STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl was a game I admittedly went completely apeshit over in the 500,000 years leading up to it's release; this obsession included devouring every single bit of information including but not limited to downloading the hard-to-find Russian language multiplayer beta just to run around and shoot at nothing in empty servers.
And it was fucking awesome.*
Shortly thereafter, the game itself came out, I played it through within the course of maybe 3 or so weeks, and overall I was fairly sort of overall mostly happy about it. My second playthrough was the one that started de-tinting the rose-coloured eye lenses on my gas mask.
One of the first things I noticed about the game, even during my first playthrough, is that it had/has a very weird definition of "Open-world". GSC says open world and in my (maybe 15 or 16 year old) mind, I was expecting essentially an Oblivion-style world that you'd enjoy exploring as much as you'd enjoy actually playing the game. Instead the game was what I can only describe as a "big hallway in Ukraine."
It definitely had an open-world flavor, but it was far from what it tasted like. (A yuk-yuk-yuk.)
Also, the graphics. Graphics have never been a make-or-break deal in terms of games for me, but the game honestly looked like it belonged in early 2004 rather than 2007. Along with that, the long text-dialogues felt cheap; I'd rather they have made at least some exchanges have accompanying voice acting, even if it was in the mother tongue of the people. On the subject of combat, you could empty a round into a lightly-armored thief and he'd still be able to call his friends, kill you, play his guitar, and translate the Iliad in the time you were reloading. Mods were the games godsend, but I still felt dissapointed.
And then they took away the blowouts.
Essentially: hurricane + radiation + in fucking Chernobyl, these would've been awesome had they been put in the game. Not only was the concept in itself amazing, the idea of having to stop and hunker down in a house while the world went to hell outside sounded epic. Unfortunately, they were nowhere to be seen.
THIS COULD'VE BEEN A REALITY DAMMIT.
Alright, on to the good bits.
To start, the overall concept and atmosphere of the game are amazing. You'll hear what could be either a dog or one of your fellow Stalkers having their blood sucked from their throats by a cross between a bullsquid and something out of my fucking nightmares. The labs were even worse; my flashlight was more like a LED keychain in comparison to the all-encompassing darkness. The screams of mutants every 4 minutes or so didn't help. I don't play horror games, but STALKER's definitely one of the scarier games I've played if not because of just sheer atmosphere.
This coined the scientific phrase "Fuck that."
The game's unique sense of horror is also to be commended, instead of ghosts and goblins, the monsters in STALKER were all essentially man-made. The games tagline is "Man-made hell", which I love. The idea that a place like Chernobyl can be so terrifying it warrents the idea that it's something completely outside of humanity, when in actuality it all stemmed from a horribly failed experiment is an awesome concept, along with the concept of being a scavenger, survivor and mercenary in this man-made hell.
To me, STALKER is the perfect example of seriously under-appreciated and ill-used potential. I still can't nail it down to weather it's "good or bad", but either way, I seriously respect it's ability to create an atmosphere that's completely original.
* I don't know a lick of Russian, so it was as fun as expected. So it wasn't.