Note: this post was originally published on June 15, 2018 on my old blog. I am reposting it here (with some edits) for three reasons, in no particular order of importance:
1. It’s one of the very few pieces I’ve written that I’m close to being somewhat satisfied with;
2. It gives some context to another upcoming post on this site, and;
3. I’m super lazy and feel zero shame in reusing old content. Enjoy!
Before I get into this article proper, I have a confession to make.
I did not enjoy S.T.AL.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl.
I suspect this will have been sufficient for most hardcore S.T.A.L.K.E.R. aficionados to have stopped reading right then and there. Then again, maybe not: after all, you need to have some perseverance to play those games. I know I did, at least.
First off, a bit of context. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl came out over a decade ago, in late 2007. It is based on the 1972 Russian novella Roadside Picnic, which itself inspired the classic 1979 film Stalker.
The novella deals with the aftermath of an alien visitation, which left several areas (dubbed “Zones”) affected by dangerous, reality-defying anomalies (for instance, random spots of amplified gravity that will abruptly crush you into a pancake, should you walk into one). The Zones have been evacuated and cordoned off, but men dubbed “stalkers” still sneak in illegally to hunt for “artifacts” – remnants of the alien visitation with strange and often wondrous properties.
The film doesn’t really get into all that, and instead features three men – a professor and a writer, accompanied by a stalker, no names given – who venture into the zone in search of a legendary wish-granting room at its centre, and do some soul-searching along the (very uneventful, almost 3-hour-long) way.
As for the games, they seem to lean more on the book for inspiration, except that there is only one Zone (the real-life Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine), and no aliens: the Zone’s anomalies and artifacts were instead spawned from a mysterious second explosion at the power plant in 2006.
Disclaimer: I had never heard of either the book or the film when I first got the game. All I knew is that it was an open-world, first-person shooter with survival horror elements, terrifying mutants and warring factions, set around the derelict Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
I was fresh off Far Cry 2, and this seemed like a logical next step. This, I thought, was going to be awesome.
Every aspect of the game seemed… clunky. To be fair, Shadow of Chernobyl had a long, uneasy development process, having been first announced in 2001, and as such seemed dated even for a 2007 game. While graphics were mostly OK for its time, I found the character models hopelessly bland and ugly (the fact that the game doesn’t feature any kind of character selection/customization didn’t help).
Where I had expected a vast open-world (well, open-ish) à la Far Cry 2, instead there were interconnected “maps”, with an immersion-breaking message popping up every time I reached one of the numerous level transitions.
There was no tutorial of any kind either, which I generally consider a good thing since I dislike excessive handholding and like to discover a game on my own, but S.T.A.L.K.E.R. pulled no punches: With no clear idea of what I was doing or where I was going, I stumbled into anomalies, not understanding what they were, and got ripped to shreds by monsters I didn’t see coming.
The gunplay was horrendous, with me unloading entire clips into enemies at point-blank range, only to miss. You see,
I didn’t know at the time that the game’s difficulty level impacts gun accuracy: lower difficulty (on which I played) means more arbitrary missed shots for both you and your enemies (your aim might have been spot on, but the bullet just won’t connect), whereas higher difficulties lead to more realistic gunfights, with more accurate shots and all characters – including you – having the durability of a wet paper bag: it’s harsh, but fair. I was ill-informed about the game’s mechanics, and, in my frustrated state, prone to trusting oft-repeated but false information I found online.
In retrospect, my mistake was having built up immense expectations from a glance at the style and genre of the game, while not having bothered to research the game itself. Had I known ahead of time about the separate hub levels and shooting mechanics, I would likely have approached the game very differently, been more patient with it, and probably enjoyed it a lot more. This being said, I do intend to give Shadow of Chernobyl another shot. Eventually.
Heeding the Call of Pripyat
Despite my initial disappointment with Shadow of Chernobyl, I wasn’t ready to give up on the franchise. It seemed impossible to me that I could actually dislike a survival horror FPS, and I desperately wanted to love S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
So I did a bit of research, and read about Shadow of Chernobyl’s allegedly best sequel: Call of Pripyat. There was also a second game in the series, Clear Sky, though most reviews seemed to indicate that it was the inferior one out of all three games, and so Call of Pripyat it was.
Despite the game supposedly being polished enough to run fine without bug-fixing mods (as opposed to the previous two), I installed the Arsenal Overhaul Mod, which added 13 new guns to the game, because FUCK YEAH, GUNS. I also installed Atmosfear and the Flora Overhaul mod, which improved some of the graphics and weather.
I started the game. Again, no tutorial., and no real explanation as to what was going on, save for a single mission objective:
I ran down the road toward said objective, and came upon some buildings – a mist-shrouded lumber camp. There were people there, dressed in military fatigues and carrying guns: other stalkers, I assumed. Except that there was something wrong with the way they moved, lurching around.
Curious, I approached the closest figure just enough to see its grotesque face, frozen in an agonizing grimace. It had spotted me by then, of course, and though I managed to kill it with a shotgun blast, its compatriots – firing wildly, yet with surprising accuracy – tore me apart in a hail of gunfire.
I started again, this time making sure to hit the quicksave button before venturing close to the zombies. Slowly – I lost count of the times I was killed and had to hit the quickload key – I picked them off one by one, scavenging guns and ammunition off their corpses as I went. I let out a victorious cry when I finished clearing the camp, and promptly set upon searching the place for equipment and supplies.
My victory was short-lived, however. Moments later, an air raid siren was heard and a voice spoke up on my radio: “An emission is approaching, take cover.” I had no idea what an emission was, but the game made it obvious it wasn’t good: thunder rumbled in the distance, and the sky turned an unnatural blaze orange.
I started running to the safe spot highlighted on the map, but all of those scavenged guns were weighting me down: my character got winded after only a few steps. I desperately started to unload my inventory, and saw what looked like a rolling, exploding cloud of dust, fast approaching. Too late: within moments I was caught in the fiery cloud, and died. For the umpteenth time, a message appeared across my screen: Such is life in the Zone.
No matter. I hit the quickload button once more.
I was hooked.
There were a lot of things in Call of Pripyat that worked for me. Right off the bat, the interface felt much more intuitive, and the gunplay was a lot smoother than in Shadow of Chernobyl. Everything looked better – though perhaps only on account of the installed mods – and there were only three “hubs”, though these were much larger than any of the maps in Shadow of Chernobyl, making the world feel more open.
My only gripe is that there were no “natural” transitions between levels: instead, I had to hire guides, who’d essentially teleport me to another map. Still, this didn’t detract very much from the gameplay, and was in fact a blessing since the guides always teleported me to a trading post, making it easier to buy equipment and supplies.
In short, Call of Pripyat was pretty much everything I had expected from a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game. I spent hours playing through side quests, or even just wandering around killing and butchering mutants, shooting and looting bandits, hunting for artifacts, and generally having a grand time (all the while keeping a finger near the quickload key). I was lost to the Zone countless times, but I always found myself coming back for more.
I was ecstatic: I had finally found my perfect S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game.
Or so I thought.
The Irresistible Call of Chernobyl
While I was
playing obsessing over Call of Pripyat, I became aware of a mod, more of a fan game, really, titled Call of Chernobyl. The concept was simple enough: Call of Chernobyl was an amalgamation of the maps from all three official games of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise, all brought together in one package, with Call of Pripyat‘s updated gameplay mechanics.
It was basically the ultimate S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game, and it was exactly what I wanted. Call of Chernobyl (hereafter referred to as “CoC”, because I’m going to be writing about this game a lot, and I’m lazy) was mostly standalone, requiring only a copy of Call of Pripyat to work. I promptly downloaded and installed it, threw some more mods on top of it (GUNS!), and played. And played. And played some more.
Above all else, what CoC gave me (that was missing from the official games) was customization. Sure, the characters were still all men dressed in military fatigues and gas masks, but now I got to name my character, choose my faction, and pick the profile picture I wanted. It was admittedly not much, but it still added a very welcome roleplay aspect to the game.
Each faction has their own base and specific relationship with other factions, which can make the game easier or harder depending on what you choose (some of the less popular factions, IE Bandits, will make the best use of those gun mods by getting you shot at a whole lot). There’s even a secret Zombie faction (accessible by pressing “Z” on the faction selection menu)!
Best of all is the plethora of mods available for CoC, which enhance the experience even more. Heck, the game’s official page even states that the idea was to create a sandbox, and let players add whatever they want.
My personal favourite is the Roadside Picnic Addon, which contains a collection of modifications, such as the aforementioned Arsenal Overhaul. There’s also “Enhanced HUD”, which has the nifty effect of superimposing whatever helmet/mask you’re wearing over the camera for a more realistic first-person approach. Sure, the powered armour with integrated gas mask lets you tank a few hits, but it also puts an annoying filter over your vision.
As opposed to Call of Pripyat, where I always found myself going for the best possible armour, the Enhanced HUD effects led me to stick to lighter armour and a simple respirator in CoC, in order to have unimpeded vision. Again, it doesn’t sound like much, but it really added to my experience with the game.
Another highlight was Dynamic Faction Relations, which added an element of unpredictability to the game, as a friendly faction could become hostile at the drop of a hat and vice-versa. In fact, I’d say that unpredictability is one of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s strongest suits in general. I previously expressed admiration for game that doesn’t care about the player in my Far Cry 2 review, but S.T.A.L.K.E.R. takes that mindset to its logical extreme: NPC stalkers can and will do pretty much the same things as you. They’ll roam the game world, kill and butcher mutants (or sometimes get butchered by mutants), go artifact hunting, engage in epic firefights against other stalker factions, etc. Things will happen regardless of whether or not you intervene and as such, you really never quite know what you’ll stumble into.
It wasn’t uncommon for me to cross paths with a pair of travelling stalkers, assist them in fighting off mutants or members of a hostile faction, and find them again later on, still alive and on the other side of the game world. Sometimes, they weren’t that lucky, and I’d encounter another, random stalker wielding a custom weapon I’d traded them, presumably looted off their corpse. Fun fact: While your character is limited to 50 KG of gear before becoming over encumbered, the NPCs have no such limit. As such, for the unscrupulous stalker, killing “recurring” characters may lead to obtaining a veritable treasure trove of accumulated weapons and artifacts.
I admire the way the creators of Call of Chernobyl managed to fit every single level into a somewhat coherent world map. If I have to nitpick, some of the transitions between areas do seem a little odd (IE, a closed garage door leading to a forest trail), but given that there were essentially no “natural” transitions at all in Call of Pripyat anyway, I’m more than willing to forgive this. My only other nitpick would be the lack of a proper “main quest”; the mod does sort of provide a basic retelling of Shadow of Chernobyl, but it’s very bare-bones and honestly not all that engaging. I had the most fun just running around doing side quests, collecting weapons and artifacts, and exploring the maps. To be fair, though, the same could be said of almost every other open-world game I ever played.
Really, I struggle to find anything bad to say about CoC. The replay value is phenomenal thanks to being able to play a different faction every time, and I’m not even getting into Ironman Mode (which deletes your save file upon death, making the game that much more tense) or Azazel Mode (which has you respawn as a random Stalker after you die). The only thing that made me sad is that the Zombie Survival mode doesn’t work at all for me – the game inevitably freezes moments after starting a game. I can’t tell whether the fault rests on the game itself or on my hardware, but at least everything else works just fine, with minimal crashes.
Speaking of crashes, they were generally few and far between. One thing I omitted to mention is that STALKER games aren’t known for their stability. However, CoC has generally been kind to me in that regard. The game did inexplicably stop working at one point, but that was easily fixed by reinstalling CoC (after spending half an hour swearing at the top of my lungs, obviously) – the save files were unaffected, and I was able to continue my playthrough as if nothing had happened.
I couldn’t say exactly how many hours I spent on CoC. Certainly it was much more than on Call of Pripyat, and likely more than most games I played in recent years. I was exaggerating when I wrote that I obsessed over Call of Pripyat, but it would be accurate to say that I did obsess over CoC: it motivated me to purchase (and read and watch) both the book and the film that inspired the games. I don’t think my wife has forgiven me yet for convincing her to watch Stalker with me.
While CoC very adequately scratched my S.T.A.L.K.E.R. itch, I remained on the lookout for other, similar experiences. I had spent quite some time reading up “Top mods” lists – that was how I’d found CoC in the first place. There was another mod that often found its way onto those lists, and piqued my interest: Lost Alpha.
Purportedly a fan remake of the “original” build of Shadow of Chernobyl before its content was cut and condensed into the final, released game, Lost Alpha promised much larger maps and the restoration of cut features, such as a new faction and drive-able vehicles. That last one was particularly intriguing to me, as I wondered if the addition of vehicles would bring the gameplay closer to something like Far Cry.
SPOILER ALERT: It did not.
The first thing I have to say about Lost Alpha is that it looks good. Assuming you have a hefty enough computer to run its maximum graphic settings, it looks much better than any other S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game to date.
However, even though the environments got a massive overhaul, the character and monster models are mostly unchanged, save for some minor-yet-admittedly-neat details. For instance, human characters now show damage when shot at, and look bloodied when dead. Some mutants now have glowing white eyes, which doesn’t really do much except make them a bit spookier (albeit easier to spot) in dark areas.
There is a mod that adds fancier character models, which I installed since I find it perfectly fits Lost Alpha’s equally fancy aesthetic. Sadly there’s no equivalent yet for the monster models, though if you see one at close enough range to make out its blocky, early 2000’s-era polygons, you’re likely already dead.
As for the game itself, well, it was kind of a mixed bag. Yes, the maps are positively huge, which in theory lends itself to a more “open world” experience. It was fun to revisit areas I knew from previous games, only to find them much expanded in scope, and often with completely new geography. I really had a sense that reaching the heart of the Zone would be a long, epic trek.
And after a while, it does become just that: long. Though the expanded maps are impressive, backtracking can very quickly become a huge chore. Thankfully, the latest version of the game (as of June 2018) features a “fast travel” system similar to Call of Pripyat, where you hire guides who’ll take you to other areas for a fee. The problem is that said fee is pretty darn steep in the early game, and so you’ll often end up having to travel the old-fashioned way anyway. One would think that being able to drive vehicles would solve that problem, except that the vehicles are a problem in and of themselves. In fact, there’s three main problems:
1. Vehicles are prohibitively expensive, at least early on – there’s technically a couple free ones to be found around the game world, but you have to either know where they are, or wait for a mission that gives you one.
2. I found driving controls to be very twitchy, and car physics are… wonky, as if the vehicle doesn’t have any weight to it. I hear that this has been mostly fixed in the latest version (IE, the one I played), and if so, I dread to imagine what vehicles were like in the older versions of the game.
3. Even if you do find a vehicle and manage to drive in a straight line, that straight line will likely carry you straight into the game over screen: intact stretches of road are few and far between except for a few select “driving maps”, and even those tend to be fraught with obstacles and anomalies that will quickly tear your vehicle apart, or send it careening into the stratosphere.
As such, I mostly found vehicles to be more trouble than they were worth, and stuck to travelling on foot. IMO, the only real advantage to a car was being able to store your loot in the trunk and thus carry far more than you should be able to, but all of that loot is lost when the car is (inevitably) destroyed. No thanks.
The rest of the gameplay was generally similar to other S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, with a few new elements thrown in. For instance, the game now tracks thirst and fatigue as well as hunger, which I thought was a nice touch (CoC only took hunger into account, with an optional sleep requirement). Vodka could be used to lower your radiation levels in the previous games, whereas in Lost Alpha it does nothing for radiation and only “heals” psionic damage. Incidentally, I only found this out by checking online, as I thought for the longest time that Lost Alpha vodka (three different brands of it, to boot!) did absolutely nothing except make the screen blurry.
I’ve read a lot of reviews saying that the voice acting is horrible, and the story laughable (something to do with Illuminati in the Zone). I wouldn’t know, because I installed the patch that replaces all spoken dialogue with the Russian version, without subtitles: problem solved! (To be fair, most of the important exposition was delivered through conversing with characters, whose – silent – dialogue was translated to English)
Even with the Russian patch, though, the recording quality was uneven at best, with voices sometimes being completely drowned out by ambient noise. Not that it really mattered to me. In fact, not paying all that much attention to cutscenes probably made me enjoy the game more: cinematics are NOT this game’s forte. If you don’t mind spoilers and want a good laugh, please watch this video to see what I mean.
There were also quite a few lines of written dialogue that either contained pretty blatant grammar mistakes, or were completely nonsensical – presumably being direct translations from Russian. It didn’t bother me all that much, but like the rough cutscenes, it did detract from the game’s otherwise professional presentation. On that note, Lost Alpha was the most stable S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game for me. In about a month or so of playing through it, I don’t remember it ever crashing on me, so it’s definitely solid on that end.
The new faction was… OK, I guess. I didn’t really care either way, since the one interesting new element they introduced to the story (forbidden human experimentation) was counterbalanced by thoroughly annoying fetch quests. It probably didn’t help that the faction resided deep inside a convoluted, labyrinthine network of disused mines (a recurring issue with the game, in fact – a larger world is nice and all, but did ALL underground areas have to be remade into sprawling mazes?)
Speaking of factions though, I had to shake off some old habits from CoC: specifically, enemy stalkers don’t necessarily attack you on sight in this game. I had a bad tendency to start shooting as soon as my cursor turned red (indicating a member of a hostile faction), and thus made my first run much harder than it needed to be, by needlessly antagonizing stalkers who would have left me alone otherwise. In fact, many missions have you cooperate with “enemy” factions, which I suppose wouldn’t have surprised me if I’d actually played through Shadow of Chernobyl.
This being said, a few design choices had me scratching my head, especially in regards to the Monolith faction. In a nutshell, the Monolith are brainwashed stalkers who fanatically defend the center of the Zone and are utterly homicidal toward all other factions. Except that in Lost Alpha, they are strangely chill, hanging out with bandits and allowing you on their territory if you accept to pay them. They need the cash for their top-of-the-line equipment, I guess? I don’t know if this was originally intended in the early versions of Shadow of Chernobyl, but it was a very jarring departure from the Monolith I knew from the other games.
However, Lost Alpha‘s most glaring issue is, in my opinion, its AI. I’m not talking about enemy tactics and such (even though those still leave much to be desired), but rather about the unpredictability I raved about in CoC. In Lost Alpha, NPC stalkers are limited to set bases and patrol routes. You won’t see them out in the world, exploring or artifact hunting, or picking fights with enemy factions and mutants. That’s a crying shame, because the expanded maps are just begging to be populated with random encounters and situations. As it is, the maps are mostly empty space, which, to be fair, is faithful to the book and movie, but really doesn’t work all that well in a video game, let alone a first-person shooter.
All in all, I must say I enjoyed Lost Alpha. It wasn’t perfect, but it had enough to keep me interested until the end of the main quest. Admittedly the best thing about it – aside from the gorgeous graphics – is that it’s completely standalone, and free to download. On that count alone, I think it’s an impressive offering that deserves to be checked out at least once.
As you may have gathered, CoC remains for me the ultimate S.T.A.L.K.E.R. experience, by far. CoC with Lost Alpha‘s updated map/graphics would pretty much be my holy grail at this point, but until then, I’m quite content with what is offered. My adventure isn’t over yet, though: as mentioned previously, I want to give Shadow of Chernobyl another shot (I’ll likely appreciate it more after having played through Lost Alpha), and I also intend to get my hands on Clear Sky at some point.
As a note, Call of Pripyat is a mere $6.49 on GOG.com as of this writing. As a game that stands very well on its own AND allows for the installation of CoC, I consider it a tremendous bargain, and the best possible value for the money out of all S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games (yes, even over the 100% free Lost Alpha). I’m a cheap bastard, and as such this is probably the most glowing endorsement I can give.
To the people who made CoC: thank you. Your mod may as well be the Wish Granter artifact, as far as I’m concerned.
To all S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fans reading this, what is your favourite entry in the franchise, official or otherwise? Is it complete blasphemy to have disliked Shadow of Chernobyl? Let me know. I’m a big boy, I can take it with a smile. And a shot of vodka. Or twelve.