Ho there, Stalker. Come, buy me vodka, I will tell you proud tales of the Zone

You are a Scavenger, a Trespasser, an Adventurer, a Loner, a Killer, an Explorer and a Robber.
You are a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and that will serve you as a code to survive as one.

Realize that what you are is not necessary special. You are not the Hero of which the Prophecies have foretold His coming. Just a man who found his way to the Zone.

Now that you know this, welcome to the Zone. Welcome to the wasteland, created by the meltdown of the Chernobyl NPP in 1986.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - Shadow of Chernobyl is the first game of three in the series. The game where I begin my journey.

The setting of the game.

Let me state the historic facts upon which the idea of this game is built:
In 1986 the Chernobyl NPP (Nuclear Power Plant) near the city of Pripyat (Ukraine) became infamous after the meltdown of Reactor 4, destroying the entire plant. The fallout of which spread west across Europe, and could even be measured on the eastern shores of the American continent. The power plant is now within a large restricted area known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which will be cleared in the year 2065.

The series build upon that story. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, or simply "the Zone", is not abandoned.
Various people venture into the Zone, to recover old riches, left behind when the Zone was evacuated. And new treasures in the form of artifacts, created by the anomalies (Definition: Deviation or departure from the normal or common order, form, or rule. In this game, a deviation from the normal rules of physics) . Those people are called Stalkers. Soon the Stalkers experienced the dangers and the hostility of the Zone and they began to form factions. Factions, as we all know, don't always agree with each other. Especially in an anarchistic world as the Zone. You will see, and at some point also help, one faction battle another.

Playing the game.

To me, the survival aspects were very refreshing. And the first line of this review is actually the best way to describe that. In the Zone, you adapt or you die. Always check for things of worth, because you will need them. But the worth of an object isn't always calculated in terms of money.
At the start of the game you get some starting weapons and ammo. And after that you're on your own. The weapons at the start won't prove you much good in a firefight. They will help you defend yourself, should the need arise. But it's unwise to go out looking for a fight yourself. You can handle a few mutant blind dogs without taking too much damage.  Maybe even a few bandits, if you're careful.
As you go further in the game, you'll be able to get better equipment by doing quests or looting off of killed enemies.
But picking corpses clean like you would in many other games is not an option. Everything, even ammo, has weight. And different kind of weapons means different kinds of ammo. So you have to carefully pick what weapon you want to use and go with it. You can go over the weight carry limit, but you won't be able to run away very far when things get a little too hot.
Ammo, food, and medical consumables are of vital importance. Everything else, like precious loot, can be disposed of. So whenever you loot you need to consider how much an object could be worth when sold, or how much you need to carry that object with you.

The combat mechanism of this game is very classical. Old, but effective and fun. Each weapon has its own ballistic performance properties. "Handling" for reload times, Accuracy, Damage, Rate of fire and Condition.
And the "condition" part is what I liked least. There are no means to repair your weapons and armor. They degrade fairly quickly and jamming your weapon while you get hit brutally due to your armor condition is a real bitch in hardcore firefights. This means that the powerful weapon you may have gained as a well deserved reward will be useless over time. This forces you to go back to looting the lesser weapons off fallen enemies. Luckily there is a mod that makes repairing weapons and armor possible, but such a thing is not provided in the original game. If I were to play the game again or suggest playing the game to anyone, I would surely use that mod.

Combine these two facts and the biggest lesson I learned from this game is "Always aim for their heads, always!"
For 2 reasons.
1. Ammo is short, so use it well.
2. Especially near the end, human enemies have the most bulletproof "exoskeleton" armor. You need 2 clips of ammo (1 clip is 30 bullets) to kill them if you aim for the body. But 3-5 bullets in the head are enough to get them down.
And with the right weapon, it's not even that hard.
Be advised that all enemies, be it human or mutant, have a realistic AI. Human enemies will try to flank you and fire from cover. Blind dogs will not notice you unless you go running right past them. And when they do notice you they will attack as a pack, and not as a group of individual enemies. These examples and more to be experienced in the game make for nail-biting combat situations, and require you to save often.

All this, is experienced in a vibrant open world, divided into different regions. Taking every heard learned lesson to heart, you will explore these different places from a first-person perspective.
See factions waging their eternal war for territory and dominance over each other. Observe a group of bandits stealthily advancing to the position of a group of loners, only to be ripped to shreds by a pack of hungry mutant dogs before they even get to their destination.
While you randomly explore the wasteland, or try to get to a point of destination for a quest, you may get a call of help from the group of Loners. Calling you to help defend a position (which you helped them conquer in the first place) against a military invasion, or from being overrun by mutants.
Or simply ignore their plea, and the rewards that go with it. Be advised though that you may have to return to that location later, which is a lot easier if it isn't filled with bloodthirsty mutants.
It's a grand idea to implement such features into a single-player game, but also technically difficult. So you may encounter some bugs when trying to complete such missions. Even though these bugs don't interfere with the main story line, they have a tendency to occasionally break the immersion of the game.

When it comes to the story of your character the game remains vague. I started this review with the main setting and history that give form to the game. And these aspects are pretty up front. But as far as the fictional part of the story goes, throughout the game you get little to nothing of an idea who you are, why you're there, what the Zone actually is or what is causing all the anomalous activity. I would have liked a bit more depth in the game, story wise. But then again you could also just accept that part of the game will always be a mystery.

Graphical presentation

I find this the most difficult part to review, which is why I kept it for last. The game was released in 2007, so it would be unfair to judge its graphics by today's standards. When I take a quick look at the games released in 2007, I see the graphical titan "Crysis" in the list, but also games that provided graphical eye-candy. Such as "Mass Effect" and the "Shivering Isles" DLC to TESIV: Oblivion. So when I compare the graphics of this S.T.A.L.K.E.R.-game to those I must say it falls a bit behind. Then again, even in the year 2013 where I have grown accustomed to the graphics of games such as Far Cry 3, this shortcoming is barely noticed while actually playing the game. You will also be pleased to know that there are a variety of mods available that improve the graphics of this game.

I had no idea what I was getting into with this game. It plunged me into a cold and unforgiving world. I completed it in 15 hours and was left with the same dreary, bitter feeling one gets after finishing a good book. To me that constitutes as the flavour of a great success. I highly recommend this game, especially to those who are on a budget, and are looking for a more mature apocalyptic gaming experience than Fallout 3 or Fallout New Vegas.

Much gratitude to Power5 who convinced me to start playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

Think this is scary? Wait till he turns himself invisible.