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You are mysterious Marked One, who came on death truck from the Zone and doesn’t remember anything. There’s PDA in your pocket with only one task: Kill Strelok, one of the best stalkers in the Zone, who recently disappeared in its centre. The path is blocked by military, bandits and stalker factions with their own interests. Then there’s Zone itself: strange anomalies, mutants and zombies. Stalkers tells legends about priceless artifact deep in the Zone which fulfills any wish...
The story of Stalker has two main inspirations: book Roadside Picnic by Strugacki brothers (one of my favourite SF books, by the way) and Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky, which is a movie inspired by this book. I haven’t seen the film yet and I definitely will (I’m still recuperating from my last venture into intellectual realm: Sokurov’s Russian Ark :)), but allegedly game borrows a lot from its depiction of Zone - bleak wasteland with abandoned factories and ghost towns.
Stalker is an FPS mixed with RPG. It’s kinda shame that there aren’t more RPG elements in the game: you can wear different armors, attach artifacts to your belt which give you bonuses to endurance or health, trade and talk with friendly stalkers (most of them haven’t got much to say though) and do quests for them – that pretty much all for RPG, rest of the game in non-linear shooter.
In RPGs it’s the interactivity of world which gives you feeling that you’re there, that you can communicate with the “environment” and affect it by your actions. In Stalker you can affect your environment mostly by shooting. Dialogues and quests won’t get you much involved in the game and story seemed kinda confusing to me, more as an excuse to shoot your way through the Zone than a real story.
But what gets you involved in the game it’s the world itself and its unique atmosphere. I’ve heard complains about obsolete graphics – might be, but who cares? Zone is allegedly modelled upon real
Exploration of this world is IMHO the most entertaining part of the game, it feels like you are really out there in the Zone. You are also strongly motivated to go off the beaten track by treasure hunting: from time to time you find PDA (mostly on bodies of enemies) with location of hidden treasure. It’s usually well hidden and sometimes very valuable - I found the best armor in the game this way.
Enemy AI is impressive, it’s definitely one of the best AI in shooters so far. Enemies cover, flank, sneak in shadows to get a good shot at you, generally they really try to get you, they don’t just stand and shoot. Lots of tactics from other shooters relying on AI’s stupidity won’t work here. However, beginning of the game is too hard, when you have just lousy weapons, no armor and going against teams of well equiped and cooperating bandits. That changes after few hours, but I think some people might get so flustrated at the beginning that they won’t even get there.
Stalker is for me the second best first-person shooter from last year. (My top three: Call of Duty 4, Stalker, Bioshock.) His main advantages are great atmosphere, enemy AI and lots of unforgettable moments: Geiger counter suddenly going crazy during walk in the woods, flashlight beam penetrating underground darkness or stalker playing guitar by the campfire after sunset.
As for disadvantages: this game could be much more than just a shooting game. While there’s vast world that feels alive, more interaction with it (besides shooting) would make the experience more immersive. Storytelling could be better, Stalker could learn a lot from Bioshock for example. The beginning of the game is flustrating until you get some decent weapons and armor.
Stalker certainly has its shortcomings, but overall it’s a great game. Last but not least, it’s a serious game for adults, unlike lots of copycat Nazi-themed shooters for bloodthirsty teenage audience. It’s a game which moves FPS genre a little bit ahead. I’m really looking forward to its prequel Clear Sky.