Single-player campaign combines the best of action and role-playing.
Unforgivable bugs are annoying;
dont bother if youre running Vista.
No review of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is complete without a mention of the game’s numerous delays and incredibly long development period. Thankfully, after a thorough inspection, we’ve found that it holds its own quite well in the areas that matter—gameplay and content. Numerous bugs and stability issues plague this ambitious shooter, but its thrilling action and deep story are surprisingly fun—it’s enough to win us over.
After Chernobyl suffers a second nuclear meltdown, the government blocks off the surrounding area, which is known as the Zone. Scavengers and bandits search the area for strange artifacts that emerge from spatial anomalies, and bizarre animal and human mutations roam the abandoned landscape. As the Marked One, you (conveniently suffering from amnesia and trying to uncover the mystery of your past) are one of many mercenaries for hire.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. includes a number of role-playing elements that mesh well with its story. While the narrative is propelled by a single string of core missions and assignments, you can complete them at your own pace. The game does an admirable job of feigning open-endedness by offering a ton of side missions. While assassination assignments and retrieval requests made up most of the tasks, many times we had to help encampments defend against waves of assaulting mutants or rescue captured soldiers from fortified housing complexes. The game doesn’t become a full-fledged role-playing experience, but it was definitely meaty enough to leave us satisfied.
It took us almost 15 hours to reach S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s explosive climax. Formidable AI enemies can’t be killed by running and gunning—they constantly search for cover and flank. The shooting mechanics are geared toward realism, so the combination of patience and steady aim is the only way to get really effective head shots. Firefights felt as though they lasted forever, as we had to constantly reposition ourselves to avoid flanks and slowly drain down enemy forces one body at a time—the combat here is easily some of the most intense we’ve ever seen in a shooter.
What immersed us further was the immaculate rendition of the postapocalyptic Zone. Lush foliage swayed convincingly against the backdrop of a purple sky, complete with giant mutant flowers that adorned the edges of polluted swamps.
Dilapidated warehouses and small towns reeked of eerie despair and abandoned hope, while making great locales for spooky encounters with lurching mutants and firefights with rival factions. We were most dazzled by the weather effects—convincing day and night cycles were complemented by ear-splitting lightning storms and bone-chilling rain showers. The environment gave us the creeps, and we’re just talking about the surface levels. When we dove underground into the secret research laboratories and sewers in search of hidden stashes and documents, we entered a whole new world of fright.
Unfortunately, the game isn’t without its faults. Numerous bugs plague the missions, sometimes objectives won’t complete, and often the game will just crash to the desktop. While occasionally annoying in XP, the problems are even more severe in Windows Vista, where the game inevitably shuts down after several minutes of play. A recent patch attempts to fix these problems, but it destroys old save games and doesn’t adequately resolve these issues.
Ultimately, you’re getting a deeply involving single-player experience (the bland multiplayer is a wash) that really separates itself from the shooter pack. We’re thankful that the game finally came out but even more pleased that it exceeded our expectations. If you can bear the bugginess and difficulty, you should definitely try it out.