Impressions: Stalker: Lost Alpha

By Craig Pearson on May 12th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

Stalker: Lost Alpha is out, but it’s not finished. Typical Stalker, really. The game, a fan-fronted effort to reconnect all the elements that were cut from Shadow of Chernobyl, was leaked during development. The developers have chosen to release it earlier than planned, and I decided to try it out. It’s still Stalker, still based on the first game, but at the same time it’s not. It’s as close to a remix as I’ve ever come across in gaming, bringing in new elements, but still reminding me of the original. It’s all different, but if you loved the first Stalker, instead of reinstalling the original and modding it, when this is fixed it’ll be your next install. I guarantee it.

I don’t speak Russian, but I can recognise a cry of pain in any language. I could tell that someone nearby was curled up and dying in the rain, but I was bleeding, exhausted, out of bullets and low on everything. I stumbled through the rain towards a building lit from within by a brazier, ignoring the sting of guilt that jabbed with every groan in the air. The only comfort you’ll find in Stalker is near the glow of a burning barrel, and I’d just escaped from a huge military compound with a scrap of health left. I got lucky: there were shelves of supplies. I filled up and checked my map to see a coloured dot surrounded by grey dots. I was ignoring a dying man surrounded by corpses. I fell asleep as that pained call for help cut through the rain and thunder, and I hoped he understood that I couldn’t face the night again. He’d have to wait until morning.

It was strangely comforting to wake and hear his wail. As I was gathering things, I heard a snap and spotted the colour drain out of the dot. I moved through the building and saw a military patrol standing over the corpse.

Later, as I cower in the corner of a building, staunching wounds with a med pack that could have saved him, I still feel bad about it. I have plenty of supplies, but I’ve earned every one of them, and survived without having to beg for help in the dirt. The squad that killed him is dead and looted, and I have a useless harmonica that I took from his corpse. Apart from guns and bullets, it was his only possession, and it’ll forever remain in a corner of my backpack.

Welcome back, Stalker. You’re still a wonderful and cruel bastard of a game, and A-Life still has the power to give me fireside stories.

Lost Alpha is Stalker’s phantom limb. When Shadow of Chernobyl was first released, it was clear that the developers had cut corners. You can’t call a game that took six years to be made ‘a rush job’, but there were bloody stumps where limbs used to be. Lost Alpha is something of a detective job: the game’s developers have scoured all the available information on what was there and attempted to restore it. They’ve rebuilt bridges from screenshots, and stitched together a world from hearsay.

Unlike mods that up the ante, making everything miserable and intense, Lost Alpha deftly recounts that first play through of Shadow Of Chernobyl without turning it into an extreme challenge. What’s emerged is a strange, different Stalker. A familiar feeling place with familiar feeling missions, but remixed. Expanded. If the original developers had a hand in it, it’d feel like a director’s cut. But this is a fan effort, freely released as a standalone game. It’s probably definitive, but that’s a difficult call to make with so many variations of Stalker out there. I think it’s definitive for me, though. It’s more Stalker, but prettier and more complex.

The technical upgrades are impressive. The ugly faces still sit on the models like one of Hannibal Lecter’s victims, and I had to edit out the lens flare, but the atmosphere pours from the monitor in thick sunshafts, rippling grass, and a seeping damp that glows in the moonlight. It is a surprisingly modern looking game, and a testament to the power of dynamic lighting filtered through gnarled trees. Night is so dark that you feel every blade of grass. The soundtrack throbs like an infected finger, seemingly made by the noise of a piece of metal just about to break, though the occasional scream does tip it into schlock territory. But then so do the zombies.

And there’s the map. I’ve not explored every inch, but the map is larger and the world… well, it’s like returning to a place from your childhood and discovering your old haunts don’t conform to your memory. And not only that, but there’s been re-development work. I confess, I’d imagined that the return to the past would mean the whole map was open, but that’s not the case. It’s still a huge world cut into smaller chunks, but with more chunks. Most of Lost Alpha’s changes blend in like a cloaked bloodsucker. I keep thinking I’m somewhere I recognise, and then I turn a corner and it’s different. It’s tough to unravel it all: the junkyard near the beginning of SoC is gone, and the occupying force moved elsewhere, but the world leading up to it is sort of the same, but with changes down to the cellular level. Buildings that I remember from the outside have new corridors, basements, even caves; new dangers lurk as well. There’s a Burer in the Agroprom Underground, for example. He was cut from the original files, but returns and takes the place of the Controller. It’s as much an assault on your memory as it is on your player.

It’s not all a huge success: even with the new vehicles–quest-based and buyable– there’s some missions that feel needlessly distant from each other, and in an effort to see the story I bounced around the map a fair bit which wasn’t as fun as having it unravel. There’s a chase with the player in a car being harassed by a helicopter that just feels entirely antithetical to the cold and lonely game I love. And then, when it’s over and you crawl through some mines in the dark, you end up having to retrace that trip on foot. It’s like a level from another game. Also, trying to find the 100 Rads bar–even with it marked on a map–took me a ridiculously long time. There is, on occasion, the whiff of overdesign.

But it mostly settles into Stalker’s boots. The start is the same: you are on the hunt for Strelok, and then you’re bounced between factions, unravelling the story and meeting every fringe element living in the Zone. I found it keenly balanced and I don’t have one gun that feels like I have too much ammo, but I’m also never quite comfortable with what I have. Ammo fills most of my inventory slots, and now sit on my belt as well. That’s one of the more interesting choices: in order to reload weapons, you need to move the ammo from the backpack out to your belt and then keep reading. I spend a lot of time raiding military corpses, usually out of necessity. Enemies are walking bags of bullets.

That moment at the start of the article is by no means an isolated incident. It wasn’t scripted, and the A-Life–though capable of piling up in doorways, or bouncing grenades off walls and killing whole squads for me– still creates terrifying, unpredictable scenes, plucked from the world as you pass through it. It’s not what Stalker initially promised, as most things still keep to their rough areas, but there’s still nothing quite like tumbling through the molasses-thick dark and hearing a grumble and seeing a pair of malevolent white pixels watching. Especially when the growl deepens and moves closer but the eyes don’t. That fear is heightened by a number of new mutants: there’s a stretched out feral human called the Izlom that has no reason to ever exist and I hate it.

In fact, it seems that the A-Life’s effect can be counter-intuitive: some NPCs die, even though you might need them. Saving often is necessary to ensure you have the ability to return to a previous working state. Stalker will always break, and this version seems particularly perilous: one of my save games undid a long, stealthy stalk by warping an NPC right in front of me. There are game breaking bugs that completely leave you unable to carry on without fiddling with the game script. So very Stalker.

But you always have to take the rough with the infected, pulsating buboes of the Stalker games. And this is free, so I’d feel churlish to complain too much – it’s really good when it works, which is most of the time. If you grab it right now, just be willing to stare at crash reports and be ready to Google for fixes, but remember that the developers have released it early after a leak forced their hand. They’ll be patching it, and you can wait if you choose. I couldn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve spent a week in the dark, in a world lit by flashes of lightning, gunpowder, and irradiated chunks of meat. When it’s stable, I may never return to the Shadow of Chernobyl ever again.

Here’s a bonus gallery from my visit to Chernobyl in 2006.

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45 Comments »

  1. Anguy says:

    Is it now open to the public or how come there’s so many people there? Almost looks like a tour for tourists and I always thought it was really dangerous because of the radiation, especially around the big metal things like the wheel.

    • GameCat says:

      That’s the thing that bugged me most in SoC and CS (CoP fixed this somewhat). Overcrowded Zone. There shouldn’t be many people around. Zone is about beign lonely in strange and dangerous world. :(

    • bac9 says:

      Well, the industry has always struggled with delivering engaging gameplay in the absence of cannon fodder enemies jumping at you every minute. Stalker was never much of an exception. But I’m absolutely sure unofficial modifications for that unofficial modification will arrive in a few months, fixing all sorts of things for all sorts of tastes, including a mod that will depopulate the Zone to better fit the setting.

      If you’re about the real Zone, though, then heh. Nope, it’s actually the opposite, it was completely closed for regular tours a few years ago and only occasional visits still happen as exceptions. There are very few people who live in the actual Zone, mostly old folks who weren’t willing to move. It’s actually quite safe place if you’re smart about what you eat, how you walk and how you treat your clothing, but I doubt those old people follow the rules much. Even if they ignore them, though, long-term effects, if you will get any, won’t manifest themselves quickly, which obviously isn’t a concern for them. And they don’t exactly live in the most contaminated areas like liquidation machinery scrapyard, fallout trail or Pripyat.

    • Detocroix says:

      It’s been semi-open for public for a long time. You need a guided tour but otherwise there is nothing stopping you from visiting the place. The radiation has dropped to “okay” levels loong long time ago :)

    • Cooper says:

      It’s open if you book a tour (via a tour operator or dirtectly with the governing body).

      @bac9 They’ve opened it again after some legal wrangling about the status of tours to the Zone and are back to regular tours.

      Radiation levels vary by large amounts. In the Zone. Unintuitively, some of the lower levels are around the power plant itself; the other three reactors were kept running in the years following the disaster and so to reduce risk to workers the plants and surrounding areas were thouroughly cleaned (about two metres of topsoil was removed and replaced).

      Pripyat tends to be okay. The worst area, by far, is the ‘Red Forest’ just outside Pripyat. It’s to the west of Reactor 4; the wind blew west and so most of the fallout landed there. Walking just a couple of metres off the road into the long grass in that area is enough to see huge spikes in radiation levels. Going any further necessitates protective gear.

    • Lemming says:

      The whole area has been reclaimed by nature and species are thriving there that were pretty much wiped out by the local populace before the accident (wolves, beavers, birds etc). If there’s any justice, it’ll be made a national park rather than be considered for redevelopment in the future.

      • Kaeoschassis says:

        Oh my god so much this.

      • Premium User Badge lurkalisk says:

        Redevelopment is something that could only happen so distant in the future that we might all be sea dwelling anthropomorphic walruses by then, with no need to consider land anything but some sort of exclusion zone.

      • orbiternelson says:

        Aye, but are there like mutant bears n that?

    • ulix says:

      Thing is that many of the species living in the zone today are actually more healthy – on average – than their “normal” counterparts in the “normal” (and unradiated) wild elsewere.

      • Stardreamer says:

        There was an old documentary on TV aaaages ago that posited an explanation for this, that the common distribution curve actually doesn’t contain any data from the lowest levels of radiation exposure – it’s merely an extrapolation of the data from the higher levels of exposure that shows harm to animal and human life.

        However, what actually happens (according to the documentary) is that the line drops out of sequence and actually drops into BENEFICIAL rather than harmful. They cited the data coming from Chernobyl, the results that you’ve mentioned above, as proof that radiation at low levels actually PROTECTS from cancers by working to strengthen living cells. Maybe Marie Curie wasn’t so daft after all?

        • mr.black says:

          There was a nice documentary (in german, though) which explained there are more than one species which outside the zone are endangered cause of the diminishing habitats and inside their numbers are actually increasing.
          There are wolves, herds of horses and I think even herds of european bisons are slowly introduced into the territory, which biologists more and more consider a great natural preservat. There are new woods growing and expanding, birds have gotten a nice place for an undisturbed rest on their yearly migrations and all in all in most places ecology has found another ballance.
          Of course, as people already said, there are great differences and many factors in play. E.g. somewhere the uppermost layers of soil are becomming more irradiated than before – the plants are slowly gathering irradiated particles from the lower layers and bringing them to the ground. And since evolution has already done it’s course, they (the ones that survived) don’t seem disturbed much by the hightened radiation. Then there’s patches of wood so irradiated, the microflora and fauna has all died and still can’t be replaced, so the trees can’t rot – the red forest – so the dead wood stays unchanged for years.
          Then there are young trees growing undisturbed in previously heavily populated places like building blocks…
          Fascinating all! Making it a national park would be great for everybody involved in the long run, methinks!

        • Premium User Badge Don Reba says:

          In addition, there has been a long-standing debate about whether low doses of radiation add up over time. The prevailing opinion for a long time has been that they do, but evidence has been pointing the other way lately. It seems to be fairly safe to live in lightly irradiated areas.

  2. bac9 says:

    Unfortunately, this enormous project, with all it’s beautiful level design, modeling and engine update work, is very much undermined by the storyline. It starts roughly imitating early SoC story, but over time shifts into realm of ridiculous, insufferable fan fiction full of extremely awkward cutscenes, conspiracies of a bad kind (of laughable tinfoil hat kind, not at all like creepy, almost believable, always barely explained background stories from Shadow of Chernobyl). I won’t delve into spoilers, but it’s a very disappointing, disjointed and badly executed ride if you’re in it for the story.

    And that’s not touching the voice work, which ranges from tolerable for Sid and Strelok to ear-bleedingly awful for some characters like Doctor.

    Overall, it’s a thing of beauty and a product of enormous work, but I very much advice every one of you to wait a few months for patches and mods to come out. Most importantly, that beauty is very much in need of a mod that will brutally kill and remove the storyline, leaving you with a gorgeous unscripted sandbox.

    • TheRaptorFence says:

      I completely agree. There are many different parts of Lost Alpha that undermine the game considerably. The overdesign, the fan-fiction story, the lack of meta-gameplay options, the incongruous pacing and backtracking of the narrative, the “filler” new levels, and-of course-the bugs.

      As of right now I don’t recommend playing Lost Alpha at all, not until it becomes more stable. Even then, I’m viewing Lost Alpha as a framework for which many mods can be inserted. By itself, it’s a pretty shite game. A free one, but shite as a STALKER experience. It desperately could use a tune-up such as the Complete Mod, and perhaps some difficulty/variety in experience such as Misery, Oblivion Lost, or LURK. Eventually, this could replace SoC as the STALKER game to mod. It’s a much better framework for modding than SoC is.

  3. Bostec says:

    You went to Chernobyl, man I would love to go there, a shame Butlins don’t have a camp. Was it really quiet? did you hear any wildlife? likes birds and such? I think I watched a program about fishing, he was trying to catch this supposely monster fish in the lake near Chernobyl, didn’t really catch much but radiation. Abandon places get my hairs up.

  4. RaoulDuke says:

    Has every man in Scotland at one point owned those £4 Primark trousers? [2nd last Chernobyl picture, with the fire extinguisher].

    I’m so logey today, gawwwwwd.

    Stalker is a good game.

  5. CookPassBabtridge says:

    I can’t find the damn artifact in the first mission.
    Yes I suck.
    Where is it? I am in the bog (NO, NOT THAT BOG BRITISH PEOPLE), where the PDA shows it is. Am I meant to find a detector? I only have that belt anomaly beeper. Keep getting killed by a massive spiky thing and don’t have enough bandages to stop the barrels of blood apparently pouring out of me. Send help. Down to last can of tuna.

    • MykulJaxin says:

      No, you’re in the right place. Make sure you’re tossing bolts (default key is 6, I believe) directly in front of you before you take steps. The anomaly is in there, but I was forced to bum around until my cursor told me I could pick it up. You don’t need any additional equipment, just the newb stuff you have in your pants.

      • CookPassBabtridge says:

        Ah lol that sounds familiar … remember that Veles in a cave, in the top corner of the Swamps in Clear Sky, that was bugged all to hell just to FIND the place, and then only findable via pixel hunt because it was rammed behind a bit of corrugated iron?

    • Premium User Badge GaiusJulius394 says:

      Finding stuff in Stalker is easy – hold the F key and you’ll be able to see any items nearby and will automatically pick it up when you mouse over it. Such a good trick.

      • CookPassBabtridge says:

        Doesnt always work. I recall making the same recommendation in the past then finding numerous cases where it utterly fails. That Veles was one. Have been trying the old F key method in the artifact bog too. It doesnt “F”in work ;)

  6. Keyrock says:

    when this is fixed it’ll be your next install

    It will be, but lord knows when this will reach a relatively sane level of stability. I’m staying away until then.

  7. paranoydandroyd says:

    Buck Sexington?

  8. MykulJaxin says:

    Some of my friends are waiting for the patch, but I had to jump in and see what was up. One of the first things I told them was that the Bar is impossible to find, I spent 20 minutes crankily crawling around in an over encumbered state trying to find what used to be so easy to access. I haven’t played since getting in there because I’m scared when I leave and come back I’ll have forgotten how to get in.

  9. Paul says:

    So happy this got made, when Stalker 2 got cancelled. I am waiting for some more patches though.

  10. Cooper says:

    2006 is pretty early for a visit to the Zone; numbers didn’t pick up until about 2008/09. By the time I was doing my PhD out there in 2010 there were daily visits with large tour groups.

  11. Premium User Badge Don Reba says:

    I think you meant this link for lens flare: http://www.gsc-game.com/main.php?t=community&s=forums&s_game_type=xr&thm_page=1&thm_id=22635&sec_id=19&offset=420#382904
    Yours only leads to GSC forum’s main page. It’s a quirky old forum engine.

  12. SillyWizard says:

    So I just re-installed the original STALKER. Steam tells me I spent 31 minutes in it before I uninstalled, previously.

    Here goes.

    • SillyWizard says:

      Okay and in preparation for loading up the game again, I just watched some youtube footage of the original game. This looks way too effing scary.

      • Geebs says:

        The underground bits will scare the bejesus out of you. Enjoy ;-)

        • CookPassBabtridge says:

          Its only BRUTALLY TERRIFYING the first time.
          Apart from the poltergeists. And those dwarf things. And the bloodsuckers.

          … OK it doesn’t get any better.

        • SillyWizard says:

          I’m mildly claustrophobic in real life. :(

  13. Casimir's Blake says:

    I donated. Lost Alpha is far from perfect, but it’s the deepest “new” FPS experience on PC that has seen release for a very, very long time. It took me a week of on-and-off (mostly on) playing to get through it, and I could have spent much longer looking through every inch of the maps. There were a few bugs, tweaks needed and the patch was most welcome fixing a few serious issues. Some of the quests have the player traipse very far just to ask a character a question or receive an item, some areas seem underpopulated, and I found I wasn’t even that unsettled by some of the X-labs. The AI is rather bone-headed sometimes and as a whole the game occasionally felt too easy. Further tweaking needed, obviously. Oh and sometimes the story becomes utter balls. As others have said, fan-fiction, particularly when it enters the realms of the multi-dimensional, shall we say.

    But it’s Stalker. Despite my nitpicking, it’s still the same open-world FPS it has always been, only bigger and better than ever before. Even in its somewhat cranky, almost-broken, nay disheveled way, Lost Alpha is a brilliant experience and was worth the wait. Bravo dezowave.

    Oh, and the end of Clear Sky let slip that there were supposed to be “catacombs” and they had been cruelly excised. Lost Alpha delivers. Oh my, it delivers.

    Great article Craig, I could have read more – Stalker provides fascinating anecdotes, always – but your photos from Chernobyl make up for that. Chilling, chaotic bleakness. And in the game.

  14. Lemming says:

    How the fuck is the original STALKER a full tenner on Steam?

    • SillyWizard says:

      Well stuff can’t be ridiculously discounted all the time. Is it that hard to wait for the several-times-a-year when pretty much anything you want drops to 90% off?

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      More importantly, how do you not already own it?

    • Keyrock says:

      I know, right? It’s worth at least quadruple that.

    • The_invalid says:

      They were on sale ridiculously cheap on GOG a few months back. In fact, they pretty regularly go on sale, but I’ll add to the echo chamber of people saying a tenner is absolutely worth it for what you get.

    • Jalan says:

      All three games have gone on sale multiple times through Steam (SoC was one of the first purchases I made when I registered a Steam account and it was ~£3 back then). Given that I’ve played over 60 hours of it, it is definitely worth what I paid (if not more).

  15. Kaeoschassis says:

    I’ve never actually seen much of the real Zone before. Infact I’m pretty sure your gallery is the MOST I’ve seen of it. I just wanted to say that wow, Stalker’s level artists did a freaking amazing job. I never realized just how spot on the ‘feel’ of the place was. I also have a strange desire to visit the place myself, now.

    As for Lost Alpha, I will probably be waiting before I jump in. I can handle a buggy game, Stalker is one of my all time favs after all, but I don’t want to go piling more bugs on top unnecessarily.
    Are the system requirements the same, does anyone know?

  16. fupjack says:

    There is one patch already out for the came that fixes some common issues. I’ve been playing it and really enjoying it so far. Frankly, it’s less buggy and less of a hassle than most of the mods out there. They certainly delivered on the creepy underground areas.

  17. UpsilonCrux says:

    Yep, this seems to me to be the definitive stalker (tiresome punctuation omitted) experience. SHOC was always the best.

    I’d point out that there’s a lot of jury-rigged “fixes” and “patches” being bandied around, as a result of impatience with existing bugs. This is all well and good, but just be wary of what people consider to be a “fix” may be in contradiction to the dezowave team’s vision, (stuff like “fixing” the battery duration and so on)and also, that these fixes will probably bust up your shizz once dezo releases more patches.

    Creepy underground for the win.
    Acidic Zombie Disco : http://youtu.be/AmSh6BCBxY8

  18. Sigh says:

    Craig,
    This was a beautifully written piece and one of the best things I have read on RPS in a long time. Your gallery at the end really complemented the tone and mood of it all. This is one of those rare articles I bookmark to read again in the future. Thank you, very well done.