Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl - let's drop all the dots - seemed to divide people. For every person I know who would enthuse and OMG about the atmospheric shooter, there would be another for whom the game had been a horrible mistake. This article, I suspect, isn't going to be for that second group of people. They've tasted this peculiar Ukrainian experience, and they won't be going back. For those who know the game, accept its foibles, and still find something worth spending time with, this will be a story they understand rather well. They'll probably be nodding along at the most salient points. Hopefully, however, we'll also have a third species of reader: the one who has yet to give it a try.
With Call of Pripyat, the third Stalker game, set for release later this year, the hour is ripe for both looking back on Shadow of Chernobyl, and for playing it. Call of Pripyat is the sequel to the events of the first game, while the Clear Sky - the flawed second game - acted as a prequel. I am inclined to hope that GSC's third excursion to the fictionalised exclusion zone will, at least in some way, match the accomplishments of the original. Clear Sky's lack of original content, peculiar atmosphere-breaking decisions, and badly-implemented faction warfare, meant that it was a step back from the first title. If you are one of those people who has not played any Stalker at all, then Clear Sky is something you can miss entirely.
That's not to say the original game, Shadow of Chernobyl, was in any way perfect. It was not the most subtle or elegantly designed of games, but its accomplishments were nevertheless numerous and awesome. While there were some bugs, and plenty of rough edges, GSC managed to create a game that was a singularity in the heavily populated landscape of shooters.
Partly this was down to the world it depicted. Stalker's core achievement was to blend the history and method of first-person shooters with both the real world, in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and with Russian science-fiction. Stalker, as a wider fictional concept, came from the story Roadside Picnic, by influential Soviet science-fiction writers the Strugatsky brothers. It was then later built upon for the film Stalker, by Andrei Tarkovsky. The themes of both the book and the film were of unnatural happenings changing just a small part the world, and in doing so, creating a zone in which the rules of nature were warped. The Ukrainians already had such a zone on hand in Chernobyl, and by merging Soviet fictions of the past with their own real history, they created a rich concoction of urban decay, supernaturalism, and gritty, grubby violence.
GSC was able to go into the real-world zone and see first hand what Soviet construction looked like after a couple of decades of decay. The developers were not simply recording textures and taking inspiration from the ruinous architecture of the place, they were soaking up atmosphere - and that comes flooding back out in the game itself.
However, it's clear that the project catalysed something else within the development team, because at its most evocative Stalker goes further still: into spooky tunnels and horrifying claustrophobic catacombs. They seemed to somehow capture the finest points of tunnel-horror in traditional FPS games, and meld them with a larger, more liberated game world above ground. Stalker, a game in which shooting is the main mode of interaction, was nevertheless a game of distinct parts, and multiple aspirations. It wanted to be different, and also to be brilliant when it did the same things as other shooters.
That said, there was also plenty that was mechanistically unusual about the game. While all kinds of elements were incredibly familiar to gamers who have played a slice of FPS games in the past couple of decades - moving crosshairs, stamina, leaning - Shadow of Chernobyl managed to throw in a few things that were unusual: an RPG-style inventory and inexplicit character development across a number of fronts. One was the Stalker suit itself: the device that allowed you to not only absorb more damage, but to brave harsher environmental environments across the zone - a kind of levelling up via gas-masks and rad-suits. Then there were the artifacts themselves: the supernatural upgrades, spawned by the zone, that could be slotted into your stalker to make him tougher, fitter, or more resistant to radiation, heat, or electrical damage.
Merge this system with a world that was relatively free to explore, and you had a kind of open-world FPS that we really hadn't seen much of before that time. There were elements of RPGs too, with quests scattered across the landscape, and decisions about alignments with various Stalker factions to be made. Most crucial of all, there was the simple moment-to-moment challenge of staying alive in a predatory and aggressive world. If the radiation poisoning didn't get you, then the monstrous packs of dogs probably would. Here was a game that put the focus more on combat than simply on survival, and it was all the more thrilling for that.
The balance between a linear story and an "open" world was interesting in itself. Stalker's levels are interlinked, but not in themselves all that large. It never fully broke out into an open world, but was instead a sort of "wider" world. Rather than Fallout 3's sprawl, Shadow of Chernobyl, spatially, consisted in a series of discrete packages. Many of these feel like single FPS levels on their own. Indeed, the game often treats them in that way, with scripted events dropped into your path on a regular basis. Attacks by the military, an careful ambush, attacks by mutants, battles between the various paramilitary factions: all these came together in a patchwork of events, between which you wandered, finding the safe path in your own way.
This, I think, could be important as a model for open-world gaming, precisely because it doesn't follow the GTA route. Instead of simply allowing you to ramble around in a single, wide-open space, Stalker's explorations are much more directed. The various regions act as single, open-plan but linear FPS levels the first time they are played, but can be returned to later on. This means they're ultimately non-linear: there's a central hub location in which you can patch yourself up, drink, trade, and so on, and this creates reasons to return to previous areas, reasons to root around in the world beyond those provided by the core storyline. The constantly spawning and overlapping AI, meanwhile, means that things in the world continue to provide challenge. More often than not, a fight has started before you're even on the scene, as neutral, friendly and hostile forces encounter each other out in the wilderness, and slug it out under trouble skies.
Of course, there's another aspect at play in any retrospective look at a game like this. Time does funny things to PC games. It's arguable that despite everything that the GSC team and their THQ producers achieved, it was the mod community that finally burnished the weird metal of Shadow of Chernobyl to its current shine. Some of the changes that mod makers have made, such as "injured" state for the player, or the sleep function (in which the game plays little "dream" clips) are actually just unlocks of existing code, apparently dropped at the last minute. Presumably these decisions were made to avoid overwhelming shooter players used to rather less sophistication in their game, but then again perhaps they just didn't seem to sit right with the action game Shadow of Chernobyl ended up being. Whatever the truth, when unlocked by modders they give us a lot more game to be going on with.
The other rather more significant change that modders have made has been to the balance of combat. Many players noted that enemies didn't seem to go down easily enough, taking more than a couple of shots to the head with weaker weapons. Such balance issues have been addressed, and it's now possible to play the game tweaked to rather different expectations of weapon physics.
Most impressive of all is that it's now also possible to play Shadow of Chernobyl with an entirely overhauled texture set, which can be found online. As mods go this is one of the most subtle imaginable. It does not attempt to change the atmosphere or effect of the game world, but simple to enhance it. 900 new textures, an improved sky and weather system, and the introduction of expanded graphics options make this one of the most exquisitely beautiful experiences ever to grace a gaming system. It also includes the sleep and hunger systems, along with a mass of small tweaks. I would argue that this is, finally, the finished and complete version of Stalker - as good as it could possibly have been on release.
Stalker didn't manage to be as multi-pronged as something like Deus Ex, nor as all-encompassing and variable as something like Fallout 3. It will always sit in the second row in any parade of classics, but it is nevertheless a masterpiece. A cold, unearthly thing, which only a certain kind of gamer will ever love. If you have even the slightest interest in This Sort Of Thing, you owe yourself a trip to the zone.