A gaming post, which I haven't done in a while:
The Bioshock PC demo is coming tomorrow at 7:00 EST, or so it says here. I have to say that despite my intentions to not buy any new games after STALKER and before the Orange Box, five to ten minutes of watching and reading the quite literally last-minute publicity have contrived to convince me (what advertizing doesn't?) that the game will not only be well worth its purchase price, it will be the sort of game that I want to play. My issue is that I thought the same way about STALKER, and I was completely right. Why would a seemingly good omen such as that be considered a problem? I love so much about STALKER, and yet in so many ways it simply isn't fun for me. The true root of the problem is the non-coincidence of percieved wants and actual wants.
STALKER is a game which - pardon the pun - radiates a sinister, glowing awesomeness from nearly every line of code. The high concept of a game which puts the player in the shoes of a man who presumably gave up his former life for what amounts to a radioactive gold rush is promising, to say the least. The setting, and the atmosphere are perfect, because the concept of Chernobyl is already firmly planted in the public consciousness. Add mutants, artefacts, a little amnesia...and you have a working plot, with ample opportunities for conspiracy theories, twists, revelations and the like. On top of that, add some RPG-lite features, realistic combat, and you have one delicious game concept. For the most part, STALKER succeeds in delivering on it. The levels are haunting, and yet somehow beautifful. The ambient skirmishes, campfire singers, and mutant animals make the world come alive. Radioactive anomalies keep you on your toes even when all you have to be doing is walking or running from place to place. Where it fails for me is in the combat; on regular difficulty, firefights are many-reload affairs, as I die repeatedly in the face of overwhelming numbers and firepower.
In FEAR, Far Cry, and Sin Episodes (my favourite heavy-combat FPSes), there is the thrill of the hunt. You know that in every firefight, it is imperative to kill at least once before your enemies organize to mount a unified resistance. That one kill (maybe two if you're lucky) is what you live for; alligning your crosshairs, your mind is awash in glorious anticipation. You get a bead, you hold it, you wait for the precise moment.
There was a Sound of Thunder.
And from then on, you're embroiled in a tense firefight, where you have to avoid being flanked, grenaded, squished, etc. You enjoy the artistry of the choreography after the fact, but there is no beauty in the moment. Truly, you hate the developers for what you come to love them for: making you sweat with dread. You keep playing for the thrill of getting the drop on your enemies, being the unseen Ninja who waits in the shadows to deliver supreme and utter pwnage in the controlled manner of his or her choice. What I'm really trying to say is:
In the FPS games that I enjoy playing, it is possible to kill your enemies.
Stalker isn't so good at being a game that I enjoy, you see. Even your very first firefight has you wielding a pistol alongside some other lightly armed Zone-dwellers, as you battle your way throught a wrecked building and outerworks. The enemies? Some of them are packing sawn-off shotguns! True to style, I line up a sweet headshot with my pistol's iron-sights, and
BAM. They're angry. Apparently, they don't like being shot in the face...but they're totally cool to live through the experience. Maybe my aim is off a little, maybe the gun is anemic, maybe it's how pistols actually work. Whatever the cause, it seems to be a common occurrence to find onesself outmanned and outgunned in STALKER. I want to love the game for it's realism, but at the same time don't love it because it has removed my usual 'edge'. Replaying the same firefights over and over until by chance one doesn't get completely ganked gets old faster than a blonde joke told repeatedly for all eternity by a person whose nose is plugged, and who has just had a retainer put in.
The rest of STALKER presumably plays the same way, with the enemies wearing ever-more-protective garments to counter the powerful weaponry you accumulate. Progress is not impossible by any stretch of the imagination, but at some point you just have to give up on a game if you have to TRY to have fun when you're playing it. I've just been playing some today, and I beat a pack of enemies which had defeated my every previous attempt to secure my objective. I holed up in a building, and gunned them down one by one as they entered the room seeking to kill me. It was satisfying to beat them, but not as much as if the game would have allowed me to fight them effectively while moving and using cover. Instead, crouching in a corner was the only viable strategy, because the volume of fire required to ensure a kill was great even at close range, to speak nothing of my rifle's ranged (in)accuracy.
There is always hope, however, that some enterprising modder or modders will seek to adress these issues. A co-op mod, or a "headshots actually kill enemies" mod would be examples of what I would call "good solutions". Until such a time as such solutions emerge, I think I'm going to spend my gaming time elsewhere...
Elsewhere, as in "Playing the Bioshock demo". I will append this post with a review thereof once I've had a chance to play it. It had better be worth the hour or more I've spent in the fucking fileplanet queue. If only that Bittorent download wouldn't have taken over 12 hours to finish...