Highway to the Danger Zone (STALKER Part 2)

Previously, I did a whole lot of drunken running around the Ukraine on a quest to kill some guy named Strelok. Why? Eh, he was probably an asshole or something. I fought bandits, fought monsters, fought bandits, fought bandits again, fought a whole lot of soldiers, and ultimately ended up right where I started, albeit with considerably more guns than before. Now it’s time to venture back into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Didn’t read the first part? That’s OK, I’ll get everyone caught up before this get rolling.

The 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, the worst nuclear accident in history, irradiated a large portion of Ukraine and Belarus, which was evacuated and closed to most civilians. The game’s backstory diverges from this history shortly afterward, when the Soviet government decides to take advantage of this now-desolate area (with ready access to three functioning nuclear reactors) to establish a series of secret research facilities. This continues even after the fall of the USSR, until a second incident in 2006 unleashes a new round of horrors around Chernobyl. Despite a military blockade of the area, some civilians sneak into the Zone, and a lucky few manage to make it out with strange objects that have seemingly supernatural properties. Before long, a small cottage industry emerges, run by so-called Stalkers. Such as, you might have guessed, Marked One, the player character of this game. As part of his mission to track down the elusive Stalker adventurer Strelok, Marked One has been sent to explore some of the hidden Soviet labs and gather documents that may illuminate the truth behind the Zone.

First, though, I need to go to the Bar. Both to deliver the info I picked up in Lab X-18, and because that’s where I’ve tucked away all my vodka. I’d be disconsolate if anything were to happen to my stash. A quick jog north through Cordon and Garbage and I’m ready to… go into another lab, as it turns out. Barkeep found references in the stuff I brought him to a place called X-16, which I’ll have to investigate to get anywhere. At least this time I’ll have help from some scientists studying the Zone. The downside is that they’re being attacked by mercenaries and it’s up to me to save them, which is complicated by the fact that it’s the dead of night and I still don’t have a suit with improved night vision, meaning I have to stumble through the next area like this:

I don’t know what this is any more than you do.

There’s one very enticing thing about the mission, though: mercs use NATO weapons. See, on top of the different types of gun in the game – shotgun, assault rifle, sniper rifle, etc. – there is a division between Russian/Soviet designs and western ones. NATO weapons are broadly superior, at the cost of rarer ammunition and lower reliability (weapons slowly degrade from use, and as they do so they jam more frequently and eventually need to be replaced). Most enemies up to this point has been using AKs, so this is my first chance to scavenge some high-end gear. I head past Duty checkpoints and into the appropriately named Wild Territory.

Despite the difficulty of seeing anything, I actually have a lot of fun in this area. By and large, mutants and other wild animals are limited to melee attacks, and a good proportion of the bandits I’ve been preying on stick to shotguns and pistols, letting me handily come out on top of any fight by keeping my distance. The military is more challenging, but you’ve seen how I deal with them. The mercenaries are deployed in force, are using better guns than me, and, notably, their AI doesn’t have a stroke. They perform competently, forcing me to advance slowly and cautiously. It doesn’t help that Wild Territory is an urban environment where enemies will happily hang back and ambush me as I pass, inculcating a sense of paranoia at every corner. The scientists are on the other side of the map, so I have a ways to trek in pretty unfavorable circumstances. At least the loot’s good: I find a rocket on one of the bodies, though there’s no launcher in site. Artifacts are in abundance as well (one of the more useful ones, Moonlight, only appears around the midnight hour). There’s a reprieve as I get to the flaming wreck of the scientists’ helicopter, so I duck into a tunnel in search of more loot; sure enough, I’m rewarded with a unique pistol that belonged to a Stalker named Freeman. And he has glasses and a goatee. No crowbar, though…

A mercifully short escort mission follows, in which I have to protect a scientist named Kruglov. He has important information the mercenaries are after, and which needs to get to a research station/bunker in Yantar. Killing all the mercenaries in this part isn’t strictly necessary, but I do it anyway to build up an ammo reserve for my fancy new guns. Conveniently, Yantar happens to also be the site of X-16. I follow Kruglov to the bunker, where I find out that getting in won’t be as simple as just finding the front door: powerful psychic emissions make the lab’s interior dangerous without protection, so if I want in I’ll have to help the scientists out first. Luckily, they don’t need me to do any science, just protect my new pal while he does the real work, thus playing to my strong suit: indiscriminate murder.

The natural beauty of Lake Yantar. The film grain effect is radiation, by the way. Sweet, sweet radiation.
The natural beauty of Lake Yantar. The film grain effect is radiation, by the way. Sweet, sweet radiation.

In the course of gathering research data, I notice that there’s an abundance of zombified Stalkers in the area. STALKER zombies are somewhat different than the norm: still living, but malign psychic influence has left them largely mindless and incapable of feeling pain. They retain enough motor skills to use a gun, but their ability to think, and even to speak more than a handful of words, is long gone. They’re slow, imperceptive, and easy to deal with aside from the massive amount of damage it takes to put one down for good. The only thing they really have going for them is numbers, since I’m working without help here. It’s an interesting change of pace from the way combat normally works in STALKER; it reverses the rhythm of hunting for a good position unseen and observing enemy positions, with the actual exchange of gunfire being swift and decisive. Zombies are too resilient for that, turning fights into more of a matter of raw firepower instead. Notably, this introduction to zombie Stalkers takes place in an open area where their poor aim makes them minimally threatening. But I’m about to enter the narrow confines of a lab that I can reasonably expect will be full of them. Most people who play this part are getting a tutorial in zombie fighting without even realizing it, and that’s one of the things I appreciate about this game.

Once they have the data they want, the scientists put together a helmet that will insulate me against psychic influence. This is important, since the center of the Zone, where Strelok is rumored to have run off to, is a hotspot of psychic phenomena where no sane person dares venture. Wearing the helmet give me a chance, though. Getting inside the lab will be easy, I figure. I know a secret way around. All I have to do is…

I maintain that this isn't my fault.
I maintain that this isn’t my fault.

…run through the skybox, fall through the level geometry and die. I forgot, that part of the level only exists in Clear Sky. I’ll have to enter via the abandoned factory, the way the game wants me to.

There are more zombies around the entrance – enough to force me to use cover and relocate often instead of just bulldozing my way through. As stupid as they are, groups of them can still chew up an unwary player. Once again, sound is essential: zombies can easily be identified and located by their moaning, which I take advantage of while clearing the area (which is helped by the fact that STALKER doesn’t have monster closets in the vein of Doom 3; with just three exceptions that I can think of, Shadow of Chernobyl spawns all AI entities when a level is loaded). The real challenge comes when I find a crumbling staircase and go down into X-16, where the hazards are more varied and serious than a gang of inattentive zombies.

I think a few words on the difficulty in STALKER are warranted here. The series has something of a reputation, even though it’s generous in a lot of areas. If I had to take a stab at why a lot of people talk about STALKER the same way as Dark Souls, I’d say the most important thing is the way quicksaving is implicitly encouraged. Shadow of Chernobyl only autosaves when entering a map, so players quickly learn to keep their own saves to avoid losing an hour of progress every time a stray bullet catches them in the head. And inevitably those players are tempted to go ahead and quicksave after every enemy killed, so that if the fight turns against them then nothing has been lost. Which is something the game gives players the ability to do, but breaks the intended flow of gameplay in the same way that savestate abuse trivializes Mario games. Sure, being able to save with a single keystroke is great for retaining progress, but it becomes a problem when used to erase mistakes. In locations like X-16, which entail a lot of risk, keeping one finger hovering over the quicksave and quickload keys is definitely the path of least resistance. However, the game is skewed toward high lethality for a reason, and once again I find myself going back to environmental design. Look at this unassuming hallway:

That dude's a Monolith worshipper, by the way. We're not supposed to know who they are yet.
That dude’s a Monolith worshipper, by the way. We’re not supposed to know who they are yet.

When I enter, there’s nothing immediately out of place about it. Taking a moment to look, the corpse and bloodstains direct my attention to the left wall, so when I throw an exploratory bolt in that direction it sets off a trap that could have eaten most of my health. Or I could have blindly charged in, taken the hit, and loaded a save, knowing to avoid that place next time. Maintaining situational awareness is a good habit to have in most games, and these in particular, so I expect that some of the sentiment that STALKER is hard or unfair stems from people whose experience involved using quicksaves as a crutch.* Which is a bad habit to have, seeing as part of the STALKER acronym stands for Explorer – without that you have STALKR, which just sounds like the worst kind of social media platform. But enough preaching, I’m here to play a game.

When I get to the central chamber, it’s almost a letdown. It’s a multi-story room with a psychic emitter as its centerpiece, and would be impressive if not for how disappointingly under-populated it is compared to what I remember. I climb to a suitable vantage point and kill the zombies I can see, mindful of the timer counting down to my zombification. This is ground zero of the zombie infestation, it would appear. Let’s resolve that before moving along. Flipping a few important-looking switches solves the problem, causing a pained groan to echo from the emitter, which seems to have been alive. Well, not anymore. I consider doubling back and leaving the way I came, then realize the devs anticipated that and put a ladder just out of reach. I’m going to have to fight my way through the enemies that remain.

That's a giant brain in a vat. Please take my word for it.
That’s a giant brain in a vat. Please take my word for it.

Getting to the next room is no trouble, since there are only some more zombies to block my way. Just when I think I’m safe, my screen blurs and suddenly becomes washed out. Then I start taking continuous psychic damage. Shadow of Chernobyl actually has two health bars, and Marked One dies if either is depleted: one for his body and one for his psyche, the latter of which constantly drops in the presence of controllers. Now, what’s a controller? Why, only the biggest assholes in the game. Unlike other mutants, which lose interest quickly if the player runs away and breaks contact, controllers have a ranged attack that they’re content to use for as long as the player is in their line of sight. The only ways to stop it are to hide behind cover and to get right in the controller’s face. Controllers in Shadow of Chernobyl are unique in that they have no melee attacks at all, so once you invade their personal space there isn’t anything they can do but passively drain your mental health. I take advantage of my new acquaintance’s shyness to pump in shots at a range where the screen-warping effects of psychic contamination don’t matter.

Hey, The Master's looking pretty good these days. I think he's lost some weight.
Hey, The Master’s looking pretty good these days. I think he’s lost some weight.

The exit tunnel is right in front of me. Before hopping in, I search the corpse next to the controller and find something odd. Each Stalker’s inventory, including corpses, contains a portrait of the person. Checking my PDA for the “kill Strelok” mission, I find that this guy – Ghost – and Strelok are apparently one and the same. Mission accomplished? Except Ghost has an audio log where he refers to Strelok in the third person. How inconvenient. And not my problem right now, since among Ghost’s possessions are the documents I came here for. The hardest part of my escape is not killing myself with grenades in the mutant-infested tunnel leading out of the complex. One stop at the bunker to talk to the scientists and sell some of my loot, and then I’m on my way back through Wild Territory. The scientists were kind enough to let me keep the helmet that kept my brain from leaking out of my ears in X-16, so for the time being the only hurdle in my way is the absolute chaos that’s enveloped the world; from the moment I enter Wild Territory gunfire and the screams of wounded animals surround me. I’ve managed to insert myself into a free-for-all between the mercenaries, Duty, bandits, unaffiliated Stalkers, and the local wildlife. Additionally, all this is happening in the dead of night. It isn’t all bad, though: a thunderstorm provides me with enough natural illumination to navigate around the battle without having to do too much fighting.

As worn-out as the phrase “emergent gameplay” has become, I still think it’s an accurate descriptor of what’s going on here, as well as one of the factors that makes this series click for me. On my first pass through Wild Territory, there were a lot of fixed mercenary spawns and a scripted encounter with the scientists so that the escort mission would trigger. This time, nothing is scripted. The game thrusts me into freeform carnage of trying to figure out which roving bands of gunmen don’t want me dead and taking potshots at dogs in the brief snatches of visibility it throws at me. Honestly, it’s a lot more fun this way: there are more NPCs, their equipment more varied, their positions less predictable. The decaying urban setting lends some great atmosphere to the it all, as well (and helps mitigate the difficulties of fighting at night, since engagement ranges are short anyway). Not to say that any of this is unique to STALKER – I played the hell out of Doom, I know about monster infighting – but the way it coheres as a whole makes for a memorable experience.

One pit stop in the Bar later, I’m on my way north, toward the heart of the Zone. My first stop is the Army Warehouses, an abandoned supply depot that Stalkers have moved into and repurposed as a fort. As the closest friendly base to the CNPP, it’s an important location for stocking up and preparing for the game’s home stretch. It’s also the focal point of the faction war; just after entering the area, a Duty squad shows up and springs an ambush on some unfortunate passers-by. This time I don’t spoil the fun, opting instead to pick over the corpses for ammo. I stay close to the Dutyers, who join up with a larger detachment that’s planning to seize the warehouses and invite me to help out.

This is an important decision. While the Bar is Duty’s territory, it’s Freedom that holds sway in the north. The two factions aren’t on friendly terms: Duty sees the mutants and anomalies spawned by the Zone as horrors to be destroyed, while Freedom believes they can be learned from and maybe even coexisted with. By the time of Shadow of Chernobyl tensions have escalated into open warfare and the player can choose to support a side or ignore the conflict altogether. So, I could burn bridges and stab Duty in the back, then reap the rewards from my grateful new pals. On the other hand, raiding Freedom’s base could net me some good stuff, including a considerable supply of ammo for the FAMAS that I’ve chosen to be my new primary weapon. Or I could go about my business and let them kill each other. Still another option is to help Duty knock out Freedom’s leadership, then go back to the Bar and decapitate Duty for one of the more interesting alternate endings. These are weighty considerations. My heart’s set on seeing what interesting things I can pick up in the battle, though, so I decide to see how things go with Duty. “Look alive, gentlemen. It’s showtime.”

This might be the hardest fight in the game, at least for me. Neither faction likes me enough to sell their best armor, and Freedom is equipped with accurate, hard-hitting assault rifles, meaning a lucky headshot can kill me in one hit. Additionally, they have snipers perched in several towers around the base’s perimeter, forcing me into fairly exposed positions so I can clear the way for the Dutyers. After a couple attempts I realize the plan just isn’t working and split off from the Duty force to attack through the front gate while they breach the wall with explosives. One of the sniper towers is close enough to the entrance that I can sprint up the steps, eliminate the gunman, and turn his rifle on his comrades below. It’s a fantastically tense fight, staying as hidden as possible and trying to pick off anyone who spots me before they can get a shot off – the sandbags protecting the sniper’s nest are all placed along the outside-facing edge, leaving me distressingly vulnerable to fire from within the base. The tactic pays off, though the Duty squad is wiped out trying to assault the HQ building. Carefully checking for any remaining guards outside, I make a run for the entrance and start clearing rooms, only to be defeated by the most powerful enemy of all: the X-Ray Engine, which abruptly crashes. Restarting the game and hitting Last Save crashes it again. My save file has been corrupted.

Reverting to an earlier save and assaulting the Freedom base again results in pretty much the same thing. A couple more failed attempts put me in the mood for some science, so I turn down the Duty officer, enter the Freedom base peacefully, and try talking to various important-looking NPCs. Nothing self-destructs until I get to the HQ building again. And there’s the crash. It seems that if I interact with one particular NPC in any way, even killing him, he takes the game down with him in retaliation. If he dies, it crashes. If I save in his general vicinity, the save file simply stops working. Next, I try ignoring him and taking a mission from Freedom’s leader, Lukash, instead. Completing the task does the trick, since my next attempt at conversation doesn’t rend a hole in the fabric of creation. The NPC in question turns out to be Skinflint, Freedom’s trader, so I can only assume the root of the problem involved something in his inventory not spawning properly. Was it Arsenal mod?** Was it the game itself? I don’t know, but I’m rolling with Freedom now. Sorry, Duty, but you don’t nuke my save file when I kill you, so the choice is out of my hands. Such is life in the Zone. I accept a mission to go to the edge of Red Forest and help a Freedom outpost under threat of Monolith attack.

I don't know what that mess was. Here's a pretty skybox.
I don’t know what that mess was. Here’s a pretty skybox.

Now I can explain Monolith! They’re are a secretive group – something between an army and a religious order – who are somehow able to survive the dangerous center of the Zone, from which they occasionally strike at every other Stalker faction. They’re also decked out with the best gear in the Zone, including exoskeleton suits that render the wearer nigh-invincible to small arms fire (save headshots, of course). Their mission is to protect the eponymous Monolith, which they believe to be a conduit to a divine presence. Because they’re on a mission from God, there’s nothing Marked One can do to reason with them. In short, they’re bad news.

Bonus game: count the Monolith soldiers!
Bonus game: count the Monolith soldiers!

There’s only one thing to take care of before the trek through Red Forest: it’s time to clean out my stashes in Cordon and Garbage. Duty is surprisingly OK with my allegiance to Freedom and allows me safe passage through the Bar. The bandits are less happy to see me. Then, on the road to Sid’s bunker, I see someone camped next to Fox’s corpse. He’s marked as quest-related, so I talk to him and find out he’s Guide, a member of Strelok’s gang. Luckily, he buys my lie that Ghost sent me and points me toward Doctor, another of Strelok’s pals. Somewhat less luckily, finding Doc means venturing back into the Agroprom underground, which has almost certainly been repopulated by now. I won’t recount fighting through mutants and the military again, which at any rate is made less harrowing by my much-improved arsenal this time around. Clambering back into Strelok’s hideout, I take a flashbang to the face.

And then Doc says hi to Strelok. He’s talking to me, though. The implications are staggering: I’ll never be able to complete the “kill Strelok” quest now. So many quest rewards, forever uncollected. Unless… But Doc cuts that thought short with promises of loot, gaining my full and undivided attention. It’s time to finish what Strelok set out to do in the center of the Zone, which means storming the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The Monolith is a lie, he says, created by a still-operational lab located in the deepest parts of the Sarcophagus built around the power plant after the disaster. He tells me where to find a decoder that will allow me access to this facility, where I can fulfill Strelok’s ambition of learning all of the Zone’s secrets. And with that, he sends me on my way. Nothing to do now but get back to the Warehouses and take the war to Monolith. Someone has to pay for taking my memory and dumping me in Cordon.

I don’t do a lot of optional backtracking in Shadow of Chernobyl, so throughout this excursion I’m surprised at how dynamic the earlier maps are. On my way through the Garbage to Agroprom, bandits captured a major Stalker camp, and on my way back through to the Bar I got to see the Stalker counterattack that took it back. These unscripted encounters made me think of what I was missing by not dropping by other locations I’d visited before. It impressed me with the idea that while Marked One is a big deal, the world doesn’t revolve around him the way it does in too many other games – take the Mass Effect series for example, which, given an entire galaxy to play with, devolved into the story of Space Jesus solving everyone’s problems forever. The world of STALKER doesn’t especially care about any given person (OK, there’s Strelok, but he’s a plot device who turns out to already be, effectively, dead), which is why, with some gumption, any and every NPC can be killed. None of that “quest-important character is unconscious” nonsense. It dovetails with the game’s atmosphere, reinforcing the game’s themes without any cutscene filibuster to make the writers feel clever about themselves.

Because there’s a point of no return coming up, I make shopping trip to the Freedom base to blow my soon-to-be-useless cash. Wanting to try out some of the unfamiliar guns Skinflint’s peddling, I save and buy a few, expecting that I’ll reload after a few minutes when they get old. It comes as a pleasant surprise when I find one of the rifles has a 100-round drum magazine and integrated scope. That one’s a keeper. The real source of my desire, though, is an exoskeleton. It may not be any good against environmental hazards, but it’s as close to bulletproof as I can get in this game, and combined with the new rifle and my suite of health-boosting artifacts, it transforms me into a semi-immortal bullet volcano. To cap it off, I exploit the exploding barrel trick to raid Freedom’s HQ – by shoving a barrel of gas in front of an NPC and shooting it, the game fails to register their death as caused by friendly fire. As a result, Freedom doesn’t even notice their guard blowing up and the contents of their armory vanishing into my pockets. Everything’s fallen into place. It doesn’t matter that I have no money left, because I’m set to cruise all the way to the end of the game. Which I’m going to do in the third (and final) installment of this overly wordy, often meandering walk through an incomplete, decade-old game. It’s cool, though: the best is ahead of us. I figured out an infinite ammo glitch and everything.

*Another problem for new players is that, when firing an automatic weapon, damage drops off considerably after the first shot, which led to complaints about enemies being bullet sponges. They actually aren’t if the player is using aimed shots in semi-automatic mode, which wouldn’t be an issue if most rifles didn’t default to automatic and have to be manually switched to semi-auto. The game doesn’t explain any of this, either. It was very much designed with the attitude that players should either find things out on their own or read the manual.

**To clarify, Arsenal mod is a fairly unambitious mod that adds new weapons, ammo types and gun mods to the game. It should be completely stable, but what what makes sense and what’s really the case are often two different things with this series. At least this was the only trouble with crashing I encountered in some 20 hours of playing.