Friday, 19 August 2016

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (PC) - Guest Post

Today on Super Adventures, I dragged my old friend mecha-neko back and made him write another guest post for you! We used to get a first person shooter a month out of him, now we get one every two years. It's fine though, he added more words to make up for it.

'sup.

Developer:GSC Game World|Release Date:2007|Systems:Windows

I'm guest poster mecha-neko and today I'm going to tell you all about a game I'm not too familiar with called S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. I played it once, a hundred years ago, but my memories are hazy. It's the perfect time for me to stalk once again!

(Since I've got a brand new GeForce 9600 GT! graphics card, these images are presented in super high-res. Click to make 'em big.)


I'm using the version of the game from GOG since it was a sport and accepted my retail CD key. Good thing too, since the next game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky, uses Tagès DRM, which is the Devil's own porridge. Don't even go close to it.

There's four difficulty modes: 'novice', 'stalker', 'veteran' and 'master'. I'm going to pick 'stalker', because that's the name of the game. Ready?

Once upon a time, there was a terrible lightning storm. Inside the lightning storm there was a truck. And within that truck some dead people lived. (Or not.)

But the heavens bored of the truck's trucklike ways and smote it with a column of crackling power.

The next day, a heroic, handsome and incredibly well animated stranger rushes over to the truck to render truck first aid. Someone's alive!

The hero slings him over his back and carries him all the way to safety...

"This one seems to be alive. What a lucky guy. At least death would have saved him from the dreams. Let's go and see what value Sidorovich will put on your head."

Or perhaps not.

We cut to a dingy-looking bunker, location unknown. It's owned by this man, Sidorovich, trader in all things. Guns, ammunition... and bodies.

"What have you got?"

"A body, it came from the death truck. It's got the mark."

"Well, you know the drill, leave him on the..."

"This is a live one."

"Bullshit, you're lying!"

"Let the Zone take me if I am."

Sidorovich starts searching the man. Perhaps for clues to his identity, or perhaps just for valuable things to take in return for his hospitality.

All he finds is his PDA, containing nothing but a single message:

KILL THE
STRELOK

Sounds pretty scary! Then again, if he wrote that with nineties handwriting recognition, the original message could've said anything.

"So, Marked One, I saved you and I'm not going to pretend I did it to win favours upstairs. You do some jobs for me, and... we're even. Besides, keeping you busy might be a good way to deal with your amnesia. And I'll see what I can find out about your problem. I don't give a shit why you want to find this "Strelok" guy, I mind my own business. And if you want to kill him, well, you must have your reasons."

And here we are in the game proper!

Sidorovich got bored of manhandling me on his counter after I woke up and decided to take credit for the blonde guy's heroic rescue. As a result, I work for him now. He says a whole bunch of things, but the audio clips overlap and cut off one another and there's no subtitles, so you've got to be paying full attention immediately or you'll miss the entire plot.

"What are you standing there for? Come closer, I don't bite."

My guy has nothing to his name except his jacket, his boots, his PDA, and a wicked case of computer game amnesia. Folks call him the 'Marked One' on account of the big 'S.T.A.L.K.E.R.' tattoo on his arm. (So folks know which game to return him to just in case he ever wanders off. Which I suppose is exactly what just happened!)

I'm locked in the room until I accept his offer of a mission. Or I could accept his offer of a very useful fully-voiced tutorial instead, walking me through all the functions of the PDA. It keeps track of exactly what I'm supposed to be doing 'so if you die somebody else knows why and how'. But that's exactly what happened and I don't know that stuff!

In fact, based on the message from the intro, the Marked One has helpfully added two simple objectives to the otherwise empty Tasks screen.

A) 'Find Strelok'
B) 'Kill Strelok'

In the absence of any sane ideas, you might as well unquestioningly accept any orders you receive no matter the source, right?

If you're curious: "Стрелок" ('strelok') is Russian for "shooter", "soldier", "gunman". My mission in this first person shooter is to locate and kill a man who's sole distinguishing feature is that he uses a gun.

With my business concluded, it's time for me to confront the wide world.

My only clue is that I need to find a man named Nimble, who has some data that Sidorovich needs. I do this, and I'll be one step closer to the Strelok.

There's no telling what awaits me beyond that rusted archway. A world where corpses are bought and sold like merchandise. And, somewhere out there, The Strelok is waiting for me. And I will destroy him. He'll never see it coming.

"Good hunting, stalker." says Sidorovich as I leave the cave.

What the hell? It's a lovely day!

This isn't right! The wasteland is supposed to be a garish, monochrome colour-casted mess! Where's the nausea? The birds (well, crows) are singing! Blue skies, pretty clouds tinged with the rose hue of dawn? Get out of here!

Faced with the many unknown dangers of the Zone, my guy heroically brandishes his deadly... binoculars. But they're little use against the barrage of tutorial messages appearing on the screen!

Sidorovich's secret bunker pops out onto a bombed out village that's being used as a base by a bunch of my fellow stalkers. Let's have a look around.

I can talk to a few of them, but I feel a bit rude interrupting their guitar playing and their unintelligible Russian banter. One guy tells me that we should head to camp, a safe place where I find a few stalkers and swap rumours and stories. I thought we were doing that already, my friend!

I'm bored of these guys now. None of them are a shop and none of them want to hire me to do tedious things. Who's that standing next to the house with the very obvious objective marker around his radar dot?

It's my guy, Wolf!

He looks exactly like every other guy so I'm thankful for my ability to identify folks on sight. The yellow indicates he's neutral, and he's a Loner just like me.

The never-ending tutorial flashes are telling me all about the game's reputation system, about how my actions to help or hinder one group might affect my reputation amongst the others in the Zone and how that will affect their treatment of me in the future. Am I really expecting to stick around any one particular group that long?

And does 'Loner' count as a group? This guy seems to be concerned about his fellow stalkers, so I'd have pegged his affiliation as 'Nice Guy'.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s got a very retro-seeming conversation system. It's not quite so retro as to give you a dictionary full of useless 'Nope, never heard of HELLO.' keywords like in Martian Dreams, but it's been a while since I've stared at blocks of text like this. And there's a Trade button too, that's pretty Fallouty!

"Nimble got a raw deal. His group was attacked by some bandits a little ways from here. All he could do was send me an SOS message. It looked like his pals went under. My guys told me these bastards are now at the old car park, the one across the road."

"You don't rescue your own people from prison? Not what I would call friendly. Or is it that you're just too weak to do it?"

Wait, whoa, what? Marked One goes right for the confrontational dialogue out of the gate. He's a bit of a hot-head, apparently. Not my doing! And who said there was a prison?

I've got no choice but to accept the mission to rescue Nimble, so I'm in. My first task is to meet up with Wolf's scouts and get some more information on the place where Nimble's being held. And, because he wisely suspected that the most dangerous weapon I possess is ditch stink, he's outfitted me with a firearm.

I'm now armed to the teeth (or at least the ankles) with a PMm pistol and 40 rounds of 9x18mm ammo!

The most widespread pistol in the Zone. It is a legacy of the Soviet era. It is relatively reliable and cheap, has low magazine capacity, low power and an unsatisfactory grouping of shots. It is the main weapon of a beginning stalker.

It's got a bunch of unmarked, meaningless bar gauges for Accuracy, Damage, Handling and Rate of Fire. This gun is rubbish at everything except Handling, so it's lame at shooting but it'll take corners exceptionally well. It's got a Condition gauge too: this one's right off the factory floor. He's given me his finest, worst gun. It's also totally not a Makarov (Wikipedia link)!

Marked One keeps a diary on his PDA, helping him to sort out his thoughts and feelings and what he thinks you should be doing. It feels odd playing as someone with a well-defined character and motivation that you hardly ever get to experience unless you check a computer. The Marked One is trying to figure out his past and present in his head, while I'm in charge of moving his hands and feet. It's a fitting, unsettling schizophrenia, and it probably wasn't even deliberate!

Right now my post pressing personal task is 'take a walk, calm down'.

Can do!

If there's one thing the Zone offers, it's calming walks. It feels like there's nothing around for miles.

Just grass, trees, hills, blue skies...

... and DOGS! Argh!

I tried creeping past them without a weapon equipped, going as silently as I could, but they just wouldn't leave me be!

It's damned difficult trying to hit a tiny, constantly swerving target. And these aren't your regular dogs, either. Zone dogs have gained some kind of magical immunity to bullets. Or perhaps Wolf gave me a fake gun as a prank.

That's enough aimless wandering. I am perfectly calm, except for the bleeding. Where am I supposed to be going anyway?

PDA time! It shows me where I am, where the objectives are, but you've got to really keep your eyes open for the landmarks, 'cause there ain't none.

Let's zoom out and check out the full Map of the Zone.

Ah... huh.

Of all the maps I've seen in my life, this is possibly one of the least useful. I'm in a field in mostly rural Eastern Europe. I knew that already.

Those lines could be natural rocks, towns perhaps? If they were towns, they oughta have names. I'm in the bottom centre, where the most exciting landmark for miles is the North-South road cutting the region in two.

And here it is... wow.

North and South! It goes both directions! Oh, by the way, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s compass has the red arrow pointing South, which is the complete opposite of how a typical compass works. If you're wondering why I haven't found Nimble yet, that's why.

All this wandering is doing is making abundantly clear that I'm supposed to be using a buggy or something to get around. The first thing that happens in Rage is that you get a car, 'cause it turns out that sauntering through nothing is pretty boring. Borderlands takes its sweet time before it gives you a car, but at least everything up to that point is one wacky life-or-death gauntlet after another, made even more thrilling since you start off incredibly weak.

Here I've got the weak part down but I'm just not getting very far. Marked One can sprint like a demon and it lasts for ages. He can cover a kilometre in a matter of seconds, but what's the use when there's nowhere to go?

If S.T.A.L.K.E.R. doesn't have brum-brums, we're going to have words later on.

Hold onto your gas masks, I've found a wounded dude next to a temptingly fluorescent li'l pizza. This one's dead (sadly) and he's got nothing of worth on him (even more sadly). But! The pizza is actually a medical kit! A lifesaver in the lush, dog-filled non-wastes of Zone. From right beside him come the pained pleas of a second wounded stalker... "Help me, brother! Take the medkit off the stiff. I can't crawl that far!" he yells.

Well. Now I have to choose whether or not I want to heal the wounded man without any expectation of reward, or if I want to walk away from him and leave him to make friends with the mutts.

Of course I'm going to heal him! What do you take me for?

"Thank you, Marked One. You're OK, you know that? I'll tell everyone at the camp that you helped me out."

Hooray! I'm a good egg. Doesn't that give you a warm fuzzy feeling?

How did he know I was the Marked One? Does everybody know what the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. tattoo is? If so, why isn't anyone telling me? I'll feel really dumb if this guy turns out to be Strelok.

Finding the medkit right next to the wounded man feels really weird as I'm playing this. It feels like it was added as a blunt example of the (voice trembles) moral choices one will face further within the Zone. The world would feel empty (emptier) without A Wounded Man, but it's so... I don't know... videogamey that it breaks the immersion. It's a real paradox.

Some buildings! Oooh...!

I've been dashing around the grasslands for the best part of twenty minutes without any sign of civilisation. No debris, no structures, no vehicles, no other stalkers, nothing.

Now I've got something to look at, I'm going to make the most of it! There's even some homely music coming from the doorway.

Looksee! There's a stalker inside, playing the guitar! He looks just like the guy from the first town. Hey there, friend! Let's cozy up by the fire and talk about my mysterious past.

Crap.

I don't know how it went wrong. As I approached, he put away his guitar and picked up his gun. I approached with raised hands and he sent some pistol rounds to greet me.

I didn't respond at all until I was on half health. I was expecting some action music to slide in: nothing outrageous, just an unmistakeable sound to indicate I'm supposed to be aware of some imminent danger. Something like the thumping 'danger grind' sound effect Resident Evil 4. There's nothing at all. If you suspect danger afoot, you've got to continually check the minimap. Although crippled by amnesia, the Marked One's got preternatural senses that let him sense both the position and attitude of other stalkers through walls, as well as counting how many there are in the vicinity. If the dots are red, they want you dead.

Here I am using the aim down sights view to tactically obscure my mark. As you can see, it's working perfectly. I can't see him, which means he can't see me!

It's back to stalker school for the Marked One. :(

Apart from the moment where I stood like a lemon in indignation at being fired upon by a mere guitarist of all things, I thought I was doing quite well! I killed him, but then another fellow snook around the corner and disappeared before I could nail him. While chasing the second man, the third and fourth guys came up behind me, forcing me into a corner and finishing me off.

Simply put, I wasn't good enough. They were acting like intelligent, cautious gunmen. I really didn't expect that at all.

Although deadly serious, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. isn't a complete bastard. It lets you evaluate your own risks and determine for yourself exactly how much replaying of the same scene you're willing to stand. Quicksaves. And many slots. The little niceties that separate the fun games from the low-effort, make-you-repeat-yourself-to-make-the-game-longer turds. And also stop you having to do things like create entire new Windows users or Steam accounts just to let multiple people play the one game.

I've kind of ruined the surprise now that I know the house is full of hostiles, but you can't have everything.

This time, I need to be smart. Be like them. Keep disappearing out of sight.

Cover. Cover cover cover. Not a cover system, mind you, just good old 'finding something that looks suitable and waiting until the time is right'.

Paff paff paff! The enemy takes pity on my useless pistol after a few shots and kindly collapses in sympathy.

Now to circle around and use a completely different point of entry! That'll fox 'em. Right up until I open fire and give away my position again.

I'm looting each stalker as I go, but the game doesn't pause while you're in the menu screen and having to fling the heavy mouse cursor around to the correct buttons while you're in there has to be a deliberate choice to make the game harder. There's plenty of bullets and tasty healing sausages to be found. And if you can find where the physics engine has tossed their weapon, you can take that too. So far I've only found copies of my starting gun except in worse condition. Strange, these broken guns seem to work pretty well in the enemies' hands!

I creep up unseen alongside the truck and scan the town for other bad guys. There's eight other stalkers here besides me according to the radar, but I can't tell where they are. And I get shot point blank in the back. Dead.

These guys are everywhere.

It's taking me a few goes just to gain a new position here. I don't believe they know where I am all the time, but the moment I take a risk to try to shoot a man, I'm hit from all sides. I don't want to quick save after every man I kill, but it's starting to look like I'll have to. What's frustrating me is that I don't know what I'm doing wrong. Are they moving out of my sights too quick? No, they're pretty slow. Am I not hitting them? I think I am. Am I just not shooting enough bullets fast enough? Perhaps. I don't know. Shooting just isn't working.

I found a shotgun. This gun works.

To get it, I had to empty out all my pistol bullets into one stalker's face, then blindly sprint off to the opposite site of the courtyard, where I knew there would be The Next Guy who always appears behind me no matter where I am, and slashed his throat with the knife until he bled out in front of me.

I feel like I'm cheating when I win because of all the quicksaving that's involved. There's probably a right way to play this, but it's not making itself clear to me.

They're all dead. What a disaster.

All I wanted to do was listen to that one guy playing the guitar. How did it come to this?

There are some very nice light effects and brick textures in here! Maybe they could have made a game about exploring buildings instead of the one-man-versus-a-million combat.

"Hey, anybody alive?"

Huh? Did I leave one of the enemies alive and now they're calling for help? God damn it.

"Damn, is somebody going to save me or what?"

Well, it's nice that they're desperate enough to say they need saving from me.

"Stalkers, I'm right here, help me!"

Ah...! Haha, I know what that is. That ain't no dangerous mercenary skulking in some dark corner waiting to blast me. That's...

Hey hey! Guess who I just rescued accidentally, single handedly? Say hello to Monsieur Nimble!

It took a while to find him, trying to follow the sound of his voice. He was marked on the radar with a teeny triangle, but the faint boxes surrounding him don't exactly match up to the structures in the town, so I kept getting led to a locked garage thinking he was inside. I thought he'd be locked in a room, or a basement, or handcuffed or something like that. But nope, he was just in the corner of the room as if he'd been told to stand there for being naughty.

He gives me the flash drive he was paid to give to Sidorovich, because... I honestly don't know why he trusts me with that. I could be anyone. Even after I staged a dramatic rescue at great personal risk, his attitude towards me is still neutral. He's a smart one.

Here's a silly story: I wasn't actually supposed to do that. Wolf told me to go and talk to his scouts and get some information on the place first. I just missed them out entirely!

When I found them wandering about to the south of the town, they were a little confused and also somewhat amazed that I managed the rescue. They didn't give me anything for it, but maybe, just maybe, I saved their squad from a pointless scripted death. That's good, right?

Here's a picture of somebody else having to deal with those damned dogs for a change. Other stalkers have infinite ammo but there's no way to get them to follow you save for shooting them in the nuts a few times to get their attention. If I could hire bodyguards like in SNES Shadowrun, I could get a whole posse of stalkers circling around me like friendly moths, putting down Zonemutts for me!

But unlike Shadowrun I wouldn't be able to slurp up precious experience points by doing so, because S.T.A.L.K.E.R. doesn't have such things. No points, no levels. Just paper-thin Mark and his toy guns. Forever.

While I was busy dodging bullets and munching on dead men's sausages, I found a couple of intel items!

This one says I've found a good place: 'Found a great hiding place in the cellar. I'll wait until someone puts something there.'. The bandits had worked out a place where they suspected stalkers would stash their stuff between missions? That makes some sense, it's safer to steal from them than taking them on in a fight.

It's in Sidorovich's town, may as well have a snoop.

All I'm finding in this cellar is some nicely lit, detailed mank textures. Treasures all, but no use in a fight.

If I did happen to find a stack of Chomps and ammo, it's likely I'll turn around to find a furious seven-foot tall Russian bloke blocking the exit. I lived, so I'll call that a victory.

No, actually, I'm curious. Do I have to wait for a specific in-game time? I'm going to break protocol and look this one up. Just this one. I need to know if I can drag the bunks out of the way to find an even secreter cellar below this one.

From The Zone Survival Guide:

Ah. Well. Never mind. I couldn't have translated an entire game any better. It's just a (bizarre and wonderful) shame that 'topmost floor' somehow became 'underground room'.

It's time to return to big Sid and deliver the data. I'm one step closer to tracking down the mysterious Strelok and exacting my pointless revenge!

"Greetings, Marked One! Did you manage?"

"The situation has become clear."

With that rather cryptic exchange, it's mission accomplished! For my efforts, I receive 1,500 RU and Sidorovich's begrudging approval.

I don't learn what was on the flash drive. Nothing much happens. It probably wasn't important, really. Nothing to do with Strelok. Why would it be?

Now what? I can ask Sidorovich for either 'special missions' or 'a job'. The 'special mission' is a plot mission, thankfully. Complete with voiced dialogue again!

Only if you talk to Sidorovich again at this point can you get some insight into the world and the Zone, where the game takes place. The short version is that it's crazy and it's dangerous and it's radioactive and you're stuck here. He never actually says it's Chernobyl, but the title of the game says it is, so there you go.

I accepted every side job Sidorovich had to offer. I'm not going to try the special mission until I've gotten everything I can lay my hands on; I never know how far it'll take me, or if I can ever come back.

Now it's time for me to offload all of these weapons: Five manky copies of my starting pistol on the table. I hope Markie remembered to unload them first. Not that matters because, incredibly, I've ended up with so many pistol rounds that I'm comfortable selling some of them! Can you imagine doing that in Deus Ex: "Oh whoops you killed me but I was on my last bullet anyway!" Human Revolution.

If I'm going out there alone on my mission of vengeance, I'll need a weapon with a proper kick to it. Something that doesn't sound like someone treading on bubble-wrap, for example. I've given up my shotgun because it's unnecessary weight and I haven't got any shells for it. I've got a weight limit of 50. I'm at 17.9 and I don't know what happens when it fills up.

Now check that out! Super modified 5.45mm assault rifle with attached grenade launcher. Good stats, perfect condition! All for the knock-down, face-melting price of 20,000 RU. A price so pricey it's tumbling out the side of the interface. That's actually a OTs-14 Groza, gun fans.

It looks like a lot but I've almost got 2,000 RU so it's not totally out of my reach. I'll do those side jobs first to gather some money. I'm more concerned that Sid doesn't sell ammo. I'll take some medkit pizzas and some tasty fresh breads instead.

You might wonder why I don't consider the direct approach and simply take what I fancy. Aside from the fact that he's got a top-of-the-line assault rifle at his disposal and I've got a gun which probably does more damage thrown than fired: there's no guns allowed in Sidorovich's bunker. His little kiosk has a magic politeness field that prevents the Marked One from engaging in any kind of violence. Or using his binoculars.

Time to see where I'm at. I've got four side jobs: kill a pseudodog and take its tail, kill a shady weapons salesman, kill some mutants, or find a dangerous artefact.

You're in luck if you're into killing!

Of all of these, the only one of these that isn't straight-up murder is finding the artefact and that one's probably theft. I'm curious what the salesman's been up to. According to Sidorovich he's been posing as a broker, selling defective arms to unsuspecting stalkers leading to a lot of good men getting hurt. He's also the closest one to me: he seems to be wandering around aimlessly in the hills directly North of my current position!

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP

That ain't no good. Mines! Whiteness! Radiation! Help! Heelp!

I found my way out by jumping like a madman and throwing myself to the ground until the world stopped glowing and beeping and shrieking.

Ah. That explains it. Not going that way then, I guess.

Sidorovich gets on the radio and gives me a friendly reminder that the Zone itself is highly hostile to rookie stalkers. You wander into the wrong place, or stray too far to the marked paths...

You will be hurled up into the air by metaphysical forces and torn into pieces.

I have a beeper to warn me about 'bad space'. Problem is it doesn't tell me the direction, so every time I hear a beep I have to inch sideways until I find which direction leads back to 'good space'. And I suppose that would be pretty tense if it weren't for the...

Dogs!

Everywhere I go: dogs, dogs, dogs! These guys just don't want to leave me be! As soon as they catch the sniff of this dead man walking, it's a duel to the death.

I wish I hadn't sold all those bullets now! Aiming at these guys rushing around me is next to impossible. Aiming down the sights gets me a screen full of hand and gun. All I can do is back, back away and hope they run out of dog before I run out of gun.

I'm almost there now.

Deep in the scrub, I find my mark. Just an ordinary stalker, like myself. Not hostile, not friendly. Not even heavily armed.

I can talk to him but there's no option to confront him. He does have a 'Trade' option, so let's see what this dangerous fake weaponry is all about.

Huh, he must have chucked it all already. All he has on him is a single bandage. And 5,000 RU! Mmm, that's a quarter of the way towards that super gun.

There's no global morality meter in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. There's a cluster of meaningless reputation gauges and all that, but the fact is that one murder isn't going to cause the sky to fall down on top of you. The only person who'll know or care that you shot an unarmed man in the back simply because somebody told you to, or because you drooled at a single glance of their wallet, is you. All so you can show up at the stalker bar with a big smile on your face with your fancy, shiny paper money and pretend to be a normal, well-adjusted member of civilisation.

But I'm buggered if I'm getting dog-scrambled with only a pistol to defend myself with again, so it's до свидания, stalker.

Now here's a conundrum. Or rather, a point of confusion.

It only makes sense that if you're capable of outwitting or outfighting another stalker, you should receive absolutely everything they had on their person. That's surely one of the base laws of the Zone. You're weak, you're stupid: you die. And when you die, you're just a rotting body clutching onto things that other people could use. This isn't the high-tech future of electronic credit. He's got a wad of soiled Soviet rubles stuffed in the soles of his boots just in case a maniac like myself catches sight of his wealth and decides to climb the financial ladder by stepping on his throat.

So, can somebody explain to me why when I kill him his money dissolves into mist?

Marked One has standards, I suppose. Violent, unpredictable, aggressive, but consistent standards.

At least I still get paid for the job. My reward for this particular misadventure is one of the elusive artefacts of the Zone: objects whose space-time is so damaged that they grant the wielder supernatural powers over their surroundings. Sidorovich will talk your ear off (or hurl rectangles of text at you at least) about such things if you let him: artefacts that whirl bullets away from the body, artifacts with the ability to heal wounds in seconds.

Of course such wonders are so much up my street I'm nibbling at the edge of my desk, making squeaky noises in happiness!

Which one have I got?

This particular gizmo is called Wrenched. And if I stick it in my magic rock bag, I will be granted the heavenly gift of... +2% resistance to Rupture damage. From the paw print, this probably refers to animal damage: claws and bites. I'm attacked by dogs a heck of a lot, but that +2% somehow isn't making me feel like the lord and master of all dog-kind.

In return for being able to take fifty dog bites to the scrotum and get the fifty-first for free, I suffer +5 Radiation! Hell NO! I'm gonna gingerly pick up this thing with some very long lead tongs and politely pass it back over to Sidorovich for that 1,000 RU instead.

The old stash of pistols I sold Sid has vanished, and he's still got no ammo to sell me. That could be a concern later on.

When leaving the camp I spotted Nimble's distinctive coat amongst the stalkers. He must have found his way back to the camp! That's nice. He's even got a mission for me: 'find the perfected suit'. Good armour is worth its weight in gold. Especially if it's gold armour! Once again I head out into the wilderness, my heart filled with righteous resolve.

DOGS! ARGH!

The only concession you get is that when you've killed all but one dog, the last one will whimper and flee.

But you know you can't leave it. It'll just come back with even more dogs. Plus, after another inescapable fifteen minute fracas and dozens upon dozens of bullets wasted, I'm damned if I'm letting anything live. DO NOT ATTACK ME.

Oh sure, maybe I could sprint away. Sprint faster than a pack of rapid animals who've survived in the Zone by being the fastest, most teethily things around for miles. They'll chase me to the North Pole if they have to, nibbling away at my health bar until I fall into the wounded state, unable to run or jump, rolling about on the hills until I die.

My super objective senses are telling me that the upgraded suit can be found in this mysterious dark tunnel.

And within the mysterious dark tunnel was nothing but dark mysteries...

Because this game was made in the past, Marked One's eyes aren't cheap webcam sensors like a modern protagonist's: blowing out the highlights whenever you step from darkness into light, or smothering everything in darkness when you head from an exterior location to an interior. When you go from light to dark, the dark stays dark because it's really freakin' dark.

Marked One doesn't carry flares or a flashlight as standard so I'm reduced to feeling around with my Use key in the rubble for the forgotten booty. Guess what I found?

If you said A DOG, you'd be correct! And not any ordinary dog, this was some manky salt 'n' pepper flavoured mega-dog. I didn't even bother to fight it. When the icon for 'take armour' showed up, I was out of there like a lightning bolt.

Let's see what I've got!

Mail jacket... it's three times as good against bullets as my starting gear! And it's worth 3,000 RU! The mission isn't over now that I've found it: he didn't send me all the way out here so that I could be the one to wear it. Nope, he wants it back, and I'm an honourable sort so I guess I should head back to Nimble and give him the armour.

When I found Nimble, we was asleep in one of the vacant bunks in camp, having a nightmare. I figured I'd be doing him a favour if I just shoved him awake. Marked One can't sleep, so why should anyone else be allowed to?

In return for giving up the amazing superjacket, I now possess another magic rock: the Stone Flower. This one protects me against +3% bullet damage! That's absolutely amaz-it's crap. And it's got its own +5 Radiation penalty as well. If I equip enough of these feeble rocks, I might even be impervious to rain. And I'll be able to render my foes impotent just by standing next to them.

This one's going back to the Sid as well. I'm a few thousand RU closer to my goal of owning a gun! Next mission: clear the place of mutants.

I've got nothing against mutant folks in these kinds of games. It's not their fault that they're dangerous, infectious and rank.

Oh hell yeah! I'm over the moon, dancing on ice-cream, I've found an enemy that isn't dogs!

Say hello to the warthogs! Then madly strafe in backwards circles shooting randomly into the dirt until you feel that slight, tingling sensation you get when your brain starts to liquify and drip down your face.

You didn't quicksave, did you? Silly you.

Oh, I see, I see. The task is listed on the PDA as 'camp elimination': a pretty uncompromising order, evoking images of flamethrowers and tents and all the rest. When they said 'mutants', I'd gotten a little ahead of myself and was thinking all science-fictiony.

What Sid was really referring to, of course, was AN ARMY OF DOGS.

Well that didn't achieve a damned thing. I've killed milk chocolate dogs, white chocolate, almond, fruit & nut dogs, but the objective refuses to acknowledge as completed. Am I supposed to be escorting somebody through here after clearing the area?

I'm just going to go back to Sid and tell him its safe. If the VIP dies, then they shouldn't have gone around being so tasty.

Let's have a look around instead! In here I found a rather nice set of armour. Where, I have absolutely no idea! I just kept pressing use on all the crates expecting one of them to open and somehow I ended up with a brand new set of armour in my inventory.

An artifact! Just lying around in the open, where any stalker could swipe it!

It's actually right in the centre of an anomaly. According to the lore, that's how these things are made, but it doesn't mean that every anomaly has an artefact in it. Which sucks, frankly. It would've made every minefield into a fun treasure hunt. But noooo. No fun in Stalkerland. If I can just reach in far enough I can...

Ow. That hurt. Usually the anomalies emit a shockwave and hurt you slightly. This one emitted what sounded like an earthquake and punted me offscreen until the screen went grey and I died.

I'll leave that one.

Returning to the mission area I spot one final ashen hyperdog which immediately runs away at the sight of my useless pistol, forcing me to chase it for almost two kilometres until I can get close enough to reliably kill it and complete the mutant mission. Phew!

My reward: lots of bullets for a gun I don't use. I can't even tell what they're for. I've never seen it, and Sid doesn't sell it. You can have them back, man.

Oh? This place looks interesting! I can't hear any guitars so I assume it's certified stalker free. One of my intel items says there's a cool stash to be had high up in this building or one nearby, so let's check it out!

Weather! I could just sit here all afternoon listening to the rain and the thunder and watching the trees gently sway. I get the satisfaction of knowing there's definitely going to be booming thunder, and the fun of rain without the risk of getting wet. To hell with the guns and the stalkers and the dogs: just make a rain simulator!

Right, right, where's this stash? Turns out the stash is a very nondescript toolbox in the ruined attic of the house accessible only by mad jumps across the shattered rooftops!

Well now, don't I feel like the chump for selling all my highly radioactive magic artifacts! I've just found one that reduces my Radiation by 10.

The downside?

Yeah, that's right. +100% Bleeding. I won't be radioactive any more because I will be bleeding from every single orifice.

Merry Christmas, Sidorovich.

And now I'm stuck in this little alcove. No amount of jumping, running, crouching, sidling, backpedalling, or crawling will get me out of here. I had to go into the options and make sure I had 'prone' set to a key and effectively prone-jump my way out.

The last two missions are to get the pseudodog's tail, and to find some specific artefact. I've found a whole bunch of artefacts by now but none of them have been the real deal. The pseudodog tail hunt's gotten nowhere and they're not marked on the map. None of the flavours of dog I've encounters so far have been a 'pseudodog'. I can't get any further on any of these, so it's time to get out the map.

'Dead stalker's stash'. That sounds like a fun thing.

I get the impression that the Zone is split up into a number of smaller, roughly rectangular areas, linked together with tunnels and fences and so on. Although the world appears to be one big open space like Boiling Point, it pulls some tricks to keep you in the right zone of the, uh, Zone.

I'm in 'Cordon', which is what you see here. Sidorovich, Wolf, Nimble & co. live in the settlement in the south west, the mystery tunnel was along the road leading to the east. The dark green areas are places where I'm able to go and there's a great big fence surrounding it all. The light coloured road running left to right which I'm approaching is actually a railway line. I'll have to follow the road and pass under the bridge to get to the other side.

And that is guarded by the tough-nut Major Kuzhetsov. He's listed as an enemy, even though I've had no encounters with the military up to this point. According to Sidorovich, the military and the stalkers don't get along. The military try to forcefully contain the Zone, taking it apart, rolling over it with tanks and boots and guns, causing the Zone to respond violently in kind. The stalkers are content to tread lightly (and get themselves blown up by backpedalling into anomalies while escaping from infinite megadogs).

"This area is off limits, stalker."

In response to this challenge, the Marked One musters up all of his conversational skills, his beguiling everyman bonhomie, and his powerful, irresistible force of will and responds...

"But I need to go there."

I'm a little surprised that money is what he's after, here in the Zone. We mustn't be that deep in if he's more interested in cash than supplies. He's got a Trade button but he's not interested in paying much for what I'm carrying. I do have the money, but I'm saving up for Sid's rifle and I'm not keen on paying this guy every time I want to pass.

What now? I can either go back down and try to find the tail or the artefact, but I don't want to wander aimlessly around the Zone any more. That means my alternative is to try and find a way around these guys.

I could also try to take on a squad of highly-trained soldiers carrying automatic weapons with my starting pistol. Given that I died simply by standing in the wrong place when I tried to approach the Major to talk to him, I think violence is out of the question.

And that means stalking my way along one of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s many patented unjumpable, unbreakable, impassible anti-fun barbed wire fences.

Well shut me up. There was a hole after all. It was quite far down the track, which means that the military guys didn't see me! Hooray!

Creeping through the wrecked fence, making sure to look both ways when crossing the train line... (N.B. Do not do this at home, kids. The crossing the line, not the looking. If you simply have to cross, you should definitely look!)

What's on the other side? Swarms of... yeah. This just makes me sad.

I'm hiding on the trunk of a felled tree, letting the dogs tire themselves out (doesn't happen) running around and around trying to get to me. Little do they know this is anomaly country! While I try to stem my bleeding by mashing sausages against my wounds, I'm occasionally cheered by the distant sound of an airy 'whumph' followed by a canine howl.

When you inevitably die, the Marked One turns into a floppy ragdoll and you get to see what happens to him afterwards! Here he is being dragged off by a nasty mutt.

I thought the stalker's stash was here on the tree, but it's not here any more apparently. But then! Sid rings me up on the radio with some very important fully-voiced plot stuff! A stalker has just been reported entering this area of the Zone who might have information on Strelok. I bet you'd forgotten about him, huh? To tell you the truth, I had too.

Ringing me up just to tell me about a guy who might know about Strelok is pretty helpful and nice, come to think of it. Thanks, Sid!

This stalker's wounded and in trouble, so I need to help him out stat. Marked One, away!

Trees, wonderful trees, stretching as far as the eye can see. It's all I want from a game, really.

Can't I rest a while? Please?

The distant gunshots say no...

Some neutral stalkers are having a gunfight with an unseen adversary. It's none of my business, but it is somewhat pretty to gawk at. Looting the dead afterwards is more my style. There's grey markers on the radar to lead me to each of them, but they don't tell me which ones I've already done.

Where's this wounded stalker? The emergency pizza delivery service is here to give up some of my hard-earned, limited-quantity healing items in exchange for plot advancement!

There are interesting ways to convey information in games, but slabs of unbroken text aren't one of them.

You might call me a big whiny-pants for not getting into the spirit of the thing; for not getting out a piece of paper and writing down all of the important locations and names so I can refer to them later since the game doesn't have a decent conversation log; for not risking eye strain peering at the brickwork trying to figure out which words are keywords because they're all the same colour.

I could do all that, sure, but time doesn't pause. The game has decided that it's been a few whole minutes since the last time I've had to shoot something that barks, and it's sicced the hounds on us once again. Fox is swerving about, taking pot shots at them, while Marked One's attention is forcibly locked in the conversation and refuses to disengage. It's only when Fox takes cover on the other side of the ruins that the feeling comes back to my feet and I can defend myself.

Fox got wounded again from fighting the dog, but I can still talk to him. I hope he isn't needed at another location later on because he's not going to be walking there. And I can't heal him because that was a special conversation option.

Watch out! Enemy stalkers attack!

Without any cover, the enemy stalkers only stand three-quarters of a chance against me. They might be highly trained operatives with sprung-trap reflexes but at least I can see the bastards now.

And he's dropped his assault rifle, hoorah! Things are looking up for team Marked One. Not many bullets for it, but it's definitely a start.

I found another intel item: info on backpack. And it's right over... there.

The stash was empty... except for the crippling radiation!

Radiation is basically a death sentence in this. It wears off very slowly, long after your skin's gone. I didn't pack any medication because I wasn't expecting sudden bursts of radiation... yeah, I'm an idiot.

I last saved... well, it was a while ago. Let's leave it at that. I've had enough.


CONCLUSION

Don't play S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

It's not very good. It's not trying to do something that's at all interesting, and it doesn't do it exceptionally well. The combat doesn't work. If you boot it up, you're entering into an empty world of drudgery. I wasn't even looking forward to finding new guns, that's how little I'm invested in the world of S.T.A.L.K.E.R..

It's wonky, but not as wonky as I imagined it would be. There's spelling and grammar mistakes; weird punctuation; voices that don't match up to the text; as well as various programming symbols displayed instead of the proper translations at times. It only crashed once!

The 'attic'/'cellar' mistranslation is fascinating. According to a couple of other walkthroughs I found, this happens consistently through the entire game. Cellar and attic in English are two very different things! You have to test that kind of thing when you translate a game! It might sound like a minor thing there, but what if this happens to another objective? I could be walking half way across the damn Zone because they mixed up east and west!

I never once felt the need to pursue Strelok. I didn't know anything about him, and he was hardly mentioned in the game as I played it. It makes sense, sure: there's no reason for him to be the centre of the world. But it does mean that my relentless crusade, tearing up the Zone piece by piece quickly faded towards a kind of mild curiosity until I'd gotten so frustrated by the tedium of my daily stalking activities that I just plain gave up.

Role-playing fans are going to be disappointed. Or, if they're not disappointed, they're going to be bored to tears by the monotony of what you have to sit through before you get to engage in a proper dialogue with somebody. It might not even ever happen.

Maybe some levity would have helped? I played Hunter for hours and hours and hours when I was younger, stomping my little green robot man around polygon islands in his eternal search for 1 generals head. I had no idea what I was doing, all the weapons were near impossible to use, vehicles ran out of fuel as soon as you figured out how to use them without accidentally tossing yourself out the window and running yourself over as it circled back around. Hunter was fun. It had colours and vehicles. It had long stretches of marching across landscapes, but it also had things to look forward to when you got there, as well as the chance to find something that would be helpful. I never found anything in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. that was remotely helpful. I wasn't learning or doing anything except running from dogs.

The nicest thing I can say about the game is that it's sometimes relaxing and there are some nice trees. You could play S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and pretend to get some exercise, or you could go out for real and feel much better.

It's a lovely day.

 SECOND OPINION:

Ray Hardgrit: You should totally play S.T.A.L.K.E.R! I mean if you want to. Obviously you need to have some interest in hiking through dog country in an unpolished, awkwardly translated semi-open world shooter from 2007 before installing it, but if you're down for that there's a lot to like here.

It has similar problems to the Elder Scrolls games in that the quests aren't that interesting, you spend a lot of time emptying out your inventory so that you can move again, and it's all about long walks in the wilderness (with no fast travel). But you're also out there in a world, helping factions, doing jobs, finding stuff, and ending lots and lots of bad people. It's cool.

Sure the game gets a bit quickloady during fights sometimes, but once you get an assault rifle and some medikits the combat starts making more sense. And those dogs are actually pretty easy to sneak around if putting a shotgun round into them is too much trouble. You just gotta remember to keep some saves in case you missed something half an hour ago and made it impossible to get the good ending.


You have just experienced another guest post by the elusive mecha-neko. If you want to respond with your own opinions about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. then the box below can sort that out for you. Share your thoughts and tell the world how right/wrong we are.

5 comments:

  1. This game is in my backlog since 2007 .. I need to play it.

    Still want to see your views on Simon the Sorcerer or Legend of Kyrandia =)

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    Replies
    1. But... you've seen my views on Simon the Sorcerer. You left me multiple comments on my Simon the Sorcerer post!

      Unless you're talking about mecha-neko's views, in which case yes, he should play it too. He should play all the point and click adventure games.

      Delete
    2. You're right, my bad ! I meant The Legend of Kyrandia and Discworld ! I mixed two different adventure games with sorcerers, sorry about that

      Delete
    3. Ah that makes more sense. If/when they end up in my possession I'll definitely say what I think about them.

      Delete
  2. Your first mistake was playing on STALKER difficulty - it should be labelled "Impossibly Russian difficulty" ;)

    I bounced off this game the first time I played it, and tried Call of Pripyat instead, which is infinitely more accessible and went back and finished Shadow of Chernobyl after. Great games, but definitely unforgiving.

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