espite nearly four years of delays, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. still feels unfinished in some respects. This is supposed to be a game about freedom, where the player carves his or her own niche out of the mutant-infested fallout zone around Chernobyl while AI-controlled characters are trying to do the same. This goal was clearly too lofty, but that doesn’t mean that the game sucks. Rough edges make frequent unwelcome appearances, but the game is far from broken or boring and transcends its somewhat pedestrian elements at times to become one of the best FPS adventures in years, if only temporarily.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s attempt to fuse open-world gameplay with first-person shooter action is successful, but in a limited way. The critical path leads you through the game’s large, open world and clumsily tells a story at the same time. If you shoot things, they fall down. If you talk to someone with a gun pointed at his face, he won’t like you much. If you carry too much stuff, you move slower and tire faster. Other than that, though, the depth that we were promised from earlier showings of the game is often missing. Clearing out a bandit camp just means that more will move in after a day or two. The weapons you scavenge off of fallen foes fall neatly into familiar categories like pistol, SMG, or shotgun. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. isn’t the revolution that we all hoped it would be. It is, however, a respectable and sometimes excellent first-person adventure.
Though the pie-in-the-sky goals of the game’s design are rarely met, when everything is firing on all cylinders, this can be one of the best gaming experiences around. Certain areas and missions do an amazing job of creating the illusion that you’re making your own way in this dystopian future. Portions of the critical path feature interesting goals and situations that are a pleasure to explore and complete. The exploration element can take on its own life as you try to navigate the treacherous landscape of radiation, deadly anomalies, dangerous mutants, and other more esoteric hazards to retrieve a rare artifact or just see what’s over the next hill. Helping others overcome their goals can even open up whole new paths as they decide to help you out in return – or at least not open fire on sight any more.
The sandbox that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. drops players into is large, but much of it feels like it’s there for no real reason. You’ll occasionally receive a contextual non-story mission that sends you out into the wilderness with the goal of killing some nameless bandit or retrieving something from a secret stash, but the generic nature of these tasks quickly becomes tiresome. For the most part, it’s just a bunch of trees and grass with no purpose. A minority of zones do break this mold, though, and serve up interesting content to explore, fight, or otherwise experience.
There are a ton of intriguing ideas at play here, but none of them are executed with enough flair to be truly great. You’ll likely split your time fairly evenly between cursing the problematic UI and localization, and marveling at the outstanding ambience or frantically trying to shoot or sneak your way out of a jam. If you’re willing to slog through some frustrations, you can find some diamonds in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s rough that you won’t find anywhere else in video gaming.