Sunday, February 24, 2008

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

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (just Stalker from now on) is a first-person shooter which was 6 years (!) in development - announced in 2001, but released last year with four years delay. Was the waiting worth it?


There’s been second accident in Chernobyl which created the Zone, area around power plant teeming with strange anomalies. Immediately it has been closed by military, but people - so called stalkers - go there anyway to search for valuable artifacts. (By the way, stalker means guide in russian, it's doesn't have anything to do with stalking anyone.)

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 Chernobyl surroundings and it certainly looks like real world, not your usual FPS corridors which make it easier for enemy AI to figure out which way to shoot :)). There are kilometers of wide-open countryside with abandoned factories, farms and ghost towns. Design of environment is realistic and non-repetitive. Sometimes you just stop, look around and admire the scenery. There aren’t many shooters with atmosphere like that. The overall impression could be compared to Fallout – but here you can see the post-apocalyptic world through your own eyes.

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.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

First Starbucks in Prague

Last week Starbucks opened its first coffee shop in Czech Republic, in the centre of old Prague. I'm glad they did that because Starbucks has great coffee, although it's quite expensive. Few days after opening I stopped by to have a cup, but café was packed and there was a long queue from the entrance all the way to take-away counter - I didn't want to wait half an hour for a coffee, so I walked on.

It was packed for the whole first week because press wrote about the opening so crowds poured in because Starbucks is IN. Others complained about quality of their coffee (I guess that most of them have actually never been in Starbucks) in discussion forums all over the Czech internet, which is funny because the supreme "traditional" Czech coffee made in turkish style (put powdered roast coffee into cup, add boiling water) isn't something one should brag about :).

Anyway, I tried it again this week with my girlfriend and found out that crowds were gone. There was just the right amount of people to make the café feel cosy. We both ordered caramel frappuccino and shelled out 115 crowns for each (about 4,5 Euros or 6,5 dollars) - I've never paid so much for a coffee in Prague and I thought it simply can't be worth the price.

Surprisingly, it was worth it. It might be overpriced, but there just isn't coffee like that available anywhere else in Prague yet. Besides, the interior is very nice and staff is good-natured and pleasant - genuinely pleasant, as far as I can tell. Miles Davis playing quietly in the background was a nice touch, certainly much better than radio screaming hits from 80's - unfortunately quite common occurence in Prague cafés nowadays.

Overall, it was a very nice experience. I won't go there every week (the price is just too high, shop is kinda out of the way and I'm not much of a quality coffee addict), but I will definitely come back and enjoy the coffee and the atmosphere.