Posts Tagged ‘ S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

Clear Sky – Things Fall Apart

Clear Sky takes place several months before the events of STALKER. This can be rather disorienting and is even poignant at times. Because the Zone as we find it in Clear Sky is not the ruin that you find in STALKER, and the future is a cloud that hangs over the entire game.

The sight that greeted me after a long night of killing

In the Cordon you meet a visionary stalker leader, Father Valerian, who has launched an uprising against the Army and the bandits. Sidorovich dismisses him and his followers as men who are playing at Robin Hood and His Merry Men. You find them set up on a farm north of the railroad embankment, and Valerian speaks of his plans for the future. More stalkers show up every day to join his forces. He has already forced the army out of the Cordon and collected some insurance against their retaking it. Everyone you meet is inspired by Valerian’s rallying cry: the Zone for the stalkers. Soon, he promises, they will begin expanding their control and make the Zone a safe place for honest stalkers.

But we know that when we come to the Cordon in STALKER, the army has a chokehold on the territory and Father Valerian’s fortress-farm is a decaying ruin overrun by wild animals. There will be no traces and no memories of Valerian’s rebellion.

Later, when you come to the Agroprom Research Institute, you find that the Duty faction has made the rambling Soviet structure into a powerful and efficient fortress. The motor pool is full of armored personnel carriers, and a Hind attack helicopter is fueled and ready on the helipad. On the other side of the Zone, in the Dark Valley, the rival Freedom faction has occupied an old maintenance center. Both are running massive, paramilitary operations out of secured strongholds. In STALKER, both these strongholds have become terrifying hell-holes. Agroprom is stripped bare and overrun with mutants when it isn’t being occupied by passing bandit gangs or Special Forces detachments. The Dark Valley is completely hostile, Freedom’s old base fallen into ruin and occupied by a bandit army. The rest of the territory is awash in mutants.

The best laid plans of mice and men...

The Zone in Clear Sky is hardly an Eden, but it is nonetheless headed for a Fall. Everywhere you look you see tomorrow’s ruins. The Clear Sky faction is working feverishly to head off some impending catastrophe. The Duty faction is slowly but surely being ground down by deadly mutant attacks, and Freedom has been ravaged by the work of a traitor in their midst. Valerian is treading close to hubris. Rumors abound of an elite stalker faction that has suddenly vanished. Clear Sky is deliciously full of portent.

Yet its thematic success works against the setting. In the original game, the Zone is a lonely and forbidding land. There are small pockets of relative safety. The rest of the world would prefer to shoot you or eat you. From the time you leave the Stalker village in Cordon until you reach the Duty outpost on the northern end of the garbage dump, you are in mortal danger with every step.

Clear Sky, by contrast, seems crowded, small, and noisy. Everywhere you go, there is a base full of friendly stalkers. Sometimes a base and a couple outposts. You can’t go ten feet without stumbling over a friendly patrol. The dissonance overwhelms the game. In the Dark Valley, you are given a dangerous mission to go kill a pseudodog that has been terrorizing the Freedom base. You go out the back entrance to the base, you walk about one hundred fifty yards, and you’re attacked by the pseudodog. If you turn around, you can still see the guards at the entrance, just standing there chatting while you’re flinging hand grenades and blasting away at spectral wolverines.

When you come down to it, the Zone was never really that big. STALKER seemed expansive because it made you feel small and alone. If safety is a kilometer away and there’s a dozen mortal threats between you and it, that kilometer will seem like the distance between here and the moon. But when GSC packed the Zone full of friendly NPCs in Clear Sky, they called attention to fact that you are playing on a relatively small stage.

To some extent it was inevitable that a second trip to the Zone would begin to feel a bit confined, especially as GSC re-purposed assets from the first game for use in this one. To explore the themes they wanted to in this game, and there are several interesting ones, they had to provide more opportunities to meet other characters and spend time soaking up the different vibes of friendly encampments. There simply are not that many places in this world where you could plausibly have those encounters, and I very much doubt GSC had the resources to create a lot of new, convincing spaces to explore. The Zone is their studio backlot, and sometimes it shows.

On the other hand, there is a lot of tedium in these early encounters. The entire Freedom section should have been scrapped. It brings the game to a screeching halt while the Freedom faction sends you on missions that are the STALKER equivalent of “Run into the gas station and get me some cigarettes.” The encounter with the pseudodog is startling, but everything else is just marking time. The early scenes in Garbage are likewise a waste. It’s not until you reach Agroprom that things start picking up.

Clear Sky has an absolute mess of an opening. The introduction is mishandled and, with the exception of the fighting in the Swamps, it never approaches STALKER for excitement and atmosphere. It seems like Clear Sky doesn’t really care whether or not you keep playing.

But it has a card up its sleeve: Lake Yantar, and a totally unexpected and utterly brilliant zombie apocalypse.

Clear Sky – The Cordon

STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl fell apart in its last act when it started throwing up roadblocks that required thorough foreknowledge to pass. If three guys sporting Gauss rifles just teleport right in front of you when you enter a room, they are going to kill you unless you already know where and when they will show up. I got through the end of the game by saving and reloading with every step.

When I arrived at the Cordon in Clear Sky, I realized that the same problems persist in the prequel. You emerge from a tunnel that connects back to the Swamps, and you receive a warning that you just came out near the army guardpost. I knew the location well from the first game, and figured it would be no problem to sneak past.

After going thirty meters down the ridge toward the outpost, a siren keened and then someone on a loudspeaker snapped, “Stalker detected!” I wondered how the hell they had seen me (motion sensors on the perimeter?) and ducked down behind a large tree. That helped, but not as much as I hoped it would: a heavy machine gun opened up in front of me and started blowing through the tree trunk. My mercenary crumpled to the ground, torn to pieces.

On the next run I hid in the tunnel until the alarm stopped. Then I headed back downhill. I reached the tree, and the machine gun got me again. The next time I tried to sprint my way to safety. Killed in the gulch at the foot of the hill. And the next three attempts saw me get killed before I even got that far.

I tried bouncing from cover to cover. Didn’t work. Hiding amidst some boulders sheltered me from the machine gun, but the moment I tried moving again it blew me to hell. It always knew exactly where I was. It tracked perfectly, as if I were tagged by a laser. If it didn’t get me, soldiers did. So I tried to stay in cover and deal with the soldiers first.

That failed miserably: heavily armed and armored, they soaked up rounds from my Kalashnikov until it ran dry, at which point I had nothing but small-caliber weapons at my disposal. Even if I was making progress at mowing them down as they approached, one or three of them would hurl grenades at me from fifty meters away, all of them arcing perfectly until they landed at my feet. If I left cover, the machine gun got me. If I stayed, the grenades exploded and killed me. Little known fact about the Ukrainian army: all their soldiers have their right arms replaced with mortars.

After twenty or thirty attempts, I alt-tabbed and went to Youtube and looked up some walkthroughs. Turns out that there’s a bunch of hits for “clear sky cordon machine gun”. Half the internet thinks this is bullshit. I watched a video walkthrough (which helpfully told me to stop whining and go do it) that showed the character race down the hill, through the gulch, under a tree branch, and clear through to safety. Spamming the medkit hotkey the whole way. I tried to match the guy in the video about twelve more times. Never made it.

At least two hours had passed since I first encountered the machine gun. So I went to plan B: go back through the swamps to the other entry point to the Cordon, this time farther north. However, this breaks the game’s scripting. I came into the Cordon on the other side of the railroad embankment, and when I tried to move through a checkpoint stationed by friendly stalkers, they attacked me. So I ended up having to use a maintenance tunnel farther west, where I massacred a half-dozen neutrals. Then I could finally walk to the bunker where my contact waited. He gave me a mission to go through the railroad embankment and said he would put out the word to let me through. Which they did, forgiving my bad manners twenty minutes earlier when I killed a squad of their friends.

It’s crap like this that dooms STALKER to cult status. When journeying within the Zone, observing its ecosystem and battling through random encounters and side-quests, it’s one of the finest games I have ever played. But when GSC attempt to funnel the player into scripted encounters, the results are usually disastrous.

Homecoming in Clear Sky

I had a few restless days earlier this month. I had just put Pirates! back on the shelf for awhile, and was having a great time with EU3, but really wanted to play something else. I just didn’t know what, and none the games near the top of my Pile of Shame really did it for me. Aside from a vague desire for some violence, I really had no ideas.

Then my eyes fell on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky, still wrapped in its plastic and mixed reputation, and I realized that I wanted was not really a game, but a place. I wanted to go back to the Zone, and I didn’t care whether or not Clear Sky lived up to STALKER. I needed to be in that world again.

Perhaps it is because I’m suffering a bit from claustrophobia and urban fatigue, but I needed STALKER’s open fields, mist-shrouded marshland, and roiling sky. I actually felt relieved, like I had just come home, when I got control of my character in the opening scene and went over to the bedroom window. Just looking outside at the sunrise through the cold morning air, splintered into shafts of light by a bare tree, was enough to remind me of all the reasons that this is the best shooter series since Half-Life.

The opening sequence of Clear Sky may well be clunky and bordering on tedium, but I was at home the moment I was turned loose in the swamps outside the Clear Sky base.  I couldn’t have been happier picking my away through prairie grass and shallow pools, trying to avoid pissing off the local fauna.

At one point I was trying to cut across the map and went off the trails, and as I came a narrow clearing hemmed in by a marsh to the right and a field of tall grass to the left, I thought I heard something in the brush. I froze stock-still and listened. Just listened. To the breeze rustling through the weeds and the cackle of some crows. To very distant gunfire from the ongoing battle. But nothing immediate. So I started moving again, and as I reached the narrowest point of the clearing, I heard rustling and snuffling in the bushes to my left.

Instantly I was down in a crouch on the edge of the pool, long-barreled shotgun leveled and ready. I strained my ears and definitely heard an animal coming closer through the brush. I started tracking the sound from left to right and just as it passed in front of me, I heard a hound’s bark and it came charging out of the weeds. I’d misjudged his location by a few degrees, and swept the gun back to the left and triggered both barrels. Both blasts of buckshot peppered him, but not enough to bring him down. He came hurtling toward me while I broke open the stock, pulled out the empty shells, and slapped in fresh ones. I got the new rounds chambered and closed the gun just as he started to leap. Boo-boom! The second round dropped him at point blank range. He died at my feet.

My heart was pounding.

And that was a random, relatively weak monster encounter. A normal day at the stalker’s office. But I couldn’t afford to get cute and just slug it out with the damned thing, or try and run, because he absolutely could have killed me. Maybe not right away, but if he’d mauled me out there the marshes, I’d have bled out before I could make it back to safety.

Another unbelievable, quintessentially STALKER sequence came when I ran into a squad of Clear Sky attackers heading to take a pumping station away from the bandits. We managed to get close without being spotted, but the moment our point man placed a foot on the duckboards, the bandits opened fire from the platform. We started shooting it out from across the pond. One of my shots missed wide of the mark and a gas tank exploded, blasting the guy I’d been shooting at into oblivion. That was the opening: I charged across the boards, shotgunned the first bandit to get in my way, then picked off another over by the pumps. We were clear.

But not finished. My squad kept pushing north through the swamps, clearing a herd of boars and then coming to a desolate, ruined village. As we approached, we ran into a squad of bandits that had been heading toward the pump station. Again, gunfire erupted everywhere.

At this stage of the game, my weapons were a hodgepodge. I had an AK-74 with no ammo.  I had an MP-5 with half a clip, a sawed-off shotgun, the hunting shotgun, and a Fora 9mm pistol. All of which meant that in a huge firefight, with numbers definitely going against us, I was not really in good shape. I tried to pick off bandits with my pistol, but the engagement range was too long and every time I leaned out of cover, a torrent of pistol and shotgun fire came my way.  I spotted a pair of hostiles trying to flank us on the right side, using a house foundation for cover, so I pulled my MP-5 and cut them both down with two bursts, emptying the weapon. Then I started taking potshots with the shotgun, hoping that the buckshot would at least start whittling their strength down.

After about five minutes of combat, I suddenly realized I could heard the wind and the birds again. The riot of gunfire, shotgun blasts, ricochets, and yelling had slowed to a sullen dialogue.

With a sinking feeling, already certain of what I would find, I turned to my left and saw that two of my squadmates dead in their cover. I sprinted farther towards our flank, drawing a fusillade of shots from the bandits holding the main road, and reached the other end of our firing line. Everyone was dead. I was alone with the bandits.

Reason and adrenaline collided head-on. The smart play would be to fall back into the swamp toward the pumping station we’d liberated a half hour earlier. The odds were terrible and there was really no upshot to continuing the fight. But as the shots continued to sail past, and the bandits continued trying to work their way around the flanks, I was too keyed-up to call it a day. I grabbed some ammo from my dead squaddies, and moved back to the right.  Luckily, the bandits didn’t spot me until I was on their flank and I was able to take them one at a time.

Even with that minor advantage, it was still slow, bloody work. It took me several more minutes to clear the town. It also used up all my bandages, all but one of my first-aid kits, and 95% of my ammunition. By the time I drove the last gunman down in a hail of bullets over by an empty pig pen, I was down to three clips of pistol ammo and a salvo from each of my shotguns. I started stripping the dead to replenish my supplies, and realized how futile this battle had been. Nobody had much ammo, and I didn’t manage to find any medical supplies.

Not that I got a chance to collect more than a few handfuls of 9mm and buckshot rounds, because I spotted another squad of bandits coming in from the north. I took off on the road east before they spotted me, since they were already across my line of retreat to the pumping station.

I had completely screwed myself. The village was back in enemy hands. I was also trapped in the middle of nowhere between two bandit bases, with nothing but a long expanse of hostile countryside between me and a Clear Sky position. Overhead, the perfect autumn day had given way to a heavy sky that seemed to press down until it touched the tops of the prairie grass.

I checked my map, sketched a route, and reloaded my weapons. Then, turning away from the broken trail, I headed back into the marshes.

Death in Stalker, Part 2

The biggest cowards in the Zone are the Ukrainian soldiers that try to police it. They don’t go anywhere without overwhelming numbers and high-tech equipment, and they usually have attack helicopters flying cover. You can expect to see them whenever you’ve uncovered anything of value, or if you and your comrades have managed to clear a dangerous area. Then the army will swoop in and kill everyone.

They’re also corrupt. Every time I had to go through an army checkpoint, they extracted a hefty bribe at gunpoint. Meanwhile, they’ve got every exit to the Exclusion Zone mined and guarded. Anyone who tries to leave gets shot down without warning.

So even though I decided I was through with contract killing, I made an exception where the army was concerned. I can only be hassled, extorted, and nearly gunned down in free-fire zones so many times before I start taking it a little personally.

Furthermore, my murder of that deserter had an interesting effect on my ethics. While it had seemed like a watershed moment of realization that would put me on the path to a more merciful journey through the Zone, it turned out to be more of a benchmark. My reasoning went like this: I might as well commit lesser evils, because I’d done worse. In for a penny and all that.

I took a job to get a tricked-out pistol from the army major who oversees a checkpoint in the Cordon. Basically, someone wanted a novelty gun and I was going to have to kill six people to get him his souveneir. But these six people were soldiers, and those guys are assholes.

I took the contract and headed down to the checkpoint, where the soldiers ripped me off for the usual fee and gave me the usual warning about shooting me if I didn’t behave myself. This time, however, I felt that “delicious coldness” that Michael Corleone felt when the police captain gave him a beating. As I forked over my cash, I knew these guys were already ghosts. I walked through the checkpoint, made a note of its layout, and headed over the nearby ridge.

The sun was going down fast and I decided to wait until it was dark to make my attack. Dusk and dawn are difficult times to operate, because neither normal eyesight nor nightvision really work. Your eyes can’t penetrate the shadows and your nightvision is blown by the fact that the sun is sitting on the horizon.

I got into position behind some shrubs and made final preparations. I loaded armor-piercing rounds into my sidearm, which I hoped I wouldn’t have to use. I had three grenades, which I would need if they rushed me or if I needed to flush them out of cover. My rifle was the weak link. I was being forced to use the AN-94 assault rifle, which is the successor to the Kalashnikov line of rifles. It’s marginally more accurate, but still not a sniper’s weapon. It puts maybe one round in five in the crosshairs, while the rest of the shots fall a few degrees off-center. This means that even with a clear shot, you have to pop off several rounds to make sure your target goes down. This exposes your position to everyone else, and gives enemies more time to find cover. Not exactly the way of the ninja.

As the shadows deepened, I moved out from behind the bushes and drew a bead on the Major. The last light bled from the sky and I flipped on my night vision goggles. Now I could see him perfectly, standing on the summit of his tiny little hill and surveying his miniscule kingdom.

The first shot missed high and he made a run for it, but in the wrong direction. I caught him at the bottom of the slope with a few rounds, then took a quick look around as some wild shots started coming from the checkpoint. Another trooper was at the base of my ridge trying to find me, but he’d come too close for me to miss with a headshot.

There were four of them left and they’d taken cover from my sniper fire. I flipped the gun back to automatic for the infighting that was about to begin, then moved down the hill toward their position. I saw a flash of movement next to a shipping container and loosed a volley of shots. No more movement, but I didn’t know if that meant I’d killed my target or if he’d just gotten back in cover.

I pulled out my grenades and started flinging them into the checkpoint, spread out so that running from one would take my victims into the blast from another. As they exploded, I dashed across the road to negate their cover. I only saw one soldier hiding in the middle of the checkpoint, and took him down with the better part of a clip.

I put in a fresh clip, but there was no more shooting. I checked out the scene through my scope and counted the bodies. The Major, Headshot, Movement (I must have hit him), Coward, and someone I’d never seen. Probably killed by a grenade. One unaccounted for. I crept into the checkpoint, but soon found his body next to a supply stockpile. One of the grenades must have gotten him.

I found the special sidearm on the Major’s corpse, which was just a modified version of a lousy Soviet pistol. A collector’s item, perhaps, but not worth getting killed over. The Major should have had less gaudy tastes.

It struck me that the Zone was a strange place. Not quite a Hobbesian warzone, but definitely tribal and vicious. My character had killed a man who had done no wrong, and it was murder. But taking money to kill six people for a bauble was just, because they had attacked my kind and stolen from me when they could.

The world that Stalker portrays is one in which there is no higher authority to which a man can appeal, and the stakes are almost always mortal. So morality gets sanded down until we arrive back at Polemarchus’ straight-from-the-shoulder formulation: “Do harm to your enemies and good to your friends.” To every man his due.