Summary: After years in development, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is just a few weeks away from retail release, and in today's preview, JCal gives us his impressions of a beta build of the game.
Editorís Note: THQ has not allowed us to take screenshots of the beta build that we received. Instead they provided us with their own screenshots of the game for this article.
For the last time we will give a summary of the gameís storyline and setting.. S.T.A.L.K.E.R takes place around the infamous Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Ukraine that in real life exploded in 1986, releasing a massive amount of radiation. The initial explosion killed only a few but the lingering effects of the radiation release may affect tens of thousands of people, maybe millions. The gameís fictional universe postulates a second explosion at Chernobyl over 20 years later. This time the radiation release has caused more than just deaths and possible cancer effects. It has also created mutated creatures of all shapes and sizes and has even turned ordinary artifacts into items that might be of considerable value.
Your player character is a ďstalkerĒ, a kind of scavenger who is trying to find anything that might be of value inside the affected zone. As the game begins, your character has the tried-and-true gameplay plot device of amnesia. His only memory is that he is on a mission to take out a fellow stalker.
While S.T.A.L.K.E.R is a first person shooter, the presentation of the game looks and feels more like a role playing game a la Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Your first task is to chat with a merchant who offers you a job in exchange for paying the merchant back for some unnamed obligation to him. The user interface gives the player a choice of responses to certain questions much like a role playing game and of course the idea of assigning certain tasks to your character has a lot of RPG similarites. The first task is seemingly a simple one; get some kind of data device from another stalker in the zone.
After getting your assignment youíll head out of the merchantís bunker and outside in the zone where youíll really get a good look at S.T.A.L.K.E.Rís environment. Itís clearly a desolate place, with lots of ruined buildings, tall grass and an general feel of foreboding in the landscape. You are directed to go to a fellow stalker who tells you where to go to get the data device. Initially you are armed only with a pistol and a knife for this mission and needless to say youíll feel pretty vulnerable as your character heads out to the location where the data device could be found. While walking to the farm to complete the mission you get a sense of the living world aspect of the game. Mutated boars and other creatures are seen in the distance and a helicopter from an unknown agency flew overhead. There are alsoÖ.thingsÖ..that roam the landscape that are in fact some kind of spatial anomalies that were created by the nuclear event.. Itís best to try to steer away from them.
The gameís RPG aspects come into play again as the player character encounters some friendly stalkers who want to help you storm the farm where the data disk can be retrieved. You are given the choice of having these AI allies join you or you can go the stealth route and try to take on the task yourself. We decided to use the former option and had our team storm the farm.
With our first task accomplished we headed back to our mysterious merchant to give him the device as well as sell off the items we received from the raid for cash.
Of course this is just the first mission. S.T.A.L.K.E.R will give the player a chance to participate in even more missions for money or items and they will usually be similar to our first encounter, dealing with killing people and/or getting access to artifacts. You have a PDA that you use to look at maps of the environment, mission objectives, conversation logs and even personal diaries. One of the cooler things about this game is that each NPC you encounter has the potential to help you, either by giving you the option for a mission or trading items or even telling you about some interesting historical facts that your PDA then stores in its encyclopedia.
If you get the feeling that S.T.A.L.K.E.R is a bit more deep than your standard linear first person shooter you are correct. The gameís designers have gone out of their way to give the player the feeling that they are in a living world with events that happen outside the player characterís missions. From the AI aspects of the NPCs to the roaming creatures that you may or may not have to deal with, to the overall sense that this post-apocalyptic world is vast, S.T.A.L.K.E.R is already looking like it will take some time to complete its single player plotline.
It helps that the visuals in S.T.A.L.K.E.R echo the desolation of the gameís setting. The gameís vast outdoor environments only cause load scenes when you go through one of the gameís various zones; otherwise the game looks and feels much like a free roaming environment. Character models are first rate as are the visual effects such as the anomalies you have to encounter. We will say that the beta build we received from THQ to try out had its share of crashes to the desktop and on our 2.2 GHz P4 rig with a GeForce 6800 card and 640MB of RAM the game had some framerate issues on 1024x768 with high graphics settings. Since our rig is a bit on the old side and this was a beta build we certainly expect the final version to run much better on a higher end machine when the final product is released. We canít comment on the promised multiplayer features of S.T.A.L.K.E.R either; our build didnít include them for our use.
Yes, it has taken six years for GSC GameWorld to give us their vision of a future nuclear disaster but itís looking like that long development time might not have been in vain. Based on our experience with the beta build, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is aiming to combine deep RPG-like gameplay with the action elements of a FPS, not to mention an impressive looking visual and artistic graphical style. We will have our final review of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl when publisher THQ ships the game to stores in late March.
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