Experiencing the Horror- S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, released in 2007 by Russian devs GSC Game World, is a game that flew under most gamers’ radar. Is it worth picking up? Read on to find out!

Cross your fingers and pray to the game gods it loads.

Cross your fingers and pray to the game gods it loads.

I can’t say that I’ve ever had quite so much difficulty installing a game as I had with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. After going through a lengthy setup process, the game loaded, displayed a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. logo in a window, and immediately crashed to desktop. Reinstalling the game, updating the drivers for my graphics card did nothing to alleviate the issue. An internet search recommended downloading an older patch for the game (1.0005 as opposed to the 1.0006 edition that came on the disc), but after downloading and running the install on the older patch, the patch itself popped up a window stating that my “current version of the game is already updated to 1.0006” and refused to install itself further. I gave up, and only by accident later discovered a means of making the game operational- resetting my monitor’s resolution to 1152×864.

Jamming in Chernobyl.

Jamming in Chernobyl.

Apparently, I’m not the only user to have encountered this particular issue. Users on the Steam forums have faced resolution issues and discovered their own workaround. The Steam thread suggests the game may have issues with the native resolution of some monitors, and while my own monitor (an Acer V173) is admittedly nothing special, it’s generally difficult to imagine that the issue couldn’t have been resolved, or at least addressed in an online technical support sense. My copy of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl did not come with an instruction manual (or, for that matter, anything at all in the case except the game disc), so perhaps the issue is addressed in the instruction manual for those who were lucky enough to receive one. Installing the game on my girlfriend’s laptop led to it starting up without any technical issue whatsoever, so the issue is definitely limited in scope. Nevertheless, it’s something to keep in mind for users who may not be using widescreen monitors.

And it’s unfortunate that the issue marred what was, in every other sense, my enjoyment of what quickly became one of my favorite games.

Wonder who this guy pissed off?

Wonder who this guy pissed off?

What sparked my initial interest in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was my understanding that it was an open-world game, but it turns out in practice this is only partially true; S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has an open world map segmented into areas. Transitioning between the segments requires a loading screen, and the areas vary in size and content. You can move between them at will, for the most part, but the game world does not feel as immediately accessible as that of other open world games like Fallout 3 or Red Dead Redemption. The game still feels like a world that operates independently of the player, like an environment that the player happens to exist in rather than a series of boards that exist only for the player to experience. It’s difficult to define the difference, but it’s very noticeable to fans of open-world and sandbox style games, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl gets it absolutely right. It would have been nice to have fewer loading screens between areas (or ideally, none whatsoever), but once you adjust to the tempo of the game the loading screens feel less intrusive. The game’s environments are incredible, both in terms of atmosphere and playability. The weather system adds a great deal of immersion to the game and makes the environments really come alive. Grasses sway in the wind, and crows circling overhead change their flight patterns with the breeze. Also upping the horror ambiance are the strange noises that echo through the nuclear-blighted landscape; barks and howls and screams and crying noises from the anomalous rifts.

Got an umbrella?

Got an umbrella?

I should note that I’m playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. on my decade-old rig- AMD 2800 processor, 512mb RAM, Geforce 6200 video card- and I’m playing with the graphical settings on ‘low’. If you have a faster computer (and I imagine almost everyone does), S.T.A.L.K.E.R. should look much nicer on your system than what you’re seeing in the screenshots I took for this article. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl has an awesome degree of scalability, so if you have a good video card, you can make the game look great on high settings. Furthermore, if you have a really powerful rig, you might want to look into the world of user-made graphical mods that exist online. I’ve seen screenshots of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. running with mods that make the game look incredible, surpassing even what we’re seeing in previews of next-gen console games. Even on low, though, the game looks fantastic, and it does it without the framerate issues that a lot of other PC games have.

The landscape in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is gorgeous- and foreboding.

The landscape in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is gorgeous- and foreboding.

The environment is as treacherous as it is beautiful. The game’s alternate-universe Chernobyl has suffered from its disastrous history, and the landscape is spotted with ‘anomalies’, rifts in the fabric of space-time that, if touched or stepped on, can rip the player apart. These anomalies can be difficult to see, often appearing only as a wrinkle or warp in the road or the grass. The player character carries bolts that he can throw to the ground in front of him to detect the presence of an anomaly in his path, but these cannot be held at the same time one holds a weapon, making the player weigh the possibility of being sucked into an anomaly or being chewed up by a mutant.

Would you believe this is one of the less messed up mutants in the game?

Would you believe this is one of the less messed up mutants in the game?

The mutants themselves are often terrifying. Created by excess radiation ejected in the Chernobyl disaster, the mutated animals of the region are a constant threat to the player. From packs of mutated sightless dogs that navigate their prey by sound to the twisted descendants of pigs that will tear through the player with pointy bone protrusions if he gets too close, the mutants are one of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s most frightening elements. It might be because, unlike similar open-world games, your character in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl isn’t a great hero or a god, just a guy, and that sense of vulnerability and mortality pervades most aspects of the gameplay. Despite the depth of my experience with horror games, one particular type of mutant usually encountered in enclosed areas is used to such an intense effect that an encounter with it actually forced me to pause the game a moment and compose myself before resuming play. It’s hard to imagine how a horror game could be more effective.

When you find a decent sniper roost in this game, use it.

When you find a decent sniper roost in this game, use it.

You won’t be defenseless against these horrors, however; S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl features incredibly in-depth gunplay. My good buddy Anthony Ortale praised 2012’s Sniper Elite V2 for its success in making the player factor considerations like bullet drop into calculating his or her shots, but S.T.A.L.K.E.R. includes a number of the same elements, and did so years before Sniper Elite V2 hit the scene. Realism is one of the largest factors in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s favor, and though I have little interest in or knowledge of firearms, I’m told a number of the weapons in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl are essentially accurate to their real-world counterparts in all but name. Using them effectively is a challenge in itself; the game allows you to hip-fire the weapons or use iron sights for greater accuracy, and scopes are available for a number of the game’s rifles, allowing the player to get into picking enemies off from a distance even before he or she is able to buy or find a full-fledged sniper rifle. The rifles allow you to switch between single-shot and burst fire modes, and different types of ammunition can be loaded into each weapon, but doing so will require you to remove the old magazine from your rifle or pistol and load the new ammo, costing valuable time in a firefight- and potentially your life.

This guy has lots of armor, so only a headshot will do.

This guy has lots of armor, so only a headshot will do.

You’ll need them all just to deal with the game’s human opponents. Initially you’ll be facing mostly bandits, guys carrying sawed-off shotguns and wearing leather jackets, but as the game progresses you’ll be forced to deal with extended firefights against paramilitary-type guys wearing heavy body armor and carrying machine guns. It’s wise to learn to use your weapons in the early parts of the game against the bandits, because if you want a chance at surviving the latter portion of the game you’ll need to have learned how to land headshots reliably. This intense difficulty is aggravated by the incredible aim of your opponents, who have a seemingly supernatural ability to land pinpoint shots even from extreme distances. Considering even one bullet can be lethal in this game, it’s wise to look for cover when dealing with these guys.

See this guy? He lives on the save game screen, and he's the only person in this game that has your back.

See this guy? He lives on the save game screen, and he’s the only person in this game that has your back.

Between the armored swat team guys, the mutants looking to rip you to shreds, and the almost-invisible anomalies waiting for you to step into them and get eviscerated, my advice is to get real friendly with the little teddy bear on the ‘save game’ screen and visit him often.

It’s kind of weird that, when loading a single-player game, the load window says “Client: Synchronizing”. As far as I can tell it’s not actually synchronizing with anything online, so it must just be treating the loaded game like a multiplayer session and synchronizing with itself. It’s a little off-putting the first time you see it, but overall it isn’t a big deal.

The voice acting never gets repetitive, because given that most of it is in Russian, for all I know they could all be saying “I used to be a Stalker like you, but then I took a bullet to the knee.” All of the text is in English though, so you won’t have to worry about missing anything eсли вы не говорите на русском. And that’s important, because this game’s plot is definitely not to be missed. I don’t want to go too much into it for fear of giving anything away, but suffice it to say it’s a great, compelling story.

In Soviet Russia, game gets over you!

In Soviet Russia, game gets over you!

In general, independent reviewers don’t give out numbered or lettered scores, but I’m thankful to have the Golden Hatchet Award to give out to the few games that I would be able to recommend without hesitation. The technical issue I encountered seems to not be ubiquitous, and was an easy fix once you know how. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl deserves its Golden Hatchet.

 

 

 

goldenhatchet2013

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and all associated IP are property of their respective owners. The low-res  screenshots used in this article are self-taken and are intended compliant with applicable Fair Use for the purposes of review. 

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~ by Redgoateerob on May 10, 2013.

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