Underrated:- STALKER


One of the great joys in gaming is sharing your experiences with other players.

This is something which can take one of two forms; either the other discusee has played the game you are discussing so you both jump straight into highlights, criticism, reminiscences, comparisons and impressions, or they haven’t and so you undertake a sometimes elaborate, sometimes summarised, critique of the game from an overall perspective, and if it’s good enough, a sales pitch for it…

Well, in my humble experience, the STALKER (aka S.T.A.L.K.E.R.) series of games is one which too few people are able to avoid my sales pitch for…

So, just in case you are one such person, here goes;

The STALKER series of games, based on the popular Russian science fiction novella “Roadside Picnic” written by the Strugatsky brothers, is currently comprised of 3 PC / Windows games; Shadow of Chernobyl, Clear Sky & Call of Pripyat, each a classic, each charting the power struggle in and around the Chernobyl area following a further future meltdown of it’s famous nuclear reactor and the mysterious effects this has on it’s surroundings.

Whilst that may not immediately entice you to rush out and buy such a seemingly dour game, let me reveal to you the world within a world which STALKER inhabits, and see if I can’t tempt you to you join me in Chernobyl. Seriously. It’s far more interesting, rewarding and exciting than you would ever likely assume.

Stalker Screenshot 4

Beautiful and Broken.. that's a STALKER's world for you!

STALKER is, at it’s core, an open-world exploratory shooter. Indeed it was probably the first to successfully bring together such diverse mechanics / features as; Faction / Allegiance based NPC behaviours, independent NPC “lives” (including abundant and varied independent AI wildlife), fully detailed and realistic armour & weapon behaviours (degradation, handling, modification, repair, etc), location based trading price fluctuations, full day-night cycle, varied weather changes, ad-hoc collaboration with AI, realistic weight / load inventory management, bullet distance dynamics, skill-less / stat-less naturalistic character progression, and the list goes on & on… (and on).

Stalker Screenshot 9

So many options & decisions... inventory management par excellence!

With a list of features like that you may be wondering why you haven’t played it already, and that would be a very good question… because you certainly should have.

But let’s get back to basics, it may very well be a most accomplished game, but why should you play it?

The STALKER series has for a long time offered a level of freedom of choice that few other games can rival. This is particularly the case in the FPS genre where the player is usually asked to navigate an extended series of compounds, tunnels, trenches, corridors, alleys and lobbies, be that on a battlefield, in a city or through deep space. In a STALKER game you are more likely to notice the lack of any significant quantity of buildings in much of the game. This itself is a refreshing change of pace and allows you to choose if you want to tackle situations head on, from a distance, by flanking or avoid them altogether by bypassing the area entirely. Whilst this can certainly feel like too much choice early on, it eventually leads you to question the linearity of most other games, which seem very limited in comparison once you’ve experienced the freedom of STALKER’s approach.

Stalker Screenshot 3

"Hello! Excuse Me!... I'm pleased to inform you you've just been flanked! Congratulations!"

For example; It is very rare, in most other games, to be able to lead one set of opponents into a 3rd party and have them interact dynamically, but this can be a very efficient method of dealing with situations in STALKER games. It’s equally fascinating to sit at distance and watch a group you would normally run and hide from dealing with a surprise attack by local “wildlife” which plays out, to one of what could be almost any number of possible outcomes, without any involvement from you. Many a time have I heard gunfire & shouting in the distance and having sprinted (carefully) there found only a couple of dead bodies, some blood and perhaps some explosive marks… often leaving me able only to wonder what may have happened (but very happy to collect up any remaining weapons / ammunition / supplies left behind!).

On other occasions I recall being near death in a hopeless shootout I’d stumbled into foolishly only to have my aggressors ambushed from behind by an opposing faction’s patrol who just happened to be moving through the area, or more local “wildlife” drawn by the gunfire, allowing me a precious, and life saving, opportunity to escape as they battle each other.

Stalker Screenshot 7

"Hey you!"... "Erm... who? Me? But I was just walking my dog!? Honest!"...

Other “fond” memories include my assault rifle jamming as 3 members of military special forces charge my position, leaving me to deal with them with a grenade and a handful of pistol rounds. Or the time I was forced to try and lure a pack of giant, snarling, mutant dogs into a local radioactive “anomaly”, as I simply had no ammunition left following an unfortunate combination of weapon jams & ammunition over-usage in an earlier encounter.

These types of incidents are the kind of “undesigned” situations that only occur because of the way STALKER games are created. Totally unscripted events are by definition fresh, unplannable, and dynamic. Consequently they often feel extremely realistic.

What about the role radiation itself plays in adding peril, complexity and variety to these games? Well, it would be quite easy to write a few thousand words on this topic, but we’ll keep it brief. Radiation can be your best friend, or your worst enemy, and usually the latter. If generates nearly invisible “Anomalies” which can both unexpectedly kill you, if you are not using your “detector”, but can also conceal powerful “artifacts” which can provide huge boosts to your resistances, abilities & stats. It also poisons you unless you take anti-radiation drugs before or pills (or indeed vodka!) after exposure to strongly radioactive areas which, of course, often contain powerful items or weapons to be discovered within them.

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It is essential to use distance to your advantage, rushing in guns a-blazing will get you killed... very, very quickly...

So, whilst there are myriad other areas in which the STALKER series excels I would like to spend a little time on the actual “shooter” experience. Vital to any game which features guns etc, the behaviour of these weapons is a key factor in determining the satisfaction experienced by the player. Weapons need to “feel” reliably realistic, have appreciably different applications / strengths & weaknesses and behave consistently in the range of conditions and situations you find yourself in throughout the games. You will have likely guessed, from the nature of the list, that STALKER does indeed tick all these boxes and more! Indeed it offers a superb example of how to deliver a visceral, intuitive and exciting FPS experience. When you add to this pleasure, in actually using the weapons, their detailed statistics, degradation, diverse ammunition types, attachments, modifications, the need to manage ammunition (many weapons can even be re-bored to shoot a different type of ammunition!) you really have a pretty complete approach to the whole concept of modern combat.

STALKER Screenshot 11

If you love beautifully & hauntingly realized derelict landscapes you are in for a real treat!

Anyway, there are many, many more areas of the game I would love to excitedly praise but as I always say, the game is… well… in the game… (OK I usually say it more pithily than that, but you know what I mean) and I feel, on balance, I have said all I can without diminishing the surprises, mysteries and complexity of the games I hope you will come to enjoy & respect as much as I do!

So join me and become a STALKER, be that for the good of all, or to entirely selfish ends, how you choose to play is optional, but playing in the first place is not. As ever, you have my promise of superior gaming quality, do not let this one slip by unnoticed, do yourself a favour, become a STALKER. It may not be for the feint of heart… but then what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger… doesn’t it?

- Richard “Rax” Burley

Tue, August 9 2011 » Articles, Thoroughly Underated Games...

4 Responses

  1. Crime-inal August 9 2011 @ 11:33 am

    You have some excellent taste! I love this game to bits, even if the ending was pretty nonsensical. The atmosphere was out of this world, and it looked bloody gorgeous with mods too!

    You summed up the game well. :)

  2. August 10 2011 @ 1:03 am

    Nice read. You convinced me.

  3. Rax August 10 2011 @ 2:15 pm

    Glad you guys liked the review! :-)

    As you mention Crime-inal, there are some amazing mods to really “buff” the gaming experience… my faves are the “Complete” series;


    Check them out if you want the very best STALKER experience! :-)
    (Also brilliant if you’ve played the “originals” as these mods make a re-play very worthwhile!)

  4. Jose Luis Perez Zapata August 15 2011 @ 9:59 am

    Ok, Ok! I’m sold :)

    I’ll check them as soon as I have the chance :)

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