It's exactly how you'd imagine the area around Chernobyl looking. You even get to go through the Red Forest and Pripyat (look them up, I'm lazy). Apparently the devs looked at photos and news footage of the area, but it feels more like they arranged to spend some time in the real world location (hey, they let people in there, you just have to make arrangements I guess). Not too far from Kiev, so they very well may have.
Anyway, you've got all of this area to explore, and dead bodies will sometimes alert you to the location of hid- "MY INFORMATION MAY BE OF USE TO YOU STALKER" -den loot scattered... just ignore him, Lord knows I try... erm, scattered across them. The stashes are a bit buggy, though... if you get a note on the same one twice, it will erase the loot and leave the marker on your map. Kinda frustrating. But the stashes aren't the only reason to explore, there are other goodies you can find, and many side quests, which would be a pain in the ass if this weren't such a kick-arse environment to do them in. To make things even more interesting, there are 'anomalies', which will blast, throw, crush, burn, melt, shock, and irradiate you... they're all over the place, and often surround really good stuff or important areas... navigating them is quite nerve-racking at times (but in a good way). They're a new and interesting challenge.
Actually, it's quite overwhelming, especially with the mutants and bandits (who, judging from the rate at which they are able to repopulate their camps, apparently reproduce asexually and take 5 minutes to reach maturity and sprout an AK-74 from God knows where), and that's perhaps my biggest gripe ab- "MY INFORMATION MAY BE OF USE TO YOU STALKER" - Ok, I take it back... second biggest gripe about the game... sometimes it will feel like you're running a marathon to get back to the nearest trader, especially if you're carrying too much and keep running out of breath. A quick-travel would be welcome, and thankfully, GSC says the upcoming prequel will have one.
Maybe I should have done this earlier, but now I'll talk about the story. Remember, you're an amnesiac Russian guy? "MY INFORMATION MAY BE OF USE TO YOU, STALKER!"
SHUT YOUR BORSCHT-HOLE, YOU NEVER HAVE ANYTHING I HAVEN'T ALREADY LEARNED IN THE MAIN STORYLINE!
Ahem... you obviously need to find out who you are, so you need to head deeper into the zone chasing clues, though you can skip a lot of these clues (which I think is worthy of praise, options are good!). This will take you through creepy labs, decrepit forts full of underpaid Ukrainian Spetsnaz troops, mutant-infested swamps, brainwashed and heavily-armed cultists... you'll have to weave your way through the irradiated area around the Chernobyl plant itself as snipers and gunships hunt you down, while the plant threatens to blow a third time. There are parts that are creepy, confusing (usually in a good way... you know, teleporters and such), parts that will have you on the edge of your seat... it's really got everything you could hope for in a good shooter... and then, you will get one of seven different endings (though 5 of them are more or less the same, and result from the same choice at the endgame... you'll see).
So, in conclusion, you can probably tell I really enjoyed this game. I understand that the initial release was horrendously buggy, but I'm reviewing the version which we have NOW. I admit it has some significant faults, but in my view, the pros far outweigh the cons (many of which I can let slide, considering this is a Ukrainian game, and a new genre for its developers), and if you like open-ended, RPG-esque shooters, you owe it to yourself to play it. I don't know about you, but when STALKER: Clear Sky is released, I'll be all over it like no shooter I've anticipated in years. In the meantime, I'll be looking for a way to port that 'information' guy to Garry's Mod, and a mod to let me dismember and impale him. I guess that will have to do for now.
So, I have no clue what to review next. If someone will make a suggestion (no, my computer can't run Crysis at more than 2 frames per second), I promise to be less verbose next time! Honest!
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