Sunday, May 25, 2008

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

I got into this game pretty late. It kept being mentioned as one of the best games of the year on game sites and everyone seemed to be pretty excited about the upcoming prequel. When it popped up on STEAM I bought it and then didn't play it for ages.

Initially it seemed to me to be a bit clunky. I wasn't wild about the human animations or the lack of talking over the external conversation parts (it seems cheap to have voice acting in some places but not everywhere you would expect it). Finally, there seemed to be a lot of running around and you start off extremely underpowered so combat is a little unsatisfying at first.

I decided to give it another go after a rave review from a friend in work and, apart from work and sleep, didn't stop playing until I had completed it. I should have hated it because it has a lot of backtracking, because it is tremendously buggy on my hardware (common but random crashes when transitioning between game zones and some odd event trigger problems) and because it takes a while to figure out the gameplay mechanics. Instead I found myself being really sucked into it.

The first and most important thing is that the atmosphere (especially graphically) is fantastic. The scenery is full of rusting machinery, decrepit buildings and overgrown flora. It looks very much like the pictures of Pripyat and the rest of the zone that I have seen which is apparently not surprising since the developers were able to gain access to it to do research. Your fellow stalkers and the various friends and enemies you meet all look realistically kitted out for the difficult terrain.

Then there's the gameplay. It's an interesting mix of reasonably freeform exploration/side-quests and a clearly delineated main path (the goal changes at a few points). You perform the side-quests to explore the various areas in the zone and to accumulate guns and artifacts (which bring special powers). Because of this the side quests never seem ridiculous and occasionally they are particularly good fun.

The main quest draws you towards the reactor building itself. Somewhat annoyingly it's possible to miss the main ending by not performing what appear to be a couple of side-quests earlier in the game. That main ending is fantastic, taking you all around the exterior of the reactor complex to a strange final showdown.

The AI is excellent throughout and the weapons behave very realisitically (with excellent modelling of ballistic drop and substantial spread on almost all weapons). Juggling armour, weight of inventory and availability of ammo adds a lot of useful difficulty to the game. It's certainly no pushover, even at the end when you are pretty seriously tooled up.

Finally, I think the thing that appeals to me most about the game is the careful reveal of the back story and the source material. It's based on the same source material as Tarkovsky's film (though it keeps much more closely to it than he did) and it was great recognising elements of the game (especially tonal ones) that I remembered from the film.

On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness

It's short, it's very short but then most episodic games are now. It's not quite as funny as I had hoped (it's no Portal and it's not as odd as Psychonauts) but it's definitely fun to play. I haven't played a proper special-mode-for-combat RPG in ages. As an RPG it is a bit of a cheat since there really isn't a lot of choice in how you level up, there's no way to emphasise certain aspects of your characters. On the other hand, that doesn't really matter and it makes for a nicely balanced game. New enemies pose a real threat and the last two bosses in particular are pretty difficult.

I won't pretend to know enough about modern RPG play to claim that it's truly the real deal but as a way to spend a happy afternoon/evening/early night it certainly does the job. It's not really all that difficult which some might find annoying but, being rubbish as these sorts of games, I can live with it.

Unsurprisingly the graphic design is fantastic and the underlying plot suitably absurdist (if not amasingly original). In fact the art is so good, such a pleasure to look at that it takes a lot of the sting out of their being only three major gameplay areas (and an extra area for tooling up).

I'll definitely be looking out for the next episode in the shiny future.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Para something.

Motorised parachutes. Forget what they're called. They're surprisingly noisy and hence annoying, I think becasue this part of the river is so quiet when there aren't major ships heading up to the port.

On the Boyne

In summer, real summer. Nice fog rolling in on the cool sea breeze, miscellaneous fowl crowing in a wood back up the path and some boats heading up river to my right. Pretty sweet.