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Modder Superior: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Anomaly is the next best thing to a sequel

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. in the age of social media.

The past few years have been amazing for fans of the gritty survival shooter sandbox series S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Between a vague but permissive modding agreement and an engine-code leak, fans had all the tools they needed to make their own successor. The likes of Lost Alpha, Dead Air and the upcoming multiplayer Ray Of Hope are all impressive, but the recently re-released Anomaly is the closest we've seen to an unofficial sequel. Free, standalone, polished and stuffed with irradiated promise, here's why Anomaly is a must-play whether you're new to Pripyat or know it like the back of your hand.

While some of these fan-made S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games feel like they're built exclusively for folks who've played nothing else this past decade (see the fittingly named Call Of Misery), Anomaly could almost pass for a commercial product. While this standalone mod has been around for a while, the recently-released version 1.5 brings a lot to the table after a full year of development. An overhauled, polished UI, a main story to follow, a glut of alternative modes, and it's not too tough on the default settings. That extra year has done wonders for stability and performance, too.

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Anomaly presents itself as a sequel, set some years after GSC Game World's original trilogy, and combines and expands the environments from all three of those original games. The Zone — the haunted, irradiated and mutant-infested land around Chernobyl — is bigger and more detailed than ever. Strelok, the player character from the first game, is apparently back too, and following rumours of his return leads into several large story quest arcs, in-between dozens of scripted side-quests and procedurally generated jobs. While story objectives are mostly just 'go here, talk to this person, recover this item', it's an interesting enough reason to explore deep into hostile territory.

You're free to play as a member of any of the original nine factions (and unlock another three new ones by playing through the story), although first-timers are best off with the Loners (the one true neutral party), as they offer tutorials. Not that Anomaly will be entirely familiar to returning veterans, though, as the passing of time has left its mark on the Zone. Some areas have been tweaked and rearranged, and overgrowth feels denser in places. But the biggest change is that everyone's using Discord now. So long as your PDA is powered, you get a constant feed of info from a zone-wide chat channel, filled with dynamic chatter and observations from the hundreds of NPCs around.

Sometimes you just get threatening spam from the Monolith cult, too.

It makes an astonishing amount of difference, and gives you a real sense of activity and life outside of your field of view. You can even walk up to someone and say 'yeah, I saw your job posting online' and take work that way. Personal ads in a post-nuclear (and extremely haunted) hellscape just adds another layer of strained humanity to Anomaly. One other cute feature of the PDA is a radio tuner, letting you listen to several channels, including one that runs authentic late 80s/early 90s post-Soviet pop hits. And yes, there is a bandit radio station. Cheeki Breeki hits 24/7.

Some characters will comment on the weather, others will dutifully share reports of where they've heard gunfire and monsters. Sometimes you'll see calls for support, reports of people taken hostage or even just job postings. There's also a constant feed of who was found dead and what did them in, usually followed up by whatever cool items were found on the body. While you sadly can't join in on the shitposting yourself, your exploits will be reflected in the chatter. It's always nice to hear that the locals are impressed by my mutant-hunting skills.

The sense that there's more going on with Anomaly isn't just smoke and mirrors. While some quest NPCs are invulnerable and factions won't expand too far outside their borders in story mode, there's a lot more happening. Troops are on the march, and mutants hunt in packs out in the wild. Be ready to run and react, or just keep an eye on the online chatter. If someone's bragging that they just found a Gauss rifle on a body? Well, you might want to keep that name in mind, and perhaps liberate them of their new treasure. In the Zone, life is cheap and good guns are expensive.

As hardcore as you want

I think it's busted. No drivable vehicles in this mod, sorry.

At its default settings, and assuming you start out as an independent S.T.A.L.K.E.R. in the Cordon zone, Anomaly is only a little tougher than the original trilogy. You need to eat, drink and sleep, but only as much as a real human might. Healing items take a few seconds to activate and a while longer to fully take effect. You need a knife to slice up mutant wildlife for organs to sell on the black market, and weapons take a little bit more maintenance, but don't wear down as fast as they did before. Plus, doing bonus missions to deliver tools to repair experts gets you a lifetime discount.

But that's just the default, and Anomaly can be as casual or as brutal as you like, with some options set during character creation and others tweakable in-game via the main menu. This includes a fast travel feature with a surprising number of options, and I'd recommend enabling at least some form of it.

There are a lot of other elements that you can engage fully, or just largely ignore. Anomaly has an intensely complex item repair and crafting system that allows you to break down guns and suits. Use reclaimed parts with a crafting table (and the right toolkit) to restore heavily worn items, or just pay a mender to patch it up for you. Maintain your guns with gun oil, and patch up your armour with duct tape, and make sure to tear off your faction patch if you take an enemy's suit, otherwise friends might mistake you for one of them, thanks to the disguise system. There's even a sub-set of randomly generated missions where you hunt for signals with a tuneable radio receiver.

One other feature you can tinker around with (though I recommend keeping it on, because they're put so much effort into it) is the mask/visor system, recently pilfered from the Metro series. When wearing any kind of face-covering equipment, you'll hear your breath and see as it fogs up the plastic and glass. As your helmet takes damage, it'll appear cracked and worn, and during rain you'll hear the hard sound of water pounding on your helmet, and see the raindrops streaking down your vision. There's even a button (T by default) to wipe your visor clear with one hand. It's absolutely excessive, but I love it. It's Anomaly in a nutshell; a little more complex, but all to enhance the mood.

Squad goals

Strelok might have been a lone wolf, but you don't have to be in Anomaly. In fact, it's in your interest to make friends. You'll probably stumble upon Anomaly's squad command system very early on, as some of the earliest Loner missions available in the newbie village involve escorting some rookies to a destination, clearing out some mutants and bringing them home safe. If you do the job right, it won't be long until your reputation climbs high enough to just ask wandering Zone-dwellers if they want to join your squad indefinitely, to haul loot for you or catch oncoming bullets.

When you've got a party, you'll see basic status for each member of your crew in the bottom of the UI. While you can rebind keys if you need to, the default numpad controls for giving orders work well enough, and all the commands are handy. You can tell your droogs to be stealthy, to follow or wait, to spread out and loot, or to move to a specific point. It's another layer of stuff to keep in mind, but between reliable squad AI and the inherent expendability of life in the Zone, it's well worth getting used to. Plus, learning the controls might just save your life in Warzone mode.

This is one of Anomaly's neatest bonus features. With Warzone mode you get an entirely different way to play, where story progression is disabled, and everyone goes to war, out to capture as many points of interest around the map as possible. Better yet, you get to recruit whoever you want into your personal party, and order around any allied units using the PDA map. While your faction has high-level AI directing them around, you can even disable that if you want to try playing it as a mega-scale FPS/RTS hybrid. It's a lot like a messier, more crossfire-prone The Signal From Tolva, with fewer zappy laser rifles.

Modding your mod for more modular mod cons

Twenty whole bullets! Might not sound like much, but it adds up after a few dozen murders.

As with other standalone S.T.A.L.K.E.R. mega-mods, Anomaly has a small mountain of third (fourth?) party additions to bolt onto it for further customisation. Unfortunately, most of them don't work right now, because v1.5 broke compatibility, but here's a few that you might want to consider, mostly quality-of-life improvements to shave off the last rough edges from Anomaly's learning curve. Do note that none of these are essential, and I spent most of my time playing without them. To use them, just download and unpack to your Anomaly directory and play as normal.

Ammo & Condition Rebalanced by "jakethegreatwhite" makes some common-sense tweaks to the loot you'll find. Weapon condition will vary based on the rank of the character you looted it from, so whacking some bottom-feeding bandit will get you a gun that jams 80% of the time. A high-ranking officer's gear might need a bit of a tune-up, but should be perfectly usable straight away. Ammo drops have been increased a little too. You'll frequently pull 10-20 bullets of the same quality from a body.

Update: I've not had a chance to test it myself yet, but I've heard that Ammo & Condition Rebalanced was broken by a recent hotfix. Skip on this or look around for alternatives.

Bleed Rework v.3 by "Solarint" applies some pressure to Anomaly's most uncompromising element. Bleeding in this Anomaly is brutal. Get gored by a boar and you'll lose half your health on impact, and the other half within seconds. This mod offers three options, including disabling bleeding altogether, but the regular rework option seems to best thought out. Bandages are common and cheap, basic medkits stem bleeding, and damage from blood loss is halved. It's still dangerous to spring a leak and start venting your fluids onto the ground, but less panic-worthy.

It's worth noting that Ammo Rebalance and Bleed Rework both make changes to the loot drop tables in death_generic.ltx. I recommend sticking with the file from Ammo Rebalance.

Fantastic drugs and where to find them. Never again will you accidentally snarf sleeping pills in a firefight, or inject adrenaline before a nap.

QOL Icons by "digitallifeless" makes rummaging through your over-stuffed virtual backpack less of an ordeal. Anomaly adds a lot of new items to the game, and sometimes it can be hard to find what you need in a hurry. This mod puts handy informational icons on most items, telling you their item category and effect. Now you can see at a glance what in your back is a crafting item, as well as indicators for what stats each drug will buff or heal. Just a simple quality-of-life tweak that should save on digging through tool-tips to identify what in your sack really is junk.

Death Animations by "AyyKyu" is a tiny file that does a lot of heavy lifting, adding a range of death animations which segue into the usual sack-of-potatoes ragdolls. Purely personal preference, but I feel this makes gunfights look a lot nicer. I've not had long to play around with sub-mods for Anomaly yet, and these are just my personal loadout, cherry-picked from the Anomaly Addons section on Mod DB. Share your wisdom, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.S. — what do you consider essential to the experience?

Stalker: Anomaly is available on Mod DB, and is entirely standalone. Just download the three parts of 1.5.0, unpack to your chosen install directory, then install the two Hotfix updates and away you go.

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