We've seen many promising games coming out of Eastern Europe, but usually this initial promise is lost in the final product. The most impressively ambitious of these titles is Stalker. Set in the aftermath of Chernobyl you are a hardened mercenary, stalking a desolate landscape filled with horrific mutations and physics-bending anomalies. But then the plot falls flat - mostly due to predictable in-game quests and stale characters.
The game redeems itself with open-ended play. While it may not be as epic as was promised, roaming around is enormous fun and the attention to detail is notable.
Fellow stalkers wander with you, and the in-game factions add extra spice. Combat experiences are diverse - other factions often learn from their dealings with you and will change their behaviour accordingly - although the artificial intelligence doesn't always work. Some opponents take cover and attempt flanking manoeuvres, while others simply run around in circles when threatened.
We do like the inventory system, though. This limits the number of items you can carry, forcing you to make some difficult decisions. Do you stock up on food, or do you risk starvation to carry extra ammo? Do you opt for a big gun, or save space for antiradiation drugs and med-kits? Most of the weapons are Russian or Ukrainian in origin, and offer quite a contrast to those seen in other games.
Due to the extended development time, the game looks somewhat dated. But the post-apocalyptic landscape is well depicted, and the impact of the disaster is really hammered home. Plus excellent sound effects dramatically ratchet up the tension.