On a recent trip for an interview in my old home town, which feels like in a time long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away when compared to the life in the UK I'm used to, I found the game at the local department store for 5.99 Euro. It's re-released on Green Pepper, one of these El Cheapo labels that put out older games. Not sure what happened to Sold Out games and others, but these labels seem to change periodically. Given how keen I was on the first S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, which incidentally never got played due to lack of time but is still lying around somewhere, this seemed like too good to pass up. So here's a short review. The game is by now more than two years old, but I'm sure there are still people like myself who haven't played it yet.
One thing you can't escape noticing is the extremely good and complete translation and localization, into German in this case, which bodes well for the professional quality and playability of this title. You're introduced to a wide array of weapons from both NATO and the ex-Warsaw Pact countries, and, as we have become used to since titles like Soldier of Fortune 2, rifles and hand guns show realistic recoil that needs the player to compensate. A bit later in the game the player gets access to a rocket launcher, sniper rifles with silencers and assault rifles with grenade launchers, and you can upgrade your kit with various options, not only weapons but suit and armor as well. I can say that the realistic depiction and detailed descriptions in this game truly got me interested in guns again, it's just a shame I'm living in countries where it's not the norm to have some, not legally at least.
At first look it seems pretty much like Fallout 3, only in the Ukraine. There are some big differences though, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is definitely worth playing in its own right if you like post-apocalyptic games. It is set in the exclusion zone erected around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor when it blew up in 1986, as opposed to the fictional nuclear wasteland that is the USA after World War 3 in the Fallout series. Apparently the development team took pictures of the entire area, so this should be a semi-realistic representation of a city in the former Soviet Union after the catastrophe, and perhaps of the wider area as well. There the player finds anomalies that are spawning artifacts which can be collected and sold for plenty of Rubles, and is plagued by unpredictable emissions about once a day. You can only survive emissions in a shelter, but I found some inconsistencies as to what constitutes one. For example, the building is supposed to be made from bricks, concrete or steel, with no openings like windows etc. Yet hiding in a place like that got me killed, whereas the supposedly safe location in Noah's Arch has gaping holes in the roof. Best to follow the arrow that pops up on your HUD when an emission is imminent that will guide you to the next safe place, or keep one in mind, don't stray too far and run back to it whenever a blowout is announced. You got two minutes for that. I actually prefer it to the arrow method as it's more realistic, how would you know about the shelter without ever having been there?
Another problem is enemy AI. Once you get killed and reload all enemies suddenly know you are there and have turned towards you, even the ones you had just been sneaking up on from behind, and you get attacked as soon as loading has finished. Another one is the waves of different enemies that had not been there before that the game suddenly throws at you after a reload. It is manageable though. Just reload several times until they start ignoring you again.
Without giving away too much of the plot (consult Wikipedia and other places on that), you can earn cash by completing side quests and selling gear stripped from corpses. There also are hideouts with stuff stashed away all over the map, which you can find for yourself or on occasion get the coordinates from other characters as a thank you for helping them. When you've made enough money from collecting artifacts or plundering the dead and zombified stalkers and military types you can go ahead and purchase more powerful armor, but I played the entire game up to the point where you need the Bio-suit to proceed to Pripyat in a modded leather coat, with extra steel plates sown in and better weight distribution that allows you to carry 5kg more. That's a preference for a light and flexible outfit. As you progress it needs to be repaired more often due to the increasingly heavy encounters, and just as well when you meet the military in Pripyat you get some pretty sturdy and tough kit for free, including the Sphere helmet with night vision, nice if you haven't found the Tactical helmet yet which is basically the same. No point paying through the nose for heavy armor, it's quite easy to get to this point without. On the other hand, if the Exo-skeleton appeals to you, feel free to spend your hard earned dough.
There's another Bio-suit an some ammo hidden in a basement entrance to one of the apartment block buildings in Pripyat, but you wouldn't be here if you had not already found one. They're pretty decent for withstanding Controller Psi attacks, but with the right medication to numb your nervous system and the Gauss rifle in your possession he's dead meat. I sniped him from behind and was surprised it was one shot, one kill. He probably can't sense where you are when under medication, and the element of surprise combined with the Gauss rifle floored him easily. I found it pleasant that one is not overwhelmed with zombies and other mutants like the annoying ghost dogs. All in all, it's a good balance between various elements, and other human characters and factions play a just as important role. Most of all the feeling that anything can happen at any time, and your careful sneaking between buildings and bushes and peaking around corners. Just take care to keep your shotgun reloaded after a firefight, the next one may not be far off. In a nice change to the usual claustrophobic corridors and sewers most of it is happening outdoors, with plenty of house to house combat later on.
Overall, I missed the VATS targeting system from Fallout 3, but only to an extent. It was a nice gimmick that you'll hardly need in this game, and in the end I really enjoyed it being so straight forward. It is less of a RPG like Fallout 3 and FalloutNV are. For example, there's no levelling up, no character to shape, no skills to pick, and you won't gain any strength either. It is more like mutant hunting in DooM 3 mixed with a good dose of tactical shooter. On occasion you get to fight side by side with NPC's or even assemble a team, but they won't listen to you once on the way. Slightly reminded me of squad based shooters like Rainbow Six, and it works really well as FPS. The range of rifles and hand guns and different types of ammunition you find is dazzling.
Graphics are excellent if you got the hardware. The inventory is easy to assign and use, the map is somewhat Fallout-like but has far fewer locations, and travelling between the various points is quicker due to shorter distances. The statistics page can be of interest to find how many emissions you have survived, your most used weapon and the strongest mutant killed. I did not find any bugs or glitches and the game did not freeze up on me like some others do. Conversations initiated properly etc. It just adds to the fun when everything works as it should, but unfortunately good QA seems rare these days with many titles.
The entire game takes around 4-5 days of 10-12 hours each, still leaving time to eat and sleep and get the important stuff done that should not be postponed. Again, I found this a positive experience. Call of Pripyat is a DVD release, so it was bound to be shorter than the Blueray version of other games, and nothing disturbs me more than the feeling of not progressing.
While evacuating to the helicopters feels both like an abrupt but suitable ending, one can either board with the soldiers and leave the zone or stay, and this will let you enter enter free play mode. From here on I encountered less and less mutants and beasties and the game turns into an almost pure faction based shooter, with only zombie soldiers, mercenaries and a group of religious fanatics that worship a Monolith remaining, and a couple of stalkers that entered the city when the military left loosely on your side, at least killing the same enemies you've got. Watch some of them fight it out it out through your binoculars from a rooftop or the safety of the inside of a bus. It is possible to cross to the other two maps where you started and sell things, finish side quests and so forth, but pretty soon this might become boring. I may play it again on Veteran level, or, more likely, finally dig out the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl.
Played on: Normal/Stalker
Rating: 5/5 Thumbs up
Here are some handy links to the database at WineHQ if you're planning to run it on Linux.