Why? Why am I doing this?
Much of the conflict in Stalker
– physical and metaphorical – is derived from this system and the clashes it creates between the various factions. From Freedom, who wishes for free access to The Zone, to Duty who wants to prevent its spread – everyone seems to have an agenda.
The Army want to control it, Stalkers want to profit from it, Scientists want to study it and then there’s Monolith, a religious sect that believe in the holiness of the centre of The Zone, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
These conflicts, and the quest to ‘Kill Strelok’, form the focal point the of game’s story and regrettably this is where the Stalker
universe begins to unravel. The basic premise is fine, especially the warring groups which add a level of moral ambiguity to the game.
No, the real problem is that the game never provides any good reason why the player should care about any of this. The Strelok plotline in particular feels clumsily put together, and seems like a flimsy excuse to push the player into opening the passage north to the town of Pripyat and the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
In essence, the central plot is based around progressing from the south, where you begin, and opening the path to the north and the power plant. From time to time, when key objectives are completed, the game teases you with cinematic sequences but these serve to confuse rather than inform, adding little to the experience.
You can learn a little more about the story, and your characters thoughts on events, by reading the Diary section of your PDA but these entries never really make up for the lack of a more cohesive plot. There are reportedly multiple endings depending on your actions, but one can only hope those are better than one I saw which was a severe anti-climax.
It’s a shame too because, although the story is rather uninspired, the journey is an enjoyable one filled with plenty of tension and excitement. As you progress through the game you get a real sense of your actions having an effect on game world, with the various factions clashing head-on as you open up the more inaccessible areas of The Zone.
The game’s problems aren’t restricted the plotline either, with inconsistent A.I a particular annoyance. On the whole the A.I is okay, but on occasion it displays moments of utter stupidity or, even worse, signs of complete failure. Allies also have the forever annoying habit of pushing you out of the way, often into unfriendly fire!
Another example of the remaining bugs is objects from the environment, be they barrels or dead bodies, disappearing and reappearing for no apparent reason. This particular problem isn’t too troubling, but is an example of the kind of low level bugs that remain in the game.
That said, for a game on this scale these are relatively acceptable problems and I didn’t come across any game breaking glitches. It took me around 20 hours to work my way from beginning to end, but this figure could range anywhere between 15 and 50 hours depending on how you want to play the game. Ultimately, if you get into Stalker
it should keep you occupied for a considerable amount of time and the more you put in, the more it gives back.
Before we come to a full conclusion, here's a look at the settings that Stalker
gives you to play with. There are quite a few tweakables, which is always a good thing. The basic screen allows you to select your resolution - everything from 800x600 up to 2560x1600 is supported, including widescreen resolutions.
If you click through to the advanced tab, you get a lot of options about what you tweak. Vision distance is the top option, along with Object Detail, Grass Density and Textures detail, which we've already discussed. You can set the level of Anisotropic Filtering and Anti-aliasing that you want from within the game itself, rather than having to tweak about in the control panel.
Then there are a bunch of Shadow and Lighting options - you can turn off shadows cast by the sun, shadows cast across grass (more instancing calculations) and general shadow quality, as well as deciding whether or not NPCs use flashlights (pretty render-intensive if they do - the flashlights look ace). You can also alter Vsync, if you've got enough performance to leave that on.