S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a pretty interesting franchise when it comes to these sort of survival horror first-person shooter, and is very much reminiscent of Metro. Unlike Metro though, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series is much slower paced and somewhat infuriatingly difficult. It somewhat conveys the literary aspect of the story as envisioned by the film, through the gameplay itself, and therefore has a much more methodical approach.
That’s not to say the games are bad, far from it, but it doesn’t have the same broad appeal that something like Metro does, and so requires a specific type of person. Yes, you will have to push through some more difficult aspects of the games, such as somewhat dated mechanics and some technical issues, but it’s well worth the trouble if you want to experience some good world-building.
Before starting, I will warn you that there are story spoilers in some sections below, and they’ve been hidden or highlighted so you can avoid them, so don’t worry about that.
#1 S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
The first game in the series, it sort of suffers from the typical issues you’d expect from a game made in 2007, although still being a great game overall, so much so that we put it in the top 10 shooters of all time.
For example, the world is pretty massive, covering 30 square kilometers and being called ‘The Zone’, which is essentially a small slice of the exclusion zone for the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor. On top of that, there’s a lot of survival elements that weren’t necessarily that big at the time, such as a food and water system to keep you going.
Similarly, you have an RPG style encumbrance system that affects your endurance if you go over your weight limit, which is 50kgs, so there’s certainly a big amount of inventory management involved.
This mish-mash of genres and mechanics foreshadows the game and its gameplay. With a large open world to explore and several dozens of side missions you can choose to do, the world certainly can feel alive, even though a lot of the time it wants you dead. What’s even more annoying is that the world still exists even if you aren’t around, so a quest giver might be gone when you come back to hand in or pick up a quest.
Of course, there are other issues such as bugs and technical problems that can cause lag, stuttering, and long loading times. On top of that, the combat can be a bit of a pain in the bum, with the AI being really good at headshotting you with even the worst weapons, while you couldn’t manage to hit the side of a barn with a mini-gun. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s still an issue that can be a bit game-breaking.
If you can push through all that though, you can experience a truly excellent story, which isn’t surprising considering that it’s loosely based on Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (I’ve watched it, it’s intense) and the science fiction novella ‘Roadside Picnic’.
So here’s the rub:
You wake up in the zone with amnesia, knowing only that you are a stalker, as that’s what you see tattooed on your arm after you get rescued by a black market trader.
In your PDA, you also find a message that says “Kill Strelok” . . . super mysterious.
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In repayment for saving you, you kindly go about doing some task for this black market trader, who clearly isn’t insidious or anything. While you do, you attempt to find this mysterious Strelok and also reclaim your memories.
During a mission to disable a weird thing that fries people’s brains, you accidentally set off an explosion, get semi-knocked out, get saved by a man called ‘Doc’ and find out about an artifact called ‘The Wish Granter’ which . . . grants wishes.
Oh, and you find out that you are Strelok. Plot twist!
So of course this Wish Granter is the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant, and while making your way to the center of it, you get involved with a variety of factions that I’m going to totally glom over. There is one faction that is important to mention though, and it’s a crazy monolith worshiping cult that makes your life incredibly difficult while trying to get into the power plant.
After a bunch of fighting, death, and so on, you finally make it to The Wish Granter, only to find that in actuality, it’s all a rumor by C-Consciousness to create new stalkers to do their bidding. What is C-Consciousness? Well, it’s a hive-mind of 7 scientists that were placed in The Zone during the Soviet Union to carry out research on the human mind. After the fall of the Soviets, this hive-mind decided to continue their research and try to attempt world peace by mind-controlling everybody . . . literally.
I know, mind-controlling the world for peace, what a crazy idea! Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Instead, it created the twister and mutated world of The Zone.
Now, there are several endings to the game, but the most ‘complete’ ending involves you killing C-Consciousness and then taking a nap in a nearby grassy field.
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It’s an interesting story that unfolds over the course of the several hours it will take you to play the game . . . if you are willing to overlook the technical problems and 2007’s gameplay mechanics. It’s certainly worth it though, especially if you enjoy the franchise or similar games like Metro. Failing that, you could always watch a Let’s Play to catch up on the full story and gameplay.
Related: Metro Games in Order
#2 S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky
The second game in the series, unfortunately, Clear Sky is considered the worst in the franchise, and that’s mostly due to its compounding on the issues of the first game. Mainly the issue here is the awful combat, with even more powerful AI that can essentially one-shot you, while you still having issues with being able to kill them.
Also, the addition of a grenade into the game has made the AI even more deadly at range, with their ability to perfectly lob one at your feet from miles away.
Aside from that infuriating issue, the overall game is still good. Since it’s considered a prequel and takes place in the same area, you get to revisit and see the world before it got twisted and weird. Seeing location as they were before the change is actually pretty cool, and it certainly adds to the overall aura of the game, although it does sometimes make it feel as if Clear Sky is just an expansion to Shadow of Chernobyl.
That being said, they have added an interesting new system, in that weapons and armor can now be modded, so it adds a little bit of extra variety to a game that’s sorely lacking it. Also, the survival aspect of the game was removed, so no need for water or food to stay alive. Bandages are super scarce though, which can be very annoying.
In terms of story, you play a character named Scar, a soldier for hire, in the period before Strelok got up to his shenanigans. When the game starts, you are leading a group of scientists on a scientific expedition, when a high energy emission erupts and you get knocked out. While the scientists didn’t fare well, you did manage to survive by being rescued by a faction called Clear Sky, ergo the name of the game.
[HEAVY SPOILERS AHEAD]
So the leader of Clear Sky, Lebedev, believes that the emissions are essentially caused by the Stalkers, and he sends you out to specifically seek a group of 4 stalkers that are reaching the center of The Zone. As you might have gathered, one of these Stalkers is Strelok, and while you do try to pursue him, he does end up giving you the slip several times over.
Finally reaching Chernobyl, you and Clear Sky fight against the Monolith cult that tries to stop anybody from reaching the center of the Zone. In the process, Lebedev gives you a prototype electromagnetic weapon that will theoretically disable Strolek’s psionic protection in the nuclear power plant. Lebedev believes that killing Strolek will end the weird high-energy emissions that are destroying and twisting everything.
You manage to get a shot off, and Strelok is believed to be killed, yet the high energy emissions don’t stop and in fact, an even more massive energy emission is sent out engulfing everybody. While the game doesn’t tell us whether Scar survived or not, we do see Strelok in the brainwashing facility that was set up by C-Consciousness along with some other Stalkers as well.
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So, the real question at this point is whether you should play the game, and my honest answer is: No, not unless you use a mod. Thankfully, there is an active modding community around the franchise, and there are quite a few mods that both fix some of the glaring issues of the game and/or add a bunch of new content. Honestly, you’ll enjoy the game much more, unless of course, you’re a masochist, in which case go ahead and play the vanilla game, I’m not your mother!
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat
So given the last game’s abysmal reception due to its problems, you’d think Call of Pripyat did a better job and . . . well, it kinda did?
A lot of the more glaring issues in terms of combat and UI have been fixed, even though there’s still a couple of lingering issues. I think one of the big upsides is that the game is much, much smaller, with only 3 or so areas compared to the dozen that were in the previous two games. While this one didn’t make a good leap in graphics like the second game, it at least fixed some of the most annoying technical issues that were plaguing the franchise.
Otherwise, the game remains the same, with things like the weapons and armor upgrades carrying over, which is pretty great. Food and water have also made a comeback apparently, so survival is back on the menu, even though it’s not really that intense, and does add a bit of flavor (pun not intended!).
In terms of story, it takes place right after the events of Shadow of Chernobyl. Once the weird brain scorcher thing that was protecting the center of the zone was disabled by Strelok, there was basically a rush to loot artifacts from the zone. Ukraine, as part of their brilliant strategy, decided to send in what was essentially a recon team in preparation for a full-scale invasion of The Zone.
Of course, things went downhill, the 5 helicopters sent for recon crashed, and you, as Major Alexander Degtyarev, were sent to investigate.
[HEAVY SPOILERS AHEAD]
Long story short, you find out that the helicopters were disabled by a strong electromagnetic pulse, and that the survivors went to an evacuation point somewhere in Pripyat.
Of course, the road to there is difficult, and it takes a whole team of yourself and a bunch of stalkers fighting through all the hazards of The Zone, as well as the monolith cult before you get to the power plant. There, you meet Strelok and he tells you the truth behind the whole and why the anomalies are shifting (Which you already know because you played the previous games).
Anyway, after you find out the truth, you are given the choice to escape or stay. If you stay, you go into the free-play mode of the game, with the choice to leave at any time.
Yep, pretty anticlimactic.
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Overall, Call of Pripyat was a good game, but it could have been so much more and it’s kinda unfortunate that it wasn’t. It’s a good game to play in the series, and there are mods out there for this game as well, so at least there’s always that to fall back on if you don’t like the vanilla game.
Alright, so technically this game hasn’t come out yet but I wanted to include it here so that you know it’s on its way.
While originally announced in 2010, it’s been canceled and restarted several times over by GSC Game World, the makers of the franchise, they did release a statement on Twitter that they are in active development. In fact, the tweet was on the 23rd of March, 2020 and it included an image of the game, which was pretty cool.
We’re not 100% sure when the game is coming out since they didn’t say, but at least it’s not abandoned, so let’s hope it turns out as awesome as it can be.
Well, there you go, the three Stalker games in all their glory. Unfortunately, the first game did end up being the best one in the franchise, but with the possible release of Stalker 2 on the horizon, we might still see this franchise pick up to the glory it was when it first came out.
Either way, have fun playing the games, keep your eyes open, and grab an artifact or two for me!