It's taken a couple of years longer than anticipated to get here, but S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is finally entering the last phases of completion. This highly ambitious first-person survival game isn't a traditional shooter by any means. You won't be running and gunning through linear levels like you do in so many other games. Instead, you'll be plopped down around the radioactive ruins of the infamous nuclear power plant, and from that point you'll be able to explore a dynamic and living world, complete with its own ecology. With a work-in-progress version of the game in hand, we set about going through the early parts of the single-player game to see just how well S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has come together.
In S.T.A.L.K.E.R. you play as the "marked one," a stalker who wakes up with amnesia one day, remembering only that he has a vague mission to find and kill a fellow stalker named Strelok. Stalkers are heavily armed scavengers who wander around the exclusion zone that surrounds the Chernobyl facility. In the game's universe, the radiation from Chernobyl has had a strange effect on the landscape and wildlife within the zone. Strange creatures inhabit the zone, while the radiation turns ordinary items into valuable artifacts. Even worse is that the radiation has also created strange anomalies that distort the fabric of reality. Stalkers search the zone for valuable artifacts while trying to avoid the military forces that patrol the area.
After the obligatory opening cutscene that shows that things are certainly not all right within the zone, you start the game talking to Sidorovich, a merchant who gives you missions and information, and who also trades in equipment. Sidorovich drops some cryptic remarks about your amnesia, but also mentions that you owe him, and the payback means doing some jobs for him. The conversation system in the game is similar to that of role-playing games, as you'll have a variety of responses to choose from, as well as the opportunity to ask questions.
The first mission that you must accomplish for Sidorovich involves recovering a data drive from another stalker named Nimble. To get info on his location, you have to find Wolf, leader of a faction of stalkers in a nearby village. Thankfully, that village is next to Sidorovich's underground lair, but the short walk will give you your first taste of this lush virtual world. It's one full of overgrown fields, empty villages, and the occasional vehicle wreck rusting away to nothing. It's also a world full of all sorts of animal life. In fact, developer GSC Game World promised a dynamic ecology, and from our impressions this certainly seems to be the case. In the distance, we could see dogs chasing packs of strange boar creatures, and in another we saw those boar creatures suddenly flee when an anomaly appeared next to them. These anomalies appear in the form of something warping time and space.
The most dangerous things in the zone, though, are fellow humans. Thankfully, not all of them are on your enemies list. For instance, when we found Wolf, he explained that Nimble has been captured by a rival faction of stalkers, and he needed someone to lead his men in a rescue mission. You can decline and try to do the rescue solo, or you can agree and rendezvous with Wolf's men on the outskirts of the compound where Nimble is being held. We chose the latter, so we trekked over to the rendezvous point where Wolf's men awaited us.
At this point in the game, all you'll be armed with is a pistol, so that will make for an interesting firefight. There were approximately eight to nine bad guys inside the compound to deal with, and the ensuing firefight felt distinctive from the normal run-and-gun battles, probably because we just had the pistol. Still, we were impressed with the performance of the artificial intelligence. Each enemy stalker (and each has a unique name) did a lot more than just stand and shoot at us. They moved for cover, fell back and found a good defensible position, and more. As each one fell, we searched the body and recovered all sorts of goods, including weapons, ammunition, bandages, health packs, and even food. The inventory system is based on both space and weight, so if you fill up your pack or carry too many heavy objects, you'll have a problem. We recovered all the weapons, ranging from pistols to shotguns, and we also compared the condition of each, since weapons can apparently wear out.
We also located Nimble, hiding next to the fire. You don't really need to rescue him, since you could also recover the data drive off of his corpse, but we kept him alive. That turned out to be a good choice, as Nimble explained that he told his captors of a hidden weapons cache that you can also go after. Nimble can also be a source of missions, we discovered, so it'll probably be a good thing to keep him alive.
With the data drive intact, we had to hike it back to Sidorovich to collect our reward. The world of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is vast, and this tiny corner of the game still required us to hike about half a kilometer through the terrain. A scary moment occurred when we heard the blades of a helicopter approaching. We ran for cover and watched as a heavily armed gunship soared over the area before flying away.
We managed to get back to Sidorovich without encountering anything else, and this of course led to another mission. This new quest was a lot riskier, involving longer travel through the zone, and it was a good explanation of how the game's radiation system works. If you're exposed to too much radiation you'll need to treat it, through either taking expensive antiradiation medicine or by downing much more-affordable vodka. After selling our war booty to Sidorovich, we opted for some vodka and hiked back out to the wilderness for more adventures.
This initial taste of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is enticing, mainly because it appears that GSC Game World has delivered on many of the ambitious features that were promised years ago. There's almost a palpable sense that you're not quite playing a game, but rather exploring an incredibly dynamic and dangerous world. We're excited at the prospect of adventuring and living in this world. It also doesn't hurt that the visuals have remained impressive. There was concern that the many delays would result in the game looking dated when it arrived--keep in mind that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was supposed to be one of the first games to use DirectX 9, and now it will arrive after Microsoft releases DirectX 10. Still, the graphical detail is comparable to games such as Half-Life 2. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is scheduled to ship this March.