Survival horror is one of those genres that confuse. The phrase is one of gaming's most evocative, but what does it actually mean? First-person shooter? You're in the first-person and you shoot. Like, obv.
Survival horror games are drawn together by an ambience rather than mechanism: isolated characters in a threatening situation, with scant resources to fend off foes. But, really, that isn't actually anything different to straight horror. The phrase 'survival horror' actually evokes the bleakness of films such as The Omega Man or 28 Days Later. Not merely the pressure chamber of Resident Evil and friends, but something where 'survival' means more than just 'the ability to put a shotgun round in a zombie's head'.
Allow me to introduce you to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.; the bravest, most futurist survival horror game since System Shock 2.
This is mainly because (punctuationectomy!) Stalker approaches the genre from a standpoint closer to what the name really implies. Yes, you bump into a few of the standards - lonely buildings, darkened corridors, a constant battle for ammunition, our old friends the living dead - but they're given a new spin. Moreover, much of the game we wouldn't even think of as survival horror - it's best described as a first-person shooter/role-playing game/survival horror hybrid, in that order. The reason I've spent this introduction blathering about it primarily as a horror game is that no matter what else you're doing, the horror is the thing that underlines the whole game. It's what makes it work. It's what makes it different.
In Stalker, you're a scavenger in the ruins of Chernobyl. Immediately, buttons are pushed. The disaster zone looms on the imagination of anyone who lived through the nuclear age. Now we can actually visit the scene of this environmental tragedy - the ruined towns are worryingly accurate - and it's as horrible as you might expect. A good kind of horrible. After all, what are videogames for, but to visit places we'd never actually want to go?
You're one of the many stalkers who live in the Zone around Chernobyl. They're not there for cheap real-estate, but to scavenge all manner of valuable artefacts. Also, in the power station's ruptured remains, there reputedly lies a monolith which will grant the wish of anyone who touches it. To that end, people are willing to hazard whatever dangers the zone can throw at them. Which is just about everything, since reality appears to be having a few problems with remaining reality at the moment. From gravitational anomalies which can crush the unwary to pulp, to packs of mutant dogs that fall upon the unwary, to the mind-wiping threats of the enormous telepathic emitters which will reduce the unwary to zombies, to... well, as you can see, be wary of being unwary.
You spend most of your time completing missions given by your fellow Zone-dwellers. These can be simple tasks of clearing out areas of bandits or delving into underground laboratories to uncover dark secrets. The latter are the backbone of the game, which further its main plot. Your particular stalker is an amnesiac, who was found with only a photo of a man and the note that you must "Kill Strelok". The plot sees you investigating your mysterious past, while clearing the various obstacles which prevent people reaching the monolith. In other words, it's a cross between Deus Ex and Fallout.
It's a game full of surprises. For the cynics - among whom, before reviewing this, I was a fully paid up member - the biggest is that it works at all. GSC Game World's plans were bordering on the hubristic. If Ion Storm had said they were trying it, we'd have still expected problems. For a relatively inexperienced team, it was almost incomprehensible that something coherent would be the final result. Its (ahem) extended development cycle is the one thing that shouldn't be a surprise at all.