Stalker is an adventure-oriented series of shooters set in the blighted Exclusion Zone of Chernobyl. Set in the near future, Stalker takes inspiration from Russian science fiction and depicts the Zone as twice damned. A second explosion after the 1986 meltdown has effectively torn apart the laws of physics and indeed nature. Now, mutated wildlife runs rampant, and bizarre spatial anomalies - gravity wells, electrical discharges, sudden jets of fire - appear out of thin air. However, these anomalies also spawn artifacts that affect the user, granting a variety of supernatural abilities from damage immunity to regeneration.
The artifacts call outside attention to the Zone, and a wide range of scavengers, thieves, and the like have penetrated the army cordon to seek them out. These 'Stalkers' range from random adventurers and loners in search of cash, to members of the scientific community or even those trying to contain the disaster from within. Still others just group up and rob everybody else. Whatever their reasons, all have an interest in the Zone's mysteries. And the Zone, it seems, has an interest in keeping those mysteries unsolved.
At present, there are three entries into the series. The original game, Shadow of Chernobyl, follows one particular Stalker; an amnesiac survivor of a truck crash, found only with a PDA ordering him to find and kill someone named Strelok. As it turns out, Strelok is rumored to be one of the few to reach the center of the Zone and live to tell about it. Tattooed with the acronym 'S.T.A.L.K.E.R.', the Marked One sets out to learn what happened to him, who Strelok is, and just what lays at the heart of the Zone.
Clear Sky is a direct prequel to Shadow, detailing the events that led up to Strelok's journey to the center. You play as the mercenary Scar, the lone survivor of a radioactive blowout; a massive, localized energy storm that usually kills the unprotected, this one so huge as to change the very landscape of the Zone. A sect of Stalkers called Clear Sky believes the blowout was in response to a Stalker breaching the center of the Zone, as they feel the Zone is a living entity with which mankind must learn to coexist. Finding Scar alive, Clear Sky rescues him and contracts him to take down the Stalker responsible before another blowout happens.
The recently-released Call of Pripyat is the third game, following one of the 'true' endings from Shadow. The military prepares a large-scale operation to reassert control over the Chernobyl ruins, but somehow the operation fails; the choppers sent to map anomalous activity crash for reasons unknown. Taking a more subtle approach, the government covertly sends a special agent into the Zone to infiltrate the Stalker communities and find out why the choppers went down, and ultimately what happened in the center of the Zone.
Interesting premise, but what puts it apart from every other shooter out there?
Before the actual Oblivion With Guns came out, that phrase was used often to describe Stalker. While inaccurate, it does give you a basic idea of what to expect. There's little character building to speak of, but it does toe the RPG line with some of its features. Individually large zones are connected by checkpoints, and within these is considerable room to explore. Various neutral or friendly Stalkers may be willing to trade, share information, or even commission you for jobs. Some are just milk runs and side quests, others help you towards your overall goal.
The real thing that sets Stalker apart, however, is the attention to atmosphere. The Zone is a bleak, desolate place; a warped nuclear wasteland and a Soviet-era catastrophy frozen in time. What makes it work is this world exists. The Zone is very real, and developer GSC Game World has taken great pains to reflect (with some liberties) the real-world locale. From dead rail lines and crumbling factories to the garbage pits where clean-up workers dumped radioactive equipment, Stalker's world is part sci-fi mystery and part modern-day tragedy.
But not always lonely. The Zone is abandoned territory, but hardly empty. Each of the game involves dealing with the various Stalker groups and gathering information on what's going on. With the military barely keeping a lid on things, a wide assortment of Stalkers have set up their own factions and safe zones, and you'll have to cut deals and do some old-fashioned legwork to get somebody to point you in the right direction.
Sooner or later you're going to have to get out into the wilds and start exploring, and that's where your troubles begin. Hostile Stalkers, mercenaries, and the military are only half the problem; at least they speak Russian. Wild dogs, boars, and other mutated animal life roam the area, hunting in large packs for their next meal. Anomalies dot the landscape, ready to incinerate, crush or vaporize the unwary. Radioactive hot spots can turn a Stalker into a walking lamp in seconds, and a corpse in seconds more. In some areas, groups of Stalkers appear to have their brains boiled, and wander the Zone as if packs of shuffling, gun-toting zombies. Fearful scavengers speak of ghosts and demons, haunted labs and abandoned villages used as feeding grounds by mutated abominations.
Survival is the name of the game; making sure you've got enough ammo, food, and supplies to get the job done. Bandits are all over the place, and no matter how good you think you are, it only takes one lucky shotgun blast to end your adventure. That howl from down the tunnel means something has spotted you, and you might not what it is until it's right on top of you. Groups of Stalkers clash often, and the victors show no mercy to any survivors; Stalkers will calmly walk up to wounded men, curse at them, and execute them. Your flashlight is barely a pinprick against the night, though you can bet someone, or something, will notice and prepare accordingly. Faint glimmers in the distance catch your attention, growing more numerous, closer, larger, and only too late do you realize they are eyes.
Stalker. That and so much more.
Sounds fairly keen. Why isn't this more popular?
You know how PC games have kind of a reputation for being buggly, imbalanced messes that rely too much on post-release patching to work right? Stalker is like that, but much, much
worse. Patches are necessary, but that's only part of the problem. The engine is poorly optimized, and there's no guarantee it won't effectively swallow your machine's resources whole. AI scripting is fine for combat and general purposes, but has some real trouble transitioning between the two; Stalkers are known to latch onto a target on the other side of the map and will happily march right into an anomaly or a sniper's crosshairs to get at them. Scripted sequences break easily and it can be frustrating at best to keep friendlies alive.
Apart from technical instability, there are flat-out poor design choices. Shadow is missing a stable repair system, and both Shadow and Clear Sky lack for an option to sleep through the night in a safe zone. Enemy respawn rates are high, and it's not uncommon to have to kill another dozen or so bandits on your way back through an area you thought you'd cleared. Quests sometimes just show up on your PDA without any indication of who issued them, where they're directing you to, or even what you need to do; a quest to 'protect the Stalkers' may involve clearing the bandit camp next to them, but it won't always tell you as such. Trading is less than useful and you'll wind up with armfuls of gear just by going out and getting it the hard way.
The series is unpolished, in a nutshell. Patches and mods correct most of these problems, but you have to know going in that it can take some finagling to get working right.
Mods? Man, that sounds complicated. Why should I bother?
Somehow, in spite of the problems, Stalker has attracted a large and fairly devoted following. Each game on its own has brought more innovation, depth and honest-to-goodness adventure
to the table than most series entire. Even if you mow through enemy Stalkers by the dozen, there's still uncommon humanity on display. Stalkers randomly break out a guitar and start strumming away, or tell a joke, or share a story, they'll bemoan their fate in a bar or mumble about nightmares in their sleep. Even in the scripted sequences, what happens next isn't usually written in stone. If you quicksave, then quickload five minutes later, the next five minutes may yet surprise you. The next playthrough, even more so.
there. It's hard to define, but once you pick it up, you just might understand. And that's what this thread's for.
So what do you say?