For me, the Stalker experience has been one of two different games – the first a taut, fearful experience, when saving might actually cause the loss of progress, thus providing a powerful incentive to stay alive at all costs, but at the same time, knowing that you were playing on borrowed time – the longer you lived, the less likely you’d be able to save later.
Let’s call that the “initial minigame”.
Once you’ve patched up to get that wonderful more-than-20-minute feeling, and you adapt to the Stalker model – and it does seem to take a good two to three hours of uninterrupted play to adapt to it – it becomes a different experience. The Zone, as they call Chernobyl’s surrounds, becomes a fascinating and absorbing area, and the game morphs from maddening too-hard shooter into a deliberately-paced role-playing shooter. An RPS, I guess.
Management of the items you’re carrying to keep your fatigue levels low might not sound like fun, but, well, it is. Deus Ex forced you to make tough choices about what you were carrying by volume of stuff; in Stalker, the size of the items probably won’t slow you down too much, but grab one item too many over your 50KG carrying capacity and you quickly become fatigued and unable to run for more than a few steps. Hit 60KG, and you’re unable to move. Time to make some tough choices – the radiation meds, or the artifacts?
Artifacts provide the “buffs” most know and love from regular RPGs or MMOs, and collecting and hoarding artifacts is just flat-out fun. Monsters and bandits do respawn (booo), but I’m not sure about Artifacts – hopefully so.
Most artifacts are useful in some way, but have a tradeoff – as an example, the Soul artifact (they’re all just rock-like things, it’s not someone’s soul. I think) gives you something like +600% healing per second, but reduces your armour’s bulletproofness and rupture-proofness by 10% each. Many of the artifacts swap radiation for effect, meaning that unless you find an anti-radiation artifact your experimentation will be short lived. Like you. Thankfully, radiation-eating Fireballs start popping up after a little exploration – at first, I was indignant and annoyed that I’d have to enable an artifact, then use a precious antiradiation drug and health kit before keeling over.
So, in short, I’m really liking this game. The indoor and underground areas are frequently claustrophobic and genuinely scary (so much so that I physically sigh with relief when I get back out into daylight (or even the bastard twilight that passes for night around these parts) and the countryside has a distinct character and flavour, even though it’s a radioactive wasteland.
SPOILER ALERT, SKIP THIS BIT TO REMAIN VIRGINAL
The most shocking moment so far happened a few minutes ago, through a flashback I wasn’t expecting (they seem pretty sparse so far): I learned that in my past, it seems, I was… a bunny killer. That terrible secret led to me being caught by the bunnies, and my memory being wiped. But now, at the bottom of a dungeon-like laboratory, I know the awful slaughtering truth.
END OF SPOILERS
Perfect? Nup – NPCs aren’t really a believable bunch, but they serve their purpose within the game mechanic. The text seems too large in many areas, and the “PDA” interface is frequently an exercise in frustration and weird design.
The zone is broken into “level”s in the “small maps” sense, and this is possibly the big one – my impression of Stalker from the press to this point was that it was going to be GTA-style free roaming, only with radiation – one big world, seamless, no boundaries, and so on. Just my expectation, no big deal.
Also, I have no idea how it’s meant to look, because I’ve been playing with the shader mod made by one of the Ars.Technica users. I’m considering turning it off and going back to regular shaders, but it always seems to be a case of “next time”… It looks pretty damn sweet anyway.
My verdict: Stalker-that-doesn’t-crash is one of the most compelling experiences I’ve had this year so far.
Four and a half slaughtered radioactive bunnies out of five.