"Stalker is so far removed from the relentless fright-a-minute conventions of the genre that it somehow works on a much higher level than any of its competitors. A staggering majority of Stalker takes place in wide, open and relatively calm outdoor expanses. But the atmosphere never lets up; it only shifts from mood to mood. It's unsettling for different reasons, and on the occasions where it throws the real chills at you, the effect is mind-blowing."
I've just about stopped shaking, and my heart rate is finally steadying. Opting for a final quick play of Stalker before sitting down to write, I loaded up a save game in an underground bunker, one I was pretty sure I'd cleared days earlier. Having wandered around searching for some elusive papers and deciding they were nowhere to be found, I headed back the way I came. Into the shadows of a dark, dripping cave. Up a spiral staircase. Into the startling barrel of a gun.
It doesn't sound like much of a moment, but Stalker's atmosphere is so thick, so omnipresent and slow-burning, that these little surprises are amplified tenfold. I jumped out of my seat at the presence of a mere human enemy. The sheer terror of facing one of the rarer supernatural foes is quite simply unparalleled.
So Stalker steals System Shock 2's crown of being the scariest game on the PC - and about time, too. But its horror is approached in a substantially different way from Irrational's survival-RPG, and indeed any other title that springs to mind. It's so far removed from the relentless fright-a-minute conventions of the genre that it somehow works on a much higher level than any of its competitors. A staggering majority of Stalker takes place in wide, open and relatively calm outdoor expanses. But the atmosphere never lets up; it only shifts from mood to mood. It's unsettling for different reasons, and on the occasions where it throws the real chills at you, the effect is mind-blowing.
The delivery is superb. While the main plot may be slightly undeveloped, Stalker deserves plaudits for being one of those games that shows rather than tells. The first supernatural experience I had, an hour or so into the game, was seeing a grotesque creature gallop over a distant hill, before stopping, twitching unnervingly, and exploding. No characters had warned me of any mutant foes or invisible death traps. I learnt of them because I saw them - and this sort of discovery left me speechless and horrified.
The inhabitants of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where Stalker takes place, are noticeably indifferent to your presence. I can't decide whether this is intentional, or just a result of some sub-par writing, but somehow it works. As an amnesiac, lost and alone in a confusing and unfriendly environment, this lack of memorable characters manages to contribute heavily to Stalker's constant sense of isolation. Even when fighting alongside reams of friendly NPCs, the sense that you're of no real concern to anyone is a constant. These are strangers with their own remits to go about. They'll assist you at their own convenience, and nothing more.
As such, the somewhat laboured structure of the game - which largely palms you from character to character in search of the mysterious Strelok, who you've been sent to assassinate - seems to make perfect sense. Maybe no one knows anything about him; maybe no one cares. NPCs prod you in a general, northerly direction, but the search is largely down to you. Your journey through the Zone, a decaying wasteland of apocalyptic proportions, becomes primarily about your environment, and the main point of interest is the tragedy of the power plant disaster and what - in this fictionalised version of reality - it left in its wake.
Stalker plays like a surprisingly natural mash-up of Deus Ex and Oblivion, but with all the role-playing stats removed. You 'level-up' only in the sense that you find better equipment and learn to manage it to a greater degree, and there are no numbers to fiddle with. The action side is elevated heavily to the forefront, yet it's still a game that encourages the avoidance of combat - or at least the careful consideration of stealthy approaches - for the most part. Entering into a straightforward FPS battle against more than one enemy at once really is asking for it, even on the lowest of difficulty settings. This is fine in the more open-plan areas of the game, and adds a rather welcome tactical edge to the gunplay, but it proves to be one of Stalker's main failings at other times. During the inevitable occasions where Stalker drops you into a closed-off, linear environment, this combat becomes a necessity, resulting in some abominably unforgiving difficulty spikes that could see you reloading fifteen or twenty times before you succeed.
It's not that I don't appreciate being challenged, but consider this. At one point, Stalker funnelled me into an underground network flooded with radioactive waste and inhabited by countless enemies. Keeping moving was the only way to avoid being ravaged by radiation poisoning, but staying silently still was the only way to escape the heavily-armed militia. Stalker isn't always this cruel, but when it is, its refusal to play fair begins to grate.
Of course, what the game wanted me to do was return to a local village and scout around for a protective suit, allowing me to enter the area without the fear of having my health gradually sapped to depletion. But I only know this having consulted a walkthrough. The in-game characters' refusal to help me piece together my mysterious past is fair game, but I think I could be forgiven for expecting a little more guidance in other areas.
Stalker has this slightly unbalanced tendency throughout, and I wonder if a couple more months of play-testing and tweaking would have gone some way to rectifying its problems. As it stands, it's an ambitious and commendably atmospheric game that manages to be often abhorrent in its unfriendliness. With a little more care, it could have been something truly special.
Developers GSC have sacrificed certain aspects of their grand plan in order to create a tighter experience, so those expecting driveable vehicles and a completely sandbox world may have to look elsewhere for their thrills. There's an unofficial mod - Oblivion Lost - that adds some of the omitted features back in, but for what it's worth, I think it was a good decision to draw some lines. This is a game already rough enough around the edges without complicating itself further, and as it stands, Stalker manages to tread its tightrope of design rather admirably.
While it's by no means the definitive FPS/RPG statement, Stalker deserves real praise for its careful delivery of an unrivalled, bleak atmosphere, and for providing final proof that quality games don't have to be about flashy, Hollywood cut-scenes. It's skirting greatness, and though it doesn't quite realise all of its ambitions, it could still be one of the most memorable videogames you'll play.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (December 31, 2008)
A bio for this contributor is currently unavailable, but check back soon to see if that changes. If you are the author of this review, you can update your bio from the Settings page.
If you enjoyed this S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!