How to STALKER

It's the spring of 2008.

Like many hobbyists, I consider myself to be pretty knowledgeable about my hobby--in this case, video games. I identify myself as a hardcore gamer, capable of dealing with whatever the medium throws my way. Hard mode? Pah. Child's play. There are, I feel, few surprises left for me in video games. Most challenges come from simply having small slivers of health to deal with, or poorly designed, laggy controls. Everything is easy.

STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, then, should be no challenge. It's some THQ-published first person shooter, and I've just come off of a binge from one of the greatest years in shooter history! Bioshock, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Crysis, Halo 3, The Orange Box, and Unreal Tournament 3, among others, had all launched just months before. STALKER, on the other hand? I saw it once at the cash register of a CompUSA during a Going Out of Business sale.

I install the game and double-click its icon, expecting... well, something different, to be sure. The back of the box makes it look kinda low-budget, but there's something about the bullet points that grabs me. The menu looks weird. It's overdesigned, lacking style or elegance. I'm reminded, somewhat, of older PC games, like Fallout 2. I change the settings, ready to begin.

The intro movie catches my attention, but it's over all too soon, and I'm in the game, talking to Sidorovich, the trader. Amnesia, I think to myself. Lame.

The controls are weird, but I walk around through town, and make my way out into the area beyond.

The graphics are odd. It's like the game forgot to draw something in the air ah--OH MY GOD WHAT THE

WHAT

HOW--I JUST

WHAT

It's the Fall of 2008.

After taking my dad to the airport, I rush over to Best Buy, eager to pick up the sequel. Yes, Shadow of Chernobyl has killed me dozens of times, and despite the hundred hours or so I've put into it, I've never actually beaten it. Sure, I made my way to the Wish Granter, but that doesn't really count. This will actually be the second copy of Clear Sky I've purchased--Steam hasn't unlocked the game, and even then, it'll be hours before I can play it. I need Clear Sky. I need it now.

Fast-forward a bit, and I've got it running. It feels so good to be back, especially since I'm living in a trailer and the little propane heater's hardly doing anything to warm the fall air. Clear Sky serves as another world to inhabit--one better than my own.

I'm a better Stalker now. I've learned to expect to be surprised. STALKER's world, unlike every other video game world I've encountered, is truly alive. Packs of blind dogs hunt relentlessly. Stalkers find better gear and become tougher. Sure, they spout the same old lines, but they act as if they're alive, and it isn't long before I find myself becoming friends with them all over again. Having played Shadow of Chernobyl with the Oblivion Lost mod installed, I'm tough, too--mature, even.

Nothing can stop me.

It's 2010.

"Blowout soon!" comes the now-familiar alert. I've just taken out a base full of mercenaries in Call of Pripyat's huge opening map. I'm overburdened, but I've got about five minutes--enough time, sure, but still cutting it a bit close. I start running across the fields.

Shit.

Maybe I'm not as fast as I thought.

I keep chugging energy drinks to boost my stamina, but they don't last long enough. Still, though, I can make it. I drop an unneeded sawed-off shotgun, then another, then an--oh. I've just fallen into a hole. It's not exactly a small drop, either; the hole is about forty feet deep, but I hit enough stuff on the way down not to kill myself.

Neat, I think to myself. I can wait out the blowout here, then find my way out through the caves!

As I begin winding my way through the caves, I hear the telltale woosh of a gravitational anomaly, as well as the miniature thunderclap of its electrical counterpart. Irritating, to be sure, particularly in this pitch-black cave, but no matter. I've got a flashlight and some bolts. I'll just throw them ahead of me and suss out a path through the anomalies.

That's when I hear a snork.

Their razor-sharp teeth and massive jumping distance are more than enough to make me panic and bolt out of the cave, dodging between anomalies and praying that don't die from death by gravitational implosion. My shotgun is next to useless against the snorks--they're fast, so hitting them with slugs won't do the trick, but I don't have the time to stop and switch to buckshot either.

Finally, I'm out of the cave, still killing snorks. When all is said and done, I've killed a dozen or more. I'm shaking. Hah. I'm shaking. I'm shaking. I drop whatever excess gear I have, even though the immediate threat has been dealt with, and start running to the ship's skeleton where my fellow stalkers have taken refuge. I just need to be with people for a while.

Clearly, there's a lot I have to learn.

It's now, and you're reading this thread.

Hi.

STALKER is my favorite game. The 2010 encounter, I hope, explains why. STALKER stands unique, amongst all other games, in that it feels alive, really and truly alive. Unlike most games, STALKER is... it's... well, it's sort of a simulator... except it's not. Simulators are often boring and ultra-realistic. In contrast, developer GSC Game World's finest achievement is a simulation of a fantasy, and what a dark fantasy it is. At the core of all this is the A-Life AI system.I could go on at length about how brilliant its AI is; in fact, if what I've heard is correct, A-Life was so smart, it could play--and beat--the game by itself.

But... The Zone, as STALKER's world is called, is alive in another sense as well. In a normal game, like Dark Souls, you have a series of opponents to fight. Generally, you learn patterns, then proceed from there. STALKER doesn't do that; it's better than that. The twisted, insane Zone itself is your enemy. Whether it's radiation, mutants, other people, or anomalies, everything that lives in the Zone is part of a single, malicious entity that truly wants little more than to kill you. As the STALKER novel Southern Comfort says, everything capable of moving is going to move in for the kill.

In Clear Sky, it is said that The Zone is punishing everyone for an intrusion into its very heart. It's at least smart enough to create its own cult, brainwashing stalkers into the cult called Monolith, where they act as its white blood cells, purging the human disease inside.

The Zone is an intriguing enemy, and because of that, it's an incredible space to inhabit.

STALKER is the one game I feel that every gamer should play, but one that, I know, can often be very discouraging and off-putting. It's a hard game, for one thing. It's bad at training the players, for another--and that's why I'm here.

What, Exactly, is STALKER?

That's... hard to explain.

It's a shooter, an RPG without stats, and a true survival horror game (you actually focus on survival, rather than trying to fight awkward controls) all rolled into one, developed by Ukranian developer GSC Game World, and based off Roadside Picnic, a novel, and Stalker, a film. It's best described as a horror-themed immersive sim. They were working on a STALKER 2 for release in 2012--later delayed to 2013--when the game was canceled.

There are three games: the original, Shadow of Chernobyl, and two expandalones, Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat. Clear Sky redesigns several of the maps from the original game, though its got some new ones of its own. Call of Pripyat has all-new maps, including the biggest in the series.

Each game is played from the point of view of a new character--Scar, The Marked One, and some Russian Dude.

You should play all three of them. Most people think Call of Pripyat's the best, but I personally found it to be a little dry compared to its predecessors, with what was by far the least-interesting story, mostly because it was the one that intruded the most upon the gameplay.

The Order To Play Them In:

I'm a story guy, so I personally think it's best to play Clear Sky first, followed by Shadow of Chernobyl, and, lastly, Call of Pripyat. Shadow of Chernobyl begins with only one mission objective: "kill Strelok." Clear Sky is the game that teaches you to hate Strelok, but I can definitely see an argument for playing Shadow of Chernobyl first--the mystery of discovering who Strelok is and why you must kill him is definitely a compelling one. I feel like Clear Sky's pursuit is less interesting if you already know how the future plays out.

If you want to see mechanical advancement, play them in the order they were released: Shadow of Chernobyl, Clear Sky, and Call of Priypat.

Tips Relevant to Each Game:

They're not like video games. To try to play them like video games is to play them incorrectly. You must treat them like real spaces. If a man tells you to put down your gun, do it, or he'll put you down. If you try to take on the military, be warned: they're a lot better at killing than you are. To survive, do what you would do if you were really there--likewise, grow as you would grow if you were really there.

They're buggy. Accept this. Quicksave often.

You will die a lot. Again, Quicksave often. Don't get frustrated--the first game in particular does take a few hours to really click. That said, a couple things that will prevent you from dying are the quickbandage and quick first-aid kit buttons. Learn where they are. Rebind them to better keys if necessary. If you start bleeding, use a bandage. If your health gets low, use a first aid kit. If you suffer from radiation poisoning and there are no enemies around, drink vodka. If there are enemies around, use some anti-radiation meds.

Actually, speaking of rebinding keys, STALKER really benefits from better keybindings. If you're using WSAD--and you should--switch "sprint" to shift, ctrl to crouch, and use something else (I generally go with C) to low-crouch.

Anomalies are... bizarre. Try to avoid them, particularly the weird, rhythmic, near-invisible pulsing spheres. They're what killed me almost right away when I played the first game. Learn to listen--not just for them, but for other things, like gunfire. At the same time... you'll want artifacts--peculiar stat-changing items that are formed inside anomalies. The most important artifact you can possibly find is one that reduces radiation--in Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat, the best one is called "Bubble."

Bread is the food that weighs the lightest, and having a low carry weight is vital to surviving in the Zone. Energy drinks will help you keep your endurance up when moving (low endurance means you walk slowly, as does being overburdened). You can carry ten kilograms more than your carry weight, but this drains endurance rapidly, so don't do this unless you have to.

I have found that the most versatile loadout involves a scoped weapon, a shotgun with buckshot, grenades, and the heaviest pistol I can find. Power suits are great, and vastly increase your carry weight, but they won't let you sprint, so I tend to wear lighter gear.

Use your knife on various boxes in the game, like crates and the blue boxes with white lids. They'll often drop supplies when you smash them.

Many--but not all--large, metallic objects in the game are radioactive, as are bodies of water, so if you start hearing your geiger counter ticking, back off and find another route.

When you find a psychic dog, shoot it as quickly as possible, or it will spawn clones.

Differences in the Games:

Shadow of Chernobyl is a bit different from Call of Pripyat and Shadow of Chernobyl, which are functionally identical, barring content differences.

One of the nicest things about Shadow of Chernobyl is that it lets you carry the Viper or the Sawed-off shotgun in your pistol slot. It also doesn't feature blowouts, nor does it require you to use a detector to find anomalies--so they're fairly plentiful, and not so challenging to get. It also lets you kill mutants and loot them for body parts, a feature which is oddly absent in the later games.

The latter two feature an equipment modding component, blowouts (massive radiation storms that require you to hide from enemies), and detectors (which help you locate artifacts in anomalies).

Clear Sky features a faction system, which I'll explain in greater detail later. Call of Pripyat has an enemy called the Chimera. Do not attempt to engage unless friendly forces are nearby or you're feeling particularly badass.

Specific Pointers for the individual games:

In Shadow of Chernobyl, upon leaving Sidorovich's bunker, you will find a man named Wolf. He will be standing next to a ladder that leads into a house's attic. Climb the ladder. There will be a small ledge to your left. Get onto this ledge, and work your way onto that building's roof. Run and jump onto the next building's roof, make your way to the far side, and low crouch. Use your knife to smash the box, and move around while jamming the "interact" button, and you should end up picking up a better set of armor than what you've currently got.

Without spoiling too much, I'll try to help you past the game's first, and most important, roadblock. Normally, when people play games, they expect a few things, like games not being able to lie to them. If someone says "you can't go in there," then players naturally assume that, well, the game must be telling them the truth. This is partly a product of necessity; a designer can only do so much to create realistic boundaries to a map, and having someone say "you can't go there" is one logical deterrent.

Everyone I know who has played Shadow of Chernobyl, including myself, has come across this roadblock, and have joined one of two groups: first, the people who decided that the only options available were those presented at face value, and second, those who tried to find another way.

I keep harping on the fact that STALKER is a lot like a real space. That means that if some guy tells you that you can't go any further without giving him money you haven't got... then you can make your way around him. There are at least three non-payment ways of getting past the roadblock, and one of them is super easy. I'll leave it up to you to find it.

Clear Sky is my favorite game in the series. Most people actually don't like it, and here's why: the Zone is too full of life. When you play Shadow of Chernobyl, you're surrounded by the barren wasteland. Death is everywhere. In Clear Sky, there are lots of Stalkers living in camps, tons of missions, and radio calls.

People hate those radio calls. I love them. Why? Because, once again, it's all about changing the way the player thinks. Most games give us missions, and we are expected to complete them. Clear Sky presents too many missions, or missions that are over before players get to them... and that's kinda the point. Once you realize that you are just one person in a world of many, and that those radio broadcasts are what anyone in The Zone would realistically expect to hear, you learn that you can't be a completionist. Those events happen because someone alive in the world has a problem and needs help. They don't need you. You are not the hero. You're just another stalker, wandering The Zone. Accept your unimportance and move on.

By the way, if you want that sweet gun seen in the opening sequence of the game, it's still where Scar dropped it during the cutscene. Just head to the North of the Swamp map, where there's a bridge with train cars. It will be on the ground on the north side of them, but be warned, it's broken, and ammo for it is quite scarce.

Be warned: when visiting Yantar, a door might not open, effectively breaking your save. If this happens, load an earlier save from a different map.

Call of Pripyat: The ending is a little bit of a disappointment, since time spent in Priypat isn't nearly as long as a game titled "Call of Pripyat" might lead you to believe. It's also got the smallest overall world.

Making The Games Better:

If you've ever talked to someone about playing STALKER, chances are that they've mentioned Complete. There's a good reason for this: when it comes to mods, from a random texture upgrade pack for some game to Counterstrike, Complete is one of the best. At first glance, it's just a graphics mod... but there's a lot more to it. Little details--like breakable light bulbs that stop emitting light when you shoot them--really make the world sing. Besides, if you feel like cheating, you can use Complete's built-in Wish Granter summon a horde of enemies to attack your foes, just to see what will happen.

There is a version of Complete for both Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat as well.

One of the most commonly-recommended mod combinations I've heard for Shadow of Chernobyl is AMK combined with Complete. AMK adds things like sleeping bags and hunger to the game, which takes an already hardcore game and makes it even better. I am currently playing with the hybrid of AMK and Complete, and it's incredible. I've got an installation required to just drag and drop it that I'll gladly host if I can find a place to host it, but if you want to try to do it yourself, just run a quick search for "AMK + Complete Pastebin," and check out the pastebin links. I could never get those to work, however.

My favorite mod, however, has got to be Oblivion Lost. Apparently, its creator, Kanyhalos, basically just jammed a bunch of mods together and made them work, which upsets some purists, but that doesn't really matter: Oblivion Lost is great, and I personally find it to be more balanced and interesting than any of the other mods. Unfortunately, I don't know how to get it to work with Complete, so unless you can find a way, you'll have to settle for Shadow of Chernobyl's original graphics.

Other mods worth trying are LURK, the Zone Reclamation Project, Lost Alpha, and Narodnaya Solyanka. NS, as explained on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, features a lot more content than the original game. It's weird, for sure, but something I plan on completing once I've finished my current playthrough. Yesterday, I learned about MISERY, a radical conversion for Call of Pripyat which I'm now dying to try out.

This is the Part Where I Leave You to Your Own Devices:

STALKER is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. Even Metro 2033, developed by former STALKER personnel, couldn't live up to the excellence birthed with Shadow of Chernobyl. I was heartbroken when I heard that the original was canceled, and while I'm somewhat excited by the news of games like "Sir, You Are Being Hunted," and the F2P Survarium, which is being made by former GSC employees (though I am somewhat worried that it will be like literally every other Free 2 Play game I've played, meaning it won't be like STALKER).

If you consider yourself to be any kind of gamer, you owe it to yourself to not only give STALKER a go, but to attempt to beat it. Learn to shut down all the little habits you've picked up while gaming, because STALKER treats you with a great deal more respect than any video game you will ever play, and it expects a degree of respect in return.

Give it a shot.

You'll probably die, but that's okay.

It's 2012.

I've just buried Edik Dinosaur, and it's time to move on. A member of Clear Sky had his rifle stolen. I offer him one of mine, but he's intent on getting his gun back. Understanding his emotional attachment, I agree to retrieve the gun for him.

I head north, to the pump station, guided by the constant whine of machinery as much as anything else. I'm listening, always listening, for mutants, anomalies, bandits, or something else. I hear a rustling in the grass and whirl about, just as a boar grunts at me and charges. My shotgun blows its skull wide open, and I sidestep as the creature stumbles, its momentum carrying it past me.

The pump station is managed by just two men, which is concerning. By the time I return, these men might both be dead, the station infested with mutants or bandits.

Best to avoid the water--it's full of radiation--so I make my way through the reeds, listening for the slightest hint that I'm being followed.

The bones of a small village, little more than a street and a few houses, lay ahead of me, the affects of anomalies readily apparent. To my left, an anomaly floats above the swampwater, creating a whirlpool that must be at least twenty meters across. Strangely, the vortex doesn't move, as if frozen in time, just another oddity in The Zone.

In the village, I hear something, and spin around, looking for enemies. Nothing growls and no one shouts, so I dash into the next building and ready my shotgun.

Bloodsucker. Has to be.

...but... nothing happens. Hesistantly, I poke my head outside, muster up my courage, and proceed further north, even more cautious than before. Something rustles in the reeds behind me, but I spot nothing.

Just before my destination, I stop and listen. A cabin sits in a small clearing, surrounded by a shed, a few picnic benches, and a fence. I've been here before, so I'm expecting bandits, but I don't hear anything, so I steal into the cabin, checking my corners for possible targets. The rifle's sitting right there, in the safe, so I grab it and head south, back through the swamps, through the village, and finally to the pump station.

Something rustles behind me the whole way, but I can't figure out what it is. I return the gun to the man, and he thanks me, directing me to the Clear Sky base for payment.

Sometimes, nothing happens in The Zone, and it's still terrifying.

I wouldn't have it any other way.