For those of you who consider themselves to be game devourers, whether on the PC or consoles, I have a question: from what you’ve played / seen so far, how do long do you think a developer needs to release what’s known as a kick-ass game? Two years? Three? Four? Take into account that titles which boast to redefine their genres and write history can’t be made in one year, except through divine intervention or by a truly extraordinary set of circumstances. So let’s consider 2, 2 and a half years a decent development period, if everything works out as it should (which usually doesn’t). What would be your first thought about a game which has been 6 years in development? Either it’s the game to end all games, or the biggest flop yet. Personally, I never through I’d see that day when STALKER was going to be released and it wouldn’t be a stretch to consider it the eastern-European brother of Duke Nukem Forever.
After the disappointment that was Doom 3, STALKER should have been the fiercest rival for Half-Life 2 in the race to win the First Person Shooter of the Year award. At least that was the theory in the summer of 2003. What happened with Half-Life 2 I don’t think is a mystery to anyone: the source code stolen here, another delay there, a troublesome launch via Steam… nothing really serious mind you. Unfortunately, STALKER didn’t take advantage of Valve Software’s problems, because GSC Gameworld decided to delay the game… again… and again… and again, until finally THQ announced that STALKER will se the light of day in March 2007. Just a 4 year delay, no rush.
STALKER is based in the year 2012, 6 years after a second (fictional) incident near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, when a huge Zone is created, about 30 square kilometers in size. Now the Zone’s a very weird place, it’s full of mutant creatures and anomalies, but the really interesting things are the artifacts. These are irradiated objects that have weird properties, so scientists are very keen to get a hold of them. At the start of the game you’ll wake up in front of Sidorovich, one of the traders in Zone. He’s going to be one of the most important characters in the game, since all missions related to the main quest of the game will go through him. Since you have no memory of who you are and what you’re doing in this God forsaken place, you’ll have to do a few jobs for Sidorovich and his friends and find out why the only entry in your PDA is “Kill Strelok”, what the STALKER tattoo on your arm means and what secrets lie at the center of the Zone.
Unlike other first person shooters, where you’re limited to the old room – corridor – room scenario, in STALKER you’re free to explore the Zone as you please… but with certain limitations. First off, the map in your PDA is deceiving regarding the size of the game world. The Zone is actually split into 11 smaller areas (plus a few subterranean levels) but each one is limited by fences which you can’t jump and connected to each other hub-style, though points which you can’t avoid if you want to go from one area to another. This is a big no-no for exploration, because for instance you can’t reach Pripyat without going through the Red Forest, even though on the map this might seem possible. Even worse, the enemies that guard the junction points respawn when you reenter an area, and sometimes you can even see them popping up in mid air.
However, you can wonder through the game zones at your own pace, either thoroughly exploring or focusing just on the main missions to advance the story and getting you closer to the 7 possible endings. Yes, you read it right, there are seven endings, of which only two can be considered “real”, so be careful how fast you want to go through the game. My recommendation is to find out as much as you can about who you are and who Strelok is, if you don’t want to end up with a more… abrupt ending. The 5 “false” ending sequences may seem a bit weird, almost Twilight Zone material, but keep in mind that STALKER is based on the 1997 movie with the same name, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, movie which in turn is based on the Sci-Fi short novel Roadside Picnic. I would advise you to dig a little on the Internet for information about the movie and novel to understand the core ideas on which the story was based and why the 5 false endings are they way they are.