2001: S.P.A.C.E. O.D.D.I.T.Y.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl (and let’s just abandon any pretence that I’m going to type that out in full each time right now) was announced by the late great THQ way back in 2001. Remember that? It sent waves of drooling anticipation through the gaming community that still haven’t died away. We all wanted to go to the Exclusion Zone. We all wanted to be Stalkers, the balaclava-wearing idiots risking life and limb to find weird artefacts and sell them to Russian Plutocrats in exchange for a house in Chelsea.
Remember how they said it would feature intelligent AI that allowed NPCs to follow their own agenda? The promised complex ‘wildlife’ system that would allow for emergent skirmishes between bandits and mutant dogs? The threat of crazy radioactive weather you’d have to find shelter from, or the idea that you could build camps to hide from invisible monster attacks whilst you tried not to die of hunger or dehydration? The drivable cars?
Remember how it was three years late in release and came out stripped to the bone, with about half those features included and the other half smothered under madness-inducing bugs?
We forgave it. Because STALKER and its sequels are unique and powerful games, evocations of a cruel wasteland with a so-believable atmosphere. So if they had useless stories, idiotic voice acting and backward AI, it didn’t matter. Nothing else was really giving you such an unforgettable tour of an abandoned and mutated city, along with the creatures living in it.
Anybody who’s faced down one of the rare Controllers in the claustrophobic tunnels under Agroprom knows just what I’m talking about. STALKER at its best was terrifying, hitting you with some of the most memorable locations and enemies in PC gaming history.
But nobody forgot those promises THQ made. Especially not indie developers Dezowave, who, after a development saga at least as long and twisted as that of the original, have just released the Lost Alpha game.
Their promise? To give you the game that 2001 originally announced, a STALKER with all the glow-in-the-dark whistles and screaming mutant bells you always wanted. It’s taken them long years to produce, and it still wasn’t done when their hand was forced into releasing it by some leaky playtesters.
But now it’s here. A complete game. For free. With everything back in.
A Brave New World
I’ve played a lot of STALKER. And a lot of the mods. The consistent theme for them seems to be ‘make the game insanely hard,’ particularly the infamous Misery mod. Because the original promised you’d be struggling against a harsh environment with only what you could find or earn, and that wasn’t really what it delivered. What a lot of the mods promise is to patch back in content cut from the original release, to repair the broken AI or improve the elderly graphics. Most did parts of this, but as with any mod of a temperamental game, they were usually very buggy themselves.
Going into this one, the main things I’m looking for are:
- Is the Zone still as good-looking as an environment?
- Is it still as scary?
- Is it still as uncompromisingly, even ludicrously, hard?
- How stable is the game now?
The minute I got the game loaded and working (see later), I found my amnesiac character waking in unfamiliar darkness, dizzily staring at his hands. It’s just like the day after I graduated. But it’s way more exciting than mere graduation – this is the original Shadow of Chernobyl, but it’s still new. I don’t recognise where I am. As a long-term player of the game and its mods, this is already incredibly exciting.
Emerging from the standard-issue bunker apocalyptic games introduce you to their worlds from, I’m doubly excited. It looks amazing. Vegetation sprouts wildly from everything I can see. And it shimmers in the light seeping between the clouds that scud overhead. Ruined buildings poke temptingly from the leaves. Shadows and dust blow everywhere. Frogs gibber, strange howls come from afar. My belt-attached anomaly detector squawks once, then falls silent. How safe am I?
A Russian man is playing the guitar and laughing at an incomprehensible joke somewhere nearby.
Oh yes, we’re back in the Zone alright.
Dezowave’s first major accomplishment is bringing the game well up to date on graphics. My rig can’t handle the top end on offer, but it’s already superb in the middle. And they’ve then succeeded in putting a fresh shine on a familiar environment. I know the outer levels of the Zone incredibly well, after many hours exploring them. Everything feels new. The landscape is broadly identical, so it feels familiar, but the buildings, the bogs, the bandits – nothing is where I remember. I’m no longer sprinting past the first few locations, tired and bored. I’m inching along the walls, hoping I’ll strike gold and hoping I won’t strike mutants. Or zombies. Or rats.
And now, for the first time, there are rats! I can shoot the circling birds! I almost immediately get killed by a type of mutant anomaly plant thing I’ve never seen before! Hunger and thirst aren’t made into an instant or insurmountable problem, but there they are, forcing me to waste backpack space on cans of sweetcorn and dubious vodka! Who am I kidding, I’d bring that anyway. It’s a staple part of my ordinary diet.
Get Rich and Die Trying
After a couple of simple quests to introduce a few core mechanics, like why walking directly into invisible gravitational carcrushers is bad, I’m sent to clear out a factory of bandits. This was a key moment in the original, the moment you discovered how tough the game could be. Getting shot in STALKER causes bleeding, so even if you’re just nicked you’ll need bandages to avoid dribbling out your last behind half a tractor.
And it never took much. That first bandit showdown, you against a gang of about six or seven baddies, had a learning curve like the North face of the Eiger. They outgunned you effortlessly, over and over, until you learnt to use cover, leaning and caution to extreme effect.
That curve is lessened here. For me, that’s no bad thing. Instead of an almost-game-breakingly hard first fight, you have a fairly quiet time of it. How easy exactly depends on whether you want to take the AI squaddies along or not, but it’s still potentially fatal either way. With a new (and excellent) locale to fight in, it’s a smoother introduction to the world. Not long afterwards, there’s a choice of fighting a much tougher group of enemies, or trying to negotiate with them. Or simply avoiding them.
For the world is very wide open. Nobody’s forcing you into that ominously glowing side-tunnel. It’s just your greed and curiosity. You can stealth your way to an extent, although animals can detect you pretty easily. You probably smell; there doesn’t seem to be a lot of working showers for Stalkers. Sorry, that should be working S.H.O.W.E.R.S.
Sure, you can tank about, shooting everyone you meet. This gets you a lot of expensive gear quite fast, but it makes you unpopular. The game’s factions track how you deal with them. Kill too many folk indiscriminately and word gets out. You can expect their friends to return the favour.
Indeed, running into neutrals unexpectedly makes you tense. Shoot or trade? Avoid or chat? It feels as realistic as ever. The Zone is still lonely, grim and desolate, yet somehow more real-feeling than any wasteland I’ve seen in similar games.
With new secrets lurking at every corner (I’ve already found a huge underground tunnel network in the very first level, and I’m actually too scared to explore it because I don’t feel well-equipped enough), Lost Alpha is immediately delivering much of that golden, impossible game I was promised. For free.
I can’t claim this is a full review. I’m only hours into the initial levels. I’d say the story-telling is better, both clearer about what you’re doing and easier to relate to in terms of how the NPCs react to you. You’re led a little better as well, introduced to the factions running the zone in a rather more believable way. Small jobs to start, small rewards. The big stuff is saved for later.
The other reason I can’t claim it’s a full review is that it is, of course, bugged up the wazoo.
I’ve spent as much time crashing and fixing as playing. Being an early release means Dezowave haven’t been able to fix all their own bugs yet, let alone the millions that plagued the original. I had trouble installing it, and although the game looks great, it’s poorly optimized and tends to run slowly and erratically. There are plenty of options to twiddle with to find the sweet spot of performance and appearance, but my build refuses to save any of my selections. Each time a crash kicks me out, I have to go through it all again, turning down god rays like an eco-angel.
Sound in particular is pretty wobbly, with voices booming as though inside my head, a helicopter that always seems to be the same twenty feet away from my ears regardless of where it is, and a disturbing lack of footsteps when I walk. Most of this is just frustrating. Some of it makes me a little more anxious, though – I hear people bemoaning the fact that the AI is much worse, with enemies unable to react to you if you’re behind them.
I’ve fallen foul to the new classic, a ‘missing foot bone’ error that sprains your shins right out on to the desk top if a rat bites you. The described fix on the net isn’t working for me, so if a single rodent makes it through the hail of buckshot I send to meet them, I can kiss my game goodbye.
Working cars? Apparently, but I suspect it’ll be a while before I reach any. Although forum advice is already fixing most of the worst problems, and the team is already promising patches within the next week or so, it makes it a rocky game to play right now.
But so worth it.
As I head deeper into the zone, I pass a tumbledown shack to one side of the road I’m following. I could go in and explore, but it’s probably as empty and miserable as ninety-five percent of the places you pass. All the same, I’m tempted. The outer parts of the zone are usually pretty picked clean, as you’d expect, but every little bit helps. Besides, I’m hungry and thirsty, and it’s getting dark. Maybe I could sleep here if it’s empty.
To speed my decision-making process, the shack starts squeaking and then emits a copious flood of rats. They haven’t come for me, I soon discover, although they certainly start attacking once they realise I’m there. They’re fleeing the attentions of a ferocious pseudodog, a snarling mutant with an almost-human face.
I have a pistol and a sniper rifle at hand, neither of which are great at picking off rats on the fly. Or waist-high mastiffs that look like my old Latin teacher. I’ll have to find a bit of high ground, then root in my pack for first a shotgun, then the shells for it, as ammo needs to be loaded on to your belt before you can use it.
However, even as I struggle to load my sawn-off shottie, I discover it’s worse than that.
There’s no high ground. And it’s two pseudodogs.
That, for me, is the STALKER experience in a nutshell. Not wanting to explore deserted buildings but also really wanting to, never knowing if I’ll get mauled by some intelligent, vicious predator or find more morbid skeletons propping up the rafters. It’s tense, haunting, stressful and fun in equal measures, like a fairground ghost train that actually delivers.
And it’s free.
This is a bigger, more ambitious and better-looking game than the original. If you liked that, you’ll love this. If you hated that, you’ll hate this less. Yes, it’s deeply unstable, frustrating and rough around the edges. But it offers fascinating gameplay with an illusion of real-life survival rarely delivered by the promises most modern games make.
In terms of delivering the four things I was looking for earlier, this mod:
- Looks fantastic, although high-end graphics options will need a powerful rig to run them
- Retains the scares and horror of the Zone perfectly, even improving it in places
- Is not quite as hard, but can be modded back up if you want to. (Personally, I think this is an improvement in terms of accessibility)
- Is not remotely stable
There’s no rush to grab it yet, perhaps, as it will only get better and smoother with time. But there’s nothing quite like it in modern gaming. Plus the fact that this is a full-size game available for the wild cost of nothing(!) makes it very hard not to recommend. I’d even suspect there is a distant risk that it will become a game you’ll need to pay for in the fullness of time. It certainly has the production values to merit a price.
Download it from Moddb and enjoy. Dezowave have done something remarkable here, renovating an abandoned classic as a labour of love, and deserve all the accolades and support you can give them.
- Gripping and Gritty
- Absolutely free
- Did I say buggy?
Since writing this, I’ve found a wealth of patches on the net, compiled here at this link, that fix several of the most glaring flaws. And the Dev team are saying their own first patch will be coming out today (2/5/14), so keep an eye on the Moddb page for further news!
Plus more screenshots!