S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - Shadow of Chernobyl is one of those games that you see every once in a great while that not only uses what others have done, but manages to improve upon other games enough that it almost redefines a genre. I am completely blown away by the scale of the game and the mission elements included. Most first-person shooters are linear. You have one direction to go, and you really cannot deviate from that course much at all. Sure, you have to find keys and open doors and kill bosses, but how many times have you been able to explore a living world?
You are a Stalker, a scavenger who for one reason or another has chosen to try and scrape together a living in the radioactive waste around Chernobyl. There are other Stalkers in the zone, as well as military personnel. Some of these people give you no option but combat, but many of them will either fight you or help you, depending on how you treat them. Give them what they want, and you have a temporary friend. And if you try and keep them from their objective, you better hope you have enough ammo, because bloodshed will follow.
What is so incredible about S:SoC is the openness of the game environment. The first time I played, it actually confused me a bit, since I am used to this type of game leading me around by the nose. When you start, you watch a short cut scene and then are plunged into an open world similar to what you see in most role-playing games. It's not quite as open as other RPGs, since there are zones you progress through, but on the whole, the game area feels vast. The information for the game says it has a full 30-square-kilometer area to explore, and I believe it. The whole area around Chernobyl is a wasteland, with crumbling buildings and destroyed vehicles everywhere. The environment does a great job of conveying the feeling that you are living in a wasteland; it's very immersive.
The graphics are superb, and the environmental effects and lighting are beyond what I would normally expect from an FPS. There is one area I came upon early in the game where I was fighting in an abandoned rail yard. It was just after nightfall, and it was VERY dark. While I hid and tried to figure out where the enemy was concealed, lightning began to flicker across the sky and then hammered down around me as the storm broke. The effect from the lightning was the best I have ever seen! There were multiple strikes, and each one cast its own set of shadows from the trees onto the ground, and when the lightning overlapped, you would get multiple sets of shadows, depending on where the strike occurred. This is the first game I have played that actually made me feel like I was in the middle of a real thunderstorm, instead of just in the middle of a lightning storm.
The underground lighting is also very well done. There have been several places that I have just wanted to go back up to the surface and stay there. There have not been a lot of things to fight in the underground areas, but that is part of what is scary. It's so quiet that every noise makes you jump, and when stuff actually does show up, it's so unexpected that it scares the pants off you.
The game play is what has me hooked. I love being able to wander around from area to area and explore. And since all but the main mission are optional, you don't have to complete any more missions than you want. The enemy artificial intelligence is scary good. The human opponents act together as a cohesive team, trying to flank you and work together to give themselves any advantage they can. The monster AI acts differently. The dogs, for example, will attack you on sight in a pack but will flee if you kill many of their mates. This is not a huge thing, but it makes the game so much more true to life.
One other thing you have to deal with while playing is radiation and the anomalies. Many places are radioactive, so you have to be careful when moving around, and you must listen to your Geiger counter to avoid a lethal dose. The anomalies look like distortions in the air, and there are several different types, each having a different effect. Some burn you while others will catch you in a tornado-like vortex. Needless to say, you want to avoid these if you can.
Overall, I am very surprised at the depth and polish of this game and have been enjoying myself immensely since I brought it home. And since it currently prices at $39, it's something you shouldn't pass up. The system requirements are pretty high, but if you have the system to run it, it'll give you a reason to keep upgrading! Now, I'm going to get back to skulking through the basements and hoping to avoid getting eaten ...