Thursday, 12 September 2013


"My Ideal Holiday" by Bodster. Thousands of square miles of overgrown, unkempt, woodland; cities and villages turned ghost towns by the lack of involvement of humanity for at least 30 years; a military presence to execute interlopers on sight; wild and chaotic, sometimes psychic, monsters and mutants; helicopter patrols primed and ready to fire at a moment’s notice; obscure random events liable to kill people at a moment’s notice often unseen to the untrained eye; a blown out nuclear reactor that is working once again.

Yep, I want to be a STALKER.

There was much hype built up around this game "Shadows of Chernobyl" for a game set in and around Chernobyl and Pripyat, mapped and modelled after the real locations and having suffered much of the events of the location but also tying in with an relatively obscure piece of fiction at the time, Roadside Picnic, which I heartily recommend to any avid science-fiction fan looking for a short story.

Plot wise, you are Mr Memory Loss (so obviously you're a fuck up somewhere along the lines, why people can't just be Captain Bland, I'll never know) who has awoken with a burned tattoo on his arm earning the nick name Marked One like it's the biggest and cleverest joke of the century, given the local population, it's understandable. After a brief "What you got no memory? Go do X, Y and Z to learn the layouts and I'll tell you what I remember" sets you up for the big events in the game and readies you in getting and gathering weapons, scavenging in buildings, avoiding radiation zones and the infamous anomalies.

Or... it would have done. But I'll rip into that later.

Your amnesiac self has to travel the "Zone" a cordoned off military are around the Chernobyl Reactor to stop people getting close and meeting death from the anomalies. These being ghostly things that can travel the landscape and cause things and people to die suddenly, bloodily, excessively or cause horrific damage for no real reason. In the book they're described as being the remnants of a picnic left over from aliens (as a metaphor) and it's just the debris from their littering doing what it usually does. You however get to avoid the nasty ones, find items affected by the reactor's blowouts and trade them for bigger and better guns and items or keep them for the bonus factors they provide (Until someone gets smart and gets enough bullet protection to HEAL each time they get shot...nice one for working that out). While trying to do various things like not pissing off the local factions of fighters and survivors, raiding groups of glory hunters, mutants and monsters spread liberally around the countryside, finding out whom you were or trying to get into the reactor to find the grand prize.

That grand prize being a single wish, but the wish granter is a prick, so it'll back-fire hilariously. If you've ever seen Wish Master films, you'll know what I'm talking about. "I wish to no longer see this world in pain and suffering" Bye, bye, eyeballs. It's that kind of wish granting little bastard.

It takes the story from Roadside Picnic and combines it with the real world events that happened in Chernobyl, the anomalies and odd items in the zone, the STALKERS and scavengers that would aid people in finding and selling items while skipping military cordons but the story and film had a lot more suspense and potential than the game does in storytelling, but wouldn't make as much fun to be a game. The overall package however of the first STALKER game takes the more interesting aspects for action and story and combines them to create this game.

You'll travel from place to place, trade your items and weapons for other items and ammo, armour and the usual survival items like med kits, radiation cure and equipment to give you lights, grenade launchers and other such fun things. You'll explore derelict buildings avoiding traps and radiation in the cities and complexes while negating the military turning up to stop you here and there because as far as they're concerned, nobody should be making wishes as it can't be controlled so there's a nice little pro-anarchy notion for your political bullshit comparisons. You'll have to explore how to shut down defences to let you get closer to the big prize and suffer the hallucinations accompanying it while skipping back and forth and fighting almost every step of the way.

The physics engine is gorgeous, if a little clunky in places. Bullets punch through as far as they would through wood, metal and concrete so seeing a guy taking cover behind wood you can machinegun his body into a ragdoll through the barrier he's hidden behind. Bounce grenades off the walls nearby to land near him to flush him out or charge in with a double barrel shotgun and unload your pseudo-penis into his face. Breaking parts of buildings can cause other parts to topple and fall upon opponents and launching barrels via explosions into people to kill them is always rewarding to observe. The anomalies play with the physics even further by occasionally launching you into the air if you wander into one, dragging you into the sky and ripping you apart or electrocuting you with high damage shocks (or heal if you're immune to shocks and electrics).

The story is played through in finding PDAs of dead people you're sent to find or follow a path towards the main goal of working out whom you are and the truth behind the wish maker, which side of the conflict to take and ultimately determine whether to be a shitbag or a saint in the very obvious moral choice system of "nice guy" vs. "scumbagbastard guy". You can entertain yourself with various side quests to kill other STALKERs in the zone, hunt wildlife (and it's VERY wild in some places) beat the arbitrary arena fights that seem to litter free-roam games these days to become king-dong of the arena. There's little here that hasn't been done before in say other games but the stylish presentation and grotty feeling really sells the environment and emersion is... where it falls down.

Originally the game was going to be full roaming, huge area with exploration akin to Morrowind, Skyrim, fallout etc. Vehicles could be commandeered and driven, anomalies would be randomly moved around when blow outs happened (you get only one, it's scripted and you have to be indoors to survive radiation death day), other STALKERS could finish quests for you or even beat the game and make their own wishes. Most of this was scrapped and now you get key "areas" and upon reaching the end of such an area, you get "would you like to move on" and it RIPS you out of the story and game's immersive properties. That said, the game is fantastic at the setup of suspense and horror when scavenging inside the bigger installations and being attacked out of seemingly nowhere by creatures that turn invisible or can rip your consciousness from your mind and throw it back with psychic blasts. Moving around the towns and the city itself is sadly limited by the usual debris that blocks all doors and windows you could get inside had it not been there while hyper-powerful and super-armed enemies are hitting you with death from above, a little one-sided but knock one down and steal the gun for a BIG boost in your fight back.

The attention to detail is lavished lovingly in this game and it shows, even when running around the reactor buildings themselves in the final fights and being teleported through anomalies left and right while combating the same people that tried to sell you down the road with bullshit, gets intense in the final moments and feels more like a fulfilling payoff than the wish making itself (yep, those are bad endings). The final product is so trimmed down from what was originally promised and moved back from the grand ideas and story we were all sold, I can imagine that through the effort put in, the decision to do so couldn't have been taken lightly and would have been a huge blow the actual designers and programmers. You can feel the dedication in the game and the fact it's a fraction of what they wanted to deliver (and videos and demos show that there WAS those things in there) would have been soul destroying to have to do.

What STALKER falls down on is variation. You'll enter a new area, kill a few people, take their guns and ammo and trade off your older guns and ammo, and repeat this with each new area. Once the bigger more powerful guns come into play, you'll stick with those and load up on ammo, of which there is plenty, and keep running and gunning to find new items and scavenge further. There are a few different monsters in the game from large mutants, to stealthy ninja monsters that turn translucent, to psychic attacking gnome/dwarf things to dogs and blink dogs which generate fake dogs. In the bosses, there are a few more ethereal creatures but not all that many altogether. Humans range from military with high power guns and usually difficult to take on, scavengers with lower guns, clan members aligned with their respective groups that will have their own weapons, some will be armed in exosuits making them walking tanks most people will fear but still die from a headshot from event the crappiest pea-shooter. If you're accurate with a rifle and scope, no human enemy will be a threat. Add in a rocket launcher for yourself and it's easy street until sheer numbers MIGHT overwhelm you. Take your time and use cover and there's little challenge here at all.

That said, it's a good game with great potential that was sadly cut short either by meddling from the executives or skipped deadlines. I have heard that various mods can be installed for people to play the game closer to how it was originally envisioned but that takes a little trust on the part of others to deliver that and not to bollocks up your game in the process. Well worth a look however just to see how an apocalyptic survival game could and should be done.

I'd wish you to stop reading but likely my hands will fall off to stop anything else I write ever to be written aga...