Few games incite as must cult fervor as the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. Made by several of the people who eventually moved on to the Metro games, this three-game series will instantly spark an enthused discussion and fond remembrance if you mentioned on a message board or to a group of gamers. Anyone with a remote liking of open-world games will inevitably give one a try at some point. I’ve owned the first S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game, Shadow of Chernobyl, for years now. A few times here and there, I’ve tried to give it a shot but just couldn’t give it the time I needed to really sink into the experience as needed. Finally, I sat myself down recently and forced myself through the first painful hours. By the time I had finished the game, I had just had one of the most fascinating open-world experiences I’ve ever played. Unfortunately, my time with S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl was packed with frustration and anger too.
The world of S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl is quite easily the most interesting and well-realized world I’ve ever seen in an open-world game. It takes place in the area around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor a few years after it blew, called the Zone by its inhabitants, with the resulting radiation causing several mutations to local wildlife and the area itself; imagine a lot of flat, open space and blown-out buildings populated with several conflicting factions and horrific mutants. As I was playing through, I couldn’t help but feel creeped out and unnerved every second as I traversed the world, due to the various hideous creatures (some of which are grotesquely creative and terrifying) that could pop up at a moment’s notice and dangerous anomalies, essentially pockets of radiation, randomly scattered throughout the world which are hard-to-see and damage you if you stray too close. The sounds of the world are also fantastic–far-off gunfire letting you know that fight has just broken out or the snarl of a stray mutant coming up behind you. The whole game is a super eerie experience throughout, even when you feel somewhat comfortable with the mechanics and have a decent amount of supplies. No other open-world game has made me feel so vulnerable out in the wilds.
The story doesn’t fare as well. You play as the Marked One, a man who doesn’t remember who he is but is branded with the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. tattoo, a sort of mercenary feared by those in the Zone. Your PDA has one objective on it: kill a man named Strelok. This may seem like the main storyline, but it actually ends up being a side-objective. Instead, the man you were brought to after being found unconscious gives you a mission at the start of the game; this series of missions is actually the one that leads you to the center of the Zone and the end of the game. I do suggest you finish the Strelok missions as well, however, as they lead to the better endings of the game (of which there are several). I rarely cared about why I was doing an objective, instead using the opportunity to see more of the world and progress through to some gated areas. The end of the game is quite fascinating, but you might suffer a bit of boredom and fatigue getting there. The awful characters don’t really help either. A few of the characters in the Zone are somewhat animated and interesting, but most are so boring and dull that you immediately forget about them once you finish speaking with them. They don’t feel like people: just walking information terminals. It’s too bad, really, because some interesting characters placed into a world like this could have really spiced up the game’s feel, even more than it already has.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl mostly resembles Fallout 3 in gameplay–of course without the VATS system. Most of your time is either spent running from place to place, exploring the various destroyed structures throughout the environment or fighting off the hostile denizens of the Zone. You start the game with very few supplies and no good ways to expand on those supplies at first, other than trying your best to fight off other loners or looking around for hidden caches. Slowly, over the course of several (10+) hours, you will find guns with MUCH better accuracy (a key stat in this game) and more ammo and health items to keep you going. Every new gun or piece of armor is immensely important. I have never played a game where a new, more accurate gun has given me so much joy and relief, knowing I could now manage enemies from a distance without so much headache. It really sells the scrounging nature of the world in a way I haven’t really seen before. Balancing weight is also quite important as going over your limit first hinders your sprint speed and distance and can eventually prevent you from moving at all. However, bringing back items, particularly the strange artifacts which can be attached to your belt for a variety of effects (but each also has cons to balance as well), to sell for more money, and therefore supplies, is crucial to surviving in the Zone.
Be prepared: S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl is probably one of the hardest games I’ve played to date. I will note here that I played on the hardest difficulty setting, but I’ll explain why that choice felt necessary (as I don’t usually play on the hardest difficulty setting in games) in a moment. As I mentioned above, the beginning hours are particularly tough as you try to get a foothold supply-wise. All the early guns are terribly inaccurate and do very little damage, forcing you to play smart in order to succeed. You don’t really have much in the way of ammo or health packs either. The AI can be quite brutal at times too, actively flanking intelligently and catching me off-guard more than once. Large groups, which are quite common, can absolutely shred you without proper planning. Playing strategically by using cover, peeking corners, and sneaking up close to enemies (especially with those early, inaccurate guns) is key to succeeding in the Zone. It’s almost like you have to earn the right to play the rest of the game, which isn’t a cakewalk either but at least becomes more manageable as you build up a stock of supplies.
Now, let me explain why I chose to play on Master difficulty. S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl has one of the oddest ways of scaling difficulty I’ve ever seen. As you increase the difficulty, the percentage chance your and your enemies’ bullets have of hitting goes up, capping at 50% on Master. This means that for every shot that hits the intended target on Master, only half of them (on average, of course) actually register as a hit. I started playing this on an easier difficulty and couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t hit anything at all at first. When I discovered the reasoning for this inaccuracy after some research online, I started over on Master to try and ease the pain. I will say that it helps the feel of the game tremendously and will actually recommend that anyone who is willing to play S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl play on Master, but it still never felt fair to me, even when the enemies had the same restrictions.
This was the source of ALL my frustration with the game. I would go through whole clips of ammo, from a relatively close range mind you, and not kill my target even with multiple headshots (which are quite powerful here) as they would just seem to land but not actually “hit.” It felt like a roll of the dice every time I shot at a enemy, which led to me quicksaving constantly to rollback a particularly bad string of misses. The late-game rifles become much more manageable, accuracy-wise, but still never felt 100% right. Combine this with the scarcity of ammo and high damage the enemies deal out also as part of Master difficulty (which should have just been enough on their own) and S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl is quite the challenge. You will need a lot of patience and strategy, or masochistic tendencies, to deal with this. Optionally, you can download the COMPLETE mod, a suite of patches and changes to the game, which supposedly fixes some of these issues. I chose not to install COMPLETE on my first playthrough because of arguments made against the mod for ruining the feel of the game–an opinion which I can agree with personally now. However, if you lack the perseverance for such annoyances, I urge you to at least try S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of the Chernobyl with the COMPLETE mod first before dismissing the game outright; it is too great of an experience to pass up entirely.
My time with S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl was often met with a variety of feelings. Every amazing ambient moment or fantastically realized mutant was paired with a boring objective or my frustration with being seemingly unable to shoot a gun straight. I ended up really enjoying my time with the game, enough so to lament how long it took me to get around to finishing it, but I really wish it hadn’t been such an annoyance time and time again. I can understand the developer wanting to craft a difficulty that wasn’t just more damage for enemies and less damage for you, but I really hate the idea of a game that makes you feel like you can’t hit a damn thing due entirely to dice rolls (Alpha Protocol, I’m looking at you). Still, it didn’t much matter at a point. The difficulty was something I grudgingly grew accustomed to, and no longer cared much about, as the strength of the game, its immersive and unsettling world, were enough to make it a game I’m glad I finally played. S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl may require a bit of patience (or modding) to enjoy, but it is absolutely worth seeing by those even slightly intrigued by its ideas or setting.