I’ve missed being able to ramble, with the blog down for a week, so I thought I’d take a break from restoring old posts and write a new one.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is a PC game that I’ve been waiting for a long time, ever since I played Boiling Point. It seems to be designed by the same Russian guys, and has much of the same slightly-off, non-Western, hell-obsessed sensibility to it.

Back when I thought programming games was a possiblity, my ideal game would have been something like a shooter crossed with Fallout but with the epic scale of one of the early Ultimas. I’m thinking specifically of Ultima V.

BP came very close to this ideal. But it was a resource hog, full of bugs, with much of its scale only possible through duplicated content. And its plot was, well, really bad. Still, it had the general idea – roaming around a blasted Mad Max landscape, scavenging, shooting people, and making unpleasant deals with unsavory individuals. The larger the world to roam in, the better.

Stalker’s plot is better. As far as I know, the real Chernobyl is not surrounded by 30 km of mutated dogs and boars, abandoned mental and biological warfare laboratories, gas-masked commandos, a wide assortment of spatial anomalies, and a host of friendly neighborhood zombies – but it’s pleasant to think so. The player explores the zone, trying to get deeper and deeper into it and find various artifacts created by the zone’s otherworld qualities, always scrambling for ammunition, food, and other supplies. It’s very close to my dream game.

Still, there are problems. The graphics engine is not optimized and I’ve had to tweak it considerably to get it to run at a decent speed. Oblivion, which argubly looks better, didn’t take this much effort. Also, it has loading zones between physical areas, arranged in a mostly linear pattern, and the game’s scale suffers from their mere existence. You can’t just jog from one end of the gameworld to another without stopping like in Oblivion (or in BP, for that matter!) The old Starflight games are a good example of superior design in this respect, as the entire star chart was available to you from the beginning of the game. The direction of your explorations was not pre-determined, and the resulting freedom was empowering.

Then again, each area of the Zone is immensely detailed, and unlike BP, Oblivion, or the game dynamic in the GTA games, Stalker’s code appears to be controlling every NPC and variation going on in the ENTIRE area, not just near the player. This gives the game a spontaneous quality that exists side by side with what is scripted. The packs of roving, hungry dogs and mutants are probably the most visible effect of this. The bandit attacks in various areas, also, can surprise you, though where they appear has gotten a bit predictable and the missions to defeat the attacks in the Garbage area are quite annoying. Alas, this all translates into heavy memory and processor load.

A good patch or two would fix most of Stalker’s problems, though the loading zones (and the largely linear sequence the zone’s areas are laid out in) is a flaw that isn’t going to go away. Their massive size, however, is sating. Still, without the freedom to try to go anywhere at anytime, the game misses out on what could have been a more epic experience. More on this later, as I get closer and closer to the reactor…

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