After years of development and delays, THQ and GSC Game World's ambitious first-person survival game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl finally ships to stores next week. This isn't a traditional first-person shooter in which your only job is to run along a very narrow, linear path and blow away everything in sight; instead, you'll be dropped into a dynamic, evolving virtual world, one set around the melted-down reactor at Chernobyl. Your job: explore, survive, and uncover the mystery of the exclusion zone, which is inhabited by mutants, strange energy anomalies, bandits, army groups, and stalkers, which are basically heavily armed scavengers. For more, we turned to Oleg Yavorsky, senior PR manager at Ukraine's GSC Game World.
GameSpot: How is the artificial intelligence of monsters and other enemy characters being designed to provide a realistic challenge? Will some characters have daily routines that cause them to patrol certain areas at certain times of day, for instance? What are some of the cunning tricks that enemies will use to try to get an edge against players?
Oleg Yavorsky: We gave our non-player characters a number of abilities to make them interesting, realistic enemies in combat. The general combat AI system is quite versatile and allows NPCs to be responsive to the dynamic situations in the game. Thus, monsters and human characters are able to evaluate their chances in battle based on comparing themselves to enemies with regards to current condition, weapon type, physical strength, ammunition available, and more, and react accordingly. If they consider the enemy weak enough, they are likely to attack him more vigorously, and if they find the enemy too strong, the NPCs might panic and run away.
Aside from pure physical strength and abilities, some monsters have been enabled with abnormal powers, such as invisibility, telekinesis, and telepathy. The poltergeist, for example, is a very unusual and interesting monster. While remaining invisible, he prefers to attack the player from a distance by levitating physical objects and throwing them at the player. The controller is extremely dangerous owing to his psi-control powers. Watch out, lest your brain should be captivated by his mental waves.
Diligent attention was paid to the stalkers' combat AI. Stalkers choose the best positions for attacking enemies, and they use cover to reload and change cover in case the enemy starts advancing toward them. Making use of the virtual hearing and sight functions, NPCs will determine whether the enemy can see them. If not, the NPC will sneak silently behind the target to shoot them in the back. Human characters are skilled at outflanking enemies. They use group tactics (one will try advancing while the others cover him). Stalkers are designed to finish off wounded enemies; they run away from grenades that are thrown, and they may panic in tough moments, like when they run out of ammunition.
On top of that, we worked out an elaborate precombat system. For example, if the player snipes a guard on a watch tower, enemies that heard the shot or ricochet will go to "aware" condition and find cover or look around.
More interestingly, the whole system is universal and applies to all combat in the game. Guided by the A-life system, NPCs live their daily lives: monsters roam the zone in search of food; stalkers go around collecting artifacts, fighting enemies, doing their daily jobs; camps and army posts go through their routine lives with members patrolling or sitting at the campfire playing songs on the guitar.
GS: Tell us about the role-playing gamelike elements in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Will players gain actual experience levels as they complete missions and defeat monsters? How will inventory management be handled?
OY: From the outset of development, we decided to have players develop their own skills and not go for the traditional role-playing levels. For example, we implemented realistic ballistics in the game, and we want players to feel and master each gun in combat themselves. At the same time, the concept of role-playing in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. primarily means giving players the possibility to play the role that they want in the game: Some might be friendly and helpful to NPCs, other might be evil and try to kill everyone in the way, while other might want to explore. The role you play in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will cause the world around you to respond accordingly and ultimately lead you to one of the seven different endings in the game.
With that said, the inventory system in the game will not have a separate skills section but will rather be focused on a stalker's bare necessities. There are active weapons slots, belt slots for activating artifacts and gear, a backpack containing all of your possessions, and some other important sections and indicators, such as the health bar, radioactivity bar, and hunger bar. The player's inventory is intuitive and easy to operate.
PDA FYIGS: Tell us about the PDA device and how it works in the game.
OY: The PDA is a universal device to help stalkers in the zone. Each stalker in the game has a personal PDA that stores all the information and data collected by the character. There are a number of bookmarks you will find on your PDA in the game.
First, the PDA contains a map of the zone. As you keep exploring the areas, more details will be revealed on the map. The communication bookmark will reveal to you the current "online" contacts in the area. Next, the PDA stores all of your missions and tasks in the game and categorizes them as active, accomplished, or failed. Also, the PDA is your personal notepad and diary--you can check out the log of conversations you had with NPCs, and information about the zone and its inhabitants can also be discovered there. Last, consult your PDA to check out your standing against all the other stalkers in the zone. You will find your PDA very handy in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
GS: Tell us about how the story will unfold in the game--we understand there will be various cinematic sequences in which players will speak with other characters and receive instructions, but will there be other narrative devices? Will players be able to get new quests and information by eavesdropping on other speaking characters? Will players discover discarded journals that reveal clues about what's going on in the zone?
OY: Indeed, aside from cutscenes and conversations with NPCs, story details, clues, answers, and more are placed in hidden stalker stashes and journals that the player will discover. The ultimate task in the game is to uncover the mystery behind the zone and what's going on there. Much of the solution relies specifically on indirect clues and information.
GS: Tell us about the artifacts in the game. What exactly are they? Will they have special properties that affect gameplay?
OY: Artifacts are anomalous formations that have absorbed the energy of the zone and hence represent a great value to scientists and an array of underground dealers. On top of mere trade value, artifacts may come in handy to a stalker in need. The anomalous energy contained within the artifacts provides for certain extra abilities that are unique to each of them. We are talking about extra protection against radiation, for example.
Putting artifacts into your belt slots will activate them. Before applying the artifacts onto yourself, make sure you read the description of its characteristics carefully--many of the artifacts have negative side effects along with the bonuses yielded to the player.
As an example, let's take a "flash" artifact. Visually, it's a translucent, amorphous object with light beams pulsating under its surface, and you can see it occasionally generating miniature lightning sparks. Carrying flash on your belt will improve your stamina and provide some resistance to electricity; however, at the same time it will make you more susceptible to radiation.
GS: Why are artifacts so highly prized? Why does each faction in the game want artifacts? Do they all simply want them to sell off for cash, or do they have other reasons?
OY: Cash is the primary incentive for collecting and selling artifacts. And artifacts are a universal currency in the game. You can always sell them to dealers or exchange them for a desperately needed health kit or foodstuffs with a friendly stalker you meet in the zone. By their nature, stalkers are guys hunting for artifacts, and they make their living out of selling them.
Geiger Counters are Your FriendsGS: We understand that recovering artifacts will be hazardous to your health in the game because of various "anomalies" created by the nuclear fallout in and around Chernobyl. Tell us about these anomalies and what players will have to do to get past them.
OY: Anomalies are concentrations of energy unexplained by modern physics, and there are a variety of such energy spots in the zone. Anomalies differ by range and concentration. There are several anomaly types, each with a different effect.
In essence, anomalies are dangerous and can deliver instant death to monsters and stalkers (tearing victims apart, inflicting major electrical damage, and the like). Some anomalies are invisible and transparent, which doesn't make the player's life any easier, so if you see strange vibrations in the air or strangely whirling leaves ahead, beware.
To safeguard the player from the peril of anomalies, we provided him with a Geiger counter and a solid amount of metal bolts. If you throw a bolt and it lands normally, the area should be safe to move forward. Your Geiger counter will click insanely when you approach radioactive hot spots.
There are values inherent to anomalies, too. First, they generate artifacts around them. Second, you can try using anomalies to your advantage. For example, by luring a pack of monsters inside an anomaly you can conserve bullets.
GS: What role do artifacts play in the story? The primary goal of the various stalker factions is to recover them, but we also understand that if players aren't fast enough, other stalker characters may complete the game first. How do artifacts play a role in this?
OY: The further the story unfolds and the deeper the players go into the game, the more valuable the artifacts that they can find. According to the story, there's an artifact bonanza rumored to be somewhere in the zone's center. The challenge is that nobody could find the path to that artifact paradise, and the player is now given a chance.
The initial idea, that NPC stalkers could finish the game before you, was dropped to avoid any possible confusion, and it just wasn't fun. So now all the hopes to find clues to the zone lie on the player's shoulders.
GS: Now that development on the game is complete, tell us what the most challenging part of the process was. Also, what do you hope players will enjoy most about the game?
OY: Our primary efforts were directed into implementing and adjusting the A-life system. Such a system has never been implemented in a game before. At certain points, we felt like the task was impossible to accomplish. Nevertheless, we did it. The A-life controls a vast number of characters in the zone and creates both background events and multitude of secondary quests.
Another bottleneck was combining the story elements with A-life, which is a dynamic system in constant movement. We found an elegant solution in story events getting placed inside the world, but until the player has interacted with those events new areas are inaccessible. Once the player has accomplished a story event, a new area gets filled. When you return to that level, there will be new, content and secondary tasks.
GS: And now that development is complete, any thoughts on the future of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. as a franchise, or perhaps on what direction GSC Game World might want to take next?
OY: The ideas implemented in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. have great potential, and we really feel we could continue developing upon and bringing them to a new level. What will it be, exactly? It's all still working out in our heads, but keep an eye out for future announcements.
GS: Thank you, Oleg.