Unwelcome to the Zone

Talking of STALKER, a while ago I wrote about my ridiculous experience starting STALKER: Call of Pripyat for the first time and never got round to publishing it, so for no particular reason other than that here it is:

Which way to the Bureau de Change?You can tell a lot about a game by the way it chooses to introduce itself.  That Call of Pripyat begins with a brief video history of the game’s location ‘the Zone’ in which a narrator reads different information to that which pops up in the subtitles before being cut-short mid-sentence to drop you in the game itself tells you all you need to know:  It’s interesting, complex, confusing and…Bugged.  With an intentional capital B.

But in case you were worried I was judging a book by its cover let me describe my first 5 minutes with the game before I make a final verdict!:

At least I can't see any cratesIntro over you find yourself dropped into that warm, familiar FPS viewpoint: gun in bottom right corner, health bar in bottom left corner, map in top-left corner.  Ahh.  A First-Person shooter.  I think I know what to do from here.  I find myself in a clearing in a grove of malnourished trees.  Radioactive clouds hang overhead, threatening radioactive rain, and somewhere in the distance a creature groans.  Thus begins my journey.

Walking out of a gap in the trees I begin to wander aimlessly into the expanding horizon in front of me.  Nervously (this game has monsters in it, apparently)  I venture through the undergrowth.  Shrubs and bushes obscure my view as I part branches aside.  Suddenly stepping out of the tall undergrowth, no more than 10 feet ahead, 3 armed men appear!

Christ!  How do I aim!?

They don’t appear to have noticed me, yet they’re looking right at me.  Should I shoot?

Wait!  It’s ok!  They must be friendlies.  I shall go speak to them.  Maybe this Zone isn’t so scary after all.

Bumbling up to the 3 men to ask for directions I can’t quite shake the feeling that something is amiss.  As I approach to within conversational distance one of the men, presumably the leader, suddenly raises his rifle without provocation, aims straight at my head (Aieee!) and demands “Put your gun away!”.

Oh!  He wants me to put my gun away!  That’s a reasonable request.  My mother always said don’t talk to strangers who come walking out of bushes holding a gun.

“Certainly, sir.”  I look down at my keyboard perplexed.  Put gun away…Hmmm…’H’ key for ‘holster weapon’, surely? 

I press ‘H’.

Nothing happens.

My nervous smile obviously doesn’t filter through to the game as the other men in the group raise their guns aswell.  One starts to circle around to my side, out of view, always looking down the barrel of his gun, always looking at my HEAD down the barrel of his gun.

“Please, don’t worry gentlemen, I just need to find the holster key and I will of course comply with your request.”

I pause the game and bring up the control options.  Holster….Holster….  I can’t find any keys referring to holstering a gun.

Hmmm.  Perhaps if I walk right up to him a ‘use’ option will appear and we’ll enter a conversation and I’ll automatically put my assault rifle away?  That must be it.

Returning to the game I stride the last few steps so I am touching distance from the man who first accosted me.  No options appear on screen but from my research of the control options I know ‘F’ is the use key.

I press ‘F’.

The man backs away a step.

“DROP YOUR WEAPON!”, he barks again.  And in the game (or was it in my head?) I hear the sound of safety catches being released.

Gulp.

Wait!  Of course!  I’ve got it!  I know the weapon keys are 1-9, maybe one of the ‘weapons’ is no weapon at all.  I’ll just need to cycle through and find the right one!  Easy.

And so, this is why, encircled by 3 rifle wielding, angry as hell, half starved, possibly drunk, definitely crazy, frightening men, I begin to brandish first a knife, then a pistol, then my assault rifle again (all the while staring straight at the man no more than a metre in front of me), then a GRENADE!  Then a pair of binoculars!?  All the while the tension between myself and the 3 angry men is growing to the point that I’m almost ready to shoot myself just to get it over with.  When suddenly, completely accidentally, I hit the binocular key again leading me to hide my binoculars away.

Phew!

The tension blows away with my sigh.  Their guns are lowered, they walk up to me again and before I can think ‘Why were they scared of binoculars!?’ those magic words appear on the screen:

Press ‘F’ to talk.

Ah.

‘F’

“Hello there stranger, how can we help you?”

“Um, could you tell me where the nearest hotel is please?”

“Why certainly: just carry on in the direction you’re headed, turn right at the irradiated school bus, go through the mutant infested swamp, over the hill and head for the derelict ship we call home.  Inside you’ll find a bar, free beds, gun and armour repair and lots of friendly faces.”

“Oh, thanks very much.”

“You’re welcome.  You take care now!”

“Um, you too.  Cheerio!”

“Bye, Bye.”

And so in the opening 5 minutes Call of Pripyat reveals itself:  Frightening, tense and baffling, but ultimately very rewarding once you get your head round it all (and you learn how to put your gun away).

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