S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl (2007)

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.–Shadow of Chernobyl spent years in development and was rushed out of the door. That the game feels partially complete and has an array of technical flaws is a major strike against it. But that aside, these are minor flaws when compared to what the game actually accomplishes.

Based loosely on elements from the Strugatsky brothers’ classic novel Roadside Picnic and Andrei Tarkovsky’s landmark 1979 film Stalker, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is set in an alternate near-future near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine. A second nuclear disaster has warped reality around ‘the Zone,’ the quarantined area around the power plant.

You play a stalker, a cross between an explorer and scavenger that braves the hazards of the Zone for profit. Thanks to the well-worn “amnesia” plot device, your protagonist aims to find out who he is, why he has “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” tattooed on his arm, and why he’s carrying instructions to kill someone named Strelok.

And, despite some breath-taking cut-scenes, the plot staggers along fairly incoherently. It’s interesting, if you follow it; and believe me, you don’t have to. The game is so open-ended that you could literally spend weeks just roaming the radiated countryside.

And this is where the game really shines. I’ve never seen a video game that has such a fully realized game world. Thunder sends bandits scrambling for shelter before cold rain arrives. Friendly traders make space around their campfire for you, some of them chatting quietly in Russian. Mercenaries guard train yards and shout warnings before opening fire. And while the game is technically a first-person shooter, it’s the polar opposite of dumb action game. You can’t carry a million weapons, since guns weigh a lot…and food is maybe more important than ammunition; bullets kill easily and are affected by weather and hard surfaces; and enemies are smart and use teamwork. It makes more sense to avoid confrontation than to go in with guns blazing.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is saddled with technical quirks, goofy English translation and a semi-confusing main story arc, but these can be brushed aside if you’re willing to dive into the beautiful atmosphere. I hope I never forget the first time the game made me gasp–fading sunlight poked through an overcast sky, illuminating leaves as they danced along the road and eventually stuck to the side of an abandoned bus depot. This is the sort of thing that makes me want to go back and play it again.

-Jason Panella

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