Back In The USSR

Platform: PC

In 1972, Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky, brothers who were celebrated Russian science-fiction writers, published a short novella called "Roadside Picnic." It chronicled a man's journey into "The Zone," a quarantined area where alien forces had crash-landed, spreading strange radioactive anomalies. The main characters, Stalkers, broke through military cordons and made their way into the Zone to search for artifacts, strange pieces of alien technology beyond humankind's imagination. For years after-ward, Stalkers who entered the Zone suffered unexplained deaths and disabled children.

Andrei Tarkovsky, who directed the original version of "Solyaris," turned the novella into a movie called "Stalker" in 1980.

Six years later, the Zone became real. In Pripyat, Ukraine, engineers at a massive nuclear-power plant called Chernobyl were preparing for a routine test of Reactor 4. Due to faulty equipment and human error, engineers did not discover how unstable the reactor was in their preliminary diagnostics. They went ahead with the test, and the worst nuclear accident in history began.

The nuclear fuel in the reactor exploded, killing dozens of workers and scientists with extremely intense radiation. A plume of radioactive fallout rose from the destroyed reactor, raining poison down on the countryside as it drifted on the wind toward Europe.

Today, more than 20 years later, a quarantined "zone of alienation" surrounds the nuclear plant, preventing civilians from entering. Yet, in a chilling parallel to fiction, some brave, foolhardy people illicitly enter the Zone to scavenge. In other words, Stalkers are real.

Inspired by both the Strugatsky brothers' novella and the Chenobyl accident, the game "Stalker" has been in development for about seven years. As the years passed, gamers thought "Stalker" was vaporware—much like "Duke Nukem Forever." Then, a year ago, publisher THQ set a release date for the game. Since then, blogs and gaming magazines have hyped the game's development and speculated on whether it could be worth the wait.

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that, yes, "Stalker's" overall design and execution make it a memorable experience, well worth the incredibly long wait.

The bad news is that the wait isn't over. "Stalker" has a critical flaw, and that's bad publishing. THQ elected to test the game for only one week, and the game went gold without proper debugging. The result is a mess of memory-leak errors and crashes so pervasive that the game is virtually unplayable. THQ has since developed a patch that fixes some key problems, but the fact remains that many casual gamers will be completely put off by the difficulty of simply getting the game to play for more than 10 minutes.

In fact, I had to delay this review a week because a certain area of the game, "Army Warehouses," was so packed with bugs that advancing through it without suffering another crash was more difficult than any challenge deliberately programmed into the game.

Bugs aside, though, "Stalker" is an incredible game. The player is an amnesiac named the "Marked One" for a tattoo on his arm, who is rescued by a Zone trader. After you join forces with the trader to repay him for saving your life, you begin a journey across the Zone in search of your identity and fate. The storyline takes many turns, and as most of it is delivered in dialogue, rather than cutscenes, players with an itchy index finger risk skipping past crucial developments in the plot. Luckily, the personal digital assistant has a "summary" function that allows you to catch up on all that's happened since the beginning.

The game plays like any first-person shooter, with an emphasis on tactics and micromanagement. Even on the easier settings, the game is no cakewalk. As in the real world, it takes very few shots to kill another human being, including your character. This forces you to learn the tricks of the trade quickly. Find an enemy, aim for his head, and if you don't kill him right away, hide. It's not uncommon for an enemy to appear in a doorway and gun you down before you have time to react.

The challenges don't stop there. Anomalies—radioactive tears in the fabric of reality—abound. There is no end to the tortures of the Zone—from simple nexuses that pound anyone who enters, to floating balls of igniting gas, to a sudden jolt that petrifies skin completely. You'll either be on the lookout for these non-living enemies every second, or you'll learn why more Stalkers go into the Zone than come out.

Another feature is an extensive, role-playing-game-like system of equipment. Starting out with a heavy jacket, weak pistol and combat knife, the player will find new items, weapons, suits of armor and artifacts, along with helpful (in some cases) anomalies. Part of the game's micromanagement is your need to control bleeding and radiation. These damage you over time, and regulating your body processes in the middle of a firefight will become one of your greatest challenges.

The graphics are in no way outdated and require substantial processing power and memory to run successfully. Don't be surprised if you set the detail level to minimum. The developers created an extremely believable world, using pictures and maps of the real zone of alienation to create the virtual version. The sound is another high point. I was privileged enough to have a native Belarusian play through the game with me, and she translated the exhaustive chatter between non-player characters—all of which is in well-written Russian.

Stalker is a gamer's game, and it has both the innovation and the depth to go down as one of the greats. The game is currently too buggy for me to recommend a buy, but hopefully, extensive patching will clear up most issues. If so, "Stalker" will surely become a classic.


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