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The GoodInhabited Island is a first-person shooter by the Russian developer Orion, whose games Hellforces and The Stalin Subway I played before and didn't particularly like. I decided to give this one a try because I'm a huge fan of Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky's work. In my opinion the brothers' sci-fi novels are essential classics of the genre, sadly underappreciated in the West (alongside the magnificent Stanisław Lem) because of their behind-the-Iron-Curtain origin. I particularly love their Noon Universe cycle of novels, among those the one this game was based on (it was translated into English as Prisoner of Power).
Well... it's good that they tried. The atmosphere of the game works sometimes, especially in the beginning, when you are treated to bleak views of hostile electric devices, decayed brownish-orange ground, sad falling autumn leaves, and almost-Soviet statues towering over the landscape. After a while it gets old, especially since you'll be spending most of the game in the same kind of setting. Still, I have few complaints about the way the game was conceived visually. There is still something oddly appealing in the way the game's world is presented, and you want to stay in it until the gameplay forces you to quit.
The BadSadly, this game succeeds neither as a first-person shooter nor as a representation of Strugatsky brothers' novel. Let's start with the second and make it clear right away: nearly nothing of what there was to love in the excellent novel has been preserved here. The developers lazily based the whole game on one insignificant episode of Maxim Kammerer's grand adventure: his imprisonment in the "educational" camp. His whole story hitherto is summarized in a few sentences. Nothing worthy of mention really happens in the game: it's one plot-devoid mission after another, with feeble sub-plots that don't even fit the novel's tone well. Forget all those intense battles, escapes, urban exploration, travels to exotic lands that took place in the novel: there is nothing of this sort here. There is only the bland camp and its surrounding landscape.
Worse, however, is the fact Inhabited Island utterly fails as a FPS. For an inexplicable reason, the designers decided to base the entire gameplay on one feature: disabling electronic devices. At first, this sounded exciting. But when you realize that the whole game consists of deactivating those turrets and automatic tanks, you begin to crave for some normal gameplay. The game's pace is completely ruined by the infuriating mission objectives that require you to disable electronic devices over and over again. It's not optional: it's the meat of the gameplay, an activity that will require much more time and effort from you than shooting baddies.
It gets even worse: there are a lot of those electronic devices in every level. And you'll have to turn them all off, no exceptions. So basically, each mission begins with the painful "disable all electronic devices" words hanging in your mission log. You won't participate in exciting firefights and save the day by gunning down the military forces of the Unknown Fathers. No, you'll be playing a sort of a crappy "sapper simulation", walking around from place to place and destroying those stupid turrets by simply running behind them and clicking on an icon. You can easily imagine how it ends: a tremendous amount of backtracking through empty places, being forced to run around through large, but structureless levels, looking for that last damn turret in a corner that wasn't even bothering you in the first place. But no, you have to deactivate it, because the game says so. All the turrets. In every mission, every time.
The ground is always covered by mines. I liked that in the beginning, because I thought it would add tension to the gameplay. But seriously: all the levels are covered by mines, which are everywhere. They are hard to spot and they kill you instantly. So you can't even run to those damn electronic devices freely, because you get blown up repeatedly, consistently. It's "run till you step on a mine, reload, repeat as many times as there are mines on your way".
When you aren't engaging yourself in the aforementioned activities, you'll meet some rare, pitiful, annoying respawning enemies with zero AI and zero appeal as FPS enemies. The shooting doesn't feel right, much worse in fact than in Orion's previous games. It's like they didn't even try this time. They also implemented an idiotic "all-around" weapon system: basically, you just have one (!) weapon, but if you have the right ammo you press a weapon-changing key, and viola - your machine gun has just turned to a grenade launcher, that looks and feels exactly the same! Innovative FPS feature? No, sir: extreme laziness in design!
The amount of bugs and bad programming is staggering. Trust me, Sabotain looks like a perfectly-tested exercise in smooth mission design and enemy AI compared to this one. A particularly awful mission comes to mind: you have to accompany a geologist, disabling all the mines and all the electronic devices in a huge level. All of them. It doesn't matter if they weren't even in her way - you have to. However, once I cleared the path one time, the geologist ran forward, tripped on a stone, fell down, and died. Game Over. I swear I'm not making that up. She died from a collision with a stone, one that wasn't even big enough to reach her ankles - she tripped over it and died. Yeah, it sounds funny, but not when you are actually trying to finish the mission. Then it doesn't feel funny any more.
The Bottom LineI was prejudiced in this game's favor before I even started playing. I love the source material and I have an incurable weakness to weird, awkward post-Soviet FPSs. But the reality of Inhabited Island hit me hard. It's weird in a bad way, a FPS based on one boring, irritating gameplay feature, dreary and unexciting, worse than Orion's previous products that at least functioned as run-of-the-mill representatives of the genre.
So far, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games remain the closest thing to properly envisioning at least a facet of Strugatsky's oeuvre. And to think that Inhabited Island, with its action-loaded story and generous setting, would have been the perfect playground for a great game! Massaraksh!!..