S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl E3 2004 Preshow Updated Impressions

We take an updated look at THQ and GSC Game World's ambitious upcoming PC game at E3 2004.

We took an updated look at S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, the ambitious "survival action" game from GSC Game World and THQ, at E3 2004. If you're familiar with the game, you'll know that it takes place in the near future in the wake of a fictitious second Chernobyl reactor meltdown--and that you play as a "stalker," a scavenger hunting irradiated objects while battling off mutant monsters, the government military, and rival scavengers. GSC Game World and THQ are showing off a number of new features at the show, including new mutant enemies, new "anomalies"--dangerous irradiated areas that can and will kill anyone foolish enough to blunder into them, and a host of impressive new DirectX 9-based graphical effects.

The demonstration we watched showed what the developer refers to as "two separate levels of monster artificial intelligence," one of which governs the way monsters and other characters will interact with each other when left alone (they may attack or avoid each other based on hunger, how threatening they consider their enemies, and how wounded they are), and one of which governs the way they react to you. To demonstrate, we watched a player approach a bloodsucker, a mutated humanoid monster with pink flesh and a row of tentacles under its jaw. The bloodsucker will aggressively attack you at close range, though if it has an opportunity, it will also use its ability to turn invisible (the only indicator you'll have of its presence will be clouds of dust kicked up by its shambling feet) and attempt to flank you. Mutated dogs will not only leap at you to attack; they'll also use a psionic blast that pushes you backward.

Some of the new features shown at E3 include new monsters like the "pseudogiant," a horribly malformed humanoid creature that is essentially a hulking torso with legs. The creature's oversized, uneven facial features are embedded into the front of its torso, and its tiny, vestigial arms contrast strongly with its powerful legs, which it will use to lumber toward you until it dies. The pseudogiant isn't especially bright, but it's incredibly tough. The opposite is perhaps true of the other new mutant creature shown at E3, the "burer," a squat, ugly, hooded humanoid that can take very little punishment up close but will use its telekinetic powers to lift and hurl any and all nearby environmental objects at you in an effort to keep you away.

Some of the toughest opponents in the game will be rival stalkers, who, like you, will be treasure-hunting and may not appreciate it if you trespass on their territory. If you can maintain decent relations with other groups of stalkers, you may be able to trade with them by approaching them, then using a drag-and-drop interface to trade cash, food, information, ammunition, and other supplies. You'll use a similar interface when buying or selling from a "dealer," the black-market merchants who buy your loot and give you specific missions. Depending on your actions, some stalkers may come after you (especially if you've slaughtered a great many of them, which will cause a decrease in your reputation). If you're unlucky enough to come upon a group of them, you can expect them to use squad-based tactics--we watched as a group of rival stalkers fanned out and leapt behind cover while trying to flank us. If you happen to get in good with a faction of stalkers, they may back you up in battle--in any case, these adversaries should be smart enough to recognize simple clues, so they may attack you at night if you're foolish enough to leave your flashlight on. Your enemies may also make use of how the game physically models different surfaces. Specifically, hiding behind a flimsy wooden wall affords you very little protection at all; bullets will penetrate the wall and injure you, but you can also return fire through this surface.

In addition to rival stalkers and mutants, you'll also have to contend with the military (which is actively patrolling the area with powerful hardware and attack choppers to keep scavengers like you out) and with "anomalies"--irradiated zones with bizarre and deadly properties. In some cases, you'll be able to detect anomalies by sight (the air will shimmer slightly), though your best bet is to use a radiation meter and follow up by tossing a metal bolt into the air and seeing what happens. Two of the new anomalies we saw were a gravity-based anomaly, which sucks its victims in and crushes them to a pulp, and an acid-based anomaly, which covers its victims in searing green acid and scalds them to death.

While all these features seemed as impressive as ever, they were rendered using the game's original (but still impressive) DirectX 8-based graphics engine. The demonstration at E3 showed off S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s new DirectX 9 effects, including dynamic lighting, bump-mapped characters and monsters, and light blooming for outdoor areas. These new effects seemed to make the already-convincing-looking S.T.A.L.K.E.R. even more so (the game has been developed with more than 1,000 file photos captured at Chernobyl, which is near the Ukranian developer's home office). The lighting effects looked most impressive in an indoor compound area whose walls were lit by a silent spinning siren that cast alternating layers of red light along the walls and by fluorescent lamps tenuously hanging over a stairwell that, when partially dislodged by gunfire, swung crazily about, casting realistic-looking soft shadows.

A representative from THQ confirmed that a public beta test of some kind is planned for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. soon, especially since the game will feature competitive online multiplayer modes. The game itself is scheduled for release later this year. We'll have more updates from the show floor.

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