Explore a radioactive wasteland in search of a dangerous quarry.
PC Release: March 20, 2007
By Ian Coppock
A decent horror game is rarer than gold dust. Rarer still are decent horror games that try to take the atmosphere and gameplay endemic to linear horror-fests, and scatter them across an insidious open world. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or (STALKER) series is perhaps the best-known group of open-world horror games in the PC world. They deal with everything that is to be feared; radiation, mutants, lack of food, and Russian swearwords. There hasn’t been a true follow-up or spiritual successor to this series since its inception back in 2007, but how well does it hold up for a horror gamer looking for something a bit more open? With months still to go before the release of Outlast 2, now’s as good a time as any to find out.
STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl takes place in “the Zone”, which, rather than being the anomalous area that pretentious athletes aspire to be in at all times, is actually a nuclear wasteland in and around Pripyat, Ukraine. The game revolves around the infamous Chernobyl disaster of 1986, in which a catastrophic nuclear meltdown bathed a large chunk of Ukraine in lethal radiation. To this day, the Chernobyl plant and much of the surrounding countryside remains uninhabitable, and not even the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011 tops Chernobyl in terms of life and resources lost.
In the STALKER universe, the Chernobyl accident is successfully contained, but a second, much worse explosion occurs in 2006. This one is waves and magnitudes worse than the 1986 blast, widening the unlivable radiation zone and mutating the local flora and fauna. The player character is one of many scavengers who’s arrived to this part of Ukraine in search of valuable salvage after the accident, a stalker, as they’re known by the locals. The word stalker is also an acronym for the various gameplay elements to be found in the game. Shooting, looting, getting drunk and singing Ukrainian folk songs, things like that.
Shadow of Chernobyl begins when one of the player’s fellow stalkers finds the protagonist knocked out in the middle of nowhere. Initially assuming the poor fellow to be dead, the stalker drives him and all his other loot to the nearest trading post, wherein he awakens. The stalker, called “The Marked One” by the locals, has no memory of his identity or how he wound up injured in a field. The only shred of remembrance he still has is an order on his mini-computer (read: Pip-Boy) to find and kill a man named Strelok. With nothing better to do, he sets out to do just that.
In a stunning rendition of contemporary Ukraine, the stalker finds the Zone to be an entangled mess, where dozens of ordinary people uneasily coexist divvied up between several factions. Officially, the entire mess is closed off by the Ukrainian military, but that hasn’t stopped scavenger settlements from popping up all over the wasteland like radioactive tumors. Other, deadlier factions stalk the wasteland as well, but these seem to cover their tracks too effectively to be found, much less reliably identified. Most people in this region are Ukrainian, but there are scavengers and soldiers who’ve arrived to this little piece of cancer from all over the world.
The Marked One emerges from the hovel he woke up in and starts working for the region’s local factions, who, much like the factions in Far Cry 2 and Borderlands, agree to point him toward his target in exchange for help dealing with a whole mess of problems. Whether it’s repelling a bandit raid or rescuing a merchant from radioactive dogs, there’s no problem The Marked One isn’t called in to handle. The Zone is rife with danger; most of the bandit clans operating in the region are hostile to outsiders, and there’s all sorts of nasty mutated creatures prowling around in the rainy grasslands. More dangerous still are the various radioactive anomalies in the area, which warp time and space in a very small area to devastating effect. Players can short these anomalies out with a sparkler-like shorting device, if they can find any.
STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl‘s gameplay can be best approximated to that of the Deus Ex games, being played from a first-person perspective and encouraging a mix of stealth and gunplay. The Marked One can wield any number of pistols, shotguns and assault rifles found throughout the world, as well as combat knives, grenades, pretty much everything and more in the usual FPS weapon lineup. Navigating the Zone safely requires much more specialized equipment, but The Marked One comes equipped with a handy dandy map and a Geiger counter to protect himself from especially lethal patches of radiation. More advanced equipment, like gas masks, goggles, and experimental weapons, is out there to be found just like the standard gear.
At first glance, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl sounds like a horror fan’s dream. The game is drenched in an absolutely dreadful atmosphere that permeates every abandoned house, every twisted glen. The entire world is overcast with dull clouds and usually subject to stormy weather. The use of lighting in this game is strong, from dour bunker lights to the flat light used throughout the open world. Much like in DayZ, players have to be very careful in moving from building to building, tree to tree. No one ever knows what depraved pack of bandits or horrifically mutated monster lies in wait around the corner. The Marked One has guns, sure, but ammo is a pretty precious resource in the Zone, necessitating the same type of caution needed in more traditional survival-horror video games.
Assisting the game’s strong use of lighting is its mournful soundtrack and cadre of spooky sound effects. The game’s score is a selection of low, spooky strings and uneasy synths that cause the neck hairs to harden just as much as the sight of blood or the sounds of combat. Spookier still are the distant gunshots and cries of the region’s warped wildlife, some of which will suddenly occur far too close for comfort. The Zone is also overridden with packs of wild dogs; their barks and roars are easily the game’s most signature audio companion.
At a closer glance, however, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl is rife with some fatal problems. This is one of the buggiest games on the PC market, and that has changed little in the near-decade since its release. STALKER suffered an embarrassing slate of glitches when it debuted in 2007, and getting the game to run in the modern era requires a combination of multiple mod downloads and sheer dumb luck.
One might ask what bugs, specifically, cause this game to be such a headache? Well, even on modern systems, STALKER is subject to frequent hitches, sometimes pausing for upwards of five seconds before the game allows itself to continue. Other times, the game will crash to desktop for no reason, apparently no matter the Windows or Linux platform that it’s being run on. In the copy of STALKER used for this review, the game crashes every time The Marked One tries to heal himself, and it also sends the player back to desktop for trying to adjust the options menu. Disabling the Steam overlay or trying to run the game in compatibility mode does nothing to solve these issues. For any promise offered by STALKER‘s intoxicating atmosphere, its sheer amount of problems is a huge turnoff. It’s safe to say that mutants are not STALKER‘s only abnormalities.
STALKER‘s gameplay also suffers its own plate of issues. The game feels quite clunky, just as it felt quite clunky back when it was released. The controls are not intuitively mapped, and navigating everything from the menus to the mini-map is a much more punishing task than it should be. Solving these issues should just be a matter of rebinding the keys, but, (and this shouldn’t surprise anyone by now), the game crashes every time the player attempts to do so. It is worth noting that the game looks quite good for being almost a decade old, but that’s little comfort when said visuals are so hard to enjoy.
The gameplay that these mechanics inform is pretty decent. It’s standard fare for the FPS genre; aim the gun, shoot the gun, take cover if the enemy gun happens to shoot back. STALKER also has that really archaic inventory system in which items have to be fitted into an evenly spaced grid, which can be a tremendous pain during inventory management. The most anomalous thing at play in STALKER‘s gameplay is its enemy AI; the animal AI in this game is remarkably intelligent, with realistic pack and hunting behavior, but the humans are dumb as rocks. In most firefights, the enemies will simply conga-line right into The Marked One’s iron sights. The human enemies in this game are deadly accurate and have a bullet sponginess comparable to the bosses in Tom Clancy’s The Division. Head shots are really the only recourse for surviving human foes, but luckily, most are too stupid to dodge them.
On top of all of this, the central narrative driving STALKER‘s gameplay forward is just… bad. The narrative lurches back and forth between various factions, eventually building up to a plot twist that can be seen from miles away. The side missions are forgettable, and the game’s conclusion seems to have been ripped from the playbook of B-rate action movies. There’s no character development to be had with either The Marked One or the various NPCs. The writing is nothing special either, though, to be fair, the developer’s first language is Ukrainian and many of the problems were probably caused by translation discrepancies rather than outright laziness.
The narrative is also impaired by the game’s incoherent branching storyline design. STALKER technically has several “bad” endings and one “good” ending, but achieving one or the other depends on the order in which several NPCs are talked to. A little ambiguity is fine in choice-and-consequence-based gameplay, but STALKER suffers a massive disconnect between the people The Marked One talks to and the influence that has on the game’s ending. There’s no indication whatsoever as to which NPCs will trigger which ending, and absolutely no connective tissue between the two phenomena. Getting the good ending isn’t a matter of intuition or detective work. It’s a matter of happening to talk to a random number of NPCs in an equally random order. There’s also no indication of which NPCs are essential for the plot, meaning that if one dies, the player will be left guessing which person to talk to in lieu of their now-deceased point of progress.
STALKER is not a terrible game across the board. Its deep atmosphere and terrifying monsters promise a lot of thrills and chills throughout northern Ukraine. Those promises, though, are undercut by one of the biggest slews of bugs in recent PC gaming memory, and a storyline that’s so incoherent it might as well be passed out in the gutter. It’s a shame, because open-world horror games are even rarer than their more linear counterparts, but the only player who will want to get this game must also want to spend hours configuring menus, downloading optimization mods, and putting up with a weak narrative that makes little sense in the best of times. Maybe STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl‘s prequel and sequel games are better, but this review is about Shadow of Chernobyl, a game that’s as messy as the nuclear explosion from which it spawned.
You can buy S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.