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Straight Outta Cordon (STALKER Part 1)

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Andrew in Steamland:

Straight Outta Cordon (STALKER Part 1)

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STALKER is my favorite videogame series. Let me get that out of the way now, because this isn’t going to be anything approaching an objective review. My real intention is to play something good and forget about the growing backlog of catgirl VNs and school-themed dating sims piling up in my library. I’m setting that aside for a while and turning my attention to something more charming, more relaxing: the nuclear-scarred wasteland of the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation, a place where twisted mutants roam mindlessly, stripped of their humanity, and gangs of bandits will kill you for a can of sausage that expired sometime during the Brezhnev administration. It’s a game about casual brutality, survival, gun battles fought in a vodka-soaked haze, and yahoos with leather jackets and Kalashnikovs unknowingly butting up against a cold, Lovecraftian god. It’s my happy place.

So when Max-Vader gave me a copy of the first game in the series, Shadow of Chernobyl, it struck me that I hadn’t visited the world of STALKER in a long time. I started a new save, initially with the intention of messing around and taking a look at some content I’d missed the last time I played. But after playing for about half an hour, I thought that maybe it’d make a welcome contrast with the games I normally write about here, as well as a good case study for what I like to see in a game. Because while STALKER, packed as it is with all the signs of cut content and unrealized ideas, is an incredibly flawed series, it scratches an itch I have in a way other games just don’t. So please, just this once, let me play something good instead of sitting through a genderqueer claymation musical. Let me have this.

The premise of the series will be familiar to anyone who knows the outline to Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel Roadside Picnic: a major disaster, the exact nature of which is unknown to the public, contaminates a large swath of land, which is subsequently cordoned off by the government. A group of desperate/enterprising men called Stalkers sneak past military patrols and risk death searching for valuable artifacts in the twisted alternate reality of the Zone. Some survivors tell stories of an alien intelligence, deep in its heart, that will fulfill the deepest desire of whoever finds it. The game adds plenty of its own twists and embellishments, including the choice of Chernobyl’s environs as the location of the Zone (the book was written before the 1986 meltdown), but the conceptual core of the story wouldn’t exist without Roadside Picnic.

The game opens with the player in a bunker in Cordon, an outpost near the perimeter of military checkpoints that restricts access to the Zone. Our protagonist is, you might have guessed, a Stalker. Due to being stricken with amnesia and nearly killed in the opening cutscene, he doesn’t know his own name and is stuck with the nickname Marked One, after a strange tattoo on his arm that says S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call me crazy, but I don’t think he got that thing just because he likes hanging out across the street from the junior high soccer field. Actually, that’s in the title of the game! Let’s file that away for future reference. Anyway, after some introductory dialog Marked One is put to work for the bunker’s owner, Sidorovich. As a purveyor of supplies and information, Sid needs an errand boy, and he isn’t the type to save someone’s life out of the kindness of his heart. Thanks to the PDA that is his sole remaining possession, all Marked One knows for sure is that he needs to kill someone named Strelok, so indentured servitude to a fat smuggler it is.

It isn’t all bad, though. Arriving in the small Stalker village outside the bunker, I’m handed a pistol and several magazines’ worth of ammo. In return, my new buddies want me to clear out a bandit encampment down the road. The mission isn’t time-sensitive, so, recognizing the pathetic inadequacy of my equipment, I scrounge around for some better stuff: a suit of kevlar armor to replace my leather jacket, a pistol with an integral suppressor (with even worse damage than my already pathetic Makarov, but stealth can be valuable in this game), and a couple artifacts. Artifacts will be important later, but for the moment I can’t use them without killing myself through radiation poisoning. The game doesn’t tell the player this, figuring that growing a second head is the best teaching aid of all. Still, I now have something on hand other than the kind wishes of a bunch of disinterested scavengers who’d just as soon pick my corpse clean as help me out. I’m good to go.

A small group of Stalkers is waiting for me on a hill overlooking the car park where the bandits like to wile away the hours chugging vodka and listening to folk music stations. They offer to help, but I know how that usually goes: either they’ll be useless and die, or they’ll be useful and steal my loot. I tell them I’m going in alone, and their leader sniffs that this “Rambo” can go fuck off. Technically, the best move would be to have them go in, get mauled by the numerically superior bandits, and steal all their stuff before clearing out the camp. But I have a silenced pistol and a veteran player’s complacency in his own abilities, so I opt to get in touch with my inner Solid Snake. Sneaking around the gate, I find a small side entrance that isn’t being watched.

My plan fails the instant I line up a shot and fire. The bandit takes off running, shouting something that I think means “fuck your mother” in Russian. This throws the rest of them into a panic and he’s soon joined by four of his buddies, who keep sprinting circles around the camp in an effort to pinpoint my location. It’s just as well: if they’d stayed in cover and waited for me to come to them, this would have been pretty difficult. Instead, I clear out the handful of guys who stayed behind, steal some guns that I plan to sell later, and tentatively poke around the outskirts. By now, all the survivors have joined in the chorus of profanity, screaming as they jog like a track team made up entirely of angry Marines. A wild boar gets too close and they unload their guns in its general direction. The animal ambles away unharmed. I spend the next several minutes plinking away at the group, disappointed that not one of them has a shotgun I can steal. Until I can jump a soldier, my options are limited to: peashooter, peashooter, quiet peashooter, high-capacity peashooter. Early game weapon selection leaves a lot to be desired. I do find some vodka, at least, planting the seeds for my secret endgame goal. After freeing a fellow Stalker the bandits were holding captive, I return to Sid’s bunker and sell my loot for a whopping 400 rubles, or about $15 at the time the game was released ($5 at current exchange rates). All in all, a highly successful expedition. I’m on the rise like Sputnik.

Stalker 1

The mighty bandit fortress, now fallen.

Don’t assume that the bandit AI meltdown was because of mods or some freak accident, by the way. While Shadow of Chernobyl is one of the most heavily modded non-Bethesda games out there, I’m playing it almost vanilla: the only mod I have running is Arsenal Overhaul, which adds new weapons and rearranges the HUD. Everything else you see here is the game as released. It’s worth noting at this point that even after six years in development, so much content was left on the chopping block that the dev studio was able to put together a second game out of it and still had some left over for the third. There are holes in the code large enough to drive a Big Rig through, and sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s the Zone being a place of incomprehensible alienness and what’s the game snapping in half like a twig in a hurricane. Things are going to break in this playthrough, as they do in every playthrough. It’s part of the fun.

And before we return to the plot, a note on exactly what type of shooter STALKER is: my description of fighting the bandits may give the wrong impression about how combat usually plays out. That’s an unfortunate consequence of Shadow of Chernobyl being front-loaded with by far the weakest weapons in the series. They’re inaccurate and when they do hit, they only reliably kill if the target is hit in the head. Marked One, in contrast, holds up in combat about as well as wet cardboard. The truth is that everyone’s made of wet cardboard and the most important component of staying on top of STALKER’s difficulty curve is anticipating enemy actions so as to knock them down before they have a chance to properly react. I think the intention of forcing players to use low-damage pistols early on was to teach them to take a deliberate approach to combat instead of playing the game like Call of Duty. What a lot of people learned is that quicksaves are good and helpful. (A much stronger early game is one of the reasons I prefer Call of Pripyat over Shadow of Chernobyl.) Which is unfortunate, since it gets better soon. If nothing else, sequences like this really sell the idea of Marked One as a nobody who has to work his way up in the cutthroat world of the Zone.

Sid gives me a new objective: make my way north, to what used to be the Agroprom Research Institute, and steal a briefcase full of important documents from the army. There’s no plan, no more free gear. It’s one of the things I appreciate about STALKER: part of the series’s design philosophy is that throwing players in the deep end and letting them learn on their own is better than constant tutorials. Not to say that the game design is malicious or that there isn’t a gradual introduction of more powerful threats to the player – this isn’t I Wanna Be the Guy. But exploration, coupled with high-risk, high-reward decision-making, is the order of the day here, and that means I’m off to storm a military base with a gun that has the stopping power of a Super Soaker. What’s that? “A trader’s right there! Buy a better gun from him!” I could, if I had 20,000 rubles. And I can’t kill Sid, he’s one of only a couple NPCs who are untouchable.

I have a plan, though. North of the bandit camp, the road is bisected by a destroyed railroad bridge. The military has set up a checkpoint at the intersection, providing a lesson to the player in the game’s different possible methods of conflict resolution. I could use a nearby tunnel to go around the soldiers, but there are packs of feral dogs roaming the area and the tunnel itself is full of deadly anomalies. I could bribe the soldiers. I could even try to run right past them. Or I could find an advantageous position and slug it out.

Stalker 2

That’s not a very friendly shade of red.

I find a perch in an abandoned barn and, to my utter surprise, demolish them. They spread out, try to flank me, but I get a couple lucky headshots and mop up the rest from the safety of my cover. Carefully checking that I didn’t miss any, I run to the checkpoint, execute the wounded, and take their stuff. Hey, such is life in the Zone. I keep the least-beat-up rifle for my own use, and the others for sale. Just then, Sid sends out a call for help: a Stalker named Fox has returned from an expedition and needs help fending off some mutants. With no time to waste, I run to Fox’s current location and see a pile of dead dogs at his feet. I’m supposed to talk to him, but he spots a couple bandits going about their business across the road, thus locking his AI into combat mode. I kill the bandits, shake down their corpses for valuables, and among the stale bread and bottles of vodka I find a lovely double-barreled shotgun. Now I have all the tools I need. I return to Fox, who’s finally in a talking mood, and am rewarded for my assistance with some cash. He also congratulates me on dealing with the mutants, which rings hollow because a) I didn’t do anything, and b) a pair of dogs immediately comes screaming out of the underbrush and lunges at me. I’m beginning to acquire an understanding of how Fox landed himself in trouble in the first place.

Oh well, enough of that. There’s only one more roadblock separating me from the next map, where the game really starts to open up. I want to get exploring – and, as a corollary, get rich, of course. On my way I wander too close to a radioactive hot spot and accumulate a near-deadly dose of radiation. There are two ways to counteract radiation in this game: anti-rad medication, which I don’t have any of, and… vodka. One rumor that spread in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster was that vodka helps protect against radiation exposure. I chug four bottles and stagger toward the bandits’ general vicinity. I can barely control Marked One, yet somehow I get the jump on them and come out without a scratch. Were they even drunker than I am? Or is booze the spinach to Marked One’s Popeye? I don’t have much time to think about it before I arrive in the Garbage.

One thing to keep in mind is regarding Shadow of Chernobyl’s map is that almost the entire game world is one continuous area that can, with few exceptions, be freely explored. For sake of convenience (and performance), though, it’s chopped up by loading zones. It doesn’t have discrete levels in the same way that most shooters do, and except for a point of no return near the end, the player always has the option of returning to previous areas. Moving out of the northern end of Cordon, I enter Garbage, which connects to several other places I’ll soon be visiting. Garbage, as with most places in the game, is closely modeled after a real location. After the severity of the Chernobyl disaster became apparent, the Soviet government designated a junkyard where irradiated vehicles were parked and left to rot, and smaller debris was piled into mounds and covered in dirt. As a place specifically designated as an open-air dump for radioactive waste, Garbage serves as a harsh introduction to the game’s radiation mechanics. Some parts simply can’t be traversed with the equipment currently available to me, such is the level of radioactivity.

That isn’t the hazard that greets me as I enter the area, however. Instead I see a group of bandits robbing a lone Stalker. They fail to notice me and I rush to the aid of my new friend.

Stalker 3

I’ll spoil it for you now: they all died.

The power of my new AK isn’t enough to save my pal from the crossfire. It occurs to me that I could reload my save and give it another shot, but he has some decent loot, so I opt to honor his memory by stuffing all his worldly possessions into my backpack. My most important acquisition is another artifact. Artifacts are the lifeblood of the Zone’s underground economy, mundane objects twisted by radiation and arcane forces into physical miracles. Most of them end up being sold to curious scientists and those who think they can turn a profit replicating their effects (with middlemen like Sidorovich taking a generous cut, of course). In game terms, artifacts are how you customize your stats, with only a rare few being strictly beneficial. The one I just snatched in the failed rescue operation confers additional endurance at the cost of making me more vulnerable to electric-based damage. Being better at running is always useful, so I stick it on my belt and go about my merry way.

More skirmishes with bandits ensue, putting my compulsively looting self in the difficult position of having more stuff than I can carry. Thinking quickly, I devour eight loaves of bread, with five cans of mystery meat for a chaser. I think it’s been roughly one in-game day since I started, so it was about time to have a good, balanced meal. I store most of my legitimately earned belongings in a lockbox where I’ll be sure not to forget about them; one exploitable quirk of the game’s AI is that people will eagerly take items off of bodies but leave containers alone. Murder? Fine. Theft? Not even once. Having a storage locker in a crossroads area like Garbage is immensely useful, especially given that unlike Marked One’s personal inventory, containers aren’t subject to any weight limit. I’ll find a place to sell them eventually, after figuring out what to do next. At this point, I could diverge from the plot missions and do some sequence breaking. Or I could rough up the army a little more. I consult STALKER expert and AO guest contributor Bonglorio, who says Agroprom.

It’s just as well. Agroprom is the area where all the elements that make STALKER what it is come together. You start off already in the deep end, and now the game takes away your water wings and tells you to do a couple laps. This was already somewhat the case, the difference being that in Cordon and Garbage there was always an NPC to nudge me in the right direction; having reached Agroprom, I’m far enough in that the developers assume I know what I’m doing and ease up on that sort of thing (in fact, it’s possible to skip the closest thing Agroprom has to a boss battle). The first thing I encounter on entering the map is a firefight between a couple squads of soldiers and Stalkers. It’s night, I can barely see several feet in front of me, and I don’t have enough armor to survive more than two or three shots. If I wait until dawn, all the Stalkers will be dead and I’ll have to find my contact here on my own. The Stalkers all die anyway, as is their wont, though they do serve admirably in their capacity as ablative armor for me. I find Mole, the guy I’m supposed to consult for further instructions, surrounded by soldiers in a walled courtyard. As soon as I save him military reinforcements arrive, prompting him to run for it. I’m not so easily frightened, though, especially when loot is on the line. I stick it out and scrounge up some useful gear while dodging bullets, with some success, until Mole decides I look lonely and runs straight into a hail of bullets. The intended outcome was for me to keep him alive so I could get some info on Strelok. But then, he does have a pretty nice pistol…

Right, then. I’ll venture into the tunnels underneath Agroprom and poke around for intel. Having already played the game, I know it’s where Mole would have led me anyway. This is the first of several sequences in which the player is forced into dimly lit tunnels crawling with dangerous enemies. These areas have some of the most impressive ambience in the game, much of it due to great sound design that, regrettably, I can’t really convey here. The STALKER games are very good at building tension, a large part of which comes from the open nature of the level design. Avoiding ambushes requires situational awareness, so when those wide open spaces are replaced with claustrophobic hallways one would think some of that tension would disappear, that the gameplay would assume a simplified quality more like a typical corridor shooter. But the environmental design in the Agroprom underground effectively sells it as a dangerous, frightening place. On entering it, I find myself in a short hall with some stairs leading perpendicularly from one end. A red light rotates overhead, casting irregular light around me and emitting a soft creaking sound. I hear the voices of some bandits echoing from the room past the stairs. The area’s design has informed me that I’m about to enter combat while withholding how many enemies I’ll be facing or where exactly they are. I won’t call it paranoia-inducing, but generally, when fighting in open parts of the Zone, it’s possible to count cards and know pretty well how a fight is going. Enemies move around more, they’re more visible, and there’s usually the option of running away if things take a turn for the worse. The design of underground areas like the Agroprom tunnels works to conceal information from the player and reduce options for dealing with enemies. It’s supposed to put players on edge. But it isn’t unfair: this first fight is unavoidable, but it’s against bandits, who the player can be expected to be accustomed to fighting by this point. And sure enough, I quickly clear the room and descend a spiral staircase into a wider tunnel.

This room is long enough that I can’t see the other end from the entrance. There are a couple lights on support columns, giving me a rough idea of its dimensions, as well as another rotating red light on the ceiling. As I take my first steps in, a shrill roar comes blasting from the darkness, followed by a glowing pair of eyes. It gives a good sense of the speed and power of whatever’s coming for me even before the eyes enter the pathetic cone of my flashlight and I see the body they’re attached to.

Stalker 4

Oh, hey there, Cthulhu. R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn, am I right?

None of this qualifies as a jump scare. It’s surprising, sure, but there’s tension and buildup. The game establishes what’s going on and gives the player a couple seconds to react. It also never takes control away from the player. This is the kind of sequence that makes STALKER work, as opposed to games like Slender and Five Nights at Freddy’s, games that are the electronic equivalent of sneaking up behind someone and pulling the string on a party popper. It helps that STALKER has a spectrum of negative things that can happen to the player, as opposed to a game over and forced restart. Look at the bleeding icon in the screenshot: I took a good hit there. Part of the tension of STALKER is that a good player will still get banged up sometimes, and without effective resource management survival becomes incredibly difficult. A successful fight can still deplete important items, like the medical supplies I have to use to stop that wound from draining my health. There are varying levels and types of consequences for getting tripped up, as opposed to every mistake predictably resulting in Freddy Fazbear waggling his animatronic jaw at you and playing an annoying sound. Plus, look at that monster. That’s just a good monster design. Good work, Shadow of Chernobyl art team.

The rest of the underground is comparatively non-threatening. A squad of soldiers has been sent down to hunt for me, but human enemies are mostly a known quantity at this point. They’ll get better gear, but they can be dealt with. I make it to a side tunnel and climb up a ladder into what turns out to be Strelok’s hideout. Just my luck, though: he isn’t home. So I settle for stealing all his stuff, which includes a fancy new suit of armor, an artifact that absorbs and neutralizes radiation, and a flash drive that should have some useful info for me. From there, I return to the main tunnels and fight my way up a spiral staircase and to the surface. A powerful mutant appears and tries to attack me just as I scramble up the rungs to safety. Well, safety is a relative term, since I time my arrival poorly and emerge in the middle of the army compound in broad daylight and full view of a sentry tower. A siren goes off, alerting everyone to join in the fun. Thinking carefully about my prospects, I duck into a nearby barracks and set my master plan in motion. Let’s see how the military fares against the superweapon that is a narrow hallway.

Stalker 5

*Drowning Pool intensifies*

It works better than I could have expected. Except for the sentries, every single soldier converges into a single mass, which gets helplessly caught on the steps. Despite my ruthless exploitation of the AI, I burn through a lot of my medical supplies on the way to victory. Only too late do I realize the downside to my strategy: not only do the corpses overlap in a way that makes looting them difficult, but there are way too many items here for me to carry. There’s no fast travel feature in STALKER and I don’t feel like making multiple trips, so all those precious guns are left to rot. If I got them back to Sid, they’d be worth tens of dollars. Wealth beyond measure and it’s worthless to me. This must be how Midas felt. I plaintively drink several bottles of vodka.

I search the buildings for documents that might help me in my search for Strelok. As soon as I find what I need, reinforcements arrive and converge on my position. These guys must be commandos, because they don’t fall for my “hallway of death” maneuver. Instead I have to fight my way out, getting heavily injured in the process. At this point I have enough endurance-boosting artifacts to run forever even with an almost full inventory, so as soon as I find the gate I book it. You win for now, soldiers. Enjoy it while you can. I know where you live and I know where to acquire RPGs.

Returning to Garbage, I casually shoot some bandits who were prowling around a Stalker camp, accidentally killing one of them so hard that his arms clip into a nearby wall, levitating the rest of his body like Superman in flight. I load up on gear from my cache and turn north, to the Bar, where I can get the military intel checked out. That area belongs to a faction of army cosplayers called Duty, who force me to pass through a checkpoint before entering. It is possible to clip through a wall and get in without their permission, but I’m doing things on the level in this run.* Not wanting to pay the toll, I opt to curry their favor by killing a few boars near the checkpoint. This plays well with the Dutyers, who think that shooting stuff is the coolest thing ever. I may pass.

The Bar (alternatively known as Rostok), is an extremely important area. It has a merchant, allowing me to unload some of my loot and buy better stuff if Duty decides they like me. If I join Duty, their HQ and leadership are here, potentially giving me some very lucrative missions. It also controls the roads to the north and west, making it extremely unwise to attack Duty at this point in the game. On top of that, there’s an arena (the entrance of which is helpfully marked “DANGER ZONE” in red paint) the player can compete in, several hidden stashes with good loot, and a guard who just won’t stop telling me to “get out of here Stalker.” Turning the corner into the bar itself, an NPC calls out, “come in, don’t stand there.” I don’t know who to believe, so I get my marching orders from the barkeep and get out. The military’s documents include references to a laboratory called X-18, which is buried under the Dark Valley, east of Garbage. I have one key, courtesy of Barkeep, but the other belongs to the bandit king Borov, who I don’t think will be in the mood to just hand it over. Exactly how raiding X-18 will help me find Strelok is murky. Regardless, I don’t have a better plan. Back to Garbage I go.

On entering Dark Valley, I run into a Duty member standing over two corpses and one wounded bandit, who he’s interrogating about the location of a captive comrade of his. He asks me for help and I go along with it, more out of a love for bandit murdering than Duty. Freeing the Dutyer also puts me near the bandit fortress just as night falls. To top it off, as a reward for helping him out, the guy gives me a rifle scope. Through no deliberate effort on my part, everything has perfectly fallen into place. I sneak in and activate my suit’s night vision device, covering the screen in a washed-out fuzzy green filter that’s only slightly better than fumbling around in the dark. Still, the bandits don’t have night vision gear. They use flashlights, conveniently worn on the head like a miner’s helmet. I get so caught up planting shots on every light source I see that I accidentally snipe a Duty hostage along with the bandits. To tip the karmic scales back in my favor, I set loose a prisoner in the basement. What happens to him after that isn’t really my responsibility, though I like to think he made it out safe. After a lot of peekaboo and throwing grenades around corners, I kill Borov and claim the second X-18 key. Knowing what’s ahead, I return to my personal armory in Garbage and load up. Should I have done that in the first place? Probably! At least it gives me a chance to deposit the bandits’ possessions as well as whatever else I don’t want to take into the lab. I don’t need a rifle anymore; I need an exorcist, but there aren’t any of those in the Zone, so I opt for a shotgun and my entire supply of shot shells.

When I return to Dark Valley, the same Dutyer as before is waiting by the entrance. He starts the same speech he gave the first time I showed up, then halfway through he moonwalks away while spraying gunfire at the wounded bandit, who has been lying here in horrible agony the whole time. Ignoring both of them, I march off to X-18. The entrance to the lab is inside a decrepit building where bandits (who else?) have set up shop. Nothing especially interesting happens while clearing them out, although some exploration does uncover an RPG-7, with one rocket already loaded, on the upper floor. The RPG is tied for the highest damage of any weapon in the game, but regrettably is too heavy – and its ammunition too rare – to be practical. I pick it up anyway and head down into the lab.

Again, there’s effective use of sound to foreshadow a threat; as I descend a flight of stairs to the lab’s first level, I hear thunderous footsteps in the distance. The rooms here are even smaller than in the Agroprom tunnels, the layout more tangled and confused, so while enemies can usually be heard from a couple rooms over, pinpointing their location is difficult. Still, all things considered, the first floor is pretty calm. There are only a couple mutants here, one of which dies right in front of the entrance to the lower level, preventing the door from opening all the way. I squeeze through, walk down the stairs, and am immediately pelted with boxes and junk that levitates off the floor. And dancing around the detritus, floating in and out of rooms, is something resembling St. Elmo’s fire. I do the logical thing and perforate the hell out of it with buckshot.

Stalker 6

If it bleeds, we can kill it.

That is a poltergeist, and the lab’s lousy with them. As it turns out, not all of the weird stuff in the Zone is the result of radiation. As the incubators scattered throughout the lab attest, these things were deliberately made by someone. How, why, or out of what, I don’t know. What I do know is these things have to die, the sooner the better.

Stalker 7

Not pictured: the other fifty fucking poltergeists trying to kill me.

To get to the documents Barkeep wants, I need to open a password-protected door. I thoroughly explore the floor, eventually arriving in front of a reinforced security door that was blasted off its hinges somehow. The footsteps from earlier are very audible now. I’ve swapped out my armor for a less damaged suit that, I just then realize, doesn’t have night vision. I creep into the darkness, RPG at the ready. Even knowing what’s coming, I botch it: my first attempt, I wait too long and my shot kills myself along with the thing stomping around the room. On my second attempt, the creature thumps the ground hard enough to generate a shockwave that deflects the rocket into the ceiling. I’m not proud; I reload my save, toss a couple grenades to goad it into the open, and finally hit it dead on. It’s cheap, but not any more than the monster suddenly deciding it’s a Jedi.

Stalker 8

What the hell was that thing originally, anyway?

The password I need is on a corpse at the far end of the room. Oh, but it’s not over yet: a pyrogeist is waiting for me on the other side. No, I didn’t misspell anything – there are poltergeists that can also shoot jets of fire. And it’s telekinetically holding the only exit shut, forcing me to kill it to get out. And it’s mostly invisible. Welcome to STALKER, enjoy your stay. No sooner do I dispose of it than the military rolls up to the lab. I don’t care anymore. I run. I just run. Out of the lab, out of the building sitting above it, south out of Dark Valley and into Cordon, and from there into Sid’s bunker. Back to ground zero. The bandits have taken over the car park again; the military has reestablished its checkpoint at the railway bridge; Fox is dead; and there’s Sid, watching TV in his bunker and nagging me for not bringing him better stuff to trade. I disapprovingly drink several bottles of vodka.

You’ll get yours, fat man. Just you see.

Not quite yet, though. This editorial has gone on way longer than any of my previous ones and I’ve only made it about one third of the way through the game. This thing’s already over 5,000 words long: if I didn’t split it, the final version would be novella-length. So I’ll leave things here, at the beginning, at least for now. Join me next time as I unravel the mysteries of the Zone, one drunken firefight at a time. Peace.

*Not really. Have to draw the line somewhere, though, right?