S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
|S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl|
|Developer(s)||GSC Game World|
Prague Symphony Orchestra
|Genre(s)||First-person shooter, survival horror|
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is a first-person shooter survival horror video game developed by Ukrainian game developer GSC Game World and published by THQ in 2007 following a long development. The game is set in an alternative reality, where a second nuclear disaster occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Exclusion Zone, causing strange changes in the area around it. The game features a non-linear storyline and includes role-playing gameplay elements such as trading and two-way communication with NPCs.
In the game, the player assumes the identity of the Marked One, an amnesiac man trying to find and kill the mysterious Strelok within the Zone, a forbidden territory surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It is set after a fictitious second Chernobyl disaster, which further contaminated the surrounding area with radiation, and caused strange otherworldly changes in local fauna, flora, and the laws of physics. The background and some terminology of the game are borrowed from the Russian novella Roadside Picnic and the film Stalker that was based on it.
A prequel, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky, was released in 2008. A sequel, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, followed in 2010. There are also multiple fan remakes trying to restore the cut content from the original version of the game like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Oblivion Lost.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. takes place in an area called the Zone, which is based on the real-life Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and partly on the settings of the source material, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's science fiction novella Roadside Picnic and Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker, as well as the latter's subsequent novelization by the original authors. The Zone encompasses roughly 30 square kilometers and features a slice of the Chernobyl area extending south from Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant; geographical changes for artistic license include moving the city of Pripyat into this area (it is actually to the north-west of the power station), although the city itself is directly modeled on its real-life counterpart, albeit smaller in size. The term Stalkers was also used for the scientists and engineers who explored the interior of the Chernobyl sarcophagus after its hasty construction in 1986. In addition, the Zone is also a term used to refer to the 30 kilometer Exclusion Zone around the power plant.
In the game's backstory, after the initial Chernobyl disaster, attempts were made to repopulate the area, primarily with scientists and military personnel. However, in 2006, almost 20 years after the first incident, a mysterious second disaster occurred, killing or mutating most of the inhabitants. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. begins years later, after people have begun coming to the Zone in search of money, valuable artifacts, and scientific information. In keeping with the post-nuclear decay within the Zone, extreme radiation has caused mutations among animals and plants in the area. As a result of the second disaster, the Zone is also littered with dangerous small areas of altered physics, known as anomalies. Explorers and scavengers operating within the Zone, known as Stalkers, possess an anomaly detector, which emits warning beeps of a varying frequency depending on their proximity to an anomaly.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is primarily a first-person shooter survival horror video game, but it also features many RPG elements. The player does not gain additional abilities or statistics like most RPGs (though the player does level through game play from "novice" to "expert" which has slight effects on the ability to aim accurately), but is instead allowed to attach artifacts which can increase or decrease player attributes. Artifacts found within the Zone have both positive and negative effects except for some rare artifacts which have only positive attributes.
There are a large number of items in the game, so the player has customization choices which are constrained primarily by how much exploring they do. The game also attempts to blend the story and character interaction which are commonly associated with RPGs. However, conversation branches are extremely limited and do not significantly influence the course of the game, aside from accepting or declining missions.
The Zone itself is a large and varied area, consisting of wilderness, human settlements, and several heavily guarded military bases. However, the game world is not a true contiguous world, but rather 18 different maps separated by loading screens. Transfer from one area to another can only be accomplished at certain specific passageways; wire fences and extreme radiation levels block the player from attempting to cross the map in any other area.
Creatures within The Zone are vastly different from their real-world counterparts: dogs, boars, crows, and many more. Additionally, some areas contain mutated humans who have become affected by the so-called Brain Scorcher. Artificial intelligence of wildlife is highly developed and presents many realistic behaviors, such as fights over food and pack mentality, which can be observed in non-scripted events. The game engine was designed so that animal behavior is calculated even if the player is in a different part of the Zone.
There are several different variations of anomaly, each one having a unique impact upon those who cross its path. They can be potentially deadly to the player and the NPCs, delivering electric shocks, or pulling them into the air and crushing them. Most anomalies produce visible air or light distortions and their extent can be determined by throwing bolts (of which the player carries an infinite supply) to trigger them. Artifacts are found scattered throughout the Zone, often near clusters of anomalies. As well as being traded for money, a number of artifacts can be worn so that they provide certain benefits and detriments (for example, increasing a stalker's resistance to gunfire while also contaminating him with small amounts of radiation) although certain rarer artifacts provide benefits without any negative effects.
The game does not feature controllable vehicles (although vehicles are programmed in the game code, they are not available without the use of a third party modification, and even if added, they are not entirely stable, as a single knife slash can destroy it completely) and thus players are required to go from place to place on foot. A sprint option using a limited stamina bar can be used to temporarily increase the player's rate of movement, though this is reduced by the weight of objects the player is carrying, and weapons cannot be fired while sprinting. It is possible to sprint indefinitely by using artifacts and keeping below a certain weight limit (50 kg); however, it is impossible to sprint with certain weapons (e.g. RPG-7 and SVD).
Radioactive contamination caused by the nuclear incidents at Chernobyl occurs in specific invisible patches throughout the Zone. Although most areas are not contaminated, areas near abandoned construction equipment that was used in the post-accident clean-up, certain military vehicular wreckage and a variety of other locations create fields of radiation of varying intensity and size, some of which cannot be passed through without the proper protective equipment and anti-contaminant agents. The equipment is simplified into various sets of armor that have different levels of radiation protection. Additional radiation resistance may be conferred by some artifacts, and radiation sickness may be treated by medication or by consuming vodka.
When the player enters a highly irradiated area, they will begin to receive radiation poisoning. During this time, a radiation icon appears on the screen and fades through from green to yellow to red, signifying the strength of the poisoning, which grows the longer the player remains present in the affected areas. The stronger the poisoning, the faster the player's health decreases. Unless the player dies from damage caused by radiation poisoning, there are no permanent effects from contracting it other than health loss. However, radiation will persist and continue to drain health until either radiation medication or a substantial amount of vodka is consumed. Radiation can primarily be avoided by wearing certain artifacts that neutralize radiation or more advanced suits that will effectively protect the player from radiation.
In much the same way radiation works as a gameplay mechanic, the player will occasionally become hungry during their travels. During this state, an icon of a crossed fork and spoon will appear. Consuming in-game food items returns the player state from hungry to not hungry, which removes the negative impact on stamina that the hunger status gives. However, if one ignores eating, it will result in the death of the player in a certain amount of time.
As with radiation and hunger, bleeding is another state of detriment which the player must try to avoid or manage while playing the game. Bleeding occurs when the player sustains certain kinds of injuries of certain severity (such as being shot or stabbed). The player will lose the amount of health determined by the landed blow and will continue to lose small amounts of health as they hemorrhage. Bleeding can sometimes stop on its own, but the player can prevent further bleeding by applying bandages or using first aid kits, thereby preventing further health loss.
Shadow of Chernobyl offers multiple endings based on the player's choices throughout the game. This section assumes the player achieves the most complete ending.
The game begins in the year 2012, with an unconscious, wounded stalker (the player character) being brought to Sidorovich, a black-market trader operating inside the Zone. Sidorovich is able to save his life, but the wounded stalker is amnesic; the only clues to his identity are a tattoo on his arm of the acronym "S.T.A.L.K.E.R." and his PDA which contains only one entry in the to-do list: "Kill Strelok." The amnesic stalker is dubbed "Marked One" by Sidorovich.
The Marked One repays Sidorovich by performing certain tasks, and in the process receives information about Strelok's possible whereabouts. With no other leads to his past or the cause of his amnesia, the Marked One follows the information from contact to contact, tracing Strelok's past movements and learning more about his supposed assassination target; the more he learns about him, the more he recovers scattered memories. Eventually, the Marked One follows a lead to a factory in Yantar that is home to a Brain Scorcher, a field which effectively destroys the mind of anyone who comes within its range, zombifying and turning them violent and hostile. Scientists studying the phenomenon determine that it is man-made and recruit the Marked One to enter a secret laboratory underneath the factory to disable it.
Information taken from a body in the lab directs the Marked One to track down a member of Strelok's group named Doc. In an attempt to reach him in Strelok's underground base, the Marked One inadvertently triggers an explosive booby trap and is nearly killed, only to be rescued by Doc. While he is incapacitated, Doc speaks to the Marked One about the rumor of a giant artifact known as the Wish Granter located somewhere in the center of the Zone, but also indicates that the Marked One is Strelok, calling him by that name. However, before Strelok can fully recover, Doc leaves.
Further leads send Strelok towards the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, where the Wish Granter is believed to be located. However, the journey to Chernobyl itself has been all but impossible due to the presence of another, larger Brain Scorcher south of Pripyat, as well as the Monolith faction of extremely fanatical stalkers who worship the Wish Granter, referring to it as the Monolith, and kill anyone attempting to access it. Strelok makes his way through a dense forest south of Pripyat and deactivates the second Brain Scorcher, re-opening the path to the abandoned city.
Pripyat is in chaos as stalkers of multiple factions, including the military, clash with the heavily armed and numerous Monolith forces. Strelok eventually makes his way to the Chernobyl facility, also held and viciously fortified by Monolith forces. After fighting his way through both Monolith and military troops, Strelok discovers the giant Wish Granter artifact inside the sarcophagus as well as a secret laboratory underneath it. Inside the heavily defended lab is a large holographic terminal, through which an entity calling itself the C-Consciousness communicates. It readily answers Strelok's questions, revealing what it is, who Strelok is, and the events prior to his amnesia.
In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, the Soviet Union decided to use the Exclusion Zone for special research into the human mind. Results included enhanced ESP, psychic weapons, and the eventual formation of the C-Consciousness, a hivemind of seven neurally-linked scientists. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the self-aware C-Consciousness took control of the Zone and continued its research. In 2006, twenty years after the nuclear disaster, the C-Consciousness attempted to bring about world peace through global mind-control by directly interacting with the noosphere; however, these attempts resulted in the unintentional twisting of the physical terrain around Chernobyl as well as the mutation of resident life forms, creating the Zone. In an attempt to hide its existence, the C-Consciousness created the two Brain Scorcher fields and erected a Monolith artifact – the Wish Granter – in the center of the Zone, which it uses to brainwash any stalkers who reach it; brainwashed stalkers are tattooed with the "S.T.A.L.K.E.R." acronym and reprogrammed to serve the C-Consciousness.
Rumors of the Wish Granter began to spread throughout the Zone. A group of four stalkers, Strelok, Ghost, Fang, and Doc, attempted to reach the Wish Granter by battling on their way to Chernobyl, but after encountering the fanatical Monolith faction and a man named Scar they were forced to retreat. Strelok was knocked unconscious while the others were able to escape. On the way back, Fang was killed by a sniper in Pripyat. Some time later, Ghost was killed in the Brain Scorcher control facility under Yantar. The unconscious Strelok was discovered by the C-Consciousness; unaware of his identity, it had him brainwashed, reprogrammed him and mistakenly assigned him the task of killing himself. On the way out of the Zone, the truck carrying the still unconscious Strelok was destroyed in a lightning storm and he was discovered by another passing stalker, leading to his discovery.
Once the C-Consciousness has finished answering Strelok's questions he is given a choice: merge with the C-Consciousness to ensure its continued existence, or stop the C-Consciousness from continuing its experiments. Strelok refuses to assist the C-Consciousness. He is transported to the exterior of the Chernobyl plant, where he navigates his way through teleportation anomalies, elite Monolith soldiers, and mutants in order to reach the source of the C-Consciousness. Once inside, Strelok shoots the encapsulated scientists which form the C-Consciousness. Strelok then kills his own C-Consciousness unit and is released out of the nightmare.
Afterwards, Strelok is shown standing in a grassy field, watching the sky as the clouds break and the sun comes out. The Zone is apparently gone. He questions whether or not he made the right decision, but as he lies down in the grass he concludes that while he may never know what was right, he is happy that he survived. He lies down on the grass and falls asleep.
The X-Ray Engine is a DirectX 8.1/9 Shader Model 3.0 graphics engine. Up to a million polygons can be on-screen at any one time. The engine features HDR rendering, parallax and normal mapping, soft shadows, motion blur, widescreen support, weather effects and day/night cycles. As with other engines that use deferred shading, the X-Ray Engine does not support multisample anti-aliasing with dynamic lighting enabled. However, a different form of anti-aliasing can be enabled with dynamic lighting which utilizes an edge detection algorithm to smooth edges between objects. The game takes place in a thirty square kilometer area, and both the outside and inside of this area are rendered to the same amount of detail. Some textures in the game were photographs of the walls in the developers' studio. As of patch 1.0003 the X-Ray Engine supports "surround screen" monitor setups, including a 16:9 native resolution ratio.
The X-Ray Engine is among the first of its kind to feature real time Global illumination through a method called Photon mapping, the GI system runs entirely through the CPU on one core and was first seen implemented in a beta build as early as 2004 however remained experimental through ShoC development most likely due to its massive performance hit.
The X-ray engine uses GSC Game World's proprietary ALife artificial intelligence engine. ALife supports more than one thousand characters inhabiting the Zone. These characters are non-scripted, meaning that AI life can be developed even when not in contact with the player. The NPCs have a full life cycle (task accomplishment, combat, rest, feeding and sleep) and the same applies to the many monsters living in the Zone (hunting, attacking stalkers and other monsters, resting, eating, sleeping). These monsters migrate in large groups. The non-scripted nature of the characters means that there are an unlimited number of random quests. For instance, rescuing stalkers from danger, destroying stalker renegades, protecting or attacking stalker camps or searching for treasure. The AI characters travel around the entire Zone as they see fit. Several attack tactics were cut for difficulty reasons, including the ability for enemies to heal wounded allies and give orders.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. uses a heavily modified version of the ODE physics engine. Ragdoll physics, destructible objects, realistic bullet ballistics and skeletal animation can all be found in the game. Bullets are affected by gravity, bounced against solid surfaces at oblique angles, and firearms are highly inaccurate when fired without aiming. To score consistent hits at medium or long range, players must aim using the iron sights on their guns. Additionally, hit damage is pseudo-realistic, and the player can die after only being shot a few times (although later in the game various armor suits and artifacts can be acquired that increase the player's resistance to damage). Late-game depends heavily on scoped weaponry due to the well-armed and armored enemies that keep their distance from the player.
A weather system is integrated into various parts of the landscape and allows a variety of weather effects, such as sunshine, storms and showers. The weapons available, behavior of the AI, game tactics and ranking systems depend on the weather. Unlike most dynamic weather systems, the game features complete dynamic wet surfaces such as pavement, concrete, brick walls, etc.
The game features ambient music by Frey Vladimir aka "MoozE". It also has three songs from the Ukrainian band Firelake.
Development and release
The game was first announced by GSC Game World in November 2001, as S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Oblivion Lost, although it had been talked about as early as 2000. It had its release date, originally as summer 2003, pushed back several times. Meanwhile, hundreds of screenshots of the game had been released, as well as a dozen preview video clips, accompanied by other forms of promotion by GSC, such as inviting fans to their offices in Kiev to play the current build of the game. However, due to the delays some considered S.T.A.L.K.E.R. to be vaporware.
In late December 2003, a pre-alpha build of the game was leaked to peer-to-peer file sharing networks. This build, marked as version 1096, inadvertently acted as a fully functional tech demo of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s engine, despite its lack of NPC enemies and fauna. After that, with the game missing the 2003 release date and still far from being finished, the publisher THQ sent Dean Sharpe (the later CEO of Metro developer 4A Games, which would be formed by some ex-members of GSC Game World who had worked on Shadow of Chernobyl) to oversee cutting many features and downsizing the overall scale and ambitions to save it from development hell, leaving much of it to be picked up in a sequel.
In February 2005, THQ expressed a desire to see the game released toward the end of its 2006 fiscal year (31 March 2006) but maintained that no release date had been set. In October 2005, THQ confirmed that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. would not be out "until the second half of THQ's 2007 fiscal year - October 2006 at the earliest." In February 2006, THQ revised this possible release window, saying the game would not be in stores until the first quarter of 2007. In an interview at the Russian Gameland Awards, PR Manager Oleg Yavorsky indicated that release was planned for September 2006. In 2006, the game came 9th in Wired's Vaporware '06 award.
In February 2009, due to popular demand GSC Game World released "xrCore" build 1935, dated 18 October 2004. It uses a completely different physics engine with many cut monsters, levels, and vehicles. It was also significantly larger than the retail release. It is however somewhat unstable, but features the full game along with a "fully functional ALife system". It is currently available for free download from the GSC servers and mirrors. Multiple other builds of the game have been since publicly released as well, along with design documents.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl received generally positive reviews, with critics praising the game for its style and depth while criticising technical issues, mentioning the number of bugs present. It received a score of 82.70% on GameRankings and 82/100 on Metacritic.
The game design of the Zone was one of the most favored aspects. GameSpot praised the style and level design, stating "This is a bleak game, but in a good way, as it captures its post apocalyptic setting perfectly", while Eurogamer called it "one of the scariest games on the PC", going on to say "Like the mythological Chernobyl zone it is based upon, this game is a treacherous, darkly beautiful terrain." Game Informer did not find the gameplay particularly innovative, but still complimented the basic FPS design, saying, "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" whereas GameSpot called it "one of the best ballistics models ever seen in a game, and as a result, firefights feel authentic as you try and hit someone with what can be a wildly inaccurate rifle".
Upon release, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was criticized for having numerous bugs, especially when used with the then-recently released Windows Vista. IGN found the game "tended to stutter quite often, sometimes pausing for three or four seconds at regular intervals, which occurred on two different Windows XP computers at maximum visual quality," and some cases of game crashing glitches. Another criticized aspect was the story, which to some reviewers was "incoherent" and which PC Gamer stated "fails in the specific story of your character".
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. won the Special Achievement award for Best Atmosphere in GameSpot's Best and Worst 2007, stating that "S.T.A.L.K.E.R. captures the 'ghost town' nature of the zone, from the abandoned cities to the overgrown wilderness. Then, the game adds its own paranormal elements, which help make a spooky environment almost terrifying at times."
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. received a "Silver" sales award from the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA), indicating sales of at least 100,000 copies in the United Kingdom. As of September 2008, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has sold 2 million copies worldwide. GSC Game World CEO Sergiy Grygorovych has said "We are very pleased that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. became so popular among players from all over the world. Financial success will allow us to develop S.T.A.L.K.E.R. in different directions as a brand."
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky is a prequel set a year before Shadow of Chernobyl. The game world consists of a mix of old, redesigned areas and completely new levels. The updated engine supports the Inverse Kinematics animation system, allowing more and better animations. New effects such as volumetric lighting were also included. In general, the developers sought to take the basics of everything in Shadow of Chernobyl and enhance them. Better AI, graphics and new game-play additions, such as faction wars, were some of the added features.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is a sequel set after the events in Shadow of Chernobyl. The game features new areas recreated by their true-to-life locales such as Pripyat town, Yanov Railway Station, Jupiter Factory, Kopachi Village and more. Other features include an improved A-Life system, a new player interface, a brand-new story and a number of unique characters, two new monsters and behavior and abilities, an extended system of side quests, a sleep function and a free play mode.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Oblivion Lost restoration projects
In 2014, a mod aimed at restoring cancelled features from the early versions of the game was released as a standalone game titled S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - Lost Alpha, development of which has since still continued with Lost Alpha - Developer's Cut released in 2017. Rock, Paper, Shotgun's Craig Pearson praised many aspects of the 2004 version, but also noted the presence of stability problems and bugs. There have been also other similar projects of various scope and scale, including Oblivion Lost, Oblivion Lost Remake, Paradise Lost, and Old Storyline Restoration Mod (RMA).
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