With Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 dominating the landscape for PC first-person shooters this year, THQ and developer GSC GameWorld recently announced that they were pushing S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl to early 2005. Part of the reason for this was to give GSC some more time to polish this ambitious and beautiful-looking first-person shooter, but it also didn't hurt that by delaying to 2005, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will avoid being released next to Doom 3 and (most likely) Half-Life 2. We had the chance to play some four-player deathmatch of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. at THQ's press event this evening, which also represented some of our first hands-on time with the game. We came away impressed with the graphical prowess and smoothness of the game, though we should note that we didn't get a chance to play or see the vaunted single-player campaign.
To quickly recap: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is set in and around the real-world exclusion zone around the infamous Chernobyl reactor after a second, fictional meltdown at the cursed plant. As a result of two nuclear meltdowns, the radiation has drastically affected the surrounding environment. You'll play as a stalker in the game, a scavenger who explores the exclusion zone for artifacts that have been altered by radiation. In addition to interacting with and battling other stalkers, you'll also need to worry about the mutated monsters that inhabit the zone, as well as the Ukrainian military that polices it.
As noted earlier, we had the chance to play a four-person deathmatch game that was set in an abandoned and dilapidated city that reminded us of what we've seen of Half-Life 2's City 17. In fact, we must admit that the graphics engine looks technically very impressive, and it's arguably at least on par with what we've seen of Half-Life 2. We learned that the demo is still using the DirectX 8 version of the graphics engine; the DirectX 9 version that was shown at E3 is still being kept largely under wraps. Despite using the "older" version of the engine, the game still looked great, and the level we played was filled with run-down buildings, cratered streets, and the rusted infrastructure of an abandoned city. The sky was also beautifully rendered, and we noted that the setting sun actually casts long shadows.
The multiplayer game will incorporate the day-night cycle that's in the single-player game, so the sun will rise and set during a match. The designers are still discussing whether to make it an accelerated time cycle so that you'll see a day pass over the course of approximately 20 minutes. Either way, it will likely be a server setting, and you can also select to have a match take place in daylight or at night, forcing players to use night vision devices and flashlights.
You'll start the match with an automatic pistol, which is admittedly not much but is better than nothing. The gameplay we tried out was very smooth, and the engine maintained high frame rates, so it wasn't too difficult to draw a bead on a moving target to unload a few rounds into it. The damage modeling seems to be fairly on par with other shooters, so you can basically absorb a few hits before you die, which means you have a chance to survive if you react quickly enough after the first hit.
One of the concepts of the single-player game that crosses into the multiplayer arena is the idea that stalkers must purchase their equipment. So, before you respawn, you can hit the "b" key to call up a purchasing system that's not unlike that found in Counter-Strike. You gain cash by getting kills, and if you accumulate enough cash, you can buy better weapons, armor, and equipment. All of the weapons in the game are based on real-world examples, so we purchased Kalashnikovs as well as a G36 assault rifle. You can also purchase upgrades for all weapons, including grenade launchers and scopes. Needless to say, given the choice between an assault rifle and a pistol, we chose the former. We then discovered that it's best to use the assault rifle in short bursts, because the recoil from prolonged bursts will ruin your aim. You can use the right mouse button to use either the iron sights or the scope on all of your weapons, which makes it a bit easier to hit a distant target.
Though the multiplayer game we played only had four players, the developers are aiming to support up to 32 players on the Internet, depending on the type of game. One of the neat features that we were told about but did not get to see was the ability to use the environment to your advantage to shoot "around" a corner. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. uses a realistic ballistics model, which means that you can ricochet bullets off of surfaces, depending on the surface's density and the ballistic arc of the bullet. This should certainly make for some interesting experimenting when the game ships.
We came away very impressed with how S.T.A.L.K.E.R. looked and felt, but we'd certainly like to learn more about the new multiplayer modes in the game. We also didn't get a chance to see any of the single-player game, though we're told that at this point the developers have completed all of the levels and are now balancing and polishing the game. As it stands right now, THQ is looking to start its second beta test in September, and there's talk of a public beta in November. If all goes according to plan, we should expect to see S.T.A.L.K.E.R. ship in the early part of 2005.