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S.T.A.L.K.E.R also takes a slightly different approach to health, with a bleeding system whereby injuries will continue to reduce your health unless bandaged. There are three levels of bleeding, each indicated by a symbol that appears on the right hand of the screen, and failure to act upon these warnings ends in a drawn out demise.
As if that weren’t enough you also have to contend with radiation, and when suffering from radiation poisoning your health will continue to drop until you administer anti-radiation drugs – or drink some Vodka!
All these elements take a little getting used to, and as a result the early stages are characterised by some fairly tough gameplay in which you must choose your battles carefully. This degree of challenge does, however, make S.T.A.L.K.E.R a rewarding experience, and the developers should be congratulated for not dumbing down the gameplay in order to make it easier.
Although there is a degree of RPG to S.T.A.L.K.E.R, it’s by no means as prevalent as in games such as Deus Ex. The mission structure and inventory management point toward this influence, but there’s no skill development or levelling up to deal with – which is no bad thing in my book.
Inventory management is a key part of the game, and knowing what to keep, what to sell and what to drop is a constant consideration. You can carry up to 50kg of items, and everything you carry has a weight and space requirement.
Another RPG type factor are artefacts; pieces of material created by the unstable environment in The Zone. When worn on your belt artefacts have potentially beneficial effects, while also being an important source of income as you sell on artefacts you don’t need.
You can wear up to five artefacts on your belt, and you must choose how to combine the artefacts you find to best suit the style in which you play. For example, some of the most useful artefacts are those that provide protection against radiation; however most artefacts have negative properties as well – such as reducing endurance or resistance to natural hazards.
Although many common artefacts can be found lying around all over The Zone, the most valuable and useful take some discovering; adding an element of exploration to the game. These artefacts are also located in the most inhospitable areas, with dangerous anomalies and mutated creatures to contend with before you can collect your booty.
This brings us nicely onto the The Zone itself, and one can’t help but be impressed by the world created by GSC Game World. It’s spent years plotting the area surrounding the crestfallen power plant and by combining this work with a little creative license, the developers have created a convincing environment that oozes tension.
The countryside is littered with anomalies and localised areas of radiation, so you can never wonder too aimlessly for fear of stepping into a potentially dangerous area. There are plenty of other dangers too, with mutated animals roaming the area – not to mention the various bandits and other factions vying for your attention.