S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a non-linear FPS developed by Ukrainian studio GSC Game World. Thematically and conceptually it’s based on the novel Roadside Picnic and the movie Stalker, but gameplay wise it’s a mishmash of various genre conventions.
It’s also very much a hardcore game that’s difficult to play because of its mechanics and its dreary atmosphere. Still, there’s a lot of interesting stuff here:
- The setting is unique, combining the post-apocalyptic vibe of the Chernobyl disaster with clandestine military research and various supernatural phenomena. It’s all about irradiated areas filled with broken concrete, rusty chunks of metal, mutated beasts, and burlap-clad bands of scavengers fighting each other and the Russian government.
- A lot of the non-vital voice work is in Ukrainian, adding to the game’s authenticity.
- There are more audio and visual effects in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. than any other game of its kind. The beeps of Geiger counters, menacing discharges of anomalies, muting effects of Brain Scorchers, wispy echos of phantom enemies, etc. accompany shimmering heat-distortions, static filters, the draining and bleeding of colour, camera shaking and FOV manipulations. A lot of similar effects have been used in other titles, but not with the same level of diversity and intensity. Also, because these effects are often tied to individual objects/creatures/phenomena, they end up feeling a lot more organic. They’re not used exclusively in cutscenes, and they can “stack,” creating very unnerving situations where they’re used silmutaneously.
- RPG elements are quite prevalent, and the whole game is based on a quest system. Some of these quests are unique or even tied into the story, while others simply repeat throughout the game.
- The player has a grid-based inventory with a weight limit dictating how much he can carry.
- All the weapons and armour types degrade with use.
- The game mostly consists of large, sprawling areas that are occupied by groups of AI driven entities. Packs of blind dogs roam the countryside while groups of marauding bandits engage in sporadic firefights. Exploration of these areas is non-linear, and their atmosphere is enhanced with randomized weather effects.
- Underground areas serve as the game’s “dungeons,” and are a drastic contrast to the rest of the game. They’re very claustrophobic and rely on lightsourced entities and the player’s flashlight and night vision for illumination. The encounters in these locations are also very deliberate and revolve around bizarre mutations and supernatural phenomena. This focus has the added effect of making an encounter with a cloaked Bloodsucker all the more enervating when it first happens above ground and in the middle of the day.
- Anomalies are localized areas of altered physics that manifest themselves in various harmful ways, e.g., electric shocks, crushing gravity fields, whirlwind vortices, etc. Anomalies make a lot of noise and create a static visual effects whenever the player gets near, but it’s still fairly easy to run into them. They can be used in combat against enemies, though, and they often house artifacts. The player also has an unlimited supply of metal bolts that can be thrown into anomalies in order to discharge them.
- Artifacts are small, irradiated objects that take on the effects of the anomalies that house them. Up to five can be equipped at any one time, and they can bestow various bonuses on the player such as resistance to electricity, increased health, protection from radiation, etc.
The ALife component of the game’s engine continuously processes thousands of entities. This results in something of a simulated world where the player is a participant and not the sole focus. My first taste of this was when early on in the game I snuck out south to raid a military checkpoint. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite powerful enough to do that just yet, so I hightailed it back to the starting camp. Some soldier followed me, but I figured they’d give up after a while. Once I got back, I took on a quest and went to a different area. Eventually, though, I began to get messages that my various missions were failing! I didn’t know what was going on, so I went back to the camp just in time to witness the army dismantling my outgunned quest-givers.
- “Stashes” are hidden around the zones and serve as the game’s treasure chests. Oddly enough, though, they’re empty until you acquire information on their locations (which is usually done by killing their owners).
- The combat is executed very well, relying on constant stop-and-drop movement (which can be very difficult when the player is overburdened and can’t sprint) and proper use of weapons. Enemies are very smart and constantly maneuver to outflank you, and a single headshot is enough to kill just about anyone. The ballistics model is also fantastic resulting in bullets that can actually ricochet around the environment.
- The damage models are split into: burn, electrical shock, explosive, impact, rupture (causes bleeding) and chemical burn. The player also has to keep an eye on other stats such as: vitality, mental health, endurance, hunger and radiation.
- A Nokia-style PDA is the interface to the whole game and is capable of displaying maps that resemble satellite photos and support smooth zooming.
- The finale of the game takes place in a surreal, small-scale rendition of Chernobyl. It’s fairly accurate and filled with ruined apartment buildings and desolate school yards — a stark contrast to the ram-shack harrier towns, military outposts and wilderness areas that comprise the rest of the zones.
- There are multiple endings to the game, and most of them are utterly sadistic.
- Alcohol cures radiation. Seriously.