In 1986, the world's worst nuclear disaster occurred at the Chernobyl power station. Soviet authorities established a 30km 'Exclusion Zone' around this nuclear wasteland, but in 2006 a second explosion rocked the stricken reactor, obliterating all living things and causing the Zone's boundaries to ripple outwards. From this epicenter came waves of mutated creatures, deadly radiation, and a strange, anomalous energy. The Zone was cordoned off by the military, who would shoot on sight anyone foolish enough to brave the horrors within.
Grading this game is very hard. It is really difficult for a person to speak objectively of what is perhaps their favourite game ever. Age has been kind to SoC for sure, as no other game (bar its sequels and mods) has ever managed to quite match it.
It is a flawed gem of a game. Released buggy, unstable, now fixed (due to its community's love) but still unpolished and not without questionable design choices. With that being said, when it works, it is simply peerless, without an equal even 10 years later. Very few games can elicit such strong emotional reactions on almost all levels of game design as S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl.
Graphical Fidelity and Audio: Back when it came out in 2007, it was a very good looking game. The advanced weather and dynamic lighting were second to none and the sheer size of the world, combined with its AI and physics was impressive. One also has to applaud that the game had good scalability and even terrible computers could at least play it (even on potato graphics). It was very demanding and unoptimized though if one wanted to utilize higher settings. Furthermore, the game's dated animations were a bit of an issue. Outstanding 3D sound processing and the best choice of API gives it a massive edge over most games. On a somewhat unfortunate note for SoC, 2007 saw the release of Crysis, which at the time featured by far the best visual quality in almost every single aspect, as well as BioShock and Penumbra: Overture which to this day have the best sound quality of all time. Despite all that, SoC was still noteworthy, but could never claim the crown.
Presentation: Some of the best art style and ambient sound design in gaming. Fast and efficient UI design, reasonable amounts of options customization. Built like a PC game. It could have used even more guitar tracks and used more of its OST songs, but the quality here is immense. An FOV slider is missing, even if the default FOV strikes a good balance for any gamer. I want to make it clear that this score is given for the fully patched game with the Zone Reclamation Project bug fix mod. At release, SoC would have done far worse in this category, but these days it makes little sense for a first time playthrough to not use ZPR.
Storytelling: I am very mixed on what to give the game here. On the one hand it dabbles in complex, advanced themes and uses a lot of its environmental design and gameplay to accentuate them. This means it is really using gaming's potential as an art form fully and some of the mechanics of its storytelling are almost peerless within the industry. But the problem is that for all of its possible depth, for all the lore, the advanced concepts and themes, it is not efficient in telling its own main plot. Open world games have an issue with this in general, but Shadow of Chernobyl's smart secondary writing and excellent world design can not fully compensate for the rushed and unpolished main storyline.
Gameplay: One of a kind, but not without its shortcomings. Stealth is often buggy and some mechanics perhaps needed to be rethought, the "weapon ladder" used is a bit counter-intuitive to its universe. It could do with more weapon variety, as machine guns are missing entirely and so are important types of rifles and more. On the other hand, the A-Life system, the structure of its world, the game is bigger than the sum of its parts.
Lasting Appeal: Obviously Shadow of Chernobyl will score top marks here. The world is so dynamic, always changing due to the A-Life system. It is not only a long game, but offers grade A replay value. Add to said replayability the incredible, top tier modding community and you get what is for all things considered an absurd amount of content and longevity. A decent (though now abandoned) multiplayer mode is appreciated but most of its players are on the other games of the series now.
Overall - One of Gaming's brightest shining flawed gems!