The game looked great on my videocard, which I believe was forged by NVIDIA sometime during the latter part of the Bronze Age. It was choppy and the special effects were all turned off, but I still found the game to be wonderfully atmospheric and visually engaging. I can only pity the reviewer who will look at this game running in all of its high-detail glory and say, “Meh. Looks dated.”
The load times were a little long when compared to more traditional titles, but the environments were truly immense. Each region of the game is a huge, sprawling area of indoor and outdoor areas to run around in. The load times were easily worth it when compared to how much time was spent exploring each area.
There is an old saying in software development, “The first 90% of the features take up the first 90% of development time, and the last 10% of the features take up the other 90% of development time.” This is a common pitfall – particularly in young, unexperienced companies – to greatly underestimate how long a project is going to take. Development houses with clout and cash can afford to keep working until they feel a game is done, but a team of newbies being bankrolled by a publisher don’t have that luxury. Sooner or later the investors are going to tire of paying all of those salaries without getting the promised game in return, and that’s when things turn ugly. When this happens, the publisher only has three choices:
- Continue pouring money into this game, knowing every day that the game doesn’t ship makes the game that much less likely to be profitable. The cost of the game rises, the title gathers bad press, and the underlying engine gets older.
- They can kill the project. If they don’t want to risk any more money, they can withdraw their support. The developers can either attempt to finish the game without funding (exceptionally rare) or give up and go back to their old day jobs. The project vanishes, and the investors never get their money back.
- They can force the developer to ship the game as-is, bugs and all. This is the all-too-common ending for delayed titles, and it looks like this is what we got with STALKER.
(I should add that all of this glosses over the supreme difficulty of marketing a game which the developers keep promising is “six months from release”. This turns into yet another money sink if the game’s development lasts longer than the marketing campaign.)
I originally had a post in mind that would enumerate all of the outstanding bugs in the latest patch, but I think that’s beating a dead horse. The game, even five patches after release, is still glitchy and odd. It’s at least stable (for me) but it’s far from polished.
I stand by my assertion that the game is just too danged hard. I was following the conventional wisdom of tactical shooters, and I still wound up at the “You Are Dead” screen far too often. Saving every thirty seconds is not a solution. Death is an immersion killer, and “easy” difficulty should be easy. This – even more than the copious bugs I encountered – was the #1 impediment to fun with this title. Many people pointed out that they had no problems with the game. Good for you and all, but that’s beside the point. Lots and lots of people did have a tough time getting through this game. Was it the unusual gameplay? Low framerates? Bad play habits? In the end, it doesn’t matter. Some people stopped having fun, and quit. Some people (like me) pushed through anyway, despite the tedium. In both cases, this was a failure on a very basic level. The game stopped being entertaining and provided no way for a frustrated player to proceed short of rampant abuse of the save / load screen.
This isn’t a difficult problem to solve. All they need was an easier bottom skill level, a few tips for struggling players in NPC dialogs, and some basic cheat codes. It doesn’t take much, and it makes all the difference in the world. It certainly has a more profound impact on fun and enjoyment than things like making sure the edges of alpha-blended particle effects are properly antialiased. For crying out loud.
Bugs and player feedback aside, developer GSC has really caught my attention here. I like the direction they went with the dusty old amnesiac protagonist plot, and I like how they tried to smarten up first-person shooters. Let’s see if they can do it again without the bugs and punishing gameplay.
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