You are Major Alexander Degtyarev of the USS, tasked with recon of five military choppers that crashed in the zone - causes unknown. From Zaton, a blend of swamps and grassy rolling hills and abandoned structures dotting the landscape you will traverse to Jupiter and finally Pripyat - only three maps, but they’re larger and there’s a lot more to do and see.
The zone teems with life, and you get a nice feeling of being part of the picture, instead of a centerpiece as several small groups of stalkers can be found around campfires, exploring the zone and generally moving around oblivious to you. Mutants attack frequently, and you’ll often come across a group in trouble - do you help, or wait around for loot? The latter’s profitable, just as long as there aren’t enough mutants to take you down. Upgrading weapons and armor is very involving - you’ll be doing it a lot. Equipment is relatively cheaper and dough is easier to come by - complete side missions, sell artifacts and looted equipment. In a group, you need to be quick to loot, for other stalkers will just as soon pick a body clean - another welcome layer of realism. Exploration is rewarding, caches can contain valuables.
The side missions are really interesting and varied; some have many parts to them. Creeping through a basement full of snoozing bloodsuckers, only to return later to gas them is both scary and satisfying. Recruiting a squad to accompany you through the infested underground tunnel system to Pripyat is equally intriguing. The main storyline picks up very slowly, but the side missions and interesting parts of the maps will keep you occupied.
There are a couple of new, powerful mutants — the burer, a telekinetic, and the leaping, melee chimera.
The XRay Engine 1.6 is showing its age but intricately detailed, oft spooky environments and realistic weaponry and effects overshadow the visual blemishes. The audio component remains eerily ambient and will have you whipping around frantically. Very immersive and helluva game - a must try.