First released in March 2007 by publishers THQ, after many years of development by the Kiev-based Ukrainian company GSC Game World, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl (СТАЛКЕР: Тень Чернобыля) is a first-person shooter based around a post-apocalyptic Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant whose 'Zone of Alienation'1 has become filled with strange anomalies and inhabited by mutant creatures. However, scientific interest in the artefacts produced by 'the Zone' has led to so-called 'stalkers' raiding it for profit, and the Zone has developed into a complicated world in which factions fight for control of the area while others seek to make as much money from it as possible. It is in this world that the player must learn to survive, make a living and eventually reach one of the game's several endings.
Please note that this Entry contains lots of spoilers.
While making use of the story of Chernobyl, the game also takes its roots from a novel written in 19722, fourteen years before the incident. Written by Soviet Russian brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic is based on an earth which has been visited somehow by aliens, with several 'Zones' having been created in such a way that would suggest an influence from space. The Zones are each filled with many anomalous dangers but also contain artefacts with strange powers which break the laws of physics - these are likened to 'roadside picnics' which the aliens left behind without clearing up. Despite the existence of an institute dedicated to sending well-protected scientists in to look at the Zones, many stalkers3 raid the areas illegally and sell what they find via the black market.
The novel's main character is Red Schuhart, a stalker who makes a living trafficking illegal artefacts out of the zone in order to support his wife and his strangely mutated daughter. The novel spans ten years and looks at how the Zone affects the lives of those living next to it more than the outside world does, with Red's relationship with his family becoming defined by his forays into the Zone. At one stage he is captured by the authorities, and by the time he is released things have changed - robots are being used to search the Zone for artefacts, and his job at the institute gives way once more to stalking in the Zone. Eventually, he is talked into searching for the 'golden sphere', a wish-granting artefact hidden in a quarry at the centre of the Zone which lies at the centre of Red's hopes, but which has the potential to strip him of both these hopes and his very identity. Eventually, Red makes his way past a series of hazards with a friend's son to reach the quarry only to see the boy killed at the last moment. In spite of his past, Red realises he must change all that is wrong with the world, and echoes the boy's words, which in turn echo those of an old friend: 'Happiness for everybody, free, and no one will go away unsatisfied!'
A PDF version of the novel is available online from the Cryptomaoist Editions website, which claims to have taken the text from Project Gutenberg. For those who have read and liked Catch 22, Roadside Picnic is definitely worth a look.
Stalker - the Film
Five years after the original release of Roadside Picnic came a film adaptation by the estimable Andrei Tarkovsky. This time, the Zone was apparently inspired by the non-fictional Mayak nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Chelyabinsk, Russia, which in 1957 had seen a cooling system failure leading to the explosive discharge of 740 petabecquerels of radioactive material4, thus rendering the surrounding area extremely hazardous to humans. However, the film was shot in Estonia, with many of the ruins seen in the film coming from the area surrounding the Tallinn power station - ironically, the area was badly polluted, making it very much like the Zone Tarkovsky had imagined, and leading to his untimely death due to lung cancer in 1986. Stalker5 is an artistic film containing much in the way of philosophical and metaphysical imagery. In other words, it's very long, very thoughtful and reveals very little unless much thought is put into it. Combined with the lack of a proper explanation for the Zone6, the presentation of the story of Stalker lent itself to placement in a realistic backdrop with a long history, and it just so happened that nine years later, such a backdrop was created by a disaster even worse than that at Mayak.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
The following is a brief summary of the worst disaster ever to occur at a civilian nuclear plant - for full details read The Chernobyl Disaster. Unlike the novel, the film and the game described in this Entry, this incident is entirely real.
On 25 April, 1986, reactor four at Chernobyl NPP was to be taken offline for maintenance work. It was decided to take advantage of this and run a safety test to see how long the reactor's cooling system pumps could continue running off the station's turbines if half of the power generators went into simulated failure. First, the emergency cooling systems were disabled so that they did not interfere with the test. The level of water in the cooling systems was too great, thus reducing the rate of the reaction by absorbing too many neutrons. This led to the removal of most of the control rods to the point that it would be impossible to dampen the reaction in an emergency, and at the same time the automatic regulation of the reactor was disabled so that the reaction could be held at a high enough level to perform the test.
However, shortly after starting the test pockets of steam formed in the cooling system, thus drastically reducing the number of neutrons absorbed by the water. In most reactors, this lack of moderation would lead to the neutrons flying off out of the reaction, but the RBMK reactors used at Chernobyl were equipped with extra graphite blocks which acted to maintain the reaction even after the water had boiled away. At 01:23am on 26 April, the reaction spiralled out of control, overheating the fuel and rupturing the fuel rods. An explosion due to the steam pressure and chemical reactions with the fuel blasted the lid off the reactor, and a second explosion spread its contents and exposed the flammable graphite moderator to the air. The resulting fire took nine days to put out using an array of materials dumped from helicopters, following which a concrete slab and cooling system were added underneath the reactor. Finally, a concrete and steel sarcophagus weighing 300,000 tonnes was erected over the reactor.
However, the disaster had already caused much damage to the surrounding land, with the second plume of radioactive material released on 27 April killing the trees of a nearby forest, turning them a rusty colour which earned the area the name 'Red Forest'. In terms of human effects, the immediate victims of the blast were mostly firemen and plant workers directly exposed to the site's radiation; however, a Zone of Alienation was set up around the site covering a total of 30km2, with everyone in the Zone being evacuated. The town of Pripyat, previously occupied by thousands of plant workers and their families, now lies deserted with everything of value having been looted by those living just outside the Zone. Ironically, it is those who have been put in place to look after the disused power station that sometimes refer to themselves as 'stalkers' of the 'zone' due to the influence of Tarkovsky's film.
STALKER's Fictional Past
After the events of 1986, the history of the Chernobyl featured in STALKER leaves reality behind in order to favour a fictional Zone shaped by secret experiments and hidden underground labs. The following is a summary of just some of the game's backstory:
Some said that the Chernobyl incident was really caused by an accident at a secret lab inside the plant - others claimed it might even have been an act of sabotage. Whatever the case, the creation of a radioactive Zone around the plant created an area for research into various unusual technologies in underground laboratories. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 came the need for the labs to find private funding, and research continued despite efforts by the Ukrainian government to shut the labs down. For some reason, the Zone then started to gain the interest of outsiders, possibly due to the unusual events claimed to have been witnessed in Pripyat. However, by 2005 the Zone had started to experience drastic weather conditions, and during 2006 a pair of explosions took place in the plant's nuclear fuel dump. Soon afterwards the Zone inexplicably grew by 5km, its demarcation being based more upon the inhospitable conditions inside than on the poorly-manned army cordon. By 2010, the first protected expeditions had been made into the Zone since the second explosions, only to find that a 'stalker' had already been living there. Within the next couple of years, many stalkers arrived to search the area for rare artefacts, and as factions of stalkers rose, the army detachments within the zone were forced to adopt a shoot-on-sight policy.
The Marked One
It is into this world that the player is thrown in the year 2012, playing an amnesiac recovered from a 'death truck' that had crashed while heading away from the centre of the Zone. The protagonist is brought to a trader's bunker at the edge of the Zone, where it is discovered that he is still alive, and that he is marked with a tattoo reading 'S.T.A.L.K.E.R.', thus earning him the epithet of 'The Marked One'. His PDA informs him that he must kill Strelok, a stalker of whom he has no recollection but who is known to the trader. The Marked One thus sets off on a mission to find Strelok by finding his associates and following the trail as far as he can.
Meanwhile, the player is likely to come across rumours of the mythical Wish Granter located somewhere inside the power plant, and it would seem to be for this reason that the trader and his friend, the barman, want to send The Marked One on a series of missions to discover the nature of the mysterious 'Brain Scorcher' which is preventing stalkers from reaching Pripyat to the north, and thus isolating the nuclear power plant from the rest of the world. No matter what the player does, they must somehow shut down the Brain Scorcher and reach the plant in order to complete the game. However, the game has several possible endings, some of which are so-called 'false' endings in which the player does not discover the truth behind the Zone, thus making the game extremely non-linear - it is very easy to complete the game without actually learning about The Marked One's history, and doing so takes more effort than simply marching up to the power plant and making a wish.
Back To Reality
Thankfully, there is little need to rush through the game, as the player is presented with vast landscapes modelled upon many real locations including Chernobyl NPP, Pripyat and the Red Forest, all of which are filled with many different tasks and adventures. Even the game's signs are written in Ukrainian or Russian7, and much of the audio remains in these native languages, without subtitles. To make things more interesting, the game contains a handful of factions, with the player gaining or losing the favour of the opposing Duty and Freedom factions depending on their actions in the game. In these ways, the game is somewhat similar to Deus Ex and System Shock, especially if the multiple endings are taken into account. It isn't long before you'll get roped into a major pitched battle, possibly set in the middle of the night with only lightning to brighten up the rain-soaked plains, after which you'll be able to watch as one of your allies walks up to a dying foe gasping on the ground, makes a glib remark in Russian and then shortens their suffering.
The game includes a realistic passage of time, night conditions, varying weather conditions and a host of dangerous anomalies along with a population of stalkers, soldiers, bandits, scientists and mutant creatures, all of whom will have different ideas as to how to treat the player. Some of the Non-player characters (NPCs) in the game will be automatically hostile, while others will decide whether they like you or not depending upon your actions. The NPCs, anomalies, artefacts, weapons stashes and many other parts of the world change each time a new game is started, thus creating a slightly different world each time and thus adding to the game's replay value. Even better, the game world is fluid even when the player is absent - a group of stalkers you rescued may have been killed when you next return, and a group of bandits you killed may be replaced by another band migrating in from elsewhere. Unlike other games, where the world is in some way centred on the player, the world of STALKER is quite happy to carry on without any interference. Best of all, stalkers have a rather Eastern European knack of sitting for hours by the fire, getting drunk on vodka and playing acoustic guitars, something referred to as 'resting' by the game's developers.
Take Only What You Need
To add to the game's realism, players can only carry around 50 kilograms of equipment, with a load above 60 kilos making it impossible to move. Strenuous exercises such as sprinting and jumping wear the player out, and this happens more rapidly if they have more weight on their back. This makes it difficult to carry more than a handful of weapons and also limits the quantity of food, first-aid equipment and ammunition the player can carry, making it necessary either to scavenge off fallen stalkers while in the field or to hide supply stashes in various locations. NPCs often use the latter tactic, and notes of their stashes hidden on their PDAs can be retrieved after they die, thus notifying the player of locations of possible artefact and weapons stashes.
Fighting and Stealth
The game features a variety of weapons, mostly based on those available in real life, with the behaviour and sounds of the weapons being reasonably close to real life - having said that, it is possible to obtain 'mods'8 which improve upon the realism of both the gun ballistics and the sounds created by both firing the weapons and watching the bullets fly past and ricochet off nearby walls. In STALKER, the danger of being shot dead is a very real one due to the realistic damage done by weapons - don't expect to be able just to wade through enemy fire as some games allow players to. For this reason, the game includes a variety of protective suits, some of which also come with the added benefits of protection against radiation and other forms of attack.
Meanwhile, it's a good idea to make use of the game's 'crouch' and 'low crouch', which allow the player to move stealthily and approach enemies unseen and unheard. The game includes an audibility meter and an indicator showing whether the player has been spotted, and also features a counter which displays, with varying degrees of accuracy, the number of humans in the area. This makes it possible to avoid detection by a large number of enemies, or to sneak up and knife the only bad guy in the area so that you can get on with things undisturbed.
Dying In The Zone
Naturally, there are many ways to die in the Zone, ranging from the unpleasant to the downright bizarre. Being shot by an enemy or wounded by a mutant creature can lead to bleeding, which the player must stop using bandages and first-aid kits. Radiation poisoning is another common danger, but fortunately the Zone contains anti-radiation drugs and vodka, both of which seem able to save the player from certain death. Further dangers come from starvation due to lack of food, and from psychotropic attacks which can lead either to zombification or to a slow and painful death through brain haemorrhaging. Each of these dangers appears on the player's HUD9 as a coloured icon which moves from green to red as the severity of the problem increases.
Anomalies and Artefacts
The game world includes several different types of dangerous anomaly, ranging from those which electrify, burn or blast anything that enters, to those which fling bodies around or crush them into no space at all. Naturally, it is a good idea to stay clear of such things; the anomalies are easy to spot, either by looking out for them, listening for the warning beeps from your anomaly detector, or by throwing metal bolts into them to see what happens10. The upside to the anomalies is that they are the birthplaces of artefacts which endow their users with unusual abilities such as increased endurance or protection from radiation. These artefacts can be bought and sold for large amounts of money, but can also be worn by the player to improve their durability in the Zone.
While being a good first-person shooter, STALKER also attempts to be a role-playing game, allowing the player to accept a variety of missions from various characters. The tasks range from minor things, such as killing a pack of dogs or fetching a particular item, to accompanying a group of soldiers in a raid on a more heavily-armed enemy base. The game also includes so-called 'special missions', which are essentially the backbone of the game and must be completed in order to reach the power plant. Tasks are rewarded with either cash or special items, with the latter generally being more useful due to the abundance of money in the game.
STALKER also includes a standard multiplayer game for up to 32 players which includes deathmatch, team deathmatch and artefact hunt modes. The latter involves fighting to gather as many artefacts for your team as possible, while the others simply involve fighting to the death as usual. The multiplayer part of the game includes the option of buying extra weapons and ammunition, but with the added complication of ranking, which allows more experienced players to obtain better weaponry. Meanwhile, the game's day and night cycle can change the playing field while the battle is taking place, and the presence of anomalies and radiation hotspots can make life even more complicated.
Criticism of the Game
Despite the range of innovations included in the game, STALKER comes with a number of flaws, some of which are very odd indeed. The game's first patch11 was released just four days after the game's release and was designed to fix over 60 different bugs. However, some major flaws still remaining in the game at the time of writing are:
Inconsistencies in the plot to the extent that one character originally had three different names in the unpatched version.
NPCs knowing exactly where the player is in a firefight despite the player having flanked them.
NPCs being able to fire through extremely thick walls, rather than just the thin ones that bullets might be able to penetrate.
A fresh group of enemies migrating into the area in a large group just after you've cleared a whole base of them.
Friendly NPCs whose survival is vital to missions failing to protect themselves in any way.
Repetitive audio, including a scientist who says 'Hello? Hello' every three seconds.
Some characters lacking audio tracks to match the words displayed in the conversation while others do have them.
It would seem that the game suffered from being released too soon, despite the years of work put into it, with aspects of it appearing rushed and unfinished. Even with its flaws though, the gameplay is actually reasonably good, and the authenticity added by the carefully reproduced ex-Soviet wasteland that the game takes place in makes the march towards Chernobyl most definitely worth the effort.