Monday, March 26, 2007

Review: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - Shadow of Chernobyl

One of the big surprises of this young year has been the actual release of a title whose rank in the vaporware hall of fame was second only to the awesome majesty that is Duke Nukem Forever... S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - Shadow of Chernobyl.

So how does it measure up? Read on.

The Good
If you were worried that, 6 years after its announced development, STALKER would look dated and flat, unable to compete with modern shooters, let me lay that to rest right now. The game is as beautiful as a game set in an apocalyptic nuclear wasteland can be. While not exactly bright and colorful (more like soulcrushingly depressing, but it's Chernobyl, people, not Times Square), the textures are rich and gritty, polygons are numerous, and models are intricately detailed. In fact, sometimes the vegetation is a little too thick, so as to obfuscate what you're trying to shoot, but hey, isn't that what vegetation does? Also, the story is an engaging sci-fi junket with elements of politics, mystery and of course, lots of mutants. It unfolds well, is immersive, and all in all an engaging experience.

The Bad - This section is going to seem a little large, but don't lose heart.
My biggest gripe about this game is they have taken everybody's least favorite RPG element and injected it into an FPS: Inventory management. The one thing most people gripe about in any other RPS, they chose to make their most visible transplant. Ugh. I suppose you get used to it after a while, but it is still a pain. One thing I wish they HAD put in was a way to "train" your accuracy to get better, because especially with the weapons you get in the early stages of the game, you're hard pressed to hit the broad side of a barn at 50 paces. By far the most irritating implementation of the "expanding crosshairs" dynamic I have encountered yet. The last bad design decision is the control mechanism for the player's movement and posture. In addition to the WASD keys for movement, you have Q and E for leaning left and right, shift for walking slowly (stealthily), ctrl for crouching, X for sprinting, and ctrl AND shift to kneel (which you'll be doing often, because it affords the best accuracy boost... and even at this boosted level, you're pretty much still just spraying and praying). Often times, you will need to kneel (two keys), lean (another key), and inch to the side (another key)... so, you'd need to be holding shift, control, Q, and tapping A all with one hand so you can keep your other hand on the mouse to aim and shoot around that corner you're trying to get around. Carpal tunnel syndrome, here I come.

Oh, and one more design flaw... enemy characters all seem to be able to take 5 times the amount of damage you can, unless all your hits are headshots (which is pretty difficult, given the above accuracy issues).

Now, on to unintended bugs... You can tell that, after years of delays, somebody said "Ship it now or we fire you all!" There are lots of little clues that after 4 years of delayed releases, the final months of development were a desperate rush. The AI for enemies, for instance, tries to be clever, but often enough it will end up trying to shoot you through doors, walls, ceilings/floors, and other solid objects which block not only bullets but sight altogether. Still, the enemy will often be constantly emptying clip after clip (and they never run out of ammo, unlike you) into a foot-thick cinderblock wall that separates you from him.

Other bugs in the system keep coming up as well, such as objectives you have completed in the past will suddenly come up uncompleted again when you load a new level map, your "objective" arrow will sometimes point at completely arbitrary map positions, and often the loops for ambient sounds (engines thrumming, power hums, nature sfx, etc) will not be looped quite right and it will cut off for a second between each iteration of the loop... as if that generator powering the building dies every 5 seconds for a half second. To top it all off, the game is riddled with typographical errors, ranging from an extra character in a word or misspelled word all the way up to entire paragraphs not matching the accompanying spoken dialog at all.

Continuity sometimes suffers as well, such as names for things will change and change back without any reason to do so (IE, one important device is randomly called either the "Brain Scorcher" or the "Brain Burner", as if a story decision was made to change the name in mid-production and the old voice cuts were never re-recorded).

The Final Word
Despite the bugs, punishing design flaws, and 900 shades of dirty brownish gray that comprise the game's entire art pallette, you will have fun playing STALKER. Just remember to never let yourself run low on ammo. The graphics are excellent and can squeeze performance-sweat out of even the beefiest of current video cards (except of course for the 600 dollar Nvidia monstrosities, I can only assume). The gameplay is smooth and action-packed, and the story will make you want to see what happens. Despite its flaws, I'd say it's worth trying. Rating: B.

And that's the word from Bandit Camp


Gas Bandit said...

Hah. Well, I guess that didn't take very long... a patch has been issued. I don't know if it addresses everything I mentioned in the way of bugs, but what the hey.

Patch Thread

Anonymous said...

The patch messes with your saved games. It doesn't really mention any of the so called 86 bugs they fixed. Still, the only noticable change is that armor really wears down faster now.

Gas Bandit said...

Ha Ha.