S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a series of games that not only raised the Ukrainian gaming industry, but also became a cult even in Western countries. Judging by the recent Gamescom exhibition with several hours-long queues to the stand with the demo version of the new installment, it became clear that the popularity of these games has not diminished at all. It so happened that I recently played through the entire trilogy and decided to share my impressions with you.
It’s impossible to fit a detailed story about all the games in the series in one article, so I’m announcing the release of several articles in which I will tell the story of the development of each part, my emotions while playing them, and my thoughts on whether they are still relevant today. Next year, a new part of the series called “The Heart of Chernobyl” may be released, so this article will be useful not only for people who know almost nothing about S.T.A.L.K.E.R., but also for those who have already completed all the games but may have missed or forgotten something.
Let’s start with Shadow of Chornobyl! The zone is calling us, stalkers!
History of creation
The developer of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., GSC Game World, was founded by Sergiy Grigorovich at the age of 16. The name of the company contains the abbreviation of his last name and initials GSC (Grigorovich Sergiy Constantinovich). The first game of the company was the strategy game WarCraft 2000: Nuclear Epidemic, which was an unofficial sequel to Warcraft 2 by Blizzard Entertainment.
The first significant success of the studio was the game “Cossacks: European Wars, which was released in 2001. Sergey decided to create a real-time strategy game in which you could fight with a much larger number of soldiers than competitors like the Age of Empires series. The player could take control of up to 8000 soldiers from one of 16 nations at a time. This game became GSC Game World’s first popular project abroad and, together with its expansion packs, its sales reached 2.5 million copies as of 2005.
The Stalker series even has a reference to the Cossacks in the form of vodka, which saves a little from radiation.
In the same year, 2001, GSC began developing a story-based shooter based on the concept of the Stargate series. The game ran on a proprietary engine called X-Ray Engine, which reproduced high-quality images and supported many modern technologies. The project was called Oblivion Lost. The following year, the team traveled to the Chornobyl exclusion zone and this prompted them to change the setting of the game. The developers were inspired by Strugatsky’s Picnic by the Side of the Road, from which the game took some ideas, as well as the film adaptation of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Later, the game was called Stalker. Oblivion Lost, but later changed it to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Oblivion Lost to get around potential copyright issues.
In 2003, the first demo of the game was shown at the E3 exhibition, which impressed the audience with its technological sophistication. In the same year, the once significant THQ publishing house (went bankrupt in 2013) became the game’s publisher. They recommended changing the name to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, and it was the best decision. The game was supposed to be released in mid-2004, but the development literally stalled.
GSC had such big ambitions that they could not realize due to their inexperience. An example is the implementation of the A-life system in the game, when each NPC (non-player character) had a special behavior and purpose. In most games, life simulation takes place either around the player or the characters get an individual daily routine.
Instead, in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, all stalkers literally “lived” their own lives without routines or other tricks: they shot mutants, hid from the rain, rested at night and traveled during the day, gathered in groups, started playing guitar and telling various jokes. And this is just a part of what every NPC in this game does, regardless of whether the player is somewhere nearby or at the other end of the map.
This system was even crazier in the beginning. NPCs could complete game tasks and even finish the game instead of the player. But we had to abandon this because the game was turning into a ballet, when everyone was either organizing massacres every two meters or nothing was happening for a kilometer. And the mechanics of playing the game with a thousand competitors generated by the computer simply killed the desire to spend time in this project.
In addition to simplifying the A-life system, the game was cut to include 4 locations, a transportation system, monsters, plot points, some quests, and much more. In fact, this is a standard practice for games that have fallen into “production hell”, the publisher just comes at a certain point and starts to cut out only what works from a pile of mechanics. The game was even nicknamed the “waiter” because the project was developed for a total of 6 years, which was incredibly long for those times. Despite the endless postponements, Shadow of Chornobyl was highly anticipated in Ukraine, as it was the first major domestic AAA game.
The game was finally released on March 20, 2007 and… became an incredible hit! However, the big fly in the ointment was the poor optimization. The graphics were cool at the time of release and even now they look good, but only a select few people with very powerful computers could play the game comfortably. The situation was so bad that the project received a second nickname, “buggy.”
But for every technical problem, you could use the universal excuse that “it’s not a bug, it’s an anomaly.” The developers spent considerable effort to fix the game, but certain technical problems can still be found even now. There were also disappointed fans who could not forgive the large amount of cut content that the developers showed at exhibitions and various events, but even these people continued to play.
The game looks decent even 16 years after its release.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was a typical representative of European projects of that time: crooked, but very soulful. The Witcher by the Poles came out the same year, but when people were asked about a cool game from Eastern Europe, most of them definitely mentioned Shadow of Chornobyl.
The game sold more than 1.7 million copies in a year, and it was a huge success for a small Ukrainian company. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. for the Ukrainian game industry, because this project proved that Ukrainians can make global hits. Moreover, it was 2007, and the competition was very strong, as games like Portal, Uncharted, and BioShock were released: Portal, Uncharted, BioShok, Super Mario Galaxy, Halo 3, Crysis, Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed, God of War 2, and many others.
“Shadow of Chornobyl” has become a living classic not only in Ukraine, but also in the West, and no less so than in our country. Author’s modifications to the game are still being created, which is an indicator that the community is still interested in the project.
The love for the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series is also evidenced by the fact that thousands of people recently stood in hour-long lines at the Gamescom gaming exhibition in Cologne to play the demo of the new installment for only 15 minutes. This game introduced foreigners to Chornobyl and encouraged them to come to Ukraine, passing projects would never have been able to motivate people like this!
The game development itself was much more complicated, but I decided to tell you the main points. Below are my impressions of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chornobyl in 2023.
First, I’ll tell you about the game’s plot without any major spoilers, while describing the main game mechanics. Let me know in the comments if you like this format.
First, about my experience with the game. “Shadow of Chernobyl” occasionally glitched, there were some non-critical bugs, sometimes additional tasks were displayed that could not be completed, but in general the game works fine. I completed all this beauty in 19.3 hours and am ready to share my impressions.
All screenshots are taken from different parts of the walkthrough and are completely original.
Briefly about the background of the game. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chornobyl takes place in an alternate reality where the second explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant occurred in 2006. The Zone was formed, which was filled with a large number of anomalies and mutants. Mysterious artifacts also appeared – very valuable items with unique properties.
After several unsuccessful attempts to reconnoiter the situation, the military cordoned off the area and built checkpoints. Over time, brave souls, later nicknamed stalkers, began to enter the Zone in search of artifacts. A few years later, their number in this mysterious place reached several thousand and continues to grow. Meanwhile, there is a belief that the center of the Zone, which is still impossible to reach, contains the most rare artifacts, as well as the most important secret – the Monolith that grants wishes.
The game begins with a video in which lightning strikes a truck with corpses. In the morning, one of the stalkers, searching for valuables, discovers that among this mountain of corpses there is one person who managed to survive – the protagonist of this game. The stalker takes him to a local merchant, Sidorovich, and the latter discovers that the hero has a tattoo of “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” and a PDA, which, when turned on, broadcasts the slogan mission “Kill the Shooter.”
The hero regains consciousness, but remembers absolutely nothing about his past. Sydorovych calls him the Marked One because of his tattoo, and in an iconic dialog explains to the player how he will spend the next few hours of the game.
“Look, Marked, I saved you, and I’m not going to play the nice guy here, so if you complete a couple of tasks for me, you’ll be paid off, and we’ll see how your head wakes up after the amnesia. And I’ll try to find out about your topic. The devil knows who the hell you think this Sagittarius is, but I don’t meddle in other people’s business, if you want to kill me, then you have a reason. Well, what are you looking at? Come on, I won’t bite!”
Sydorovych will help you get to grips with the game’s interface, and then give you your first task – to find a stalker named Shustry. Later, it turns out that he was taken prisoner by bandits and I went to rescue him along with a group of stalkers. At this point, the player is given the first weapon in this game – a Makarov pistol (PM). So why not talk about shooting in this game?
This is what the inventory looks like in this game.
Shooting in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is quite specific. It is quite realistic, there is ballistics, ricochet, and bullet scatter, which, although sometimes annoying, makes each of your shootouts more interesting, especially when there are very few rounds of ammunition. However, all this beauty is spoiled by outdated weapon animations, which make it look like you’re shooting wooden barrels.
The shootouts themselves are lively, you’re very easy to kill, the enemies are not stupid, they can go around you, hide behind cover, and generally do everything to make you throw your keyboard or laptop against the wall after the next death screen.
Speaking of death screens, you’ll press the “F5” key for a quick save most often after the move and shoot buttons. Why is this? The game simply saves only when you move between locations, so if you’re used to constant auto-saves in modern games, you’ll have to listen to Sydorovych’s speech several times at the beginning. You die very easily, and during a firefight with a lot of stalkers, even on medium difficulty, I advise you to save after killing each enemy.
In general, the local shooter mechanics really take some getting used to, but I still liked it because of its complexity. The zone is a tough place where you have to survive, so battles with other stalkers shouldn’t feel like entertainment, but instead be positioned as a real fight.
The final battle literally made me feel like a squeezed lemon when I was running out of first aid kits, ammo, and food, whole groups of strong enemies were waiting ahead, and the character was also affected by radiation, which slowly takes away health. Shooting in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is not a lot of fun, but you will definitely remember the battles with enemies, because victory is not easy. I can’t even imagine how people play the game on the highest difficulty.
Let me get back to the story. After rescuing Shustryi, Sydorovych offers to help find the Shooter. In return, the Marked One will steal documents from the Agroprom Research Institute that can help him get to the center of the Zone. In order to find them, they have to leave the starting location called the Border.
From this moment on, the player has the opportunity to freely explore the open world, because in Shadow of Chornobyl, tasks are often time-limited and if they are not completed on time, they will fail. If you have to rescue Shystryi right away, you can search for the documents for ages. The world is not completely open, but is divided into 11 zones between which you can move freely, although it will be impossible to get to some locations without completing story tasks.
And here we have smoothly approached a more detailed consideration of such an important component of the game as the open world and its content. If the story missions in the game are quite interesting and varied, there are even cool cinematic moments, then S.T.A.L.K.E.R. turned out to be an “anomalous” game when it comes to the open world. How does this anomaly manifest itself?
The game’s locations are interesting, although they have been halved in size over the long 6 years of development, because transportation was cut out of the game, and no one would have been able to run tens of kilometers on their own.
Each location is full of various enemies, both mutants and different groups of stalkers. One of the main features of the game is anomalies. Imagine walking around the map and seeing a transparent, curved space in front of you that emits radiation. As soon as you approach it, you will be blown up like that flea from the beginning of the game.
There are anomalies that create streams of fire when you approach, while others create explosions of electric current. In order not to die due to inattention, you need to react in time to the sounds of the anomaly detector and throw bolts to detect them.
Stalkers, don’t go for a walk near anomalies, or you’ll end up like this mutant.
We have seen more dangerous anomalies…
When it comes to additional quests and mechanics for finding artifacts and caches, the developers’ inexperience in creating such large projects is immediately apparent. Additional quests are garbage, not content. There is a template for several types of quests: “Find an artifact”, “Kill someone”, and the classic “Bring 10 dog tails”, and they are generated endlessly.
They are absolutely uninteresting to complete because they are as similar as possible and do not contain any interesting story. There are exceptions, like the battles in the Arena near the 100 X-Ray bar, because every battle there turns into a kind of puzzle because of the different enemies and the basic set of weapons. It all starts with a 1-on-1 pistol fight and ends with a battle of five stalkers, when everyone is for themselves. But there’s nothing else to mention besides this chain of tasks.
The “random” but actually scripted encounters during the first playthrough are a joy. When you move between locations and see two bandits attacking a free stalker, and then you’re asked to help defend the Dump from enemies, it was cool, but for the first time. I regularly ran through that Dumpster and still don’t understand what treasures people left there that I have to fight off hordes of bandits on the tenth lap.
The situation with the Hangar is the same. It was an interesting experience for me to reach the point where all the characters who asked for help were killed during the battle and feel that I completely lost motivation, because I personally don’t need to fight back the Dumpster at all. A reflection that is very common in real life.
Artifacts have become one of the most broken mechanics of the game. People risk their lives every day to get them, they attract people to the Zone. But these artifacts often just lie on the ground, sometimes it rains artifacts and you can find almost a whole bag of them. In the future parts, this mechanic was fixed and made the search for these items much more difficult and interesting, but in Shadow of Chornobyl, artifacts are perceived a little better than ordinary stones, and this is a real drawback.
Why do people survive for years in the Zone if you can find more than a dozen valuable artifacts in just one day?
Geocaches are a separate headache. To be more precise, there are Secrets – weapons or artifacts that can be found simply by carefully exploring the area. This encourages you to look more closely at the locations where you are searching. And caches with much more valuable loot (items) can be searched only if you find information about them from the corpses of enemies.
Then the coveted purple icon appears on the map and you go to open the cache. Can you just find this cache like we do when looking for secrets? Yes, but it will be empty. Imagine, until you kill the enemy and get the necessary information from his corpse, the items in these caches do not appear.
One day I found out about a cache of cool armor in the Village of Bloodsuckers, ran off to find it, and was very disappointed when I searched the cherished place and saw nothing. The funny thing is that when I bought this armor near the end of the game after several hours of quests, I got information about the same cache. That is, the game itself directs the player to always act aggressively and kill every NPC he sees to get an incentive to explore the world around him.
And although I praised the shooting in this game, this mechanic just doesn’t work for Shadow of Chornobyl. Ammo is always scarce, expensive, and just running around killing everyone you meet for the sake of the coordinates of a cache is definitely not the best idea. Unfortunately, the developers realized only after the failure of the prequel called Clear Sky that players are not interested in action every 5 minutes.
The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game franchise is more suitable for a meditative search for artifacts or other interesting objects in abandoned houses, factories, laboratories with infrequent battles with mutants and even rarer shootouts with people.
A year later, Fallout 3 was released, where you could forget about the plot and just look for adventures in the open world, and the secondary quests were much better than in Shadow of Chernobyl. That is, our game had the potential to brand a project from a major game developer Bethesda Softworks and a very popular game series as a “S.T.A.L.K.E.R. clone,” but it failed. It seems to me that the next game in the series, The Call of Pripyat, was inspired by the ideas of Fallout 3, so the process of exploring the game world there was almost in a masterful way.
So what “anomaly” was I talking about above? The game has no additional tasks, absolutely no motivation to look for caches, and even less artifacts that are literally lying around every corner, how did this game become a cult game in the first place? The answer is: immersiveness.
This is not a case where you walk around the world and the game generates some situations for you because you are nearby. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R., you can skip this event altogether. For example, stalkers fought off mutants and after this battle there are corpses of both sides of the confrontation. You may not even know about the battle itself, but you can see its consequences. And there are a lot of such moments.
The A-life system, although not fully operational, does what most new open-world games can’t achieve even now – it creates a sense of a living world that exists independently of the player. Everyone talks about the confrontation between the Dolga and the Freedom groups, but you can see their skirmishes with your own eyes, and at a completely random moment. Or not.
This is one of the problems of the A-life system, because in real life not all events happen with your participation, you can play for many hours and not meet anything interesting, or you can literally get into some kind of adventure at every turn. So, the open world of the game is still interesting to explore in search of something unexpected. Together with the next aspect, these two features make S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chornobyl a game that is simply a pleasure to return to, despite the overall depressing and depressing nature of the project.
I wanted to go to the Dumpster through the broken bridge guarded by the military. It was raining, and almost all of them sat down by the fire to rest. I took advantage of this and ran to the next location. They opened fire on me, and the stalkers who were nearby decided that they were being attacked and returned fire. If I had paid for the passage, this massacre could have been avoided, because the stalkers would not have heard the shots in their direction. All NPCs behave like real people and it’s really something incredible!
The most important advantage of the game, which literally overwhelms all the disadvantages and significantly improves all the advantages, is the atmosphere. It cannot be expressed in words, just launch the game and you will understand everything. Gorgeous music, perfectly chosen colors, and the understanding that each NPC and mutant was not just generated in front of the player, but came from somewhere, had their own story, purpose, and add immersion to the project.
The characters have the most lively dialogues, for example, during a shootout, the bandits talk to each other, throw threats at the enemies, react to being hit, and then when you examine their corpses, you see their nicknames and it makes you fantasize. I wonder what Andriyukha Smert was doing before he came to the Dumpster to give stalkers nightmares?
And when, after a difficult mission, you walk in the dark and see stalkers sitting around a campfire, telling cool jokes and playing guitar, you start to feel the “soul” of this project.
Starting the game immediately gives you the opportunity to feel the stalker life.
And most importantly, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chornobyl is a Ukrainian game. Of course, our enemies like to say that the game is about the “Russian spirit,” but for them, appropriating Ukrainian culture has long been a common thing. For some reason, we see Ukrainian symbols on the Volya emblem, and the name of the group refers to our coat of arms, which encodes this word according to some interpretations.
This is just one example of how the game positions itself as a part of the Ukrainian cultural code, despite the fact that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has a very significant emphasis on Soviet themes. But this is due to the specifics of the place where the Zone was created, because Chornobyl and its surroundings literally became a preserved museum of everyday life at that time.
The very fact that this is a project in which we travel around our territory, communicate with our citizens who speak in the voices of Ukrainian actors and see Ukrainian symbols makes Shadow of Chornobyl feel like a family movie. Although the Ukrainian dubbing was done well, not all lines and texts were translated. Still, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a game of its time, and no one made games in Ukrainian back then, but the new part of the game, Heart of Chornobyl, will have Ukrainian and English dubbing only. This will definitely make the game even more colorful!
You can find a lot of such gags.
The first laboratory called the Agroprom Research Institute, where the Marked One descends, became the apogee of the game’s atmosphere. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has never been positioned as a horror game, but it scares much more than most modern games of this genre. The first meeting with the bloodsucker, and later with the controller, will be remembered for the rest of your life. You are left alone with the unknown in complete darkness, any sound is perceived alarmingly, and when the enemy suddenly comes out and opens fire on you, you can jump on the spot from such a surprise. Although you seem to have killed hundreds of such enemies, why are you so scared now?
Overall, exploring the labs is the best part of the game. The atmosphere is pressurizing and truly terrifying, there are many enemies, mutants are strong and diverse. After these missions, returning to the surface is an incredible relief. By the way, instead of Sydorovych, Barman will now issue quests.
Unfortunately, he is not as charismatic as Sydorovych. But he runs the 100 X-ray bar, where you will spend many unforgettable hours.
The tension will not leave you at the Amber location, where there are many zombies. Their moans give you goosebumps, especially when you realize how resilient and difficult they are, and each one has a personality. It scares you that yesterday each of them was an ordinary person, and today they are mindless slaves of a brain burner who can only say some inseparable words and purr.
Once your comrade-in-arms, now a thoughtless enemy.
After exploring all the laboratories, you get the opportunity to turn off the brain fryer system and finally go to the center of the Zone. I’m not going to give any spoilers about the ending options. There are seven of them in total, and judging by the sequel called “The Call of Pripyat”, only one will be real.
Such a large number of artificial variants is due to the fact that the publisher of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. asked the developers to add more variations to the end of the game. I advise you to play the game very carefully, otherwise you will never know who the Shooter is, how he is connected to the Marked One, and the reason for the Zone’s appearance.
In fact, I think the main plot of Shadow of Chernobyl is the best in the series. It’s not incredibly elaborate, but it’s quite interesting, and you won’t be able to feel the ending, just like the plot twist with Shooter.
The main characters in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. installments are pretty mediocre, but the Marked One is interesting because of the mystery of his identity and gets better towards the end of the game. I remembered the secondary characters more, it is not for nothing that Sydorovych became one of the most popular characters in this game series, and his monologue was parodied a million times. Shustry, the Bartender, and Professor Sakharov will also be remembered for a long time. And even the funny names of the stalkers from the rating table will not leave your head for some time.
So, Shadow of Chornobyl was not a perfect game. Long years of development and GSC Game World’s inexperience led to the project losing many mechanics, and some obvious things for games of this genre were simply absent. For example, the ability to repair and upgrade weapons, quickly move around the game world, etc.
The game did not live up to all ambitions, but even so, it turned out to be a very atmospheric adventure, with a good story, a very interesting world, and some special soulfulness that regularly made players return to the Zone and explore it. It was S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chornobyl that became the game that domestic gamers regularly replayed, despite all its shortcomings. Therefore, this game is not only relevant for 2023, but is recommended for everyone to play, and I advise fans of the project to play it again before the release of the next part.