Ever since the original Doom's success, multiplayer modes have seemed to be a staple in first person shooters. While I feel deathmatch, capture the flag, and all the other assorted FPS game modes are great fun, I don't believe that every single FPS inherently needs a multiplayer mode; sometimes a game is just meant for single-player, and I'm fine with that. After spending so much time running around in GSC Game World's S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl's single-player mode, I quickly became convinced that it was a game meant to deliver a solid single-player experience; unless it was done almost flawlessly, something as simplistic as deathmatch would be ignored in comparison to the game's solo mode.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. does indeed include a deathmatch mode, I'm happy to report that deathmatch--in addition to a couple of other modes--are a great deal of fun. Multiplayer options consist of deathmatch, team deathmatch, and artifact hunt, which has players racing to artifacts as they appear and returning them to their home area to score points. Before delving into the intricacies of the modes themselves, it is important to discuss a core mechanic of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s single-player mode that, thankfully, has transitioned quite well to multiplayer: realistic gameplay. If you want frantic gameplay with rocket jumps and quad damage enhancers, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is not your game. Your movement slows considerably as you take damage, and you are not able to take many hits before your health drains completely. This is a game about tactical killing, and it is as intense as you would expect it to be.
Deathmatch features mechanics that are sure to make Counter-Strike players right at home. Before a session begins, a menu displays weapon options that players can purchase using the cash they start off with. Some weapons will be unattainable for a while, but can be acquired through killing other players, which in turn earns you more cash. In addition to new weapons, you can also acquire items such as med kits, body armor, and night vision goggles. Shotguns, SMGs, rifles, rocket launchers, scopes, and silencers--a wide array of destructiveness is represented here. Casual gamers should be warned that all the guns have been designed to act and react realistically; you will feel a kick with weapons such as the shotgun. Typical FPS strategies such as circle strafing and back pedaling while shooting are also a bit more difficult to pull off; circle strafing is awkward and dizzying in real life, and the same rules apply to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
Weather effects such as thunderstorms also change battlefield parameters, so you will want to do plenty of killing in order to acquire cash so you can better outfit yourself for any given situation. You will have to mind your surroundings carefully, as bright flashes of lightning can cause havoc when wearing your night vision goggles. When combined, the weather effects and dynamic day-to-night cycles make for truly eerie gameplay; there is nothing like stalking through an abandoned factory late at night while a thunderstorm rattles the world all around you.
The single-player mode of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. features quite a bit of looting and foraging, which comes into play nicely in multiplayer. If you are killed, you lose all of your gear. What's a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. to do? Steal someone else's, of course. Armed with only your pistol, you can either try to kill another player or, if you are feeling lucky, you can hope to come across a body that has not been looted. When you are able to successfully ambush and loot another player, you tend to feel like you really worked to get that new weapon instead of simply purchasing it.
Artifact mode is much like a single-flag capture the flag mode, except that the "flag" spawns in different locations, and both teams will have to think about offense and defense at once. It is very simple in design: go to the artifact's spawn point on the map, pick it up, and bring it back to your base to score a point for your team. What makes this mode interesting are the changes in gameplay that occur. Weapons are purchased from the safety of your base, so you have ample time to decide exactly what sort of combat configurations with which to arm yourself. You will also have to work together with your allies to decide how best to split up your team. I found it useful to have a group of at least five or six head toward the artifact spawn point while others stayed behind at our base to provide assistance when the artifact retrieval squad comes barreling back home with a bunch of opposition nipping at their heels. The last group should make their way to the rival base in order to ambush our adversaries, should they be the ones that leave the spawn point with the artifact. This is the mode with which I spent the most time, and I imagine this will be the case with most gamers who partake in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s multiplayer options.
The beta provided two maps for me to stalk through: the Yantar factory, and the railroad station. Just as in the single-player game, everything in multiplayer has a dilapidated, burned-out look, which adds quite a bit to the creepiness factor when the weather is stormy and night time rears its ugly head. The level designs feature plenty of open areas with cover so that stealth is able to take a front seat. The cover areas are very well designed, especially in the factory, where potential sniping spots have several areas leading in and out. Even a good sniper won't be able to hold his position for too long, because there isn't one clear-cut way to get to him. A strategy I found particularly effective in team deathmatch was to have teammates accompany a designated sniper while he picked off the opposition. The guards would take care of anyone trying to get at the sniper while he did his dirty work.
I had a good deal of fun with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s multiplayer offerings. Deathmatch is realistic enough to offer fans of shooters such as Counter-Strike or the Rainbow Six franchise a fun time, and artifact mode is definitely worth checking out, but for my money, the real fun of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. lies in its single-player experience. The single-player is the real meat of the game, but multiplayer is engrossing enough to offer a good distraction after you've stalked and looted your way through the main game.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl will be available for the PC on March 20, 2007.