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Stalker: The Mods, Return To Clear Sky

The past week of my gaming time has been dominated by Stalker mods: downloading, testing, crashing, deleting, reinstalling, and even a few hours of playing. For Shadow Of Chernobyl there's pretty much a one-stop shop for changes, which is the extraordinary Oblivion Lost mod. It's a comprehensive, colossal piece of compilation modding, much of it done by the author, and the rest factored in from across the community. It isn't to everyone's taste, especially since the list of changes is immense, but it includes drivable vehicles, sleep, alcoholism, and reworked NPC behaviour. (And that means grenades, annoyingly.) Oblivion Lost is, given the difficulty of combining and over-writing various Stalker mods, a worthwhile download - but it also completes Shadow Of Chernobyl on a profound level. This is modding at its finest. The problem for me, however, was that the Stalker I wanted to return to wasn't an augmented Shadow of Chernobyl, but a fixed Clear Sky, which I hadn't played since the pre-release review version. Could it be time to go back?

The first thing to remember is that Clear Sky has been heavily patched since release. The Steam version, which I've been playing, is at the latest 1.5.08 version, in which most of the game-breaking bugs are fixed (although reported some minor crash bugs remain), and much of the AI tweaked. The opening NPC battles are now much more solid, with waves of Clear Sky consistently heading out into the wilderness to capture points across the swamps. Kick off a fight in any of the capture points and you can be sure backup will be on its way. You can easily track friendly NPCs via the map, too, so you can coincide your attacks with theirs. The NPCs even seem to use cover properly, which I don't recollect from my original playthrough.

The other thing you'll notice if you're running the game in DX10 is that it is astonishingly, ludicrously beautiful. To make the most of this is perhaps worth consulting this tweak guide, from which I pulled a few tips. I gained a massive amount of performance while running DX10 by dropping a widescreen resolution size (down to 1440x900), and reducing the Grass Detail Density. By default Clear Sky seems to draw more vegetation than you'll actually care about, therefore reducing your framerate. The other thing I removed from the "Advanced" options in game was the Depth Of Field option, which looks fantastic, but is badly implemented - you lose distance focus when reloading, so the gun comes into focus, meaning you either have a headache or feel like you need glasses after about five minutes of play. A shame, because it's a great effect. I'd also reduce sun quality, and bump up Sun Rays to max. There's a stack of other details in there, but those seemed to make the biggest difference. (Reducing sun quality improves performance without changing much visually, while bumping up the Sun Rays makes dawn and sunset look incredible.) Anyway, I played through the game with a few tweaks, no mods, and found it markedly improved. I then started to install mods.

Mods are added in via adding a Gamedata folder, and editing a line of text in a file in the root folder, fsgame.ltx This all works in Steam without any problem. All mods come with a readme to tell you how to do this, and it's pretty straight forward. The first mod I tried was, of course, the Russian dialogue mod. (This needs recopying over some of the mods I'm going to mention later on.) This replaces the standard NPC voices with the Russian dialogue. It doesn't remove the annoying "crazy" characters, as all the mission-relevant dialogue remains in English, which is a bit of a shame if you ask me, I'd like a version where all English dialogue could be replaced, leaving just subtitles and mission text in English. Anyway: this is a solid fix to the atmosphere-breaking bad-English that splutters from most of the random NPCs. {UPDATE: Full Russian dialogue mod here.]

The second mod I tried, Faction commander, was entertaining because it allowed me to spawn friendly squads on top of enemy encampments, but ultimately it broke the AI, stopped me from capturing areas, and didn't feel complete. I can't recommend it, and I had to delete my Gamedata folder and start again.

The next was another no-cigar moment, which was the Maps Mod. This increases map detail and adds names to all locations. Somehow it also removes the stamina-bar from your HUD. Weird, and annoying.

Then I found a couple of mods that were really pretty good for how I wanted to play the game. The first was a simple graphical overhaul, which tweaked the lighting and introduced a load of new textures. There's one glitch I found, which was a missing shell texture on the hunting rifle - it just appears black. The other mod was this trader mod, which opens up all items for every trader character. Certainly a bonus when you just want to get yourself a particular setup. I could probably have left it there - with some graphical buffing, the trader mod, and the Russian voices. But there's another option: the CS Enhanced pack by "Remco".

This compilation of Russian mods is about as close to Oblivion Lost for Clear Sky as we're currently going to get. It includes a mass of new features, including lots of fairly unnecessary changes like new item graphics in the inventory. Perhaps most interesting is the introduction of a sleeping back, to allow you to have a kip, and the inclusion of a mercenary mod, which allows you to hire soldiers from friendly camps. That's a little under-done, however, as you're given no idea how much you're expected to pay to have some Stalkers follow you. A little more interface here and there, and this mod could really hit all the notes that Clear Sky missed. Other changes are numerous: traders have been reworked so they sell everything relevant to their faction, NPCs have a wider range of weapons equipped, there are new weapons, ambient noises, and textures. And you can also create your own stashes by dropping a backpack full of loot.

Anyway, I installed the CS Enhanced pack from scratch, and over-wrote it with the Russian dialogue and texture packs. This, I think, could be the best Clear Sky is currently going to get. I'm currently ten hours into my new game, and enjoying the game much more than I did when the vanilla version arrived last year. No show-stopping bugs, plenty of thrilling NPC-interaction, and a game that looks wonderful where-ever I turn. Niggles remain: the lack of true tactical or strategic game within the faction warfare, the lack of SHOC's horror sequences, the terrible base characters (particularly at the Freedom Base), the grenade spam (which mods seem not to disable), and the grindy anomaly hunting. But it's better than it was. It seems like this is, for the Zone-hungry like wannabe me, a reasonable time to return. Anyway, I'd better get back to it - more reports from the Zone when I have them, and please share your own Stalker mod recommendations below.

Update: Mod manager, full Russian dialogue and anti grenade spam mod.

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