I am more or less three quarters through Toll the Hounds the eigth volume in Erikson’s massive Malazan Book of the Fallen series. I find that I need to start organizing my thoughts a bit earlier on this book than in previous efforts. Never the most concise with words Erikson reaches new heights of verbosity and while the text never feels bloated the entire novel groans and creeks under the ponderous weight of each sentence (see what I did there!). I find myself both in awe and staggered by the sheer scope of Erikson’s tale, especially the story contained in this latest volume, and yet find myself hesitant to ascribe accolades to the work therein.
Developed by GSC Game World and published by THQ, STALKER is a dark first-person shooter with adventure and rpg elements set in the nuclear tinged, twisted landscape landscape of Chernobyl referred to in the game as the Zone. Based on Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky’s novel Roadside Picnic it shares its name (minus the horrible acronym whose periods I am abandoning here in favor of using all caps) from the Andre Tarkovsky film, also based on the book, Stalker.
The Story. After an opening cut scene in which, presumably, your character is being carted to the Zone only to have the transport vehicle struck by a bolt of lightning, you wake up inside the Zone. Known throughout the game as the “Marked One,” your ostensible goal is to find and eliminate the Stalker known as Strelok. At the same time you are uncovering more about your mysterious past and the secrets behind the Zone. The game can unfold in a fairly linear path, if you choose, but there are plenty of side treks and tasks to attempt along your journey through the Zone.
The World. The Zone is a bleak landscape. Crumbled factorys and ruined towns fill the terrain while wrecked cars stand abandoned on the roadside. Strange phenomenon, called anomalies, dot the landscape in various forms twisting reality around them while mutants, brigands, and other Stalkers roam the landscape. Anomalies aren’t all bad however since they often produce items called Relics that can be attached to your person to enhance your abilities. Unfortunately Relics are often irradiated and can be detrimental to your health. As such there is a delicate balancing act between relics that raise your rad count and those that lower it. Speaking of radiation, as if mutants, gun toting pyschos, and weird rips in reality weren’t enough you have to watch out for highly irradiated areas that sap your health away; often at frustrating moments.
The quality texture works and fantastic lighting of GSC’s X-ray engine real adds to the atmosphere of the Zone but the real clincher is the sound. The constant ticcing of the Geiger counter, the constant thrum and boom of nearby anomalies, the howling of wind, or the distant barks, growls, grunts, and moans of mutants all ratchet up the tension and keep you spinning around looking for the source of the sounds. The game has a subtle music soundtrack that serves as a counterpoint to the tension generating sound effects. The only music in the game occurs in the populated “safe” areas of the game whether through an old radio in the Bar, or a lone Stalker sitting near a fire strumming a sad song on his guitar music is a signal for brief respite from the tensions of travelling the Zone.
Gameplay. STALKER is, first and foremost, an FPS but the strong quest element and item-collection aspects of the game lend it an RPG feel. Much was made of the game’s ballistics model which uses what I pressume are realistic physics for weapon accuracy and bullet drop. There are no laser like accurate guns here, you miss and miss a lot, making firefights tense, drawn-out affairs. Hit detection left me a bit wanting however as enemies typically reacted the same no matter where they’re shot (excepting the head which is usually fatal).
Weapons and armor degrade over time. Armor loses its protection while guns become less accurate and jam more frequently, thankfully there are enough enemeies in the game that finding a weapon is never hard. Armor is a different story. There were many times that on particularly long missions where my armor was almost completely gone and there is no way to repair or buy no armor once your commited; the last level of the game is particularly brutal in this regard. To make things more difficult your carrying capacity is limited to 50 pounds making item selection a particularly important aspect of the game.
There is a certain amount of repetiveness to the gameplay; though some of that was due to my inability to find a good weapon with a silencer. Initial stealthy approaches often dissolve into straight out firefights and enemy AI, even on normal, is pretty brutal (I kicked the game down to easy about halfway through). Major deviation in gameplay comes near the end of the game when it becomes suddenly apparent that running and not fighting becomes the better option. Like Crysis the game features a weapon modding system and you’ll find scopes, silencers (which I didn’t find any of), and grenade launchers to attach to the plethora of weapons throughout the game. Again, the ability to play with and customize your armament is one of my favorite aspects of the FPS and kudos to STALKER for jumping on that bandwagon.
Where the game falls short is in the narrative. Part of my problem here is mine and part is in the game itself. Discovering things about the Zone is a fun and exciting element of the game. My first delve into an abandoned scientific laboratory brought back fond memories of Fallout and was a nice balance of creepy and cool. Unfortunately while the game does a nice job of the fleshing out the world your in most of the character development occurs in the form of a diary kept in your PDA. It’s like playing the game gives you a basic outline of the story while the details are hidden away. A fact that is IMO, a bad design. Then you have the whole Strelock angle which, by the time I got to the end of the game, was NEVER EXPLAINED. Or so I thought. Thanks to the internet a quick search online revealed that an OPTIONAL part of the final level explains who you are, who Strelock is, and what the Zone is all about. WFT? GSC builds all these cool, mysterious cut scenes into the game then doesn’t explain them unless you stumble into this last section of the game!? Disappointing to say the least and a fact that made the endgame feel decidedly anticlimatic.
Influences. As mentioned above Fallout seems to be a major influence for this game, or maybe it’s just the similarity of the environments, but there was a certain bleakness to the game that reminded me of that series. The major influence, that took me a while to pinpoint at least until a certain major announcement was made by Blizzard, was Diablo. The Zones of “wild” areas interspersed by safe areas, the quests, even the music reminded me of the Diablo series; IMO and as usual YMMV (sorry, felt I need a few more acronyms).
In a nutshell. Tense, action gameplay in an atmospheric creepy world equates to a fun, but flawed game from a new(er) developer that should appeal to fans of FPSs and RPGs (more acronyms!). The prequel STALKER: Clear Sky is due August 29th.
Tor Books, 2008
Contrary to what I initially thought this is not an official US release. In fact both versions currently on offer over at Amazon appear to imports of the hardcover and paperback US versions. Which is a shame since I think this book would do well in the U.S. In terms of scope and style Gibson is most comparable to Ian Banks and Alistair Reynolds (and likely other who I haven’t read) but those two in particular stuck out in my mind as I read. However I think Gibson’s work, for the most part, stands on its own.
Dakota Merrick is a “machine-head” pilot; a human augmented by cybernetic implants that allow her to interfaces with computers. Unfortunately, do to tragic events in the past, machine-heads are illegal and Dakota must hide who she is. She is forced to eke out a living on the fringe of society and take whatever jobs come her way. A job gone awry and forced to take on assumed identity Dakota is stuck working for people who hate her kind the most while trying to figure just what the alien Shoal, gatekeepers of faster than light travel, are up to.
The book is fast paced and easy to read with plenty of action and mystery to keep things moving. Which in turn is both the books weakness and its strength. It’s exciting yes but also sparse in the slower moments that allow for more robust character development. What we do get of that plays as a mere footnote to the action which is sad since those character moments are particularly interesting. In particular I thought Dakota’s relationship with her ship was interesting; and by relationship I mean that in every sense of the word. Gibson’s heavy focus on action takes something away from the initial exploration of the alien derelict a scene that could have been cool and atmospheric again becomes a footnote to driving the action onwards (Just thinking of derelicts makes me want to watch Event Horizon again).
Gibson manages to craft a real sense of history and life to the human aspects of the story. From the various human colonies to the other machine-heads we meet it is easy to see that Gibson has a particular vision for his universe. The city in the giant Shoal ship was especially impressive scene that reminded me of the cantina scene from Star Wars, with its motley collection of characters and high-stakes chase. Most impressive perhaps is the final section of the novel which, as action-packed as it was, still manages to play out in an almost stately pace with multiple points of view and world-defining revelations occuring right up until the end.
Stealing Light is an exciting read that pays homage to the space opera genre; a fact that is both a boon and curse for the novel. The elments that truly reveal Gibson’s potential often take a backseat for the more familiar scenes fans of space opera have read before. Which is a shame, since Gibson’s instincts, from gripping opening page to the well choreographed finale, are spot on. Recommended for sci-fi fans looking for a good, epic sci-fi yarn though not something completely ground-breaking or original. Good luck finding a copy though.