I crouch in a filthy drainage pipe as an Emission blasts overhead, searing the surface with radiation and twisting time and space with unknown energies. Nearby crouches another refugee; another scavenger searching for artifacts to sell for profit, or maybe a bandit preying on his fellow man for the same goal. For now though, we are the same; two rats hiding from the fury of a ship that has already sunk.
I check my equipment while I wait. I am down to only a few clips for the AKM-74 I carry, I used my last anti-radiation syringe after rushing through the contaminated swamp outside trying to get to this shelter ahead of the Emission and only a few stale chunks of bread are left to make my next meal. When the Emission passes my temporary companion may simply leave our makeshift shelter. He may invite me to join him at his campfire to share a bottle of vodka. Or, he may try to kill me.
Despite the dangers though, I am strangely at peace. It is as if I am where I belong. As if I am home.
I am in the Zone.
I shouldn’t like the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. I’m not as good at FPS games as I used to be (and to be fair I was never really good at them in the first place) and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is an FPS game (and a very unforgiving one at that). I also tend to play games more for their stories than for their gameplay and while the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games do have stories attached to them those stories tend to be a bit thin at best. They also tend to be somewhat buggy, have a less-than-intuitive interface and more than a few gameplay quirks guaranteed to drive me insane. I should be avoiding them like crazy.
But instead they are almost instant purchases for me. Why? Because despite all their drawbacks they offer an incredibly immersive world to explore and more atmosphere than just about any other game I have played.
Welcome to the Zone
I check my PDA and look around the area again. A strangely twisted tree has grown across the anomaly to my right and I give it a wide berth as I repeat my sweep. When I spoke with Grouse back at the Skadovsk he had told me to meet him here to investigate a couple of missing Stalkers but all I have found is a pack of the mutated, humanoid snorks. I pass the bodies of the two I killed earlier as I return to the rendezvous coordinates.
Finally I get a radio call from Grouse. He has followed what may be the missing Stalker’s trail to near the antenna complex. “Wish you had told me that sooner.” I mutter to myself as I start across the open field towards the array of antenna I see some distance ahead.
The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are loosely based on the short novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. In the novel, six “Zones” appear around the world. These zones were filled with deadly phenomena and scattered with strange artifacts, some useful and some deadly. There is no explanation for the zones but scientists speculate that they were created by aliens who landed on Earth for a “roadside picnic” then departed, leaving their trash and other discarded objects behind and never noticing the humans who lived on the planet. The zones were sealed off but a group of people known as Stalkers began to explore them looking for valuable artifacts. (For a fuller description of the novel, see the Wikipedia entry for Roadside Picnic.)
The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are not set in the same universe as Roadside Picnic. Instead, the games take place in a (much larger) zone surrounding the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear plant. After the disaster at Chernobyl the majority of the population in the area was evacuated and (in reality as well as the game) an “exclusion zone” was created around the plant to keep people away from the deadly radiation there.
In the game, this same exclusion zone provided a place for various secret and dangerous research programs to take place. A few years prior to the start of the game a second explosion took place, this one apparently associated with one of those programs. This created the Zone as it exists today; scattered with dangerous Anomalies and populated with dangerous, mutated creatures. But, those same anomalies have created Artifacts; objects altered by the unknown energies of the anomalies and possessing a variety of effects.
It is these anomalies and artifacts that attract outsiders to the zone. The military is trying to keep the Zone secure, to keep people from outside from being killed and to prevent possibly dangerous artifacts from escaping. Scientists are trying to study the Zone to learn its secrets. Stalkers are hunting for artifacts as they can be sold for a small fortune in the outside world and bandits have appeared to prey on everyone else.
Inside the zone the Stalkers have formed organizations of their own. Some want to find the secrets of the Zone and share them with the world at large. Others feel they need to keep the world safe from those same secrets.
Finally, it is rumored that deep inside the Zone exists a special artifact known as the Wish Granter. This artifact is said to be able to grant any wish to anyone discovering it.
You are own your own. You can ally yourself with any of the factions or you can pursue your own agenda. This is the Zone.
Call of Pripyat
I carefully consider the crashed helicopter ahead of me. It appears more or less intact but there is no sign of the crew. What I do see is what seems to be a living ball of lightning that is slowly moving around the crashed vehicle. I need to get closer to examine the aircraft and the steady beeping from my radiation detector tells me I need to do it quickly, but first I must be careful to avoid this wandering anomaly.
The anomaly passes and I quickly move forward.
In Call of Pripyat, the recently released third game in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, you play as Ukrainian Major Degtyarev. The central portion of the Zone has only recently become accessible again (thanks to the player’s actions in the first game) and the Ukrainian military had sent a helicopter squadron over the Zone to check on conditions there. Unfortunately, all contact was lost with the aircraft and all five have crashed. You have been sent in to determine what happened and to rescue any of the crew if possible but since the Ukrainian military does not want their interest in the Zone to be open knowledge you have been sent in with the disguise and equipment of an ordinary Stalker. You will have to make contact with the inhabitants of the Zone and gain their trust and assistance in order to complete your mission.
Call of Pripyat‘s story is really no more than that. You can go in, visit the five crash sites, find the few survivors and then leave. But if you do that and nothing more you will miss most of what makes the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. exceptional to me anyway; the sheer atmosphere of the Zone.
I love exploration in games and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series provides that. Wander around the Zone for a while and you will come across evocative ruins and dangerous but potentially valuable Anomalies. Random firefights take place around the Zone between the various factions; the Stalkers are fighting the bandits, Freedom is fighting Duty, wild and mutated beasts are attacking anyone who gets too near them and the fanatics from Monolith are fighting everyone they meet. Many of those you encounter, if they are friendly, may offer you information or goods in exchange for your help in finding missing persons or items or simply a bit of extra firepower in an upcoming firefight. You can take as many or as few of these missions as you like. There are advantages of course in the rewards and improved standing with the faction that you are helping (and that does seem to work here, unlike Clear Sky, the previous entry in the series). On the other hand, openly helping one faction will sour your relationship with others, so choose your friends carefully.
Very early in the game you will come across the Skadovsk; an old freighter now incongruously sitting in the middle of a field and serving as a stronghold and base of operations for numerous Stalkers in the area. Inside, the local leader will offer you a job. Several Stalkers have turned bandit, he will tell you, and he is assembling a team to go kill them. He invites you to join them in exchange for a cut of the loot.
You have several choices. You can join him in the assault. You can warn the Stalkers in question and possibly help them in their defense. Or, you can just ignore the whole thing. Each option has its own advantages and disadvantages. There are multiple such choices in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., ranging from major actions such as this one down to simply finding an injured Stalker in the field and making the decision to give him a first aid kit to help him or to put him out of his misery. Or, you can walk on by. These actions do not really affect the storyline of the game as such, but they do influence the personal story you are telling yourself when going through the game.
Exploring the Zone
Grouse and I found a nest of bloodsucker mutants under the antenna complex. Grouse left me to track down another lead on his own while I returned to the Skadovsk. There, Beard told me where I could find some gas that I could use to flood the underground portions of the complex and kill the bloodsuckers there. The information was expensive, but fortunately I had found a few stashes of supplies that had been left behind by other Stalkers and could sell them to Owl to raise the funds he needed.
I have found the convoy that Beard says carries the gas, but it is on a bridge that seems to be a magnet for meat-grinders; gravitational anomalies that will pull you in and shred you before you can escape. I pull a machine bolt from my pocket and throw it at the nearest anomaly, watching as it is sucked in then thrown skyward. I will have to find another way to reach the convoy. Perhaps there is another path beneath the bridge.
There is seldom only one way to do anything in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. If you want to go through the Zone as the conquering hero, blasting away with an assault rifle in each hand, you can. If you would prefer the stealth approach, sneaking past guards and killing them with silenced shots to the head, you can do that too. You can engage your enemies from a distance with a sniper rifle or get up close and personal with a knife. Or, you can just toss a grenade in.
There are a couple of different areas that require you to hire a guide to travel between but within each area you are free to roam around as much as you wish. All of the areas contain plenty of room to explore, with abandoned buildings and vehicles, underground caverns and tunnels and anomalies galore. Some of these are inhabited by humans or creatures that may or may not be friendly but there are very few arbitrary restrictions on your actions or exploration.
Lurking in the Shadows
When I made it back to the Skadovsk Beard told me that Grouse had come in looking for me then had gone out again. He had apparently headed out to the old dockside cranes, left over from when this was an operational port instead of a marshy stretch of ground. I set off after him.
On reaching the cranes I discovered a body lying outside the control building. It was Dimitri, one of the missing Stalkers that we thought had been taken by the bloodsuckers. What was he doing here?
I hear a sound and, looking up, see that a light is shining inside of the control building. I check the load on my shotgun and approach the door.
All of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games have had more than their share of bugs and Call of Pripyat is no exception. None of them have affected me that much (though I would suggest saving on a regular basis in case you get a sudden crash to desktop) but I do want to pass one along.
When I first tried to play Call of Pripyat it would not run. At all. The engine would appear in the task manager but I couldn’t even get to the splash screen.
After a bit of searching I was able to find that Call of Pripyat has some problems with other programs running at the same time. Some of the culprits I learned were Fraps and Raptr, so if you are having trouble getting the game to start try disabling them. The most recent release of both programs has corrected this issue so upgrade if you can.
I have heard a similar problem may exist with Xfire and possibly other IM-type clients as well. Try disabling them if you have a problem.
Don’t let this make you avoid the game; I recommend it highly. Just be aware of it.
I am heading north from the Skadovsk to visit Noah who it is said knows the secret for getting to the top of the northern plateau, the location of another helicopter crash. I am quietly making my way through the swamp and sense, more than see, another Stalker behind me. I crouch behind a boat, now permanently beached in the mire, and wait to see who it is.
It is the Stalker I recognize as Steg. Steg had given me the location of a stash and offered to split its contents with me if I retrieved it for him. But, after finding my way into the maze of tunnels inhabited by a pack of snorks and retrieving the box, he had kept the lion’s share of the contents for himself.
He passes without seeing me and, after a moment’s hesitation, I stealthily fall in behind him, switching out my AKM for a silenced pistol. He still does not see me.
I am at peace. I am where I belong. I am home.
I am in the Zone.