"Fine, obscure gems." Part of a periodical series: Great Games You Never Played.
The STALKER games (in order: Shadow of Chernobyl, Clear Sky, and Call of Pripyat) are somewhat unique in the realm of first-person shooters. Whereas most shooters are content to be linear corridor-crawlers with heavily scripted action sequences, STALKER goes for a non-linear open-world formula based on quests, inventory management, and exploration. This alone makes the STALKER games a rare gem, but they also feature some of the best atmosphere you'll ever experience in any game.
Set in the irradiated "zone" surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, the radiation and fallout from its fictitious second melt-down have caused biological mutations in the local wildlife. All kinds of hazardous, supernatural anomalies litter the environment. The zone is a dark, hostile place that only scientists, scavengers, and mercenaries dare to brave. You play an amnesiac adventurer who has to venture into this twisted, mutated wasteland with one simple objective: kill a man named Strelok.
STALKER has it all: tight, sophisticated shooting mechanics; conventional RPG elements like quests, inventory management, exploration, and NPC interaction; and a rich, thick atmosphere that sucks you into its dynamic world that simply breathes with life (and chokes in decay). STALKER is an effort of ambition that's unmatched by any other game; it tried to be something different, and succeeded at being something more. If you've never experienced the glory of STALKER, then perhaps it's time you did. More after the jump.
The first thing that should be said about STALKER is that its world is one of the most immersing game worlds ever made. The chief reason for this is its AI system that has NPCs and wild animals living out their own lives regardless of the player's interaction. Even in the biggest, most successful open-world RPGs, the world feels like a stage built solely for your adventure, as if everything disappears from existence the moment you get more than 100 yards away from it. That's not the case with STALKER.
There's a genuine sense of society in STALKER, with different groups and factions vying for control of different areas of the game. The military might raid a bandit camp somewhere, or a group of bandits might ambush a camp of loners. The "Freedom" and "Duty" factions send patrols out to various parts of the map, getting into skirmishes with each other and occasionally lending a hand to their friends. Wild animals roam in packs, sometimes venturing into towns or encampments, other times keeping their distance.
There are a whole bunch of seemingly random events that occur as you explore the environment, but none of it's really random. They're not just fleeting events that come and go without rhyme or reason; they have lasting impacts on the game. If a group of bandits attacks the band of merchants camped out at the car park, then those merchants are dead for the rest of the game, and the bandits will continue to occupy that space until you (or someone else) clears them out. If the Duty faction raids the Freedom base and kills their leader, then you won't be able to pick up any more quests or quest rewards from him.
Behind the Game #1: Overview
All of this happens without a single care for what you're doing. When something happens, you can choose to ignore it and continue on as you'd planned. Or you could join the fight, killing one side or the other, or wiping everyone out. Or you might just wait for the fight to end and then sneak in to collect all of the loot off the dead bodies. The game is pretty fair though, about not having major events happen unless you're already somewhat close by; you won't run into any game-breaking issues with critical NPCs being killed while you were two miles away.
The zone, therefore, feels alive and lived-in, with the landscape constantly changing depending on the seemingly random events, and largely because of your role in them. This isn't just any old video game world; it's there for you to interact with, but if don't want to play along then the game will continue on without you. It's an intelligent, sophisticated system that lends real weight to your gameplay and offers consequences for a lot of your decisions.
Surviving in the harsh, unforgiving zone is the most immediate of your concerns. Death lurks around every corner, be it from a pack of wild dogs, a mutated monster, radiation, nuclear blowouts, starvation, sleep deprivation, bandits, enemy factions, or the hazardous anomalies. It's a stifling place to explore that has you on your toes, especially in unknown areas where any kind of bizarre stuff could happen. You have to be aware of your surroundings and be prepared for any kind of situation.
Behind the Game #3: Factions, Physics, Trading
Which brings me to the inventory. You have an inventory screen with a weight limit on how much you can carry. Your armor, weapons, and ammunition all contribute towards the weight limit, and you also have to carry things like medkits, bandages, and anti-radiation medicine, among other equipment and quest items. Just choosing how to balance your gear and equipment adds an entire layer of depth and strategy to the gameplay; do you pass on carrying a sniper rifle, a shotgun, and an assault rifle in favor of a single weapon with a larger ammo supply? Do you wear thicker, heavier armor to keep yourself protected while limiting the amount of weight you can put towards weapons and ammo?
You can end up spending a lot of time between outposts, slowly draining your supply of ammo and healing items. (I should also mention that the condition of your weapons and armor wear down with use, so you'll eventually have to pay to get them repaired or ditch them for newer stuff.) This leads to some tense survival elements where you're low on ammo and have to scrounge the environment for ammo caches, sometimes dropping your preferred weapon (which is broken or out of ammo) in favor of a scrap weapon you found lying by some corpses. Or you could just try to sneak past conflicts as much as possible.
All of the best gear costs a lot of money, and you can trade with different merchants and even other scavengers. Exploration is essential for survival, because you'll need the income you get from finding artifacts and other valuable loot (as well as free ammo and supplies). This aspect is very rewarding, because there's usually great risk involved with venturing into unknown territory, and the best loot is usually hidden in the most dangerous areas. It feels like a real accomplishment when you successfully navigate a hazardous environment, battling strong foes, and then claim your just rewards.
Behind the Game #4: Anomalies
Among the more interesting things you can find in the zone are the artifacts, byproducts of the anomalies that litter the environment. Anomalies are invisible points of energy that cause damage and other status inducing effects, sometimes just killing you outright. Avoiding them is key to survival, but should you explore around them you can often find rare artifacts, which basically give supernatural bonuses to your abilities. Artifacts are the commodity of trade among scavengers; they sell for a lot of money, but are also useful in helpful you survive the zone with their benefits. A lot of artifacts come at a cost, though: a lot are irradiated and will poison you over time, while others lower some kind of attribute while raising another.
As I mentioned earlier, death is a very common occurrence in STALKER. It's not that the game is unfair or excessively challenging (although the beginning borders on both of those, when you only have a weak pistol and have to assault a camp of bandits who are all armed with shotguns); it's that the game world is meant to feel dangerous and hostile, and because the combat requires more tact and patience than your average run and gun shooter.
For example, there's a hidden RPG mechanic in the gunplay that affects how accurate you are, and thus, how effective you are in combat, based on your reputation in the zone. It's basically a leveling system; you start the game with very low reputation (akin to being lvl 1 in any RPG) and struggle with combat because a lot of human enemies are stronger than you, and by the time your reputation is at its peak, you're a nigh unstoppable killing machine. So in the very beginning, it's advisable to avoid a lot of the fights you could possibly encounter, which is counter-intuitive if you're trying to play STALKER like a Halo or Call of Duty game.
Behind the Game #2: Combat AI
Combat is fierce and tactical, requiring you to be intelligent about how you approach a battle. More often than not, you're going up against small platoons of human enemies that will destroy you in seconds unless you can get the jump on them. Deciding which angle to approach an enemy stronghold from is a very important factor, and once you're in position you need to decide which targets to take out first. Once they catch onto you, you have to be ready to move into other points of cover, because they will try to flank you and flush you out with grenades. Likewise, once the firefight is on, you need to try to flank them and anticipate where they'll be coming from.
But besides that, there are also unique aspects to the ballistics that you don't find in many other shooters. Most weapons don't have perfect accuracy and will deviate from their intended destination, more so if their condition is lower. Guns will jam on occasion and require you to swap the magazine out, more often if they're in lower condition. Bullets are affected by gravity, so you have to aim slightly higher in order to hit targets at a greater distance (this is most noticeable with sniper rifles). Your physical stance affects your accuracy, so if you want to be more accurate you have to drop lower to the ground at the cost of mobility. Bullets penetrate certain kinds of walls and cover.
Battles with roaming mutants aren't usually that intelligent (a lot of them just come straight at you while you backpedal and shoot), but from time to time you wind up against more sinister mutants in special environments that prove to be more of a challenge. Some mutants have psychic and telekinetic powers, affecting your aim or attacking you with pure energy. Some turn invisible. Some throw you great distances. A lot of the times when you're encountering these kinds of enemies, you're in especially dark, twisted areas of the game where the radiation is at its heaviest, producing all kinds of weird, disturbing effects.
A spooky, unsettling area in STALKER.
Some areas of the game are a downright horror to experience. It's not in the usual "blood n guts" sort of way that most games use for horror; it's an ingrained horror at all of the crazy things the environment can do to you. This is horror about survival, feeling threatened and vulnerable to weird and unexplainable phenomena. The atmosphere piles on so thick that you almost choke on it, and fear for your life when bad things start to happen. So much of the game is unscripted and you never know what might happen, making the scares feel that much more real.
While the outdoor areas are open and offer a lot of freedom to move around, you also venture into indoor areas and underground bunkers on a relatively frequent basis. These areas wind up feeling dark and claustrophobic; this is where some of the best "conventional" horror comes into play. A dark, creepy environment where anything could pop out at you from anywhere with ambient noises and hazards that keep you on your toes. But beyond just the horror, these "corridor-crawling" areas prove to also feature really good, intense action, much like what you would find in any "typical" FPS, only better, considering its juxtaposition with the open-world environments.
You explore this world in a mostly non-linear fashion, going where you like whenever you like. There's a main questline to follow, which is essential for completing the game, but you can spend a lot of time just exploring the zone and completing quests for various factions. The "A-Life" system of the NPCs and wildlife keep things interesting, while the atmosphere keeps you immersed in what you're doing. The main story doesn't doesn't get particularly interesting until the very end, but there are some interesting twists along the way that keep it intriguing.
STALKER also has a large modding community that helps to push the game even beyond its impressive "vanilla" settings. Comprehensive mods like "STALKER Complete" polish the game and improve many of its mechanics, while others like "Oblivion Lost" and "LURK" add new features or change certain aspects of the gameplay styles. So if you're looking for a little extra bang for the experience, there are plenty of options to improve the game even further.
Each component part of STALKER's formula is good on its own: the FPS aspects are top notch, the RPG elements add a lot of depth the experience, the atmosphere is some of the best of any game, ever. But STALKER does something even more remarkable and blends everything together in a cohesive mixture. This is a game that is very nearly its own genre, just because of how unique it is and how good it is at what it tries to do. And that makes it worth playing.
I just wish more games would learn the lessons of STALKER; we'd be living in a better world with far better games.