S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
We Are creatures of habit. Despite the fact that washing machines have dials with 12 settings on, we religiously use the one that says 'non-fast colours (destruction of clothes doubtful)', whether we're removing the smells from pants, curtains or chainmail. We buy the same brands and products, week in, week out. We eat the same safe curries when we go for an Indian. We watch so much bad TV that Jasper Carrott still has a career. Change is bad, and if something is broken, then there's no point in fixing it as people are stupid and they'll buy it anyway.
The same is true of the first-person shooter. For years they've been churning them out from the same cut-and-paste stamping machine - man with gun walks through corridor. Man with gun shoots things. Man with gun walks through new corridor harbouring further shooting inclinations. The times they are a-changing, though, what with games like Far Cry providing us with relatively freeform assaults; yet even Jack Carver's muscle-bound antics progress in a straight line from action bubble to action bubble, interior to exterior, beach to mountain, kill to kill.
It takes balls to fundamentally change things, but that is exactly the intention of STALKER: Shadow Of Chernobyl. Essentially the game where Morrowind and Soldier Of Fortune collide, it's a game that aims to give you unrestrained exploration and adventure in a self-contained radioactive wasteland. As the game's lead designer Alexey Silyanov explained to us: "The whole world lives out its life; an absolutely artificial world controlled by artificial intelligence. It learns, it advances. It's absolutely a real world. We're trying to make a place where the player lives; where the player is given an individual experience."
In 2006, STALKER lore suggests that another nuclear tragedy strikes Chernobyl, although nobody knows quite why or how. The government, horrified that strange creatures seem to be roaming the hills around the already toxic and empty Ukrainian towns and villages, proclaims the territory a forbidden zone. Army helicopters patrol the skies while scavengers known as stalkers duke it out in the radioactive wastes, trying to find and trade artefacts imbued with strange powers. You play as one of these gun-toting stalkers - but whether you play as a helpful character who joins up with the various stalker gangs and cults, or one who hates company and shoots on sight is up to you.
It's An Al World
GSC Game World's intention is to create a world governed purely by Al and not necessarily the player's whims. NPCs and monsters won't be standing around waiting for you to turn up, they'll be roaming around the 30-square kilometres of forbidden zone available to them - foraging for food, hunting, fighting, exchanging messages, trading and communicating with each other. That's not all, though: their guiding Al is also set to react to environrrjental triggers. "All of the monsters and NPCs have their habits, likes and dislikes," explains chief STALKER spokesperson Oleg Yavohsky. "On top of this, hunger and threat will determine how aggressive a creature is. If the weather Is foggy, then the creatures and stalkers will have trouble seeing, since all of them hive virtual sight and hearing."
Put simply, this means that death can come from any angle as monsters can be anywhere. In one scenario of a build I played in GSC Game World's lair, I tracked down the same stalker three times to steal an artefact he was carrying. I played the same level three times and on the third occasion I got to his hideout only to find that the dynamic nature of the game meant he'd already been killed and gnawed-on by a pack of helpful andtiungry irradiated dogs. So it's a role-player then? "Well it's quite like Morrowind" says Silyanov. "It also bears similarities to Fallout in that it's a post-nuclear world where you can go everywhere you want and do anything you want.
"However, what makes it different is that you don't advance your character - there are no stats or skills. But every time you play, you should still advance more: you start to understand what you should wear and buy, being able to afford more armour, better guns and so on." It's also worth noting that the traditional RPG inventory system, cruelly ditched by Deus Ex: Invisible War, is back with a vengeance here.
What's more, there are eight possible endingand 70-80 hours of playing time (30-40 if you not in the mood for dawdling). Plus, if you don't want to follow the key missions, it's possible that one of your rival stalkers will complete the most linear path through the game before you're even halfway through.
I Get Knocked Down...
However, STALKER is about survival as much as it is about shooting or playing through an exercise in role-play-lite. You and your fellow stalkers have to find the resources to keep you alive - and what's more, you have to find a safe place to curl up and slumber so that you don't wake up with wild animals nibbling your privates. If you run out of food and get hungry, you'll feel faint; and if you're low on supplies, you'll have to shoot down a bird or a mutant rat and feast on that, even if you have to quell any radioactive after-effects with a bottle of vodka.
No forbidden wasteland, meanwhile, can be without its fair share of radiation pockets and mysterious anomalies; gravity fields that can squash you or rip you apart, fogs that dissolve the skin off your body and rusty hair that grows on exposed metallic surfaces and chars any flesh that strays too close. Life in the hazardous wastes isn't exactly a picnic, and if it was then you'd need more than a tartan rug and a thermos of weak lemon drink to fend off death. The tools of the stalker trade include double-barrelled shotguns, an updated version of the Dragunov sniper rifle, heavy machine guns and the always-useful revolving grenade launcher.
While the lion's share of the beasties and villains that you'll be perforating are still hidden behind a wisp of radioactive fog, my hands-on in Kiev with the early build saw me battling packs of wild hounds (each at varying stages of mutation), giant rats (because I suppose even quasi-RPGs need giant rats), horrible brown zombie creatures with mouths like bloody octopuses and a variety of grizzly rival NPC stalkers.
It need hardly be mentioned in these days of next-gen shooter hype that STALKER looks drop-dead gorgeous, or that it has a fully comprehensive physics engine - take it as road. It's the proposed open-ended gameplay and elements like the dynamic day/night cycle that actively changes around you (unlike Far Cry 's, admittedly beautiful, inter-level time shifts) that are really exciting. Combine this with the fogs, mists, rain and wind that'll actually interact with the Al (affecting things like the migration of pack animals and stalker sleeping patterns) and you've got a hugely interesting proposal. At the moment, however, we re yet to be entirely convinced by STALKER. There's no doubt that if GSC Game World manages to pull off its FPS coup d'etat, we'll have a stunning game on our hands - but it's going to be a Herculean task. The company's firm stance against Scripting and the proposed anytime/anywhere/anything aspect of combat will be in direct odds to the finely tuned fire-fights we'll be seeing from Doom 3 and Half-Life 2, and it's hard to see how it could be as immediately satisfying.
That said, it's perhaps an unfair comparison seeing as STALKER is a different type of game - a blueprint for a true revolution in the FPS genre. Plus, we'll have to wait and see just how nonlinear the final product will be. One thing's for sure, though: STALKER: Shadow Of Chernobyl has massive potential.
Mutants In The Mist
We Can't Reveal Too Many Monster Details, But...
An online competition for monster suggestions took place a while back, with its winners being promised a star-turn for their creations in the game.
Winners of this contest were the Snork, a humanoid mutant with a skull that resembles a gas mask and who can gambol about on two legs as well as four. Even more interesting is the Luller, a creature that can imitate any voice it wants. So if you're trekking through the wilderness and suddenly hear a woman comforting a crying baby, or a man screaming and calling for help, then it could well be a Luller luring you into its claws. Sounds exciting, doesn't it?
Another creature-feature, although a slightly more bizarre one, emerged towards the end of my interview with Alexey Silyanov - despite being tampered by one or two translation difficulties: "Another mutant I like is a telepathic [obscure Russian word]. You know? Small guys who are telekinetic." You mean telekinetic dwarves? "No, not dwarves. Like humans, but small. And mutants." So they're midgets? Telekinetic mutant midgets? "Yes. I think so." Remember, you heard it here first folks...
STALKER featured in our Biggest Games Of 2004 feature a year ago, and is now surrounded by nearly as much conjecture as fact. In an effort to get a definitive handle on what's going on, we spoke to Oleg Yavorsky of GSC Game World to see what the Ukrainian team have been getting up to.
STALKER is open-ended and provides complete freedom of movement," explains Yavorsky. "We are talking about a huge world of 30 square kilometres. The only restriction will be your poor equipment and armaments early on. Although you're free to pick up and accomplish quests as you go, we felt it necessary to designate a certain path, so we implemented a string of key quests. By following these, you'll progress in the story to finally solve the puzzle of the Zone.
The setting may have submitted to the call of science fiction, but the weapons and vehicles have been based on real-life counterparts from the old Soviet Union, and Western guns such as the LR300 rifle. They'll also be modifiable, compatible with different types of ammo, and will even wear out with too much use. With multiplayer, we got to dabble with the deathmatch (which will support up to 32 players), and new modes such as Artefact Hunt (where two teams have to fight it out to get control of the Zone's treasures) are promised. GSC's shooter can definitely talk the talk, but can it stalk the stalk?
Over six years in the making, STALKER is a semi-freeform shooter based around the irradiated wastelands of the Ukraine's famous nuclear reactor, as you follow a loose (and a bit crap) storyline while joining in unscripted and random firefights against Al-controlled Stalkers, military forces, and the strange mutated creatures that live in the nuclear disaster zone.
The interface is unwieldy in places, and the side missions feel a bit jemmied in, but STALKER has an array of fantastic weaponry, and a wonderful feeling that you don't get much in modern games - surprise. You never quite know what's around the next corner - whether it's a Stalker fighting a pack of wild dogs, or a strange anomaly that can burn you to death in seconds or a frightening new mutant leaping out of the shadows. STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl is often genuinely original, daring and insanely great.
Processor: PC compatible,
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode