French journalists in the aisle of the coach, unidentified meat substances, hookers and dancing girls: when you're invited on a trip to the Ukraine to see the latest build of STALKER, it's not just radiation that you have to worry about.
And so, after a day wandering around the run-down buildings of eerie Pripyat (the now-deserted town that housed most of Chernobyl's workers) while trying not to disturb the patina of radioactive dust that coats everything, we were at last treated to some hands-on play, back in GSC's less-contaminated offices.
Visually, STALKER is still a looker, and although it's not the jaw-dropper that it was two years ago, the blasted landscape littered with decrepit husks of buildings and deserted vehicles still provides a spookily atmospheric setting. To start, we investigated a mini-town set in the middle of the zone where stalkers congregate to seek lodging, find work, trade and bet on the arena. Dead animals littered the entrance way, shot by a bunch of stalkers guarding the entrance.
A stroll around town revealed other groups of stalkers, each wearing their own distinctive outfits, converged around fires in ramshackle buildings, patrolling the complex and frequenting the bar, while an elite group hung out in their own private camp within the grounds.
Another level saw us infiltrating the streets of Pripyat along with an allied group of stalkers. As the team advanced down the deserted streets, enemy soldiers opened fire from windows, rooftops and side-streets. The few ground troops used cover to their advantage, hiding behind vehicles only to pop out and take shots at anyone venturing into the open.
A few anomalous areas were visible, sending up strange sparks as a visual warning, while the fully-modeled buildings enabled a spot of stealthy sneaking through the ruined interiors to get closer to my destination. The last scene saw a settlement of allied stalkers calling for help after being attacked by the military.
Arriving on the scene and taking out any soldiers via heavy use of any cover, I came across one guy cowering in a stairwell, who led me to an underground entrance. After descending into the darkness, I was confronted with tense close-quarters combat, some green-glowing anomalous zones and after a bit of exploring, one of the now famous, and also pretty tough, tentacle-mouthed mutants.
When STALKER was first announced, the things that really piqued our interest were its ambitious aims, the freeform gameplay and realistic AI. But over the years, many features have been dropped, the AI's been scaled back and the levels that we played through appeared to be disappointingly scripted, although how much this applies to the whole game is still unclear. The massive selection of weaponry was also fiddly, and trying to sort out the correct ammo often proved my downfall in the midst of a firefight.
While STALKER may yet prove itself to be a unique and impressive addition to the FPS genre, the fact we still haven't got to play through any freeform content (one of the game's most touted features) is a bit worrying. Will STALKER's unique gameplay remain intact or has it now mutated beyond all recognition?