So I’ve been burning a bit of time lately playing the Ukranian-developped S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. It’s a fairly stock-standard FPS in terms of gameplay (albeit wth some nice ballistic models), but the the game’s setting is what shines. You’re stuck inside The Zone, a cordoned off area surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor. Inside The Zone, weird shit happens, animals have mutated, and everything’s been left to rot. No-one’s quite sure if the military blockades are in place to keep the world out of The Zone, or to protect the world from The Zone. Despite all of this, Stalkers and others prowl about securing the strange artefacts that the anomalies of The Zone produce from time to time. There’s a story to follow, but I’m not too far along that yet.

Anyhow, back to the ass-kicking bit. The game’s atmosphere is phenomenally mind-blowing. The wind howling and thunder crackling as you wander through deserted farms and abandoned buildings send a chill up the spine. The Zone seems both terribly empty and yet strangely alive at once: even when you’re alone there’s always the hint of something lurking not too far away, be it the baying of a sick hound or the eerie rumble of an anomaly sitting on the next ridgeline. The visuals are simply stunning.

(With some shame, I admit I’ll experience some difficulty getting to the end of the game. There’s no doubt in my mind that some horrific mutant thing will surprise me and make me shit my pants, and I’ll have to save and walk off for a bit. Ask my mate Richard if you don’t believe me – he’s seen one of those floating eyestalk monsters in Doom knock me clean off my chair. On one hand, it’s rather awesome to be pulled in to an experience so completely, on the other it’s not so great when System Shock makes you wee yourself. Even if it’s just a little bit.)

D’oh.

But wait, there’s more! The real kicker is that there’s a Russian film by the name of Stalker that has obviously been a source of inspiration for the game. The mood and feel of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film have been ported perfectly to the world of DirectX and video processors. Some of you may have seen 2002’s Solaris, starring George Clooney – a remake of the Tarkovsky film of the same name. If you can find Stalker, I highly recommend giving it a view. Keep in mind that Tarkovsky was a filmmaker who didn’t like genres, and his science fiction films are no exception. Stalker is beautiful to watch, but the pace is slow, in a limp arthouse kind of way

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker