Imagine it's grey and bleak outside, the mist is closing in and if one was to use his or her imagination, they might imagine all sorts of spectres or apparitions rising out of the fog and shattering the minds of all who dare venture from the safety of their houses. Now, think of the fog as being radioactive, requiring you to wear special clothing to pass through it. You'll also need a weapon, preferably one that's corroded, old and generally in poor condition.
You're now in The Zone, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl's post-nuclear landscape that makes the recent Fallout games look lush and peaceful in comparison. While it was only released in March 2007, it's such a distinctly PC-only game that it's likely a lot of you out in Dealspwn Land will have either only heard vague rumours or whispered tales of it. So your correspondent, a veteran of all three STALKER games, is here to fill you in and explain why it's the sort of FPS game you just don't currently get on your console thingamajiggies.
Scavenger, Trespasser, Adventurer, Loner, Killer, Explorer, Robber. That's what STALKER stands for (we're leaving the full stops out of the name for simplicity's sake) and it amply sums up the experience of being in The Zone around Chernobyl. Drawing substantial inspiration from the Strugatsky Brothers' influential 70s novel Roadside Picnic plus subsequent move adaptations, the Ukraine-based GSC Game World set about creating one of the most intense, foreboding, desolate and dangerous worlds ever conceived and committed to disc.
Previously only famous in the West for the Cossacks and American Conquest strategy game series, the game was originally announced all the way back in 2001, with a release date set for 2003. A whole four years later, it finally arrived, very different to how it was originally meant to be. Gone were the working vehicles, which remained in shattered, immobile husk form. The land area, while still huge, was significantly cut down in size from the original blueprints.
Many other things were cut, some of which can be found listed here but even so, the game that did eventually come out managed to capture the imaginations of hundreds of thousands of players, even if it took a little while to gain widespread acceptance because of a horrendous number of bugs and a number of typically idiosyncratic features that often crop up in Eastern European games.
Playing STALKER is tough. At first, it's really hard just to stay alive outside the first friendly area you find yourself starting out in. The very first proper mission sees you, the Marked One, starting out on your quest to find the mysterious Strelok by helping some unaligned Stalkers storm a farm house. You've got a pistol, they've got automatics. One or two shots will kill you in your feeble starting out armour, so it's potentially a nightmare for those less experienced with a mouse and keys in their shooters.
It gets tougher from there, but perseverance brings great reward. Keep plugging away and you can scavenge plenty of ammunition, weapons and armour, completing missions and travelling to different areas of The Zone. Each area offers interesting geographical locations to explore, but perhaps the most exhilarating places to visit are the subterranean areas and, naturally, the area around the nuclear power plant of Chernobyl itself.
Both feature areas of extreme darkness and terror, total silence and huge dangers lurking in the pitch black. Descending into the depths of the experimental laboratories to find a key piece of technology is as memorable an experience as you'll find in any survival horror. Like in the recent Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the horror comes not from what you see but from what you don't see. A lot of the more action-oriented survival horror games would do well to remember this.
So, why should you bother with STALKER? Well, it's old enough now that you don't have to have a killer PC to play it properly and also because the modding community have spent years and years tweaking, polishing and adding things to it. New weapons, features, wonderful new visuals, all of these and more have expanded upon the exciting original experience and make it almost as fresh as when it first plopped out of GSC's developmental womb.
It's also a 'proper' FPS/RPG hybrid that doesn't pull any punches or dumb itself down to gain mass acceptance. It is what it is, an incredibly bleak and desolate environment that had the perfectly functional and slightly rough interface and feel to it that it deserved. Sure, the conversation system is still utterly horrible, something we all want fixed in the upcoming full sequel, but with a mod like Oblivion Lost bolted on, it's a wonderful experience, one that really has to be played if you consider yourself an FPS buff.