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S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl Review

September 8, 2019


This is “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.”. A lot of people consider it to be a cult classic. With good reason too – it’s pretty compelling. [rapid gunfire] The thing is: I’ve heard an equal amount of people trashing this game and loving it. It’s easy to see why it’s treasured when there’s many moments like these. [rapid gunfire] But then things just fall apart… So why is this game still talked about a decade later? Well, I’ll show you. “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” is interesting in that it’s based both off a book and a movie. The original Russian novel “Roadside picnic” came out in 1971, whereas the Soviet film loosely based off of it called “Stalker” came out in 1979. But before I get into that, I should give you the setting of the game. The first game takes place in 2012 Chernobyl, about six years after a second disaster occurred there. What went wrong the second time is a mystery, but the Zone has become even more inhospitable. Reality itself seems to be breaking inside the Zone of Alienation: there are physics breaking anomalies, strange creatures and that’s already on top of the radiation. At the same time, some items have been transformed into artifacts with strange properties. People are willing to pay a high price for these artifacts, so some will jump the fence and risk it all to steal them. There’s also a legend of something being in the center of the Zone that will grant a wish to anyone who makes it. Okay, so just how much of that is from the book or the movie? Well, all three have a Zone, people break into it, and there’s something in there that might grant wishes, and that’s about it. You do have to keep in mind, that these were made before the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Though, one of the final scenes in the movie does have this look at a power plant. That’s kind of spooky. In fact, quite a lot of visuals in the movie seem to have made it into the game. They’re very different genres, but the visual inspiration is pretty cool. If I heard today that an old Soviet art film is being made into a game, I probably won’t be thrilled… Because most likely it would be made by the Chinese Room, be under half an hour and probably suck. Now, the USSR State Committee said the film wasn’t very good anyways. It’s definitely slow, but I don’t see why they’d be so upset about it. Uh-oh… [*tone*] Comparing it to the game, the book is a better fit. After all, it’s the one that has the artifact hunters. But enough about the background for now. Let’s talk about “Shadow of Chernobyl”. You play as an unnamed stalker.Which is the name given to the Zone trespassers. Like most mid-2000s video games, you have amnesia. Your only guidance is a palm pilot telling you to kill someone named Strelok, and an acronym tattooed on your forearm. And that’s it! Go wild! SIDOROVICH: “Well, good hunting, stalker…” Looking at the graphics first, “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” is pretty good for a game that’s a decade old. It’s another one of those cases where good lighting can really help hide a game’s age. Some of the texture work is just as good as stuff I’ve seen in modern games. Though things like some of the character models and their animations show that, yeah, this is an older game. Jumping right into art direction, what really stands out to me is the environments. “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” is choke-full of atmosphere. The weather effects it has impressed me even today. So even with all the older models and awkward animations, it still draws me in. Even in empty areas, the Zone just feels so surreal and otherworldly… So I love the look of the Zone. Don’t get me wrong: I really like some of the mutant designs and the exoskeletons look cool, but the scenery is just so immersive. It’s a show stealer. The accompanying sound design is also pretty kick-ass. That could also be a big part of it. [sombre whispering of rainfall and faint sounds of distant thunder] [rising thunder, beeps of the radar detecting nearby soldiers and sounds of a patrolling chopper] So the immersion is killer, but what about the gameplay? [shotgun blast] It’s gonna be a rough adjustment… “Shadow of Chernobyl” has some light RPG elements. There’s a main storyline you can follow, but there’s also lots of optional missions. Your awards range between items and money. There’s no experience bar, and there’s no level-up system. But this won’t stop people from calling a Ukrainian shooter “Russian Fallout”. Anyways, your inventory is managed using a grid system. But there’s also a carrying capacity. The more you carry over 50 kilograms, the less stamina you’ll have for sprinting. If you hit 60 you go to a dead stop. So if you go full klepto and try to pick up everything you see, you’ll run into problems pretty quickly. The game world is made up of interconnected large areas, so balancing your mobility with the supplies you need is important. Someone in the trade hub might be willing to buy all the heavy guns you found, but people in the field might not. So this forces you to put some planning into the supplies that you’ll take into the field. Plus, you don’t want to go hungry. Now would be a good time to talk about the difficulty. A lot of misconceptions come from the game being so vague at times. The way difficulty works is the lower the difficulty – the less damage bullets will do across the board. This means you and your enemies will take more shots to kill. The lower difficulty also means that enemies will have a harder time hitting you. Now, I don’t know how this rumor started, it might have been for a Giant Bomb article, but the gist is: a lower difficulty makes the player character less accurate and their bullets disappear on hitting the enemy. This isn’t true. But I see a lot of reasons why people accept this as a fact. The first weapon you get in the game is garbage. They might as well rename the Makarov to the “Slavic Super Soaker” with the amount of damage it does. Not to mention It’s very inaccurate. So this is given to you when you’re new to the game and still learning how to play, and it’s awful. This footage here was me playing the game for the first time in about three years, and this is on the Master difficulty, where the bullet damage is the highest. So, if someone starts the game on an easier difficulty, they can dump entire magazines into the enemy. So, if I had that experience and heard that your bullets just vanish, I’d believe it. You barely have any armor on top of that, and the weapons don’t get much better until the next area. This game has probably made tens of thousands of bad impressions. So, as odd as it sounds, playing on the hardest difficulty will save you a lot of headaches. It’s still going to be very challenging. So why would they design it this way? As harsh as it is, I think I understand what they’re trying to teach you. It seems that they were trying to hammer in the fact, that this isn’t “Doom”, and you can’t run around with guns blazing. So the starting area is filled with hazards to reinforce this. Let’s start with the anomalies. You can spot them by the weird effects and by listening your detector. [beeping of the detector speeds up] Yeah, I think there’s one nearby… If that’s not enough, there are other clues, like spotting a dead animal out in the open. If you’re really uncertain you can toss a metal bolt. [kinetic discharge] You have an unlimited supply of these, and that’s a pretty good deal. This is especially good when you compare it to the movie. He only had about three bolts with cloth tied to them, but he had to go and get them every time. That would be rough. Most anomalies he had to worry about where time distortions. It was more about subtle use in sound design, whereas “Shadow of Chernobyl” is a little more dramatic. “How it feels to chew 5 gum?” [*bang*] So right from the start you’re thrown into the Zone which is full of danger. But even with bad equipment you have some tools to survive. Rather than fighting it out, sneaking is an option. There are indicators for how visible you are and how much noise you’re making. So, if you end up being spotted by an NPC, then the visibility marker will go up. So, it could be wiser to run and hide rather than fight for the time being. The fact that Stalker doesn’t use XP mechanics for its gameplay is beneficial to it. In another game, you want to be killing everything in sight to get your XP bar up. But because this game is difficult and your supplies are limited, you don’t always want to fight. The dynamic nature of the AI means a decision can pop on you at any time. Let me elaborate on what I mean by that with an example. Let’s say you run across a group of stalkers fighting some wild dogs. You could help them fight off the dogs, and maybe make a new friend. But that can make the other dogs in the pack swarm to you. Even if you survive, this could waste all of your health kits and ammo. You can always kill the stalkers, but that could waste the supplies again. So, you have the option of waiting for the dogs to pick them off and then searching their bodies for loot. This guy was even keeping a map to a stash. So, by not helping, I got a supply cache marked on my map. So, yeah, I essentially got some free stuff out of it, but now there are less stalkers in the area to help fight off the bandits. So this fight will be a little more challenging. The AI that the game has is pretty neat. For example, if you do enough damage to a dog pack, or maybe kill off their Alpha pseudo-dog, they’ll run off. One example that stuck out to me was killing a dog for a side quest and then coming back to another dog eating its body. That’s neat. So as the game goes on, you have this weird survivor’s economy that starts forming in the back of your brain: “Should I really take this fight?” “Do I really want to look for supplies in this absolute shithole?” “Do I want to waste ammo on that thing, or run for it?” If you had great supplies and plenty of ammunition from the start, you wouldn’t need to think this way. Giving you a start where you’re that underpowered is probably unfair, but, man, it sure is effective. When you’re improving your skill and getting better equipment, it feels like you’ve come a long way. But it’s still going to be a challenge. One of the ways to make things easier early is the whole draw of the Zone – the artifacts. You can equip five of them at a time. They have a wide range of both drawbacks and positives. Some might increase a damage resist, but decrease your overall endurance. The different effects of artifacts mean they balance each other out. But this is a hunt. Some might only appear in certain weather conditions at different times of day, others are specially placed in locations. And no matter what it is, it usually sells well. Some of the effects are a bit vague. Like, I remembered there was a reason that I shouldn’t use health artifacts, but I couldn’t remember why. And then I remembered: oh yeah, that increases health regen, not your health bar. In fact, It makes you feel even weaker in combat. Increase to health percentage isn’t very clear. So, the system for being a stalker is great. It’s kind of like playing a Pokemon game, except you’re looking for Ukrainian hell rocks. As brutal as the beginning is, it’s essential for teaching you how to play. Because before you get to the good stuff, you’ve got to start somewhere. For “Shadow of Chernobyl”, that “somewhere” is the bottom of the pit from the “Dark Knight Rises”. [music from “Predator” playing] But I did mention that things can fall apart. As atmospheric and as good as the gameplay is, there’s still a lot of issues. This isn’t a game I would call “polished”. There are bugs like people getting stuck on walls or spawning inside campfires. There’s also a funny one where people shoot out the sides of their weapon. It looks like they’re aiming away, but if they pull the trigger: you’re dead. One of the more infamous side missions is killing a sniper for the “Duty” faction. The problem is: he’s usually dead by the time you go to turn it in. Because he usually just stands in his little hut, getting killed by said sniper, but not doing anything about it. The Zone claims another life… I’m not sure if this counts as a bug, but in one area, where you had to go through, I had enemies spawn right on top of me. SOLDIER: “Alert!” So then I had to spend a while popping in and out to kill them, just so I could progress. SOLDIER: “Attention! Enemy sighted!” It felt pretty cheap, but I didn’t have a choice. I can only be glad that loading new areas only takes a few seconds. “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” is also notorious for crashing. But I don’t have any footage of it, because some kind of miracle happened. I played through the entire game with both endings, and it didn’t crash once. I’m also playing this on modern hardware with Windows 10, so you’d think I’d be breaking more… I’ve had it crashed before on other computers though, so, I’m still gonna say, that it’s probably unstable. A lot of people say that the best way to play vanilla is to install the Complete mod, because it fixes all the bugs. Don’t do that. The Complete mod comes with a lot of gameplay changes that make the game easier. Items like repair kits take away a lot of the scavenging aspect. So, don’t let them sell it to you as a fix – it’s a mod. For a vanilla experience that stomps out a lot of bugs look into The Zone Reclamation project. I didn’t have it installed for this playthrough. Some of the bugs are alright. PATROLMAN: “Get out of here, stalker!” PATROLMAN: “Get out of here, stalker!” LOUDSPEAKER: “Protecting the world from the Zone’s evil…” PATROLMAN: “Get out of here, stalker!” BAR SECURITY: “I said come in! Don’t stand there.” BAR SECURITY: “I said come in! Don’t stand there.” Despite all the bugs, it has enough little moments to draw me in still. But it won’t be like that for everybody. *end of an anecdote* STALKER: “No one ever called this way a simple Controler, like me…” [*people laughing*] Without getting into spoilers, the ending of the game kind of falls flat. Strictly talking about gameplay of course. I killed more people in the last three areas, than I probably did in the rest of the game combined. It’s less about survival management and just more of a battle. The environments it has you fighting in are less like the rest of the game and more like any other FPS game. It made me miss sitting in a bush, drinking vodka to get rid of radiation. Plus there’s no more bandits. So, if you want to skip story spoilers go to here: Ok, you’re good to go. The first twist is that you ARE Strelok, which might have been a good twist, if it wasn’t the only other character by name they gave you. So it’s a little predictable, but it’s honestly not that important. After putting together clues you find in the Zone, you realize that you had made it to the center of the power plant. Stalkers rarely make it that far due to the effect of something called The Brain Scorcher. The Scorcher turns most stalkers into mostly brainless soldiers. Since some can take multiple headshots, that might be more literal than I think. The others join a faction called “Monolith”. Their sole duty appears to be killing anyone besides them who approaches the center of the Zone. So breaking it results in all the factions rushing to the disaster site. The military also launches an all-out offensive to retake the area. So you fight tons of “Monolith”. Those are bodies from just two rooms. When you make it to the sarcophagus, you see that the Wish Granter is real. There are five possible wishes you make depending on your actions in the game. So you don’t get to choose, but they all have a very similar outcome. STRELOK: “I want to be rich!” The Wish Granter is a Monkey’s Paw, so any wish made has a tragic, but ironic outcome. I think only the novel had a pure Wish Granter. The other two have some kind of twist to it. I wouldn’t call the Monkey Paw twist terrible for the tone of the game, but the movie did things in a bit more of a clever way. In the movie, the user’s innermost wish is granted. So, even though Porcupine came to the Zone to help a dead relative, instead he ended up fabulously rich. Because that was his true desire. So his ending was tragic out of guilt. Strelok doesn’t have enough character for that kind of ending, but that’s okay because this is not the true ending. SCIENTIST: “I see you have many questions for me.” SCIENTIST: “Then, ask them, and then we can decide what to do with you.” Right… If you follow some clues instead of rushing off to the end, you’ll learn about the true nature of the Wish Granter. DOCTOR: “The monolith is true. All of it. It’s just an illusion manufactured in a lab next to the sarcophagus.” DOCTOR: “And nobody… nobody who reached the monolith has ever come back.” So after making preparations, you can enter a secret room in the Chernobyl power plant. You’re going to have to kill a ton of “Monolith” in very tight corridors. The second Chernobyl disaster and the Zone itself were created by a group called the C-Consciousness, or Common Consciousness. The radiation in Chernobyl deterred trespassers which made it a perfect spot to experiment. They were experimenting on the noosphere, which is a bit of a complicated subject. It’s a sort of living or psychological consciousness that covers the Earth like an atmosphere. It’s not easy to define and they messed it up, so their experiments caused reality to break down around the site. They built the Brain Scorcher to enslave stalkers who got too close. Their mistake was assigning Strelok to assassinate himself, which messed up the process or something like that. They offer you a place, because they claim, that they’re trying to hold back the Zone. But something doesn’t add up. The Wish Granter is a final distraction to stop people from figuring out the truth. But when it’s used, the Zone expands by five kilometres, so either this is a plot hole, or they’re lying to me. Maybe I missed something, but I don’t trust these people. [burst fire] I overall enjoyed the explanation. It hits a good balance. If you have a story with strange, or fantastical elements, explaining too much can ruin it. But they didn’t just throw their arms up and say “we don’t know what happened”. It’s not really a character-driven story, and I know some people can’t stand that. But I’m fine with it because it didn’t end up being bad. Okay, let’s wrap this up. Even with its messy side mission system and all of its technical blunders, “Shadow of Chernobyl” is still one of my favorite shooters. The setting and survival gameplay keep it going even ten years later. Even when the survival parts do sort of drop off at the end. And, hey, if you’re not too sure on the game itself, is about 10 million mods to try out! Modders are still developing for this game and with good reason. It’s fantastic. Now, if you thought “EVE Online” was spreadsheets in space, the upcoming video is really going to make you reconsider that. I think that “Aur-” Uh, Wait… It’s coming on PC in like a week? Oh, no… This is messing everything up. Thanks for watching! I have some thinking to do… Oh my God!

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