Friday 11 January 2008

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

A man lies on the road. He is curled up into a fetal position, head pressed to the tarmac. Fluid gurgles in his lungs. As you move closer past the ruins of a burned out bus, he sees you, and begins to curse and plead with you in a voice you can't understand. He speaks Russian, with a strong Ukrainian accent, but you only know that because of where you are - in the radiation blasted reaches of Chernobyl. You have lost your memory, but there's one thing you have learned.

You raise your gun.

This game is shades of grey on grey, but the bleakest choice of all is the one you are about to face. Forget Bioshock for presenting the moral dilemma of 2007, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has one greater still. The choice you face is the same: whether to kill or save an innocent. But each word of that sentence is loaded with a different meaning.

In Bioshock, the dilemma is presented in a straight forward fashion, as a part of the narrative. Having killed a Big Daddy, you are given the pros and cons of two different ways of 'interacting' with a Little Sister, and the promise of either an increased immediate award, or the prospect of less gain now, and some benefit 'at some point in the future'. The killing of the Big Daddy is a forced part of the plot, and the similar harvesting or saving of the Little Sister is shown as an on-screen prompt followed by a 'fade-to-black' moment that avoids the unpalatable consequences of your decision.

In S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the choice is just one of many in that tangled world. It can occur as a consequence of your actions, but is never forced on you. When you gun down an opponent, they'll die - usually. But rarely, they'll slump to the ground and lie injured, unable to move or do more than swear at you. At this point is the crux of your decision.

If you find an injured stalker who is allied or neutral, you can talk to them, by hitting the 'F' key. The stalker will then ask for a med kit, which you can give them, and they'll stand again, and become allied, which results in their status switching to a comforting green. You do this because you're human, and leaving an injured man to die alone in the wilderness is the last resort of the wicked, and because med kits at the difficulty level you're playing at are a fungible resource, one you can recover readily unless you're particularly inept at getting shot.

But an enemy?

There are many factions in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., some of which you can ally yourselves with. Others start out hostile and seem to stay that way - but it's never made clear why they're that way inclined. Only a thin line of ambiguity separates the stalkers from bandits, mercenaries, the military in the Zone. You've spoken to the damaged men standing around the camp fires, swilling vodka and listening to the strains of a guitar. Few have much to say, most have none, but the untranslated Russain forms part of the haunting sound scape of the game, and the laughter a friendly counterpart to the howls of wild dogs and worse that infest the wilderness around you.

And this attachment to your fellow stalkers forms early in the game, possibly at the first encampment, where other loners gather on the edge of the Zone, unsure of whether they'll move inside or stay here as outsiders. The black marketeer you start out getting missions from seems less enamoured of humanity: he points out the in-game stalker rankings and suggests you can work yourself the way up the list, perhaps by shortening it a little. He gives you assassination missions - I accepted the first, and then didn't have the guts to go through with what seemed the pointless murder of one man among many.

What keeps you attached is the relentless and inhospitable nature of the zone. The mutated beasts that roam it, and the anomalies that sparkle in the twilight. Existence is fragile here. And the world is alive and continuously changing. If you confront the pack of blind dogs, they're as likely to surround and savage you - no matter how powerful the punch your automatic weapons pack. But if you leave them alone, you'll come back to find them chewing on the body of a fellow traveller. And when you find a scoped rifle, you can watch the pack sit and play in the distance, animals to the end. Guilt grows until every encounter becomes a mess of indecision.

I avoided the bandits who shot at me unprovoked and bypassed the military under the bridge while they engaged in a fire fight elsewhere - but murdered my way through a checkpoint into the second zone area. I had to progress; and there seemed no other way. Then a distress call: some of my fellow stalkers were in trouble in a junkyard. A bloody and messy close encounter in which, submachine gun ammo depleted, I had to engaged point blank with a sawn off shot gun and pistol. The grass became strewn with bodies between the wreckage of old cars. I was angry that I'd been forced to this pointless existence.

One of the bandits lay dying, groaning, cursing. I aimed down the pistol at him. Damn you for this. And shot him, unblinking.

It wasn't until later, presented with this option again, I reconsidered. Did everyone have to die? Everyone has a name here. A roll-call of stalkers, bandits, people, some suggestive of a history, a physical defect. It shows you the name when you loot the body, to remind you, under the gun sight when you aim. I looked down the barrell of my much improved rifle at the mercenary clutching at his guts.

The enemies: When you find an injured enemy, you are not given a choice. You cannot talk to him, heal him, help him in any way. If you walk away, he'll die. You can't loot the body while he's alive. It becomes a trade-off. Guilt, as the blood spatters and the body twitches and rolls. No one carries much here: vodka, some sausage, anti-radiation drugs. The price of a life. But if you walk away, his cries follow you, pleading, angry, alone.



Ian said...

Yeah, STALKER has some pretty wicked graphics.

Anonymous said...

I anticipated the release of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. While it didn't live up to its hype I still enjoyed it immensely for what it was. My initial play style was objective and I shot down anything that threatened me. It wasn't until later that I attempted to play with a quasi pacifistic attitude. The problem was that the living world never captured my belief and repercussions weren't severe enough to beg my conscious awake.