The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series is easily one of my favorite franchises of all time. It’s brutal yet beautiful, obtuse yet enlightening. The day I heard GSC Game World went out of business I was devastated, but thankfully many of those talented individuals regrouped to form Vostock Games and are now busy crafting their next game, a post apocalyptic MMO known as Survarium.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a wholly under appreciated franchise about an alternate timeline where a second nuclear meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant has resulted in the creation of a surrounding zone where the laws of physics and man are in constant flux still holds a special place in my heart.
One of the great joys of video games is being able to share them with friends and loved ones and since it’s first installment was released in 2007, I have tried many times in vein to turn folks on to this series. Unfortunately it has a very steep learning curve. Out of the box its kind of buggy and bland, it doesn’t explain itself very well and being a game developed by a team in the Ukraine it’s localization leaves something to be desired.
…I have tried many times in vein to turn folks on to this series.
Only after installing the “Complete” mods (SOC, CS, COP), a series of exceptional fan created partial conversions described quite accurately in my opinion as “Vanilla 2.0″, does the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series become some of the most beautifully haunting games ever created.
I decided to sit down today and play though the third game in the trilogy, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat and share with you my experiences. I started a new game and played for just under an hour and then edited the gameplay video to provide a more streamlined and hopefully humorous experience.
So, without further adieu I present to you: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. C.H.R.O.N.I.C.L.E.S.
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Many new players will start up S.T.A.L.K.E.R. for the first time, get shot to death within the first few minutes and then in frustration toss the game aside thinking it unbalanced, graphically moderate and a mishmash of mechanics. However, those exceptionally lucky few that take the time to understand it’s “sweet science” will be treated to one of, if not THE most rewarding game ever conceived.
What you might not know
You might not know that you could play the entire game without ever realizing that your purpose as a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is to hunt for supernatural artifacts that augment your abilities. Should you even discover the keyboard key that activates the artifact detector (default: O) you may not realize that the base device which provides nothing more than an increasingly rapid beeping noise to report your distance from an artifact can in fact be upgraded to a digital display which pinpoints your object of desire.
You might not know that another key press (default: 6) causes you to equip nothing but a bolt to toss in order to visually map areas that are engulfed by reality warping anomalies, a side effect from a fictional second nuclear meltdown which occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1985 as stated in the in-game lore.
You might not know that every creature and NPC in the world is governed by a truly revolutionary artificial intelligence system dubbed A*Life, which simulates how real animals would congregate, hunt, sleep and live in real time absent of your presence. In many open world games, people and creatures have about as much drive and independence as the animitronic characters at a Disney World attraction only acting and reacting when the player is in earshot, not so in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
You might not know that you can change the firing mode of your weapon from fully automatic to semiautomatic (default: 0 and 9) and that many weapons can be upgraded to reduce it’s bullet drop by upgrading it’s ill named and unexplained stat: Flatness – which by increasing muzzle velocity causes the projectile to fire in a more linear trajectory. Each weapon fires it’s bullet as a real, modeled projectile, no hit-scan here folks. The only other equivalent I can think of is the Max Payne games where when you unloaded your Dual Ingrams you could perceive each bullet sailing along it’s path toward a target.
…each game in the series is an entirely different beast.
Finally, you might not know that each game in the series is an entirely different beast. Most players start out with the original Shadow of Chernobyl and for some reason that I’ve never understood expect each game in the series to be little more than a map pack, but each game is an iteration in the series, regardless if it lacks a numerical increment. Over the course of the series they make some quite impressive leaps forward in execution culminating at last in Call of Pripyat which eschews the more compartmentalized design for a fully open world experience, an impressive feat for an engine to pull off.
It never apologizes
When you’re hit you bleed out unless you bandage yourself, when you’re hungry you have to eat in order to keep up your stamina. Stamina being a limited resource which drains away as you run, each step affected by how much equipment you’re carrying with you. A constant consideration when deciding what to pick up and what to leave behind.
You barter for ammunition and anti-radiation drugs. You try in vein to conserve all your supplies. Every NPC in the games has a unique name and surname and is affiliated with a faction that you can choose to assist or betray. Heck, sometimes you’ll find the weapon in their hands is just too tempting to let pesky morality stand in your way.
Recently, Rob of the Game Out Loud Podcast said to me, quite accurately I felt, that “S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is less a game about exploration then it is about survival.”
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is less a game about exploration then it is about survival.
Unlike it’s very distant open world cousin Fallout 3/NV, you won’t walk into a building and come out with a special named weapon with increased stats or discover some quaint environmental story like a ramp, an overturned motorcycle and a skeleton framing a tale of daredevilry gone awry.
The world is bleak and unforgiving, most areas stripped of almost everything that isn’t nailed down. What you do get is a challenging, unapologetic adventure taking place in a world utilizing some of the most advanced NPCs driven by a virtual social structure and probably the most realistic architecture ever captured and rendered in video game form. Every area, be it a country house, abandoned factory, military installation or nuclear power plant was crafted with realism in mind. Most games these days rely heavily on set pieces that look as if they were handcrafted by the Gods themselves, in direct contrast to that approach the world of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. looked as if it’s environments had been imported directly from a CAD program. It’s frankly eerie to explore a building built like an actual building instead of a level designed to provide the most accessible streamlined experience.
If you haven’t purchased a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game, I suggest you buy Call of Pripyat, it’s the most refined of the three and almost perpetually available for cheap.
If you’ve already bought them all on a “Steam Sale Whim” I highly recommend you download the “Complete” mods (SOC, CS, COP) to get them both graphically and mechanically “up to snuff”.
If you tried the game and found it too confusing or difficult you’ve missed out on one of the great simulations of our day, give it another chance.
Death…is simply an inescapable fact when trying to survive in a dangerous world without a safety net.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. won’t hold your hand or apologize for making you quick load for the 5th time in a single fire fight, but what it will do is present a world where staying alive is an accomplishment in-of-itself. Death isn’t the result of cheap tricks or unbalanced enemies, it is simply an inescapable fact when trying to survive in a dangerous world without a safety net.
This gallery is composed entirely of screenshots from the second installment, Clear Sky, often regarded as the *worst* of the three:
What is a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. anyway?
A list of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Complete mod features:
So, have I managed to convince you to give it another try?
Let me know in the comments below.