I’m currently playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. I only have few hours under my belt so I can’t really say much about the game but I figured I can jot down few first impressions. Before you accuse me of copying Shamus from twenty-sided, I admit that the fact he mentioned the game recently was one of the factors that made me pick it up. The other one was system requirements. This is one of the very few recent releases that will actually run on my machine. The game actually scales very nicely down to my ancient single core 2 Ghz dell with a puny 1 GB of RAM and the aging Radeon 9800 XT. The game actually doesn’t look all that pretty on this hardware, but it is running very smoothly.
My first impression was: too bad they are not using the Source engine. :P If you have been reading this blog in these recent months you know that with exception of Dreamfall all I have been playing lately were Valve HL2 games: Episode One, Episode Two and Portal. I’m so spoiled by Source it’s not funny. I found myself constantly trying to pick up and move debris to create makeshift planks or platforms to move over obstacles. Compared to Gordon Freeman your character seems slow, and cumbersome to control.
The game world initially appears immense, but you quickly realize it is actually quite limited. While the open vistas overlooking desolate grassland, ruins and debris create an illusion of open and fully explorable environment, the accessible areas are neatly fenced off. Yes, STALKER uses the Insurmountable Waist High Fence mechanic. Some areas are cut of by plain razor-wire fence that looks as if you could jump over it. Sigh… The nice part is that the map design leaves plenty of space between the fences and actual game objectives. Unless you go of the trail wandering you may not even hit these limits, but then again the sandbox mode of play actually encourages exploration so sooner or later you will get an excellent feel for where your fences are.
Of course there is a twist – you can’t explore everywhere because some areas are irradiated – or host strange anomalies which usually deal you some sort of damage. When you get close you will hear either beeping (for anomalies), or the characteristic Geiger counter sound for radiation danger. These invisible borders are also use to confine the area where you can explore freely. I think later in the game you can get your hands on better armor and artifacts that can protect you from the radiation but initially you really want to stay away from these areas, or navigate them carefully.
If you look at the map early on in the game, you will probably marvel at the immense size of the gameplay area. Unfortunately it is divided into levels separated by relatively long loading screens. You can cross between levels only in very specific points. Whenever you leave a level, a dialog pops up asking you if you are sure, which only adds to the fragmented feel of the world.
The game itself seems to be a FPS with inventory management taken out of a RPG game. You get an actual, honest to goodness inventory screen on which you can equip weapons armor, and artifacts. The game doesn’t seem to limit your inventory spatially (the inventory screen expands and scrolls and the similar items stack) but rather using an encumbrance factor. If you are carrying to much, normal walking makes you tired the same way as sprinting. If you take too much stuff, you simply won’t be able to move. It really reminds me of the Morrowind/Oblivion style of inventory management. There is no artificial ammunition scarcity here which is great. The ammo is genuinely scarce, but when you loot corpses you can take every single bullet you can carry which makes me almost forgive them those ridiculous fences.
One thing I didn’t like about the inventory screen was that it was non-pausing. In other words, when you pull up the full screen inventory and muck around with your gear you can be easily flanked and killed. While this might be more realistic it’s also kinda annoying at first. I do prefer the pausing inventory screens, but oh well.
STALKER is not really an RPG though. There is no leveling, or character attributes/skills that could improve other than HP, radiation level, armor durability and set of resistances. You can improve your resistance to heat, radiation, electricity or bullets by wearing the right type of armor and by using artifacts. These last ones are odd looking items that can be found around some anomalies which essentially act as “magic items”. Each one has some positive and negative effects – some boost your resistances, while some other drain them but offer you other special benefits. And just as with magic items, you don’t get the cool ones until much later in the game. Initially you just get shitty trinkets that are not even worth equipping because of the negs they put on your resistances.
Combat is a little bit less satisfying than what I like. This might be due to the fact that weapons actually have pretty detailed RPG like attribute sets which include accuracy, damage and etc. The enemies seem to be wearing different types or armor, and I think they actually use bandages and med kits themselves if they have them. Some of the accurate shots might be purposefully dropped due to weapon’s low accuracy score, armor or self healing which might be a bit annoying. Typically, if you want to kill a guy with the starter pistol, you will need to use 3-4 magazine clips before he goes down because of the accuracy+armor thing. A shotgun will score an insta-kill but you need to be really close and completely on target. If he moves off your shot, he will only take some minor scatter damage instead and may get a chance to retaliate. In effect, the enemies don’t go down easily. The only sure way to kill someone is to catch them by surprise. You can do a head shot with the starter pistol, but I was only able to do that from cover when the enemy didn’t see me.
The frantic, twitch action here is replaced by a slightly more complex combat model. The enemy will really try to flank and surround you so circle strafing is almost always a bad idea. You can sometimes seriously injure the enemy but not kill him. In such a circumstance he will hit the floor and drop his weapon – so he is no threat to you. But as he is lying there he will usually scream for help. You can use this to your advantage and set up a trap. When someone comes to investigate the fallen comrade, and give him a med-kit you can pounce on them, or snipe them. Of course it also works the other way – a wounded enemy can still act as a spotter, and reveal your position to his friends putting them back into combat mode where they aggressively pursue you.
When you take damage, you can start bleeding or hemorrhaging – it’s a simple damage over time thing but it really can switch things up a bit. Once you are hit, you usually want to grab some cover, take your hand off the mouse and hit the medkit or bandage button ([ or ] respectively) to you patch yourself up. Fortunately all the enemies usually carry plenty of bandages so you tend to have more than you need at all times. Right now my character has about 58 pieces which is plenty.
The AI is very decent. I’m playing on a medium difficulty level and the enemy is really playing it smart grabbing cover, and flanking. Sometimes they will actually exit the building or a walled area, and run around to get you from the rear. Most of the combat areas are deserted ruins with tons of cover multiple entry and exit points which makes this type of thing possible. So if you stay in one place, you will probably end up surrounded and die. Moving from cover to cover and taking pot-shots at unsuspecting enemies is the ticket. You don’t want to get into protracted firefights, and you definitely don’t want to trade shots in the open because enemies are usually more accurate and you bleed easier..
The mapping and mission management is done through your non-pausing PDA screen which is a nice immersion device, but once again not something I’m particularly fond off. The map feels clunky and is a bit unintuitive and hard to navigate. When you select a mission objective via the PDA you do get a helpful arrow on your HUD mini-map, but there is no way to set arbitrary waypoints, or to mark things on the map yourself for future reference. It’s usable but it could have been much better.
The mission objectives can sometimes be very vague. The main storyline missions are pretty clear but the little side-quests you can do for random people are not. For example, at one point I was asked to defend some arbitrary spot in the junkyard from bandits. So for the next 20 minutes I was sitting there killing wave after wave of enemies stocking up on loot. My allies scattered all over the place, and frankly I didn’t have time to babysit them because I was to busy trying to fend off enemy slowly trickling in from every single direction on the map. At one point I could have swore that I saw a “mission accomplished” text blip on the screen, but the enemy kept coming. I checked the PDA and it said I should return for the reward to an area that was completely out of my way so I figured out that I’ll do that on my way back. Then I killed some more enemies and gout out of there figuring out that they must be just spawning there or something. Then few hours later I checked my PDA again, and I saw the mission logged as failed. WTF?
Another mission I failed was when i saw bunch of soldiers storm some structure far ahead of me. I carefully approached it grabbing cover and expecting heavy armed enemies to gank me at any moment, when suddenly I was notified that I failed to protect some poor stalkers from the raid. Apparently I was supposed to sprint there and gun down 20 soldiers.
Fortunately neither one of those missions was crucial to the story, or particularly rewarding. In the first instance the loot I collected from corpses really beefed up my ammo and bandage collection, while in the second instance I got to kill and loot the soldiers anyway. So all I lost was some pocket cash, and perhaps a shitty artifact or two.
Finally, I still don’t know what the hell is going on. Perhaps I skipped some intro sequence, or some dialog branch, but I really never heard an explanation as to what the zone really is, or where did the anomalies came from. The game starts with an animated sequence in which a truck gets blown up and crashes on the side of the road. In the morning someone finds you unconscious at the crash site, and takes you back to the stalker camp. You wake up with total amnesia, and very curious note in your PDA which reads “kill Strielok”. Frankly, I’m as confused as the character must be – if not more. If you want to, you can get a quick tutorial on how to use the PDA screen, and the game initially gives you little on-screen tips but other than that there is no real story introduction or a tutorial sequence where you learn about combat, looting, trading and artifacts.
To tell you the truth, I can’t play this game for prolonged time because the mood is starting to get to me. The scenery desolate – filled only with ruined buildings, garbage and rusting car wrecks. There are weird anomalies and radiation everywhere. As much fun as it is to play, it just gets depressing after a while.
Let’s hope the story picks up later on, and that we get more answers. I will write more about the overall storyline, characters and other game play elements after I get further in the game (or finish it).
[tags]stalker, s.t.a.l.k.e.r, shadow of chernobyl, games, gaming[/tags]