You Won't Want To Get Out Of Here, Stalker.
Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl is evidence that a small developer can make a big name for itself with the right product. Launched in 2007, Shadow of Chernobyl lays the tale of a world in which the Chernobyl power plant has exploded a second time, causing a zone to appear in its surrounding areas. Despite a military block, treasure hunters entered the zone in search of whatever was not bolted down, discovering artifacts of unknown origin. You play as The Marked One, a Stalker who wakes with amnesia, having been rescued by a local merchant.
In its most base form, Stalker is a relatively familiar role playing game. You travel from area to area on a main "quest" that brings you in line with optional side-missions to obtain more money and buy/acquire better armor and weapons. Your weapons carry stats for handling, accuracy, firepower, etc, while your armor preference will juggle between bullet stopping, anomaly protection, and radiation. Everything carries a durability meter that decreases with use, causing the equipment's stats to drop with it. There is no way to repair your equipment without mods, so don't expect to find the best stuff in the game and ride with it.
Your inventory is managed Diablo-style, with items taking up slots based on how large they are, along with a weight restriction on how much you can carry. Everything weighs you down, except for cash. Your PDA, which you start the game with, keeps track of your contacts, diary entries, quest log, and more. Although the game features quite an extensive encyclopedia, I never found myself looking through it. Due to a bug, the "marked as read" resets every time you close the PDA, and I lost track of what I hadn't looked at.
The first glaring issue you'll notice in Stalker is the weapons: They are terrible, but this spawns out of lack of reliability and poor design choices. At best, your gun will shoot like Rambo, taking out bandits left and right with precision and pinpoint accuracy. At worst, you'll pump an entire clip of your pistol into said bandit's head at close range, only to have none of the shots appear to register, and have him turn around and kill you in one hit while you reload. I don't know if this is a design flaw or if it is intentional to convey the quality of the weapons being used, but it is the most aggravating part of the game. Your gun also jams at the worst possible time, requiring a quick reload before you can continue firing.
In addition to guns and armor, you will come across artifacts on your journey. Up to five can be equipped at any time, although odds are you will sell the grand majority as easy money, and they carry various stat effects like +3% bulletproof, or +38 Endurance, generally at the cost of radioactivity. You can use artifacts to offset radioactivity or armor with high radiation rate, as well as medicine found throughout the game. If you allow your radioactivity to increase too high, you will become sick and die.
But enough about that, Stalker looks beautiful. The landscape is a lot of brown on brown, but the areas you will travel through are memorable, detailed, and well thought out. The lighting system is amazing, especially during the day-night transitions, which occur in real time. The inhabitants around you live their own lives, ala Oblivion, with A.I programmed to fit goals and needs, but this is something you need to see to understand. The A.I system isn't a noticeable feature if you are just running around. In addition to sight, the game also lays a heavy hand on ambiance. Your peaceful trip through the forest just wouldn't be the same without dogs howling in the distance, or some other mutated animal growling at you from some high grass.
And Stalker is part horror, this should be pointed out. Not F.E.A.R style horror, but closer to Amnesia, where the atmosphere and sound build a tense world. You'll come across more than just bandits, military, and other Stalkers, but why spoil the surprise? Alright, one of the creatures are gun-wielding zombies.
Expect to not understand what half of the characters are saying. You will learn everything you need to know via text, and English dialog, but a lot of the less important voice recordings were never translated to English, offering the game a rather interesting sense of realism. The characters speak casually in their native language, and the road signs are not translated, so from a lore point of view it isn't out of the question that the Marked One speaks English, which the other characters accommodate when necessary.
Shadow of Chernobyl costs $20 on Steam, oddly enough making it more expensive than its sequels. If you haven't played it, pick it up. You can usually find Shadow of Chernobyl on sale whenever Steam is doing a big promotion. My biggest issue with the game is that it seems to fall apart around the end, losing any semblance that the game is trying to be fair by inserting enemies with guns that will one-shot kill you from a distance, packing a lot of soldiers in a tight spot so that when you enter the room you are immediately gunned down, etc.
Stalker is frustrating, but in a good way.