Editor’s Note: November 8th, 2015. I’m pleased that this review has been one of my more popular reviews. It’s also one of the oldest reviews I did on the website. So, excuse some of the creaks. Thanks as always for the support.
A Paladin’s Review: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. A World Alive With Potentially Horrifying Situations.
- Genre: FPS RPG Post-Apocalyptic Horror Open World.
- Developed and Published by: GSC Game World
- Platform: Windows Only.
- Business Model: Base Game
- Copy Purchased by Myself
There are games that leave an impression for a lifetime and this is one of them. How else could I forget such a unique title as this? The world you explore and survive in feels alive unlike any other open-world game I’ve played to date or since. This is a game that has sent me through a whole range of emotions from fear to exultation at having succeeded at survived in the dark depths of the Labs….those labs…*shudder*. Good adventures always end bittersweet. It was constant anxiety with this one. I was never quite certain what was around the next corner. Always wondering if I would run into a pack of mutants ready to rip my face off or other more murderous STALKERs. This will be a spoiler-free review of the game and I’ll do my best to cover what I can. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl originally took over seven months for me to complete. Granted, I took a few breaks from the game which is why it took so long. According to Steam, I’ve logged over 41 hours with the game. Feels like the longest 41 hours of my life. The game made me as jumpy as a rabbit when playing it and some of the things in the game elicit such a fearful response that it made it difficult to play it. Is that silly? Maybe, but that’s the fun of it as well. Even so, I still faced my fears down and finished the game. Only to begin jumping right into the sequel afterwards. I am a sucker for punishment.
Overall Gameplay Thoughts
Shadow of Chernobyl is such a unique game that it’s hard to quantify all of what makes it so. When I had played this, I hadn’t really been exposed to much of the horror genre and it’s still not one of my favorite genres, except for psychological horror. Which I can only think it’s because I want to overcome my fears. What better way to do it than in a world full of radiation, mutants and horrifying creatures. SoC is an FPS and RPG hybrid with lots of open world elements. There’s a main quest to complete, lots of optional side missions that you’re free to tackle and plenty of weapons to choose from. The big selling point for SoC (outside of its post-apocalyptic themes) is the A-Life engine. The A-Life engine allows creatures and NPCs to roam the wasteland with a set of guidelines and rules. They eat, sleep, move around, shoot enemies, talk to friends and generally act like human beings. In combat they avoid hazards, throw grenades and act tactically, sometimes sneaking up on you when you don’t realize they’re there. It isn’t uncommon to see a skirmish between an important NPC and his vanguard against a random bunch of mutated dogs that were at one point on the other side of the field they were in. This world is unscripted which means that sometimes events such as a quest giver being attacked and killed can happen. And then you’re completely unable to finish your quest. That’s not intended to happen, but A-Life allows for it.
Combat is solid in SoC though it can be wonky. There’s a pretty good balance and choice of weapons to take on the horrors of the Zone. Ammunition is a limited commodity so sometimes the better part of valor is running away. At the very least, be careful with how much ammo you use. It’s entirely possible to run out in the middle of a Lab and be completely SOL. There’s a decent variety of enemies to keep things interesting though I would have liked to see more mutants. As a STALKER, you have a decent amount of health to take a few bullets but not too many. However, even taking one bullet or swipe from a mutant can cause bleeding and bandages can run out. The difficulty can swing wildly, especially if you’re trying to protect NPCs. They don’t always practice the best survival tactics and can often get killed for no good reason. So, when doing escort missions or trying to protect them from a raiding party, you’ll need to put enemies down fast or else potentially lose important quest givers. This can be rather aggravating if you’re returning from a mission to see the camp under attack.
What are S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s?
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. stands for “Scavenger, Trespasser, Adventurer, Loner, Killer, Explorer, Robber”. The STALKERs are basically the entrepreneurs of the Zone who are looking for artifacts that started popping up in the Zone. Generally considered a neutral faction, STALKERs are led by their own morals and guidelines. The Exclusion Zone that the game takes place in is an area around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant that came into existence after a fictional explosion took place years after after the real explosion in our own history. The world changed forever, with the zone becoming a new wild west of lawlessness, factional conflict and power struggles as humanity eked out a survival in a new hostile world. The Zone is filled with mutated creatures, deadly radiation, and weather that can kill you if you’re outside. The flip side is that there is plenty of opportunity to be had for Rubles, valuable artifacts and reputation.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is refreshing in that you’re not the main hero of this world. Your actions can be as good or as criminal as you want but the world will continue on. Even the ending doesn’t show things going back to before. The only mission you have is to find and kill a man named “Strelok”, another STALKER. What you do with that is entirely up to you. It does build up towards the end of the game in a final show down but is otherwise unconcerned with your actions. The Zone gives and takes away what it will, and is clearly here to stay. It does have a lot of subtext about the dangers of nuclear war and what a potential world could have looked like had the explosion in Chernobyl been any worse than it had been.
Oblivion Lost Mod & The Modding Community
My first run through of Shadow of Chernobyl was with the Oblivion Lost mod. You’ll want to run this game with at least one mod to fix a lot of the issues the original game has. Due to a rushed development timetable, a lot of content and original ideas had been cut from the game. But, the modding community took it upon themselves to fix up the numerous issues and open the game up to the developer’s original vision. One of the more popular mods is Oblivion Lost, which was recommended by Moonshinefox as the most optimal and true experience of SoC. You can find a full list of changes at this link. Suffice it to say, it makes the game shine. As an overview, the mod adds Emission events which happen at random times. If you’re standing outside, they can kill you with a big old dose of radiation. Worse, it causes the anomalies to move around in the world, kills off NPCs that are also outside (potentially screwing up your quest) and also causes an increase in the number of mutated creatures. Yay. Oh and what are anomalies? They are areas where the laws of nature and physics have been corrupted and are dangerous/lethal to passing entities. There are anomalies of fire, electricity and so on. The mod also adds factions that interact/shoot at each other, weapons, random weather, artifact transmutations, better realism, and a lot of other things.
With its moody and dark visual design, the game holds up despite the aged looking graphics. However, where this game really shines is how incredibly atmospheric it is. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a game like this and probably never will again. Which is unfortunate. The audio design is simply top notch. From the noises at night to the depths of Lab X18, the ambiance is foreboding and creepy. You’ll have some wild animal scream in the distance outside, some random metal crash in underground areas, the sounds of mutants hunting you and other spooky noises. The ambiance of the game is what helps instill the emotional responses I had with the game. Running into controllers, mutated humans who have a deadly mind-attack, has got to be one of the most unsettling experiences I’ve ever had. Which is only made worse by the noise it makes. Listening to that howling through several long underground tunnels make your hairs stand on end.
PC Settings and Multiplayer
Settings are fairly reasonable and include most of what you need. However, some settings don’t work such as the AA slider, it doesn’t actually do anything and V-sync is completely broken. Fixing these problems will require installing a mod. You can check out the issues and modding solutions on PCGamingWiki. As for what settings do work, there’s a reasonable selection of resolution options, gamma, contrast and brightness sliders. Advanced video options include vision distance, objects detail, grass density, textures detail, lighting, shadow quality and anisotropic filtering sliders. They don’t give you any numbers to understand what you’re changing though. Key rebinding and alternative keys are also available in the game. The only audio sliders are SFX and music though the game supports up to 7.0 surround sound.
If you’re wanting to run multiplayer, you will need to install the “Multi-Patch” mod. The game used to use GameSpy servers but those were shut down years ago. I don’t recommend picking the game up for multiplayer only though. The mode isn’t particularly well implemented and the community is pretty small.
Despite the best efforts of the Oblivion Lost mod, I did notice some problems listed below:
- Bugged Missions. Missions for the most part worked, but there were some that were way too vague or bugged to be completed. One mission in particular had you looking for a gun and I looked for better part of 30 minutes in the area it was supposed to be. I later found out its incredibly difficult to find and the quest is considered bugged. Another quest was an escort-the-NPC quest and the guy had a tendency of getting stuck half way through.
- Occasionally I stumbled across treasure that was in the middle of the anomaly and was impossible to reach without dying.
- Repetitive missions. The main storyline mission is good, but the optional side missions tended to get pretty samey. Find an artifact, bring it back. Find a STALKER/rogue agent, kill them and receive reward. Rinse and repeat.
- NPCs spawning right on top of you. This seemed to happen more towards the end of the game in one of the underground vaults.
This isn’t a perfect game by any stretch. It has a lot of bugs and quirks that have been tackled by the modding community but it can still lead to some unfortunate situations while you’re playing. Including but not limited to: being stuck in a level with no ammo and unable to move forward, wonky combat balance and NPCs behaving erratically. However, I think the Shadow of Chernobyl experience is worth the risk. It’s steeped in atmosphere, the game engine makes the world feel truly alive and the richness of this Russian post-apocalyptic world is utterly unique. Sometimes the best games are the ones that are the messiest. It’s a pity that there hasn’t been any continuations in this genre but I hold out hope someday, someone will give it a go.
Thanks for reading!