If you are not familiar with the STALKER franchise, I recommend reading my previous post for an introduction to the topic. Abridged version for those who’d rather save themselves the pain: STALKER is a series of first-person shooter horror games set in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine, inspired by the 1979 film of the same name (itself inspired by a science fiction novella called Roadside Picnic).
Dead Air is a newer version of Call of Chernobyl, an amazing, fan-made game that combined the maps of all three official STALKER games into a single, free-roam open world. Dead Air also incorporates the Misery mod, which, as the name implies, aims to turn the game into a
pain-in-the-ass slog hardcore survival simulator.
As I will detail below, Dead Air goes the extra mile in this “everything is terrible and also wants to kill you” approach, but given that Dead Air the video game I spent by far the most time playing in 2020, it’s probably not as bad as I make it sound (it probably helps that, currently, even a game best described as “irradiated hellhole simulator” kinda sounds better than the real world in its current state).
Without further ado, here’s my take on Dead Air, split up into pros and cons.
1. Graphics: Aside from maybe Lost Alpha, this is the best-looking STALKER game I have ever played. Granted, it doesn’t hold a candle to any big-budget game released in the last five years or so. But Dead Air‘s visuals, considering they’re being squeezed out of an engine that’s now a decade old, are nothing short of breathtaking. The world is lusher than ever before, grass blows dynamically in the wind, and there is a nice depth of field effect for that cinematic touch. There are also quite a few neat little details, like water droplets sticking to your screen when it rains (as well as the ability to wipe them off), volumetric fog, and visible light beams. The game also includes an option to turn some of these features off (the raindrops in particular can be a massive liability when you’re trying to fight off mutants, so your mileage may vary as to whether the pretty water effects are worth it).
2. Atmosphere: STALKER’s strongest point has always been its atmosphere, and the game can be downright terrifying at times. The new graphics and features take this to a whole new level, turning a couple areas into fog-shrouded, toxic death zones that can only be crossed by wearing a HAZMAT suit, or lugging a weighty oxygen tank around. Traversing these was a tense, harrowing experience that make Dead Air the best video game adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist I’ve ever played that’s not Silent Hill.
3. Gameplay Improvements: Like Lost Alpha before it, the game adds a much-needed pistol slot in the inventory (the base games only had a “main weapon” and “sidearm” slot). Being able to carry both a rifle (a must for long-range combat), a shotgun (a must for blasting mutants) as well as a pistol (for those occasions when you have your artifact detector out and can only use one-handed weapons) is a godsend. The best addition for me, however, was the quick knife key: simply press the assigned button, and your character gives a knife slash without having to manually select the weapon first. This has saved my life more than once, and stabbing mutants in the face is extremely satisfying, to boot.
4. Performance: This game is extremely well optimized and really has no business running as well as it does while looking that good. I run it at maxed-out settings on a relatively antiquated Apache GE60 2PL laptop (OK, it’s “only” from 2015, but still wasn’t exactly top of the line even back then) with almost none of the habitual stutter plaguing most STALKER games.
5. Customization: Dead Air lets you pick from among a fair number of options, including a rudimentary class/perk system to customize your character’s abilities and starting loadout, the possibility of increasing rewards and loot for an easier game, and a rather impressive array of graphical options. Notably, if the default, drab color palette isn’t your cup of tea, you have the option of making Dead Air as vibrant and colourful as you would like.
6. It’s free! Dead Air may not be for you, and it’s certainly not the best introduction to the STALKER franchise by any metric. But even if you do end up loathing it, you’ve lost nothing except the bandwidth it took to download it, and the few minutes it took to install and play it.
Dead Air is not a perfect game, of course (there is no perfect game except Chrono Trigger, and I will die on that hill), and so here are the few issues I have with it:
1. Difficulty: This one deserves its own essay-length rant, so we’ll get to it later.
2. Glitches: Dead Air holds the dubious honour of being the buggiest STALKER game I’ve ever played. Most are merely amusing (moonwalking zombies and guys sitting on thin air are hilarious enough to have been left in intentionally) some are actually useful (hordes of mutant rats surround me, only to stand idle while I knife them to death? Thanks!), and some are merely annoying (at one point I bribed some guards to let me through a gate, which remained closed – I was able to solve that problem by shooting the gate open). Occasionally, NPCs seem to begin bleeding out for no reason, and eventually keel over dead, no matter how many first-aid kits you provide to try and keep them alive. Thankfully I never encountered anything truly game-breaking, and the game very rarely crashed for me, so the bugs are, for the most part, tolerable.
3. Customization: Even though the game lets you select a myriad of options, there is one major thing you cannot change: your starting faction. Choosing one of nine factions (ten, if we count the hidden “Zombie” option) was a major part of what made Call of Chernobyl so addictively replayable, but Dead Air locks you into playing a Loner, in order to maintain game balance (I use the term extremely loosely) and enforce a more gradual sense of progression. This wasn’t a deal breaker for me since I tend to play Loners by default anyway, but I can see how this would turn people off from the game. That being said, there is a mod that fixes this issue (though it’s not perfect, since the game was built around playing a Loner, and doesn’t “catch on” to you playing something different until you deliberately antagonize members of enemy factions).
And, um, that’s it for the cons. You may have noticed the pros/cons list is slightly lopsided in favour of the pros; there’s a lot to like about Dead Air, is all I’m sayin’.
But the Difficulty!!!
Dear Lord, the difficulty.
Before we begin, a disclaimer: I am pretty much the epitome of what some would call a “filthy casual”. As such, I encourage you to take the rest of this post with at least a moderate grain of salt. Or a huge one, if you’re the type to enjoy masochistic games along the lines of I Wanna Be the Guy.
To me, this game is ludicrously, cruelly difficult. And I don’t mean that in a “good if you like a challenge” way. No, this game will murder you, skin your sorry, irradiated hide, then run your corpse into the meat grinder, make a radioactive milkshake, slurp it up, and then crap it back out as glowing diarrhea into the blazing pits of hell itself. Beyond the usual “realism” features of the Misery mod (meat must be cooked prior to eating, vendor prices are jacked up, even the lesser mutants hit like brick shithouses and tank as much damage, bullets hit like… well, bullets, equipment degrades faster than an ice cream cone in a volcano, etc.), Dead Air makes extra certain to really take the proverbial dump in your Corn Flakes.
For instance, you don’t automatically get a Geiger counter that alerts you of radioactive areas, like in most other STALKER games. Oh no, even though this is a crucial piece of equipment that no sane person would ever omit to bring on a venture into the highly irradiated Zone, you’ll need to either 1. Select a starting loadout that has it (and sacrifice another perk in the process), or 2. Buy one as soon as you can afford it (HINT: Getting to the point where you can afford one will inevitably have you trek through pockets of lethal radiation that you can’t detect, because you don’t have a Geiger counter. Gotta love those catch 22’s)
There’s a few very counterintuitive mechanics, such as “unhealthy” food (IE, mutant meat) making you sick. This is also kinda-sorta the case in other STALKER games – specifically, mutant meat is irradiated, and you have to drink vodka to get the nuclear isotopes out of your system (hey, look, if vodka can protect against Covid-19, it can get rid of a little radiation, OK?) The only problem is that in Dead Air, bad meat also makes you nauseous, but the visual indicator for that is exactly the same as being drunk: in both cases, your vision wavers and flickers. Imagine my confusion when I pre-emptively drank a shot of vodka, took a carbon pill (you know, the ones that magically and instantly sober you up, because video game logic), then ate a piece of mutant meat, and was suddenly drunk again.
And then, there’s the (string of expletives removed for brevity) mutants. In addition to the overall increased lethality mentioned earlier, they spawn in packs. Huge packs, that will pursue you to the ends of the map – or they would, at least, if you could actually outrun them. Oh, you miraculously managed to fight them off? You’re adorable. Rest assured: more will come. I’m honestly not sure if this is a bug or a feature, but it seems like every mutant in a given map will zero in on your location as soon as you get into a fight, and show up just as you think you’re in the clear (or worse, they join the party while you’re desperately fighting/fleeing for your life).
Granted, you can (read: must) use the terrain to your advantage (though some mutants will happily jump and ruin your day regardless), but, even if you do manage to get to a safe spot, good luck trying to shoot: the aiming is shakier than a coke addict in withdrawal dying of hypothermia while having a seizure. By the way, cocaine is an actual consumable item in this game, so for all I know, your character is a coke addict dying of hypothermia while having a seizure. Oh, what’s that? He never got to score some coke, because he’s flat broke, ran out of bullets, and the mutants ate him alive? Presumably starting with his dick, because they’re a bunch of assholes?
If it seems like I’m a little salty over the mutants, it’s because I am: as much as I enjoy Dead Air, no other game in recent history has made me swear at my computer screen at 3 a.m. quite as much this one did when a story-relevant NPC kept getting killed by a horde of mutated boars. Mercifully, you can always just pick up the plot items off of said NPC’s corpse (assuming you manage to find it in the tall grass), which is good, because this kind of thing happens a lot in this game.
No one is safe, you see: mutants (as well as other stalkers, in some cases) can and will gleefully overrun settlements and slaughter every single NPC inside. There’s no pickle on a shit sandwich quite like fighting tooth and nail to get some meagre loot and proceeding to haul your mostly-dead ass to a vendor, only to find them dead and the place overrun with monsters. To be fair, this is entirely realistic and adds to the already very dynamic, unscripted nature of STALKER, but it can be amazingly frustrating at times.
Luckily, the Zone contains many wondrous, hard-to-find artifacts that, if equipped, grant you amazing abilities, and give you an edge in – oh, no, wait, they’re all super radioactive now (yes, even the ones that, in other versions of the game, absorb radiation). And even if you do manage to safely equip them via heavy, lead-lined containers, they now degrade when used, and become effectively useless after a while.
If all of this doesn’t sound bad enough, Dead Air also introduces the concept of “Zone degradation”: as time passes, vendor prices increase, selling prices decrease, and more mutants begin to spawn, thus augmenting chances of them overrunning settlements. Really, though, there’s no helping the NPC stalkers, because even if the monsters don’t get them, the military will: after a set amount of time (or if you antagonize them enough, as I did in my first playthrough), the military faction will begin spawning more and more soldiers, and taking over most of the Zone from the South. The always-hostile, fanatical Monolith faction will do the same from the North, leaving you surrounded by murderous stalkers and monsters.
The game at least gives you the chance to make friends with the military (by buying a ridiculously expensive permit, and then frantically completing missions for them until they like you). If you haven’t done that by the time they start taking over, though, good luck surviving in a world full of rampaging mutant hordes and military stalkers who shoot you on sight, with most vendors dead and the inflation making the rest unaffordable anyway. There is an alternate game mode called “Last Stand” that cuts to the chase and outright throws you in a deserted, hostile Zone that has no NPCs at all, only mutants out for your blood. Needless to say, I didn’t spend much time on that one.
In light of all this, the optional Iron Man mode (IE, your save deletes itself upon death) seems utterly pointless, given that you will inevitably die like a turd as soon as you set foot outside the starting area (and quite possibly even before then, if you don’t know what you’re doing). Yeah, no thanks, unless I’m only in it for a very short, “just survive as long as you can” session.
Don’t Worry Though, It’s Not All Bad
I am immensely glad of the fact that Dead Air has a lot of add-ons available for download, most of which help mitigate the insanity. There is one that reduces mutant spawns and another that rebalances them into not being bullet sponges, both of which I consider a must. Then there’s a host of other ones to tweak little annoyances, improve quality of life, or generally make the game easier. For instance, I play with fast travel enabled, can loot money from corpses, and fixed the coke addict-level aiming. With shooting now viable, I also installed the TAZ (The Armed Zone) mod to add a bajillion different guns into the game, because GUNS.
For those so inclined, there’s also the aforementioned faction mod, the option to limit or outright eliminate the Zone degradation mechanic, fix vendor prices and inventories… The sky’s the limit, basically. Just note that, even with a bunch of mods, Dead Air will still be ridiculously tough, just less frustratingly so.
I would advise not going overboard with add-ons, however, as some can be incompatible with each other. Others, while not creating any conflicts, do strain the outdated, 32-bit game engine and may end up making the game more unstable. In my case, I play with HD character models (as well as the aforementioned guns mod), and noticed slightly more frequent crashes as a result. The Military Warehouses part of the map is also mostly inaccessible for me now (crashes most of the time upon entry), but as the Military Warehouses can easily be circumvented and are a freaking no-man’s-land mutant fiesta I prefer to avoid anyway, fuck that place for all time; I’m keeping my mods.
So, Is It Good?
I personally had a lot of fun with Dead Air, but the question might be: can a game really be called “good” if you have to extensively mod it to address its flaws? Having played a lot of “broken” games (Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, Gothic 3, and STALKER itself) that started out as barely-playable messes before being salvaged by their fans and modded into cult classics, I would have to go with a resounding “yes” – there had to be something in the original product to spark such interest and devotion in the first place, after all. In this case, though, it’s amusing that a game mod requires more mods to be playable.
Mods or no, however, Dead Air is a game that tries its damnedest to keep you as long as possible in the early game’s “hobo phase”, with crappy weapons and equipment. I definitely understand the appeal, since as soon as you hit your stride in most STALKER games, the survival horror aspect gets thrown out of the window in favour of a more traditional shooter experience. Unlike Call of Chernobyl, there’s no starting-in-the-middle-of-the-Zone-as-an-Ecologist-so-other-stalkers-don’t-shoot-me-and-going-straight-for-the-Heart-of-the-Zone-artifact-to-give-myself-nigh-immortality-and-infinite-sprinting here. Dead Air isn’t having any of that shit; it just wants to hurt you.
And, honestly, even though I peg myself as a casual gamer, I kind of enjoy that. I might have issues.