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May 12, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»stalker

Restraining Order, Part Two

I owe STALKER (the game, not the movie) an apology. Not for calling it ridiculously overpunctuated (although I guess over-abbreviated would be more accurate), but I quit it last time after only a few hours, frustrated at its weapons model and its opaque narrative structure.

After watching the film, I got an itch to give the game another shot. I figured I wouldn't last long, but I was a little curious as to how much of Tarkovsky's visual aesthetic had ended up in the game. I decided to head in, spend a few minutes looking around, and then I'd blow it off again. But it turns out that I'm still playing.

I'm not entirely sure what the difference is, but my suspicions, like Jay Leno's chin, are twofold. First, I started paying more attention to the automap in the corner, using it to find stashes and watch for bodies to loot. Second, at some point I was clued in about the location of one of the mission goals that I never previously had been able to find. Unless the player locates a hidden flash drive in one of the underground tunnels, the game basically halts--my first time through, I had no idea where it was.

Which, I'd like to point out, is an easy situation to end up in: the drive is actually hidden in a pipe behind some very poor level design--the lip of the pipe is just slightly too high for the Stalker to step over it, and in the end I had to resort to the old Half-Life trick of jumping forward while crouching (which, in Stalker requires the use of the forward key, the spacebar to jump, and two separate crouch buttons to reach a "low crawl" state. It's a little awkward).

But once past that point, the game has opened up tremendously (especially since that's the first moment when you get a decent weapon). It is, as I told a friend, like Oblivion with Chernobyl-born mutants and AK-47s instead of elves and swords.

As far as the film's influence, I've seen very little on display so far. Stalker does include a number of wide open fields and ruined buildings, but its color palette is much more gloomy and grim than Tarkovsky's--and of course, the first sight of a uniformed soldier dispels any hope that the game will share the movie's character-driven, dialog-heavy atmosphere. The only real similarity I've seen so far is the glow of high-radiation areas: when you stumble into one of these, the screen begins to oversaturate and acquire a kind of film-grain effect that's very striking.

Stalker definitely has its flaws. The AI can be a little wonky, and I've failed missions for what seem to be no apparent reason. The text is barely localized, and NPC conversations are oil-slick shallow. But the game does have its own distinctive atmosphere--the untranslated Russian voices and signposts, the click of the geiger counter, and howling dogs during the dark nights make sure of that. The combat itself has a very different feel from most shooters, but once you get used to it, it's got its charms. All in all, it's an impressive piece of work, as long as you don't get caught on any of the rough edges. I'm enjoying it quite a bit.

Extra credit: For those who might be curious, you can read the original short story that inspired the movie and game, "Roadside Picnic," here, since it seems to be unfortunately out of print elsewhere.

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