You’ve Gotta Figure, the Apocalypse in Russia Must Be Something.

In Video Games on May 17, 2010 at 3:32 pm

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is one of those games that, with its atmospheric presentation, solid gameplay and ambitious scope, gamers had been anticipating for quite some time prior to its release.  At first, not much was known, and the quirky title added to the mystery even as delays piled up.  When the first game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl was released, it was to less fanfare than perhaps it deserved: its delays and ambition were detrimental as we were presented with a buggy game with a graphics engine two years stale.  With these humble origins, we now stand with three subtitled S.T.A.L.K.E.R. titles, talks of an actual numeric sequel (i.e. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2) as well as a console port of some kind.  Each successive title has been produced with cutting-edge technology, Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat both among the first to utilize DirectX 10 and 11, respectively.  All through this, the series has seen support from loyal fans that purchased S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl at its outset (as myself), as well as those who stumbled upon the series late like unto a drunkard showing up for after-dinner drinks.  Additional support for this much loved series has been granted by those of us that have tried to sell our friends on the game; I, for one, tend to market it as playing like Counter-Strike amid Fallout’s backdrop, but without the latter’s cheery optimism.  As X-Play’s Adam Sessler put it; “It’s dark, it’s raining, you soak up radiation like a sponge, your guns jam, you’re always bleeding, you’re hungry, no one likes you and everybody hates you.”

Naturally, as it’s been eight months since the latest game came out, my friends have begun mentioning some kind of post-apocalyptic game set in Russia that seems pretty cool, and have I heard of it?  Title’s something-something-stalker-something.  After bronchospasming, I explained that this was the game I’d showed, or lent to them years ago.  Were they certain they wanted to go down this path?  I might not stop talking.

The closest kind of experience relatable to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is how you might remember playing Morrowind.  Pay close attention to the wording on that sentence: I didn’t say gameplay experience, since Morrowind is very clearly an RPG, and how you remember playing it greatly differs from how you actually played it — for the better.  If asked, rather than relating how you spent two hours leveling your unarmed skill (before finding out how useless it was), you might regale your friends about how you used to make ends meet by hawking Indoril armor, immorally but nevertheless satisfyingly acquired by gutting those intolerant guards in Vivec and sold to a talking creeper or mudcrab.  S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is similar: you won’t say that you spent twenty minutes dying and reloading to a couple of mercenaries, but you will let everyone know about that one time you managed to gib the four military jerks demanding a toll under the first bridge with just one grenade.  And, just as you would taut Morrowind’s little defects as features — such as being able to snipe villagers from beyond the radius of their AI to avoid repercussions — you’ll find S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is similarly enhanced by, for example, being driven to paranoid heights because you still haven’t encountered the game’s resident invisible blood sucker even though it spotted you, and vanished, like fifteen minutes ago.  Ontologically speaking, they offer the same retrospective.

In the pacing of their playing you’ll also see some parallels.  Both games aren’t immediately rewarding, and both drop you into the sandbox with very little provided direction or impetus as to what the hell you should actually be doing.  S.T.A.L.K.E.R. might be the worst of the two, as Morrowind has this general idea of advancement through its RPG mechanic: if you want to sling better fireballs or smash people better, just sling more fireballs and smash more people.  S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is much more vague: if you’d like a better gun, first you have to find one.  Is it for sale?  If you don’t have the cash, you’ll have to find something worth selling.  Is it being fired at you?  You could scrounge around for the ideal tactical location for dealing with him and his friends (and he will have friends), but maybe you should get some better armor first.  Outside of this vicious cycle, the game presents a heavy attrition factor with weapon and armor degradation and limited ammunition, and coupled with your limited inventory space you’ll quickly see the advantage in artifact hunting, despite the game providing no specific instruction to do so.  And, hey, you’ll fit right in, seeing as how that’s what everyone else is also doing there.

More than previous games in the series, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat presents a world that does not revolve around the player.  The game’s various factions — which includes but is not limited to stalkers, duty, freedom, mercenaries, bandits, scientists, military, wild animals and mutants — certainly give each other a solid go and you’ll frequently hear shooting in the distance or see wild animals attacking each other, then breaking off to face an incoming mutant.  These little encounters cause the game to grow beyond its parts; I recall the time I was seeking shelter against an incoming blowout (zone-wide explosion) and began travelling with a few mercenaries that were also trying to seek shelter.  The human factions tend to value their lives and as such will prioritize seeking shelter over shooting each other, but that did not stop us from being attacked by wild dogs en route.  Seeing the time get cut close and with shelter still in the distance, I saw one of the mercenaries die to the dogs and made a run for it, essentially leaving the remaining mercs for dead or worse, just to save myself.  I never did see them again.

In the end, you get as much out of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. as you are willing to invest: a true testament to the concept of cathexis, or emotional investment.  This isn’t Grand Theft Russia where you can get away with mowing everyone down; properly played, you should be very cautious and paranoid, heightened to outright terror at the prospect of heading into a darkened building or abandoned lab.  You will also die, frequently, to either bad circumstances, cunning opponents or simple, overwhelming force.  A good S.T.A.L.K.E.R. player will not purport to have avoided death; rather, they will speak about those “failures” with jocularity, because each one added to their experience.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a great game.  After your first hour you will hate it, but after twenty you’ll wonder how you ever settled for less.

  1. I do wish i’d liked the first game, you make me want to buy the newest one and give it a whirl. The whole game realy does seem like something exactly up my alley.
    Next time I talk to ya remind me to ask about the difficulty of the recent ones.

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