This review originally appeared in E175, May 2007.
This was always going to be an anomalous experience, less a videogame than an object of fascination. What happens when the arrogance and ambition of an east European developer goes into meltdown, taking with it millions of a leading publisher's dollars? Wonder no more. After five years The Zone, in every sense a wild country born of disaster, is giving up its secrets.
As its name suggests it's an exclusive place, devoid of wit, warmth and interestingly enough women. Thanks to X-Ray, a graphics engine that despite its years makes everything frighteningly real, it's an exquisitely horrid environment in which the wind burns the skin, the sun boils the sky and freak phenomena corrupt the laws of nature. Yet it's populous, busier even than Cyrodiil or City 17, and its citizens' motivation for being there is diverse. Some wish to plunder, others to preserve; scientists come to study, factions seek to monopolise, mercenaries hunt their quarry and Stalkers, the nomadic loners of the game's title, survive in every way they can. The one thing they all have in common is the gun.
For all the talk of ecosystems that react to the time of day or night (the longvaunted, highly evident 'A-Life' system), Stalker's big cover-up is its strength as a firstperson shooter. Its troop AI is better than that of FEAR, and environmentally more aware than that of Far Cry. Any location at any time can host an unpredictable number of allies, enemies and neutrals, making up an intricate action machine that one fateful moment – a crossed line of sight or the crack of a rifle – can set in motion. And what Stalker proves when it comes to AI behaviour is that you don't have to model everything, just enough.
As conducted via mouse and keyboard, health pack and headshot, this is as real as virtual combat gets, with agents free to pursue whichever strategy serves best. They'll wait a small eternity before breaking cover, co-ordinate ambushes and flanking manoeuvres, and best of all retreat deep into often labyrinthine buildings to adopt advantageous, unanticipated positions. Even before a pack of skinless dogs, rabid with radiation, randomly crashes in to send the cogs of the machine flying, it's incredible. As you tap into each region of The Zone, be it industrial facility, toxic scrapheap or underground laboratory, new creatures are unleashed into its whole, the encounters between man and beast becoming ever more chaotic, random and exhilarating.
But if one thing was ever predictable about The Zone it was that the disharmony that makes it unique and exciting would also make it suffer. Stalker's a game in which linear and non-linear, script and emergence are at perpetual loggerheads. That its characters are defined more by uniform than face or personality doesn't matter – you could even argue that it benefits a sense of abject weariness, desolation and tribal dependence. But you realise almost immediately that beyond guns, quirky stataltering artefacts and cash to spend on more of the same, there's little high-level reward. And beyond whether someone elects to shoot you or say hello to you there's little consequence either.
So the road to the Chernobyl plant, which be warned plays only a modest role in the game's multiple finales and is previously inaccessible, introduces you to the warring factions of Duty and Freedom. They're politically more alike than either would care to admit and full of mutual grievances, but while each offers missions that shift your allegiance back and forth, influencing who attacks you and when as you wander The Zone, that's about as far as your emotional involvement goes.
You can annihilate, for example, almost everyone in Duty's immense compound, stripping it down to a few locals in its weapons-free bar and its prize-fight arena, and your Freedom associates will blithely carry on preaching about its tyranny, doling out their preset tasks like a dwindling deck of cards. You'll later return to the scene of your massacre to find fresh troops standing among the corpses. Stalker's elastic world has a memory for physical objects, it seems – bodies, items and treasures – but little mind for causality or significance.
Worse, when its sandbox credentials have already suffered one monstrous setback – The Zone is now sectioned rather than seamless, replete with chokepoints, natural boundaries and invisible walls – it fails to let you continue playing when the storyline is over. You have to start all over again, inheriting nothing but a heightened awareness of the game's eccentric design, though that does prove a surprisingly strong incentive. As for how good a game exists in spite of all of it all, well, hasn't that always been the question?
You could call Stalker idiosyncratic and barely do it justice. And likewise you could judge it by a checklist of one- and two-word criteria and completely miss the point. It's a genuine aberration – a post-catastrophic, organic mutant that's aware of videogame law but unwilling, and perhaps even unable, to abide by it for prolonged periods of time. You can break it and embarrass it, at times exposing it for being the hastily patched-up alpha code it is, but it always snaps cleanly back under GSC's ruthless vision of a mythic nuclear wasteland. PC gamers should therefore see it as their duty, like the Stalkers themselves, to venture in and scavenge for all the brilliance they can find.