One always approaches delayed games with a certain level of caution. History is strewn with a collection of hotly anticipated flops that slipped from one delay to another, with final products that mirrored the anarchy in which they were created.
That said, this doesn’t mean one can’t still look forward to such games and there was no lack of interest when the S.T.A.L.K.E.R review code finally arrived in the offices a week or so ago. What began as a hopelessly ambitious open-ended FPS has morphed into an FPS come RPG which, although not quite as ambitious as before, is no less impressive in scale or lacking in open-ended endeavour.
Set in an alternate future, S.T.A.L.K.E.R puts the player into “The Zone” – a 30 square kilometre area surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant that tragically went into meltdown in 1986. Developed by Ukrainian studio GSC Game World, the game presents a future where additional events in 2006 and 2008 led to the development of various anomalies and mutated animals. Now 2012, curiosity and greed has led humankind to once again populate the area with divergent groups putting forth their own agendas to control The Zone.
You play the role of The Marked One, who after an attack is left with no memory of his former life and knows nothing but of his desire to find and kill a man named Strelok – a rogue Stalker of unknown origin.
With your life saved you are put to work by a trader who offers you money in return for completing assignments. Although there is a central plot – of sorts – S.T.A.L.K.E.R takes an approach much akin to the likes of Oblivion, and other RPG titles, in giving the player the choice to pursue different quests as they see fit.
One rather annoying facet of this system is the lack of information on your potential reward before you take on a mission. Though this is hardly unique to S.T.A.L.K.E.R, it does present a problem because many side-missions do not represent real value for money considering the risks involved and the expenditure on ammunition that must be replaced.
This makes taking on side-missions a hit and miss affair, with selling on artefacts and weapons a far more attractive option. Ultimately, one can make more than enough money by doing this and completing tasks central to driving the plot; thus further reducing the incentive to take on extra tasks.
What’s immediately apparent when you first start playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R is how different the combat is when compared to other shooter titles. For starters there’s an Oblivion-like energy bar, and this has a significant effect on both general travel and combat. During prolonged combat there’s a good chance your energy may become depleted and it’s important to manage your energy levels using energy drinks and ‘artefacts’ – more on which later.
Moreover, when low on health you’ll move slowly – so you can’t runaway too easily – while guns will deteriorate over time and jam when used intensively. Another intelligent addition is the inability to sprint and strafe simultaneously, and though this takes some getting used to it’s a logical and realistic approach to movement.