The original, ever-seminal STALKER's longevity is impressive - the fan/mod community just keep on jiggery-pokering it to astonishing effect. Perhaps it's a result of the game's singular gestation - so much content and concepts from its long development jettisoned for the final release, and a superficially wobbly engine positively bubbling with power and potential once the surface muck was wiped away. It is and always will be an important moment in PC gaming, and I'm starting to wonder if it might be becoming almost a weird sci-fi cousin to the original Operation Flashpoint: a game that's, over time, redesigned so thoroughly by its community that the original form is almost forgotten.
First STALKER's community needs to join hands and sing It's A Small World, though - for instance, there are two competing projects for the status of ULTIMATE STALKER MOD...
First up is one I've posted about before, the incredigood STALKER Complete 2009. Its creator/compiler (for much of it is other folk's graphical mods, made to play nice with each other) Pavel Dolgov has dropped me a line that brand new version 1.4 came out a few days back, which he describes on its ModDB page as "One of the most exquisitely beautiful experiences ever to grace a gaming system." I've not had a chance to fire 1.4 up myself yet, but going on the version I played a few months back, I doubt that statement is anywhere near as outlandish as it sounds. Here's some Youtubery of a slightly older version, though sadly much is lost to video compression:
The major improvement for v1.4 is installation - it's now a single archive, compatible with the Smart Mod Manager app, and he's working on a easy-as-walking .exe installer within the next few days. You can grab all 560Mb it from here, as well as read the almost scary list of changes. Graphics, sound, AI, bugs, weather, UI and even the degree of free-roaming all get an overhaul. It's quite the piece of work.
Except the folk behind the new L.U.R.K. mod (which a reader known only as Moritzio kindly pointed our eye-organs at) reckon they can "the best possible experience for S.T.A.L.K.E.R". While hearing the LURK began as a 4Chan effort instills a certain amount of terror that it'll be filled with Paedobear references and the like, it turns out it's a very serious, very dedicated project. The name's a good'un, too. In terms of the all-important graphical question, as I've not had a chance to try it first-hand yet, how about you decide?
(More comparison shots here).
LURK's also about AI and balance tweaks, a bunch of new/improved weapons and, most intruingly, a full-on stealth system - something STALKER has always been crying out for. Here's some aspects of it on show:
Of course, it's thus changing the nature of the game significantly, whereas Complete is much more about shininess and minor tweaks. What I'd ideally like is a way to run both, turning various bits on and off as I like. It would be super if the two teams involved joined forces, but nonethless, let's be grateful for their incredible work in keeping one of the most fascinating games of the decade alive, well and delightfully pretty. Well, as delightfully pretty as a bleak, violent post-nuclear wasteland can be.