Don’t Start Me Stalkin’
I could stalk all night.
(This is a thingy I wrote for a website a while back. BUT THAT’S ANOTHER STORY. In the meantime, I’ll just exchange some fairly broad references with the original obscure ones, and post it here.)
Starting a game of 2007’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl is a lot like watching Anthony Jeselnik do stand-up comedy: you know it’s going to be harsh and slightly off-putting, but that it also has the potential to be utterly brilliant. Ukrainian first-person shooters don’t come much more unyieldingly brutal than Stalker (though, granted, they don’t come much at all), and it’s about as far away as possible from the overly-scripted, Michael Bay-esque “I can explode this country better than you can” philosophy that’s come to plague the increasingly homogenised western FPS design in recent years. And yes, I mean since Modern Warfare was released – I was being tactful.
So! Stalker drops you in at the suspiciously-glowing deep end: you’re an amnesiac nomad in the exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, which, in this alternate time-line, experienced a second “incident”. This has resulted in The Zone being littered with Artifacts – little fizzingly radioactive nuggets with strange properties which function as power-ups or lucrative bartering objects in the game – and inexplicable environmental anomalies, like crackling tunnels full of lightning or whirling vortexes of fire or the like. It’s populated by awful beasties (ranging from deranged dogs to horrible mandible-faced mutant Bloodsuckers) and gruff, manly men, comprised of three main types: Duty and Freedom troops (warring factions who are friendly towards you until you irritate them), Loners (neutral Stalkers like yourself) and bandits and soldiers (men who will shoot you in the face). There are no women, no impressively-moustached captains to hold your hand throughout, and no means of escaping the grim nihilism of The Zone except for your all-too-inevitable death.
(While the landscapes are based on the actual terrain surrounding the Chernobyl reactor, the fiction – Stalkers and Artifacts and anomalies and such – is a loose amalgam of the Strugatsky brothers’ “Roadside Picnic” novel, and the unflinchingly bleak Andrei Tarkovsky movie it spawned, “Stalker”. It’s not important or even remotely necessary that you’re familiar with either, though I’d recommend reading Roadside Picnic on account of it being, y’know, a great book. And I do plan on watching Stalker, just as soon as I build up enough faith in this world and all its various denizens to withstand having every last scrap of it torn down all over again. But anyway.)
The game starts you off with little more than a pea shooter pistol, a PDA, a mysterious instruction to “Kill Strelok”, and a door to a wide open world that will terrify and captivate you. It’s not actually quite as open as you might initially think: the Zone consists of several smaller linked areas that you travel between at will. But as you emerge from your subterranean starting point, it seems positively enormous; wide open grassland clashes incongruously with boiled-away industrial complexes, and everything’s way bigger than you are.
An entirely optional – and rather peasy – opening mission does little to educate you on how to survive in this world beyond teaching you how to aim your gun so that you only miss 80% of the time. And once that’s out of the way, you’re left to your own devices. Scrounge what you can find, sell what you can spare, buy what you can afford. Your trek back to camp will probably find you coming across two prone bodies in the grass that turn out to be two fellow Stalkers; one dead, one dying and begging you for one of your precious med-kits. Do you give it to him and earn a friend? Or do you lie, say you have none, and loot both their rotting bodies for supplies, then walk away nonchalantly whistling Sweet Georgia Brown?
While the narrative chugs along in its own blandly inoffensive way, where the game really comes into its own is in the middle section: you find a nice patch of friendly turf (or as friendly as Zone turf gets – it does include a fight club and a bunch of Duty officers who’ll riddle you with bullets if you so much as look at them in the wrong tone of voice) where a bevy of barflies and an entertainingly-voiced bartender are waiting to pay you to do various odd jobs around The Zone. Forget fulfilling your intriguingly vague destiny for a minute: track down an old rifle for a raving drunkard why don’t you. In fact, let’s take that as an example.
You see, what starts as a standard fetch quest might quickly devolve into a three-way shoot-out between you, some bandits and the hideous bounding Snork mutants prowling the abandoned courtyards, leading to your running low on ammo and health, with your scavenged AK74 falling apart in your hands, and suddenly you’re set upon by a pack of thirty or so ravenous hounds, a conundrum you cunningly solve after a series of horrifying deaths and reloads by jumping atop a conveniently waist-high piece of masonry LIKE A KING and picking them off one at a time, just out of reach of their gaping toothy maws, nimbly dodging an isolated electrical anomaly in a bypass to nab the rifle, noticing your Geiger counter clicking and your vision becoming bleary, downing two bottles of vodka to stave off the radiation poisoning you’ve just contracted, then running like a lunatic from a brace of Bloodsuckers by the train-tracks (did I mention that Bloodsuckers are usually invisible until they’re all but upon you? Because they are) before glimpsing some humans ahead and noticing your crosshair turning GLORIOUS NEUTRAL YELLOW which means they won’t shoot you on sight and trading one of them a fairly useless Artifact for some delicious health packs, before briskly returning to the bar to give the patron his rifle, and finally allowing yourself to exhale.
Or it might go completely differently. And that’s just some piffling side-quest.
Such is Stalker’s “A-Life” artificial intelligence system: everyone and everything in the Zone has a goal, whether it be guarding an Artifact, tracking a rival faction, or hungrily hunting for human flesh. (You’re almost guaranteed a memorable moment where, while surveying some arbitrary horizon filled with gnarled trees and crumbling derelict laboratories for potential danger or profit, you’ll chance to spot a nuclear beasty dragging a carcass to a quiet spot for a nice dinner. It won’t be a scripted moment designed for you to notice and coo at – it’ll just be something that’s happening. You might notice it, or completely miss it. But even beasties gotta eat.) So while my excursion into the courtyards yielded a dreadful legion of hellhounds, you might find a bunch of bullet-riddled dogs, and a group of Duty troops walking away with smoking rifles. One of whom might stray absently into an anomaly and be summarily whipped twenty feet into the air, landing crumplingly in a broken heap, whereupon you loot his body for his beautiful powerful gun. It’s unpredictable, is my point.
Stalker is, at its core, a deeply PC-centric game (personal computer, not politically correct, obv), and in many ways it feels like the slightly insane illegitimate child to much-lauded ULTRAGAME Deus Ex. Much of the game is spent balancing your inventory screen – how many health packs can you afford to take with you while still keeping room for rad meds, two rifles, ammo and your newly acquired sturdy-but-bulky Duty armour? Head shots are vital, especially when your weapon’s prone to jamming. Conversations (in English, but with heavy Russian accents) can reveal or preclude entire missions. Idling Stalkers sing songs in Russian around campfires. There is no “Press Y to look at the pretty graphics” on-screen prompt. It’s just you, The Zone, and what you make of it.
It was also deeply PC-centric in other, less obviously fantastic ways: Stalker was, almost inevitably, excruciatingly broken upon its release in 2007, though instantly forgiven by all and sundry, considering its incredible ambitions and convincing delivery. It was soon patched up to a respectable level by the devs, and has since been given a number of do-overs by several mods. My recent play-through used the Complete Mod – a graphical spruce-up for the most part, which also subtly reinstates some promised gameplay mechanics which were tragically cut from the final release.
(Stalker’s gestation was famously elongated. Not quite to Duke levels, but long enough that there were significant expectations that the early hype would eclipse and doom the game itself, which led to moneymen THQ forcing devs GSC Game World to curb their vision slightly with a view to finishing the bloody thing.)
All of this means that when you settle down to an evening with a suitably modded Stalker, you look forward to finding a safe place to sleep during the terrifyingly dark nights; to making sure you have enough ham and bread to prevent starving to death; to paying the bartender (a man of many talents, apparently) to repair the extravagant rifle you pinched from the man whose external occipital protuberance you fortuitously pierced with a bullet originally meant for the glitching shadow that had startled you in the flickering torchlight.
And, yes, in the game too.
It’s far from perfect or bug-free. Even after all the official patches and the thorough once-over from the modding community, I still found myself unable to complete a side mission to free a Duty troop from a cell, because when I finally fought my way through to him, he was standing on the outside of the cell and refused to budge. But in some glorious parallel universe, this is the shooter other shooters want to grow up to be like, rather than Honour of Homefront: KillDuty 7, with its four hour campaign and charming (it says here) belief that “FPS” stands for “Foreign Person Shooter”. Simply put, everything Stalker attempts to be is everything we need more of in this funny little industry: astronomically ambitious, incredibly atmospheric, fiercely individualistic, innovative instead of iterative, and crazier than a hoot owl. If you own a PC, you owe it to yourself to check it out.