The Late, Late STALKER Review (S.T.A.L.K.E.R. = C.R.A.S.H.E.S.)

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (from here on in, just Stalker, okay?) is a game I’d love to hate more.

What crack am I smoking this week? Well, it’s like this:

Imagine, if you will, that Word crashed every fourth time you saved a document. That would be annoying. Saving is a key part of creating a document – you save at important milestones, or just to protect your work in case of a crash or failure.

Stalker is a very hard game, even on the easier difficulty settings. You really need to save a lot – many deaths will be caused by ineptitude, or assuming your gun is going to shoot straight, or just plain experimentation. You often try to save to consolidate your forward progress, or before trying something risky, or because if left alone long enough, it crashes to the desktop.

Now imagine that Stalker crashes about every fourth time you save. Imagine how frustrating and maddening that might be. Only you’re not imagining it, because it actually crashes to the desktop all the goddamn time.

Generally, I can save my progress once or twice without the game crashing, but any more than that and I feel truly privileged when the game saves and I’m not left staring at the desktop.

For some odd reason (possibly the glowing “look past the bugs” reviews elsewhere), I persevered through the very first zone of Stalker, but having saved games work a lot like a roulette mini-game isn’t exactly fun.

My prideful “F6” can so often end in screaming at the monitor (because a) the game didn’t save and b) I can see the Windows Start menu starting to draw itself) that I wonder whether I’ll ever want to fire the game up again.

But somehow, I do.

I’ve now spent 24 hours with Stalker, and I can see the beauty underneath the crippled shell.

None of the elements seem particularly fantastic, but as a whole, when it’s not crashing, you catch a glint of brilliance that inspires you to explore just a little more, or try to finish just one more mission, try to recover one final artifact.

Even without the constant crashing, it’s nowhere near perfect: people move in funny ways, especially in combat; it’s hard to shoot straight; the difficulty is immense. But the immense difficulty reinforces the sense of accomplishment in getting even the simplest of encounters right. I smacked the keyboard in startled fear when I got zapped while mis-timing a particular anomaly.

Atmosphere is important, and Stalker pretty much nails it.

I just wish I could keep it running for more than forty minutes at a time.

Initial impression: 4 out of 5 (minus one for a dodgy patch that didn’t actually seem to help a lot and that required all saved games be manually deleted (otherwise it would…. crash when saving!) and seemed to reduce the smoothness of my character turning, and minus one for crashing all the time).

Will I still be playing it tomorrow? You bet. Will I still have hair left to pull out? Possibly not…

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