STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl is Great! Why Haven't You Played It Yet?
Now, I know what you're thinking: "I'm sorry, but the buggiest video game in the history of video games is probably not a great game," and you're right, because STALKER is not a great game. It is the great game. It is, perhaps, the greatest video game of all time.
Imagine, if you will, Skyrim.
Now imagine that Skyrim has good graphics (the graphics in the screen above are not a great depiction of this; sorry--they're from the official site rather than my own personal collection). Now imagine that its leveling system isn't broken. Now imagine that it has great AI and really, really good combat to go along with that AI. Now forget every game you've ever played that you've considered to have good atmosphere, because they pale in comparison to the glory that is STALKER.
Never before have I played a game that felt so real, which is funny, because the anomalies present in its science fictional world are arguably the weirdest environmental detail I've ever seen in a video game.
Surely you've played Demon's/Dark Souls, right? Aside from its excellent multiplayer, the series' biggest strength is said to be its difficulty, which relies players to play intelligently in order to not die. STALKER makes the Souls games look bad by using its excellent AI and random events to alter the world. No free passes here, folks. You don't get to memorize patterns or levels in STALKER, because it has none. The Zone is alive and malignant, an entire world, an entire consciousness, that wants you dead. STALKER is a game you play by being smart and alert nonstop. If you mess up for a second, you die.
All of this means that STALKER never plays the same way twice.
For example, time and again, I've traversed the opening level of Call of Pripyat, making sure to avoid the mind control anomalies and the mercenaries and the caves and the zombies and everything else. I feel pretty safe there, for the most part.
...then, one day after having looted a mercenary camp, I got word of an impending Blowout (think: massive radiation storm that makes swimming in the sun sound like a cakewalk). I started running back to base so I could hide, but, unfortunately, I fell into a hole.
There was a hole. I fell in it.
I did not die, though. I broke my legs and started bleeding profusely, but that was cool, because I healed up nicely. And, hey, a hole! Holes are great places to hide from radiation, especially nice big growling caves like this one.
(this was the point at which I ran into a giant ball of lightning and nearly died again)
I made my way, with a pistol, flashlight, and anomaly detector (occasionally stopping to switch to shotgun and shoot the growling things in the dark), out of the cave. Unfortunately, I still had to stay in the cave, because there was a giant radiation storm raging outside. So, trapped between a bunch of electrical and gravitational anomalies and a radiation storm, I defended myself until the radiation storm had ended, then stepped outside and proceeded to kill no less than six snorks, one of STALKER's tougher enemy types.
Until then, I had considered myself a fairly skilled STALKER. I've killed thousands of mutants and men alike. I've survived anomalies that had taken dozens of lives before me. I've wiped out entire bases full of the smartest enemy AI you will ever encounter. I've resisted mind control, bested snipers in head-to-head duels, and visited the heart of the Zone itself. I've spent hundreds of hours in the Zone, but it still had more to offer.
STALKER may be broken. It may not be pretty. It may be janky. It may not be the best-written story. It may be poorly optimized.
But you know what STALKER really is? It's one of the most important video game experiences you can ever hope to have. If you haven't played it, you should. You must.
Image via cop.stalker-game.com