A Eulogy to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
Seeing as how the development house for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is closing its doors, I wanted to write up summary of why the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series is so favored in the eyes of many PC gamers. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl was never the most popular game in the west, but it was always one that seemed to have a kind of strange allure. While released before it, I would actually say that Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare actually sparked my interest in the game with its level through Pripyat. Modern Warfare was a nice starting place, but more and more I found myself reading about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. I finally picked it up, almost three years after its release, during a Steam Sale. After installing the recommended mods to the game, I dove into the strange and surreal world that GSC had built for their series.
What I very quickly found is that the games were the very definition of gritty. You had to eat, watch fatigue levels and watch your back. The factions seemed ever-changing, and while there were a few clear good guys and bad guys, there were many and more people who seemed to exist in a sort of grey area. In order to progress, you either had to pick a side, or suffer through with inferior equipment because you decided to not help a team raid a warehouse. Of course this wasn’t always the case, but the factional politics were actually interesting, and the world felt very complete, even when the game didn’t.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s world was perhaps its most impressive feature. The actual game map was large and well paced, but not exactly very expansive. There was still plenty to explore, but it was not quite as open as you would expect. Still, this was not necessarily a bad thing, or even all that noticeable while you were playing since there were plenty of hidden areas and stashes to find. Further, thanks to the engine, the game went on around you, with or without you. In Skyrim, Far Cry 2 and most other free roaming games, everything waits, be it the dragons or a civil war, those games allow you to be at the center of each conflict. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. does not play that way, and the results can be pretty unfortunate. You might be tasked to find a person on the other side of the map, only to finally find their corpse, the person you needed to find having been attacked and killed by a pack of wild mutated dogs. You’d still be able to find their PDA and get some info from them, but you might miss out on a piece of dialogue that could further your own understanding of the story. Each character was also unique and well written. Each one seemed to have a grasp of their limits, and understand their role in the Zone.
The story itself was also particularly good, made more so by the unique setting. You were the Marked One, and while amnesia is an often overused plot device, it was still done well in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. You had one goal that seemed simple enough, “Kill Strelok.” Of course the game wouldn’t be interesting if this was easy, and boy did S.T.A.L.K.E.R. get complicated. It never did so in a bad way, rather it shifted the pace from one of a complex revenge-style tale into one that was more akin to survival horror, as you soon found yourself raiding abandoned underground Russian bunkers, fighting not just brainwashed soldiers, but also some of the scariest and quickest monsters.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. actually nailed survival horror from a first person view. It was never trite and often used real scares, rather than cheap ones, with monsters that you absolutely did not want to mess with. It could best be compared to the original Half-Life, if Valve had decided to kill most of the power in Black Mesa and make you feel as if you were being stalked through the complex. Ammo was limited, you had to worry about your radiation level as well as your hunger and anomalies could assault you almost anywhere. Even in the open areas, the game could be in credibly tense, as even the weakest mutants were incredibly nasty due to their pack hunting nature. The only game to really rival this kind of excellent combination of first person shooter and survival horror was Metro 2033, another game from the Ukraine set in post-apocalyptic Russia, but Metro was linear as opposed to S.T.A.L.K.E.Rs open world nature.
The combat in the game reflected the unforgiving nature of the world. While you never really leveled up, you still gained access to better guns and equipment as you progressed. Yet, even with the best armor and guns, even the most mundane encounters could prove surprisingly tense as bullets from even some of the weakest guns could prove very deadly. It was all part of the grit of the game, to make you think like less of a gamer and more like a survivalist. It was a large part of what made the game so much fun, that the combat was challenging and made you think tactically as you scrambled away from bullets. The combat was made even better by the addition of some huge, large scale firefights. These massive firefights again made you feel like a part of the world instead of the center of it. One of the best parts is that there were multiple large scale conflicts in the game, and each one seemed different.
The game was not perfect though, there were a number of bugs, but these have been mostly remedied through fan patches like the fantastic mods like the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Complete 2012 mod. Especially with the mod, today, the game still manages to hold up as one of the best and most complete gaming experiences of this generation. While I hope S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 can find a home, if it doesn’t, I will still have the excellent experiences of the first game and it’s followup, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat to fall back on. That said, I look forward to Metro: Last Light, but will still keep my fingers crossed that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 can someday see the light of day, and hopefully it can live up to the expectations created by the earlier games.