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.