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Critical Reception: THQ's S.T.A.L.K.E.R

This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, THQ and GSC Game World's anticipated PC release that some are calling "an open-ended first-person shooter" -- a rarity in the genre. Scores a
This week's edition of the regular Critical Reception column examines online reaction to the THQ-published, GSC Game World-developed S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, an anticipated PC release that some are calling "an open-ended first-person shooter" -- a rarity in the genre. In development for over six years by the Ukraine-based GSC Game World, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is finally seeing release this week after numerous delays. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. features a post-apocalyptic trek through a world mutated by the Chernobyl disaster, in a unique gameplay blend of RPG and first-person shooter. The combination appears to have won critics over, as S.T.A.L.K.E.R. currently averages a review score ratio of 84% at Gamerankings.com. Jim Rossignol at Eurogamer lists plenty of reasons to hate S.T.A.L.K.E.R. "I feel like I should warn people off S.T.A.L.K.E.R.," he begins. "It's a grim beast, with rough animation and that laggy, about-to-explode feeling you get from some less polished PC games. It's really hard in places, and half the text is gibberish. Worse still, it's going to run like a tired old alcoholic on lower-spec PCs." "And yet in spite of all this," he continues, "I simply cannot stop talking about it." Rossignol awards S.T.A.L.K.E.R. a score of 8 out of 10, giving specific praise to its exploration-based gameplay. "Instead of being an on-rails FPS where everything takes place in one carefully scripted corridor," he notes, "S.T.A.L.K.E.R. allows plenty of scope for exploration. Occasional scripted events are dropped into your path, keeping the tension high and the narrative blooming. The wide levels soon expand into huge interconnected spaces, each one randomly populated by interacting and competing factions." "But perhaps the precise position of this oddity on the proverbial Venn diagram of overlapping genre conventions isn't really important," he writes. "What is important is the atmosphere." Rossignol elaborates: "This is a singularly bleak vision. The game takes place in a kind of radiation-warped ramshackle apocalypse. It's a world that constantly exudes feelings of gloom and dread. This particular experience is practically unparalleled in gaming. If you thought Half-Life 2's derelict environments were evocative then this is like a Ukrainian mind-bomb." "For some people the odd rough brokenness of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will frustrate and annoy," he admits. "It isn't finely polished, and it's not Hollywood; this is more like an antidote to the Americanised way of doing things. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will remind you of all kinds of prior games, and yet it will also defy your expectations. Like the mythological Chernobyl zone it is based upon, this game is a treacherous, darkly beautiful terrain. Not everyone is going to enjoy venturing into the zone, but some of those who do will find what they've been looking for." GamePro's "CSL" was similarly enthralled. "S.T.A.L.K.E.R. manages to set itself apart with its open-ended gameplay," he writes. "Though the free-romaing aspects of the game have been significantly toned down from what was originally promised, the game world has roughly a dozen large and diverse areas that include wide open fields, urban areas, and everything in between." "S.T.A.L.K.E.R. presents a fresh contrast to other games in the genre," he continues in his review, scored at 4.25 out of 5 in Fun Factor. "Players must make several tough choices pertaining to what resources they bring into battle; from guns, ammo, med-kits, grenades and anti-radiation drugs. This system imposes an excellent sense of limitations; your character is not a superman capable of hoisting half a dozen different kinds of assault rifles and every addition to your supplies must be carefully be weighed for its benefit." "In the end," he summarizes, "S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is an immense treat that offers fresh and innovative gameplay experiences. If I had to level one complaint against the title, it's the fact that it's missing the little bit of extra polish that gamers have come to expect. The artificial intelligence for instance is somewhat hit and miss, and many of the RPG elements, while welcomed, didn't go far enough to offer unique paths through the game. These issues aside S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has done an excellent job creating its own niche in the genre." Charles Onyett of IGN also describes several of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s problems in his review, despite his overall enjoyment of the title. "The idea of fusing first-person shooter mechanics with an open world is a tantalizing one," he says. "In GSC Game World's long awaited S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, such an experiment in genre cooking has produced some great results. The game offers significantly more content than any other FPS out there, but struggles a little when it comes to the open world." Onyett is impressed enough with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s atmosphere and innovation to award it a score of 8.2 out of 10, though A.I. bugs often drag the experience down. "In sprawling games like this, A.I. bugs are to be expected," he states, "but it happened with a heightened regularity in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. For instance, you'll witness enemies perform the classic endless-charge-into-a-corner routine, attempt to shoot through walls, or become entirely confused and stand still during battle." On the other hand: "These technical flaws are largely compensated for with persuasive intangibles, specifically mood. The graphics, though dated in places, coalesce into a stunning amalgam of unfamiliarity. Very rarely do we see games exude such a repulsive yet enchanting mystique as with GSC's title." "S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a brave game," Onyett writes in conclusion, "and offers gamers a chance to experience something genuinely new. GSC Game World's creation exudes such a powerful mood, you likely won't care about the A.I. issues and bugs that will crop up. While the story fails to dazzle, the excellent gun battles will keep you hooked, and the curious dread that suffuses every section of The Zone is enough to keep you exploring, at least until you start bumping against the constraints of The Zone's open ended design." THQ's S.T.A.L.K.E.R. may be receiving its share of criticism, but most reviewers at this point seem to think that the strength of its narrative and atmosphere outweighs its problematic execution in several areas. Provided that one has patience and can look past its rough exterior, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl could very well be a worthwhile purchase.

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