S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: In the Zone

I've been playing S.T.A.L.KE.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl these past few days. Having been playing first-person shooters for the last 12 years or so, it's hard to get me excited about any of the new titles that come out lately. It's not that I don't have fun playing them—I usually do—but they all stick to the same tried and true cliches. Some throw in a handful of RPG elements to spice things up, but that's not exactly new or exciting anymore. Really, aside from Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode One, I can't think of a single FPS that's really wowed me these past few years. Except for S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

Now, let's get one thing straight. This game is buggy. It's buggy, it's rough around the edges, it's hard, it's confusing, and it can be quite frustrating at times. But even with those shortcomings, the game is completely unique and I just can't stop playing it. Calling it a first-person shooter is really a misnomer. Sure, it's played from a first-person perspective and you usually shoot things, but at its heart, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a survival horror game. The goal isn't to save the planet, to defeat an all-powerful foe, or to achieve some unsurmountable task—your true goal is to make it out of the Zone alive. And despite generally not being particularly frightening, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. establishes a sophisticated, uneasy atmosphere that can occasionally, just at the right time, scare you out of your wits.

Let's say you go off on a mission at dawn, out to retrieve plans for an unnamed device. The sun is peeking through the dense cloud cover, and the game feels like a post-apocalyptic version of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. You find your way down into a seemingly abandoned underground installation. There, the oppressive atmosphere feels right out a Silent Hill game. Delve deeper yet, and shooting your way among hideous, mutated creatures in near-pitch blackness with nought but your flashlight to find your way might make you think you're playing a creepier version of Doom 3. Escape out into a derelict train yard with only half a magazine left for your AK-47. It's now late in the afternoon, and you're playing Half-Life 2.

What the game lacks in spit and polish, it more than makes up for with its atmosphere alone. Its gameplay combines some of the best elements of a number of previous titles, but it manages to stay completely unique in its own way. Everything just feels, well, real. Sound effects, from wind to rustling leaves to the clacking sounds of AK-47s is spot-on. AI enemies don't mindlessly throw themselves at you: they take cover, attempt to surround you, and even retreat if things get too hot. If you shoot at an enemy with a silenced weapon from a hiding spot a few meters away, he'll yell and fire randomly in the air. If you're being chased by a pack of mutated dogs, killing a couple of them or even firing your gun will scare them off. Unlike most first-person shooters out there, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. doesn't always count on extensive suspension of disbelief to make players feel immersed.

The game's graphics are a treat, too. Its graphics engine sports all the latest goodies, including dynamic lighting and shading both in- and outdoors, parallax mapping, night and day cycles, fully modeled vegetation, and all kinds of fancy effects. It also makes the most discreet—and realistic—use of high-dynamic range lighting with dynamic exposure adjustments I've seen in a game yet. As one would expect, the game doesn't always run all that well, and some areas are definitely a little on the choppy side on my main system. It is generally smooth enough, though, and the graphics quality really adds to the realism and atmosphere.

Of course, as much as I may love it, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a bittersweet experience. Parts of it border on perfection, while others feel broken and can destroy the immersion completely. The game isn't very well translated into English, and really, it probably needs a couple of extra patches before one can play it without running into any snags. Still, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is special in that, despite the brokenness and lack of polish, it remains unique and makes me want to keep playing—even though I've already completed it once. Really, if I could only buy one game this spring, I would still buy this one. It's just too unique to pass up.

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