In this particular entry i’m going to be reviewing not one but TWO games, with the same theme but very different approaches to it. Welcome to the post-apocalyptic  S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky vs Fallout 3 show-down.

Lets start with S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky.

Now, when I first played stalker, i thought it was a good game, despite the fact it made a few serious breaches of some very simple game design rules. Its atmosphere got the job done, for starters. You knew full well you were in an environment that could kill you with a thought, and that was something that you learnt foremost from experience than any other source. As I said, it broke a lot of rules. After some talking to NPC’s and getting a kit of basic equipment, I got dumped into a swamp with a shotgun and a vague sense of where i was going. This is where the fun begins, normally.

So, I take my first bold steps out towards the little dot on my minimap, taking the most direct path, through the shallow water. I hear the familiar clicking of a geiger counter, something i’d grown accustomed to during the half-life games. Apparently the water was bad.

Fair enough.

So i walk to shore, and then theres a gust of wind and i EXPLODE.

NOT fair enough.

I’d just BEEN through the intro sequence, and “anomalies” were mentioned briefly, but apparently the only way to learn to spot them was to die in them a few times. Whats more, when i brushed past them and took some damage, my health started ticking down from “bleeding”, but it doesn’t do so in a conspicuous manner. More often than not i would just start heavy-breathing and drop dead without knowing what was going on. The radiation had a very similar effect to bleeding, so the overall effect of this was that there were a lot of ways to die without being in direct danger. I found myself to have died about five times before i had even encountered my first enemy.

Now, to somebody who hasn’t played stalker, you’re probably thinking “Wow, this guy must really suck at computer games”. But you know those people, those endlessly irritating people, who probably have no lives and probably hack as well, and probably have no girlfriend, because they’re always beating you at team fortress 2? I am one of those people. The only time I play a game on something other than “Hard” is when theres a setting even more difficult than “Hard”. I can shoot the balls off an unladen swallow, so to speak, but stalker presents to me a great challenge, for all the wrong reasons.

Each weapon has a well-enforced range limit, meaning that one often finds themselves in ridiculous situations where they’ve emptied two clips into an enemy to no avail, and then take an extra few steps towards them and try again, and kill them with their first bullet.

The time that stalker really SHONE for me was when i, the player, partook in inter-faction warfare. Lets say a faction has 400 people, and then you kill one. Now its got 399. Its a simple thing, thats easy to do, but no other game really does it. Many games allow the player to play the part of an empire-destroying superman, but very few of them let the player see the fruits of their efforts. Maybe this is an experience thats entirely unique to me, because i am not speaking from any game design theory when i say this, but theres something immensely satisfying about knowing that every enemy you kill now is one less enemy that’ll be shooting at you later. An enemy is no longer a “spawn”, its a “presence”, which you can remove from the world by putting a bullet to its forehead. Admittedly the number of living members of each faction ticks up over time, but if you get them on the back foot, normally they will be kept under control by the surrounding factions.

Stalker has a really good premise, and in a lot of ways it could’ve been a great game, but its downfall is that absolutely no consideration was given to the learning curve, and the thing is absolutely ridden with bugs. Allow me to relay an amusing anecdote, at the risk of surpassing my word limit:

The short version is that you enter a factions headquarters, it takes away your weapons, so you can’t go brutus/rambo on their asses from the inside. The obvious problem with this, which seemed obvious to ME, is that when i was single-handedly invading the enemy headquarters, i’d cleared the surrounding area, and went inside to finish the job, and all of a sudden it TAKES MY WEAPONS AWAY. So now i’m in this absolutely ludicrous situation where i have more guns than limbs, and yet i’m running terrified and unarmed from the last surviving member of the bandits faction, whose identical comerades i had just slaughtered en masse.

The learning curve is nothing short of brutal, possibly due to the fact that theres insufficient visual cues on the GUI as to what is killing you at that point in time, and it has an amount of bugs which can only be described as “debilitating”.  However if those two very-big-deal issues were fixed, it would actually be a brilliant game. As it stands, I do not recommend its purchase, and I will tell you why:

Fallout 3!

Fallout 3 is the best reason NOT to buy S.T.A.L.K.E.R, because it does everything that stalker tried to do and succeeds. It is easy (at times unreasonably easy, but lets not nitpick), it is atmospheric, even if the atmosphere is completely different, and most of all it WORKS.

The biggest point of hype for fallout 3 was the dynamic endings, with “300 permutations of ending cinematic based on the path the player took throughout the game, all voiced by <famous person here> <more hype here>”. Let me open by saying this was a load of crap. My personal ending cinematic had me with a dog, for some reason. A dog! Throughout my whole game, the height of player/dog interaction that had happened was when i ran out of ammo and had to cave in some dogs skulls in with a baseball bat. At no point during my game had i walked into the sunset with a peaceful dog at my side, and yet somehow somebody managed to get footage of it to put on the ending cinematic. Also i tried to hit on every woman that came along, but i guess thats the sort of thing people don’t talk about after you’re dead.


But don’t worry, you have a choice to NOT die, meaning there is still mystery in the games ending. So i guess I have, through a technicality, circumvented the lynching i so deserve. The amount of choice you have in the game, apart from the ending (RAILROAD PLOT) is exemplary. I was given a mission where I had to rescue some children from the slave-trade capital of the wastelands, paradise falls. After following an elaborate plan for a few steps, I just decided it’d be easier to walk up to the leader of the slavers, put a .44 round in his skull, and then single handedly kill every single inhabitant of  the slaver village when they came to get me. It was quite enjoyable, I tell you, and I almost ran out of ammo. But the greatest thing is that it was actually a valid option, even if the game made absolutely no suggestion of the ludicrous possibility. Of course i still had to follow the kids instructions to open their cells, but when it came down to it, slaughtering the entire town had been so much more effective than distracting the guard by navigating through a tiresome conversation tree about beer.

But i digress.

You have a lot of choice in fallout 3, there are so many places to explore, and pillage. The characters are people you can actually identify with, and subsequently connect with and hit on. Nothing is set in concrete. I played my entire first game of fallout 3 wearing the hat i had looted from the bullet-riddled corpse of the tutorial character. That speaks volumes for the worlds malleability. One disconcerting misfeature I found was that no matter how many days passed, his naked corpse was still on the floor of the tavern in which he had been killed, which made me very uncomfortable. Don’t people in the future bury their dead? Or at least move them somewhere they won’t get stepped on?

However a bit of inconsistency comes with the territory when you’re playing a game with as much unbridled freedom as fallout 3 gives you. As it stands, it is a landmark game of our time.