Monday, July 21, 2008

On S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

For many of us hardcore Fallout fanboys (yes, I had the stink about me my 8th and 9th grade years...oh, the folly of adolescence), the future held great things. After the practiced mediocrity of Fallout:Tactics and the unforgivable (nay, unexplainable) cash-in of Fallout:Brotherhood of Steel, we stood vigil for the true Third Coming. In the interim, a new herald sent heart rates skyrocketing everywhere. An unknown studio in Kiev was pounding away on what looked like nothing less than Fallout, the FPS. This was S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Oblivion Lost.

Four long, impatient years stood between my first glimpse of this perfect concept and my returning home from GameSpot on launch day. The cellophane survived about as long as it took me to walk back to the car. A ten-minute install later, and I was finally ready to enter Chernobyl.

The result was the most atmospheric game ever made, surpassing even the soul-searing dread of System Shock 2 for pure emotional impact. As a virtual museum of the Exclusion Zone, GSC Game World had triumphed.

As with all ambitious developments, the result was a bit...shallower than promised. A-Life turned about to be a bit sparse and predictable; there are doubtless more species growing in my microwave as I write this. The feral dogs showed a remarkable breadth of action...for a video-game NPC. Effective images? How about cresting a hill and seeing a very determined mutt tugging the remains of a newbie stalker to a bush so as to feast upon his flesh...unscripted, in real time. The ability for a dog to sense whether he is running in a sufficient pack to overcome an enemy was likewise remarkable. That was about the extent of the impressive scenes. The faction wars promised amounted to a pair of scripted mission ladders and a set-piece battle. Vehicles were excised, though the codebase remained intact (don your walking shoes, and expect to re-sole them a few times).

The gameflow could best be described as screwy. The AI was quite sharp, capable of flanking maneuvers, use of cover, and otherwise not presenting you with a standing, stationary target. The fun of overcoming such worthy foes was dampened by a bizarre damage system that rendered most weapons useless; the headshot bias was absurd (try 30 body shots for a kill vs. one headshot), meaning the only useful guns were accurate ones, and perfect aim on the part of the player was the only effective tactic. And the tech ladder for equipment...possibly five weapons out of thirty showed much utility.

Apparently, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game-data has proved eminently amendable. Thus, nearly a year after launch, a deluge of tweaks have surfaced, and the game's very hardcore fanbase has finally hammered the game into the form promised, in the form of the mega-mod "Oblivion Lost."

Nearly everything has been tweaked in some way...cut enemies restored, vehicles re-implemented, every weapon re-skinned (the Makarov is now blued with red grips...finally), new assets added, and string-tables tweaked.

And weapons actually do damage when you shoot people with them. Combat falls somewhere between CounterStrike and Rainbow Six in lethality. As it bloody well should have been to begin with. I want to sit on a rooftop with an AK74 on semi and actually hit a soldier standing 150 meters away. Is that too much to ask of a modern military rifle?

The flow is now much more RPG-ish, with health a difficult resource to replenish unless you find a quiet corner, throw down a sleeping bag, and sack out for a few. Did I mention the quiet corner? You will be woken up by the first creature that trips over your incautious ass, and they will have the drop on you. As a nice aside, the team has implemented clips of the in-game cinematics as 'dream sequences.' This is polish, folks.

Climate and the day/night cycle are much more pronounced. This isn't a 1950s-daytime-with-filters night, this is a pitch-black, can't-see-past-your-nose-without-a-flashlight night. Scared of the dark? I recommend against playing Oblivion Lost, or at least making sure your heart medication is filled and within reach of your computer.

The extreme lighting differences make HDR enhancements very noticeable; the interiors are very dark, as befitting abandoned buildings lacking for windows, and the exteriors are quite bright, at least with a blue sky.

Oblivion Lost also turned the 'blowout' phenomenon described in the setting materials into a non-scripted experience, rather than the one scripted (and underexploited) scene in Vanilla S.T.A.L.K.E.R. It needs to be experienced first-hand, but the only thing I could compare it to would be rolling nuclear explosions on the horizon mixed with the X-Files alien encounters. Utterly amazing.

It's a testament to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s fans that they believed in the promise of this game so much as to bring it to fruition on their own; and the payoff is sweet. Finally, I can play the game I've waited for these six years.

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