S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl Updated Hands-On - Single-Player and Multiplayer Impressions

GSC Game World's long-awaited PC shooter is nearing completion. We flew to Kiev, Ukraine, to check out the latest build.

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While it might not have had a development period on the scale of Prey or Duke Nukem Forever, GSC Game World has certainly taken its time to deliver S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. The press trip to see the game in Kiev has happened so many times that it's almost a tradition for journalists, but with the game now looking close to complete, THQ is adamant about an early 2007 release. Here, then, is what will hopefully be our final hands-on preview before we can jump into the finished game early next year.

The site of the world's worst nuclear accident becomes the setting of this ambitious first-person action survival game.

For the uninitiated, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. puts the player within the exclusion zone of the world's worst nuclear disaster. It doesn't model the actual area brick for brick, nor does it follow the real-life events that took place, but GSC Game World has chosen to take advantage of the mythology surrounding Chernobyl and apply a sci-fi storyline to it. Taking place in the future, the game's plot adds in a second nuclear explosion that took place in April 2006, which produced strange new energy forms at the center of the zone. With the area becoming increasingly unstable, scientists decide to investigate. But when no one returns, the exclusion zone is extended and the army comes in to patrol.

Everything seems to be under control by 2008 until mutant creatures begin to appear at the borders and security measures have to be tightened again. While Chernobyl has now become one of the most dangerous places on earth, public interest is growing and a number of people sneak past the borders to find out the truth. Those that dare to venture inside find that it was worth the risk, as the instability in the zone has produced a number of precious artefacts that prove to be valuable in the outside world. With corporations and scientific groups eager to snap up these strange relics, this group of scavengers risk their lives inside the zone to make money and soon become known as the stalkers.

As you should be able to guess by now, your role in the game is to play one of these stalkers, with most of your time spent inside the exclusion zone itself. The introduction to the game shows you, the main character, being rescued from a near-death encounter within the zone and extracted to safety in a nearby location. Waking up on a table in a fevered state, it's clear that you've recovered from a traumatic experience with no knowledge of who you are or where you are. From here, the story of the game is set up for you to explore this free-roaming environment to fulfil the role of a stalker, while also finding out who you are.

You play as a stalker, a heavily armed scavenger looking for valuable salvage in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl.

To explain just what it will be like to inhabit this world, project lead Anton Bolshakov walked us through a live demonstration. Using admin tools to show off the A-Life simulation system, Bolshakov set up a level close to the border and populated it with a group of stalkers. In the short term, they seemed interested in finding artefacts to sell, but in the long term, these characters displayed real-life human needs. Non-playable characters automatically communicated with each other, rested, ate food, and showed basic survival needs by killing nearby enemies. In this case, enemies are the monsters that have mutated thanks to the second explosion, but stalkers also have to contend with the army that patrols the area. Somewhere in the middle are the groups of traders and bandits, who have little interest in fighting but exist to control the movement of artefacts and their value.

In total, the ambitious A-Life engine controls more than 1,000 stalkers and monsters at any one time. Inevitably, placing that number of enemies together results in frequent combat between the two sides. Humans can be seen unloading clips into the mutants and heading for cover when they run out of ammunition, while monsters will feast on the bodies of those that don't quite manage to find safe cover. Once the numbers in either camp start to dwindle, then the A-Life engine will begin to migrate characters from other areas to restore the balance. As you'd expect, such an ambitious system is one of the reasons that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has taken so long to get to market, but if GSC is able to deliver the realism promised by the demonstration then its hard work will have paid off.

As well as implementing brand-new technology in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the developers have had time to implement a branching storyline that has seven different endings. The team talks about five of these being "false," while two of them are "true." Predictably, you'll have to put in the work to see one of the better endings, as S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s open-ended, do-anything structure lets you choose how involved you want to be in the game. If you decide to take part in the secondary goals and help those in need, you'll earn one of the better finales, which the makers claim will take 40 to 60 hours to achieve. Other considerations, such as how much you trade and who you decide to kill, will also affect the game's conclusion. While you won't be able to continue the game after completion, the team expects that you will want to go back through a number of times.

While the prospect of a game set in Chernobyl is appealing enough for fans of the macabre, THQ hammered the point home by taking us on a tour of the current exclusion zone. The tour covered the deserted town of Pripryat, a look at the military installations within the exclusion zone, and a nauseating stop only 200 metres away from the exploded reactor itself. The possibility of long-term radioactive damage was apparently minimal, but the need to dodge wild boars as well as sign forms clearing THQ from any cause of death certainly didn't make us feel any safer.

You're armed mainly with weapons that you scavenge from the bodies of your enemies.

There was a purpose to this grisly form of disaster tourism, though--to see how the designers have modelled Chernobyl and turned it into a game. It hasn't been modelled exactly, but key features from Pripryat such as the eerie Ferris wheel and abandoned town hall have been used to re-create the atmosphere of the zone. While the tour guide was at pains to point out that the freaks or mutants of the game don't really inhabit the zone, it turns out that the seed of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was planted by the developer's own experiences of living in Ukraine. In the aftermath of the disaster, members of the team saw men in white coats taking Geiger-counter readings around their homes.

Multiplayer Mayhem

Having taken in the tech demos and theory behind S.T.A.L.K.E.R., we sat down for some quality time with the game in Kiev. The first level that we saw was named Agroprom, and it gave us a chance to see the sort of missions that you undertake in the final game. As soon as you arrive on the outskirts of a village, your PDA tells you to hunt down "the gunslinger" after acquiring information from the barman in a nearby town. As you enter Agroprom, you find a friendly stalker faction whose leader has been captured by the military. In return for helping with the extraction, the allies can give you information that will help locate the gunslinger.

We wonder if that sign means "minefield" in Ukrainian? One way to find out.

As we played through the level for the first time, we found ourselves dying quite frequently, with the opposition cutting through us when we were out in open positions. However, once we began to push the military forces back, the stalker allies moved forward and became more aggressive. Moving away from the area, we could see the A-Life technology in action as a military helicopter flew in to replenish the armed forces in the area. Shortly afterward, a THQ representative demonstrated to us that with a little exploration, you can avoid the fire fight altogether and find the underground opening that would have been revealed if you had extracted the allied leader.

As well as choosing whether or not to engage enemies, you can use different battle tactics. The game encourages a Splinter Cell-like stealth approach, with noise and visibility bars in the corner of the screen. Come running around a corner, and the noise will alert the waiting enemies. Or, forget to check corners and rooftops, and the person that spotted you will alert his buddies. There are ways that you can use the environment to your advantage, though. You can shoot out light bulbs and use night-vision goggles to confuse your enemies, while weapons can be adapted with silencers and scopes. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. even introduces bleeding into the mix, with a trail of blood that will help both you and your enemies find each other if shot. The solution is to use bandages to cover up your wounds, followed by a trusty health pack to replenish your energy.

Although S.T.A.L.K.E.R. appears to be a traditional first-person shooter, there's a role-playing element to managing your inventory. You're limited in the amount of equipment you can carry by weight, so you have to balance the guns and ammo you take with you. You can swap weapons with those from fallen enemies, and we soon found weapons that suited our individual playing style based on their ranges and firing spread. Likewise, although carrying stronger armor will prove useful against enemy attacks, it's heavier and takes up more room in your inventory. As you travel around the zone, there's plenty to scavenge, as well as buy from traders, so you'll be able to experiment with a variety of combinations as you play.

Many of the towns near Chernobyl were abandoned the day of the accident, and they remain ghost towns today.

Although guns and armor are staple components of the first-person-shooter genre, the difference in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is the need to collect artefacts. Produced by anomalies around the game world, these relics give benefits to the bearer such as stamina boosts or protective shields. They can be found by tossing bits of metal into the air in marked places on the map--if the nuts or bolts you toss react strangely, this could indicate the presence of an artefact. If you have no use for them in the short term, you can sell them back to traders to buy other objects such as weaponry. There are also traditional Ukrainian methods of protection on hand, with vodka giving you protection from radiation as well as offering a small amount of health.

As we left the battle area of Agroprom and attempted to find our way to the next objective, we had a chance to try out the in-game PDA. It displays a full map of the zone, as well as a diary of conversations, contacts, an encyclopedia, and a list of nearby stalkers. In short, the PDA is an essential tool for surviving in the zone. All the travel that we attempted was made on foot, and the final game apparently won't include vehicles, after the idea was scrapped in development. After all, Chernobyl doesn't really boast an array of tanks and sports cars, and taking a clapped-out tractor wouldn't really offer a benefit over walking.

While we didn't get to see it in our short time with the game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. promises a dynamic shift between night and day environments. At night time, the fighting between the military and stalkers calms down, with both groups retreating into camps for rest. Stalkers can be found sitting around campfires, singing songs, and playing the guitar. The zone will still remain dangerous, however, with mutants taking advantage of the night-time cover. These mutants also have other means of concealment, with the bloodsucker able to take on natural camouflage, just like the Predator from the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

The final part of the game on show was the multiplayer, with three different modes available. Deathmatch and team deathmatch are self-explanatory kill-or-be-killed modes, while artefact hunt is the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. equivalent of capture the flag. The eight-player deathmatch mode was a blast to play on a local network, and while it offers nothing revolutionary, it's a simple and enjoyable game to get into. As with Counter-Strike, you have to buy guns at the beginning of each round, and while there were places to climb up and hide, the level we played was an open environment that resulted in plenty of quick kills.

After years of waiting, it looks like we'll finally get a chance to play S.T.A.L.K.E.R. relatively soon.

While S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is big on ideas, it currently looks a little dated when compared to its next-generation contemporaries. The protracted development period has clearly been used to polish the A-Life system and branching storyline, and you have to scratch beneath the surface to see these advancements. Thankfully, the game finally looks close to completion, and THQ seems relatively certain that it will see the light of day next year. While S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has more bad endings waiting for its players than it does good, hopefully the game itself will have a happy conclusion after all those years of work.

Discussion

121 comments
wallywoo1
wallywoo1

i brought the game on thursday after it was load it would say fehler x die page-datelist deaktiert oder die dateigrobe reicht nicht ahs um zu funictionieren braucht das spiel cine dage-datel vcn mindesteng 2 gb bitte\clie system.ken figuration anpassen,bevor das spiel erneut gestartet wird what does it says?/

knux15
knux15

I'm sure that once they get the main process done they will hopefully throw some basic HDR, or atleast bloom shaders in there to keep the imagery fresh... either way it will be nice to have a game like this for a change... The latest PC games have either sucked or have been very costly, or on Steam ^^. o well hopefully this one keeps it's promises...

lawfrye
lawfrye

To comment on what "KandyKornMan" had to say, I agree with you totally. The consoles have come along way since the days of SuperNES and the like, however they will never match what a high-end PC can do. That said, you must admit that the majority of really hot stuff seems to be released for these machines in large volumes. Many times gamers have to wait for years to see "some" of these games show up on the PC. Developers need to start showing some extra love for us PC gamers, the games that they develop look and run better on PC's anyway (Provided you have a powerful enough rig ). In any event, I'm really looking forward to playing this game. If GSC is able to pull off this "A-Life" engine successfully this could be a revolutionary advancement in gaming!

AFWorm
AFWorm

I just hope the game doesn't let us down with all this hype.

KandyKornMan
KandyKornMan

i dont see why the pc would be forgotten because of the next gen consoles.the pc is so much easier to program for and the technology gets better every month/year.need to remember that all games are made on pc anyways.

lawfrye
lawfrye

Buildings and terrain look great, however the character models seem to be in need of a touch up. That said, if the game lives up to everything they claim it will it should be a huge hit. This is definately needed for the PC which seems to be getting forgotten in this new age of Next-Gen consoles.

Buffalo_Soulja
Buffalo_Soulja

If the gameplay is as good as promised I'll forget about the visual presentation pretty easliy.

PirateSteev
PirateSteev

based very loosely on Andrei Tarkovsky's movie Stalker? I think so. Go see it! A bit slow, but very VERY cool

fratos
fratos

One thing i need to ask , can the direct x 8 option still be selected ... because i played the beta .. and it looked awesome , it's not that i don't love the looks of the direct x 9 engine , but i like pulling out a strong fps while having a good texture two... ;) thanks

boffo21
boffo21

Open ended story, muntant fighting, awesome game engine. What more could you want from a FPS

Suad_Rif
Suad_Rif

The graphics' not the best out there, but it still looks pretty darn good. Easily among the best. And hey, it's not all about graphics. This one's worth waiting. Way to go, GSC. -_-

GFofgaming
GFofgaming

This is what PC GAMING is all about dude. FPS! FPS! I mean both First-person shooter and Frames-per-second.

NAF4141
NAF4141

questionable graphics.

mattxavier
mattxavier

Dosen't look bad.Hope it does get released.

dave1388
dave1388

First off, this game was announced near the end of 2001. This means they were already working on it before then. Secondly, if this game accomplishes what it sets out to achieve gameplay-wise, it will be revolutionary. And finally, who the hell is complaining about the graphics? Have you looked at the screenshots/videos? The game is made from photo-realistic textures, so every seen looks detailed for starters. It is DX9, but then again...2001...come on. The game has full soft shadowing and full light sources. It doesn't "look like Doom 3" at all. Doom 3 uses hard shadows. This game looks better than Half Life 2: Episode 2, and looks comparable to some modern day shooters (including next-gen)...

Sypher213
Sypher213

Last release date was April '05, back then it was incredibly impressive. I just hope they improved the graphics a bit since then. Also not happy with the fact they removed quite a few features.. also heard they removed drivable vehicles :*(

protossdragoon
protossdragoon

no, please don't tell me u are going all alone in the SP game again. i have had it with this i want people to see me shooting and play along with me even if it is an npc.

Codemonkee
Codemonkee

If I can get 40-50 fps and 60 hours in a game, I'll be Real happy. Who cares if it looks like DOOM 3. This sounds like an ideal set-up for multiplayer. . . .wonder what they've got up their sleeve there.

guncizxxl
guncizxxl

C'mon, just a little bit more to wait... been waiting since '04. And I guess I'll have 60 hours to do with this game. The graphics look good enough and I hope the gameplay will be good to play.

crippla87
crippla87

WHAT! Those graphics are not bad, they look pretty solid to me. Cant wait to play it...hopefully.

Dargoth
Dargoth

"the deserted town of Pripryat" LOL It's Pripyat'. [pri:p'at']

death5ter
death5ter

I hope it has a great tilt on gameplay, since it was developed for the past 3 years, i don't think it can race up ahead with today's FPS graphics...

SpazH3d
SpazH3d

Wow, its coming out soon? I don´t believe it.

Faissal
Faissal

I've been waiting for this game since freshman year, and now I'm getting ready to finish college. Well, in a way that's good: if it had released on time, then I would not have been able to manage the rig for playing this game. Now I just have to use the tech specs when buying my next PC. Great! Four years of wait for a job and a video game. O well, it beats dinner and a movie!

LoveThat
LoveThat

i can't pin point why, but it isn't as impressive visually as before. need to see it live in motion, i guess. after how many years in development, this one better score in the 9.0s.

Thrasher91604
Thrasher91604

Glad to see this coming out. Less interested now that most of the RPG elements have been removed. Less innovative than originally planned, but a few new twists for realism/immersion. I'm more interested in deep gameplay though, oh well...

Gollum92
Gollum92

Awesome! Have to look into this more.

martin_f
martin_f

Been waiting for 3 years for this!!!

mkreku
mkreku

Looks dated? Compared to what? I thought the screenshots looked really nice.

DirtyRotten
DirtyRotten

You don't have to worry too much about upgrading your machines for this game, if your computer runs Half-Life 2 alright you'll be fine. This game was supposed to come out a year or so ago but ran into development issues which put it in limbo for a while.

semperfi3
semperfi3

Great looking game, amazing graphics, better make sure your rig can handle this one. Look forward to trying it out. www.PlugComputers.com - Custom Intel and AMD gaming computers.

stain1ess
stain1ess

man pc games are so pretty. Definitely time for an upgrade to the pc rig.

Scaryclouds
Scaryclouds

Cody-7 wrote: P.S. #2: What do they mean by --> "While S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has more bad endings waiting for its players than it does good, hopefully the game itself will have a happy conclusion after all those years of work." ? What do they mean by "more bad endings than good" ? Are they talking about alternative endings? In the article they indicated there are 7 different endings to the game. They go on to say there are 2 "good" endings and 5 "bad" endings. The ending you get is obiviously dictated by your age, sex, I.Q., and race. Sorry I mean the actions; missions completed, artefacts collected, and people killed during the course of the game.

modulate
modulate

This has been long awaited, but anticipated! Looking forward to it.

Cody-7
Cody-7

I, like many of you have been looking at, and waiting for STALKER to come out for many years. I do believe that this game idea was originally thought up in 2001 and called STALKER: Oblivion Lost. They renamed it shortly after that.... Then, in around late '03 or early '04 I remember reading an article on the game's web-page saying they completley updated the graphics for DX9.0 (Because it was originally being created with DX8 ). So, it already has gone through one graphic makeover. As far as the gameplay, i'm now drooling all over my keyboard! :P I'm sure the miltiplayer will be a blast with "artifact hunt" and your standard game modes. And with dynamic day-to-night lighting, an RPG-like style of hunting for objects and selling them to people, and an open-ended single player storyline where you can actually end up with many different endings... it sounds like hours of fun. Plus, seriously... NO ONE has a storyline as immersive and intriguing as a nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Just thinking about the videos I've watched from areas around the plant gives me shivers! I think only HL2's storyline can compare. I just hope that the multiplayer gameplay is balanced... I remember messing with a stalker beta (Build 2215, if anyone is interested) and the run speed was rediculous. It reminded me of RS: Lockdown, if you catch my drift. And my opinion on the release date: The developers have obviously waited WAY too long to release the game -- and they chose a horrible time to be releasing it. Now, I'm sure it will be a great game, but it still sucks they waited so long. It was in development technically since 2001, but '03 or '04 would of been a great time to release it. Especially now compared to next-gen games, Vista, Crysis, the graphics will be O.K. but nothing special. I sure hope the gameplay is good enough that people see beyond just graphics, like it should always be! ;) P.S. Would anyone here happen to know when the Stalker Beta build 2215 was released? Thanks! P.S. #2: What do they mean by --> "While S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has more bad endings waiting for its players than it does good, hopefully the game itself will have a happy conclusion after all those years of work." ? What do they mean by "more bad endings than good" ? Are they talking about alternative endings?

jerk_wad
jerk_wad

A comment on the interview. Why in the heck is there music? I mean is it not more important to hear the interview?! I just found it annoying and unprofessionally executed. I would have rather heard the interview and what they had to say. As for the game, I'm looking forward to it! Looks like I'll spend allot of time in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R world.

firebreathing
firebreathing

Actually willytheekid, what game have you played that can manage that much AI at once and do it that well??? Oh wait, you haven't.......maybe if you would of actually read the article you would have fully understood the concept behind the AI system and why it has taken this long to develop. You COULD say Oblivion has that much AI interacting with each other, but it's not as complex as STALKER :P Oblivions light/sound detection, for instance, is far more simplistic then STALKERS.

Micropanic
Micropanic

I'd rather them take years and finally release the game then give into the public for ridiculing them, and releasing a crap game which then itself gets mocked at. Patience people! There's plenty of other good games out there to play in the mean time!

willytheekid
willytheekid

YAWN!...is it ever gonna come out??. For two years we have been hearing about this GREAT game, and all we have seen is release dates pushed back again and again! then they tell us OPPS! were not happy so were gonna start over??. Heard too much about this game and waited too long already. Newer better engines and AI have immerged and have outdated this game even before it hits the selves....too bad!, but thats procrastination for ya

Scaryclouds
Scaryclouds

Why are people making comments like "I hope the graphics will be good" there are screen shots look at them... And while having better graphics is always better I am far more concerned about gameplay (controls, storyline, music, etc.) than graphics. Doom 3 is a perfect example of why great graphics don't make a game great.

CaptainDingo
CaptainDingo

"Lol. Everyone seems to think they're cool when slamming the game. Hmm, funny that it's the number ONE most wanted PC game on Gamespot." That doesn't invalidate the opinions of the skeptical. I too am skeptical. Every time we're promised amazing AI in a first-person shooter, we get pre-scripted events and idiots that will run right into the barrel of your gun. Why this will be any different has not yet been explained and I'm interested in seeing whether or not it's just another big fat AI lie like Oblivion was. Everything Oblivion NPCs do is cosmetic, they don't actually have needs or desires. They go places and run animations; that's it.

sleepy1978
sleepy1978

Wow, that sounds really ambitous. /crosses fingers and hopes they pull it off!

lord-azrael
lord-azrael

1000 troops at once,nice.I remember when Hideo Kojima said he was disappointed with the PS2's power cause he had expected to be able to have 1000 guards stationed on Metal gear 2 that all reacted to seperatly like they describing here

zombiefruit
zombiefruit

Wow. Before I read this preview I didn't care about this game at all but now I am so excited for it. The A.I. sounds amazing and the landscape and story look and sound great. Thank you Gamespot for showing me another great game.

Tropico_Al
Tropico_Al

Lol. Everyone seems to think they're cool when slamming the game. Hmm, funny that it's the number ONE most wanted PC game on Gamespot.