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A key component of this environment is the “A-Life” simulation system, which reputedly tracks the progress of thousands of NPC characters. The game has its own timeline too, with night and day cycles and an impressively realistic weather system adding to the atmosphere.
Thunderstorms are a particular highlight, with lightning in the distance illuminating the surrounding countryside. The time cycle also has a significant effect on gameplay, with night time obviously providing more advantage for sneaking by unnoticed; infiltrating bases and heavily fortified locations.
Throughout the game there’s a definite sense of activity, though it isn’t quite as convincing as the developers might have you believe. Nonetheless there is evidence of this system in action, and if you play particular sequences in completely different ways you will notice the difference.
By way of example I played through one section in the game twice; first playing methodically and then rushing through ignoring enemies and other distractions. As a consequence I reached the same point in the area at a different time, with a noticeable difference in outcome.
On the first run the area was strewn with dead soldiers, with Stalkers patrolling the area. But, on the second run, those soldiers had yet to be defeated and were still alive and ready for a fight. This is just a small example of this system in action, and it’s certainly worth playing the game through again to see whether things do turn out differently.
Much of the conflict in S.T.A.L.K.E.R – physical and metaphorical – is derived from this system and the clashes it creates between the various factions. From Freedom, who wishes for free access to The Zone, to Duty who wants to prevent its spread – everyone seems to have an agenda.
The Army want to control it, Stalkers want to profit from it, Scientists want to study it and then there’s Monolith, a religious sect that believe in the holiness of the centre of The Zone, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
These conflicts, and the quest to ‘Kill Strelok’, form the focal point the game’s story and regrettably this is where the S.T.A.L.K.E.R universe begins to unravel. The basic premise is fine, especially the warring groups which add a level of moral ambiguity to the game.
No, the real problem is that S.T.A.L.K.E.R never provides any good reason why the player should care about any of this. The Strelok plotline in particular feels clumsily put together, and seems like a flimsy excuse to push the player into opening the passage north to the town of Pripyat and the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
In essence the central plot is based around progressing from the south, where you begin, and opening the path to the north and the power plant. From time to time, when key objectives are completed, the game teases you with cinematic sequences but these serve to confuse rather than inform adding little to the experience.